I watched the Sockeye-NexGen game last night with increasing frustration as Sockeye’s very vanilla defense completely failed to generate any defensive pressure. I don’t blame Sockeye; it is the smart strategic play for a team that depends on poaching, switching and playing mysterious defenses to try to keep them off of video on demand. So while some of my aggravation was watching the Fish get run over, most of the aggravation was watching vert-stack offense run unimpeded. Fifteen years ago, vert-stack offenses were grinding to a halt as anti-vert defensive know-how permeated the upper echelons of the sport. En masse, the entire sport switched over to running ho-stack. Now that vert is new again, that defensive wisdom is missing.
The system described below isn’t the only way to throw a wrench in the works, so take it with a grain of salt. Any system you use has to work for your team and your personnel. This is meant to be a starting place and a thinking point more than a proscriptive system.
This is a three-man switch. The players are an On-Man defender, the Poacher and the Cleaner. Everyone else can play regular stare-at-your-guy defense, but they need to keep their ears open. To illustrate how this might develop, I’ll describe a classic lane cutting situation, typically a comeback cut, although this will work for an out-cut as well. The On-Man is on the primary cutter and clearly defines what he is covering (for the purpose of this example, he covers the out). The Poacher comes out of the stack to cover the under. Three men are in the lane now, two defenders and the cutter. So far, this is absolutely routine. The lane cut should be dead, but there are now two loose offensive players somewhere on the weak side.
The Cleaner’s job is to get everyone reassigned and playing man-on again as quickly as possible. He can cover one of the loose players himself and direct the Poacher on how to recover or he can direct the On-Man defender or the Poacher or any of the other defenders on where to go and how to switch. (Technique: yell the name of the defender and point where you want them to go. They go.) The reason this is vague is because there are so many different scenarios depending on the circumstances: thrower, wind, other player-pairs, etc, etc. It is the Cleaner’s job to see through this jumbled situation and get everyone reassigned.
This system works best when you have three heads-up, sophisticated defenders on the field. That gives you a high likelihood of having them where they are in good position to poach/switch (out of the middle of the stack) and in a spot where they can direct traffic as the Cleaner. Tactically, you want your help defenders on the other team’s lesser players and your on-man defenders on their main-cutters.
The essential skill you need from all your players is awareness. The switches and the responsiveness to the Cleaner can’t happen if they are overly fixated on their assignment. Poachers need a certain degree of recklessness and a nose for the block. A Cleaner needs the ability to instantly analyze the situation and make a judgement. (Can you close your eyes and point to all thirteen other players on the field? And explain what they are doing?)
So how do you get your team here? Free your best defenders to experiment and make mistakes. When a rookie botches their footwork and gets beat on the open side, you don’t blame the system – you help them learn and adjust. If your team doesn’t have a system for poaching and switching, then even your best players are like rookies. The challenge is to suffer through the short term failures as your prepare for long term success. A committed coach helps this process, but you can get there without one, it’ll just take more conversation among the team leadership. As your defenders grow, they will develop their own system and personality – it might look like this one, it might be completely unique.
Feature photo by Ren Caldwell