Setting The Stack: Week 13

June 21, 2018
By Louis Zatzman

1. The Limits Of The Empire

What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, the New York Empire were 4-2, and I described them as “the gatekeeper to the playoffs” in their division. But one disastrous road trip through Canada later, and the Empire are 4-4 and sitting outside the playoffs in the East. It seems as though the Montreal Royal have passed through the gate unharmed; in fact, at 5-4, the Royal have risen to second place in the East.

The Royal may have soundly beaten the Empire on Stadium’s Game of the Week, but New York will have some advantages this time around. Most importantly, they will be playing at home. Long road trips are worth a few points in a game, and this time Montreal will undertake the journey. Empire Head Coach Eileen Murray was shocked her team only lost to Montreal by four points, but playing at home instead of away – and on a double-header – could be worth a four-point swing by itself. Furthermore, New York’s injured stars Jeff Babbitt, Beau Kittredge, and Ben Jagt will be one week further removed from their injuries, with one more week spent getting back into shape.

Despite those slivers of optimism, New York has real performance issues that it must address in the final few weeks just to even qualify for the playoffs. Its cutters are incredibly passive. None seem to seize the opportunity to fill a lane, and handlers often don’t have throwing options until the middle-late sections of the count. Cutting angles are too loose to provide open targets. On resets, handler cuts have been tentative, with handlers frequently cutting to the same space on the field. Simple dumps have been sources of confusion, as both against Montreal and Toronto, New York threw countless turnovers just trying to reset the disc to a handler.

Kittredge has not played like himself. In the past, Kittredge weaponized invisibility on the field. He would walk casually during the first few passes on a point, lulling his defenders to match his leisurely pace, before apparating into the endzone. No cuts. No fakes. Just a steam-engine barreling past anything in its way. Against Montreal and Toronto, Kittredge would begin points in a similar manner, walking slowly and calmly like a large predator cat. The only problem was that he would never start running. It’s possible New York didn’t wait long enough for him to start his cut before looking elsewhere. He hasn’t played in New York long, and players don’t yet know his tendencies. His fitness will improve heading towards the playoffs. Regardless, Kittredge spent the majority of last weekend’s double-header invisible on the field, and not in a good way.

Murray does not want to shift the offense to incorporate out-of-offensive-system deep cuts from Kittredge.

“I am not tempted to do that,” Murray said. “My philosophy as a coach is that we always should work towards having a team, as opposed to having individual players. While [just hucking deep to Beau] may work, that wouldn't set other people up for success, or help for the flow. It might not even be successful.”

Even if the Empire don’t add full-field hucks to Kittredge as a staple set in their offense, they will need to find ways to incorporate him in the offense. He can still be a weapon, but the Empire just aren’t using him as one. His disappearance on the field is symbolic of New York’s lost identity. They are a defensive team, and they allowed Montreal and Toronto to score 26 and 25 points respectively this weekend. New York needs to play like itself, and soon.

2. Royal Reinventing

Despite beating New York at home, the Royal are not yet content with their own performance. Specifically, the defense amassed 17 blocks but only converted a handful of break chances.

“We were getting turns left and right in that game,” said Royal Captain Kevin Quinlan. “It's something that we're going to be taking into practice this week. We should have won by at least nine points, there. We had so many opportunities to break them.”

The Royal’s performance against New York was reminiscent of their problem in 2017; their defense forced oodles of turnovers but had trouble converting. Going into practice this week, the team focused on horizontal movement for the defensive offense, as well as isolating cutters off of that horizontal movement. Montreal recognized that the defense only receives the disc after long stretches of effort playing defense. Stamina plays a factor.

“We don't really take into account how tired and drained we're going to be after playing a good, solid minute-and-a-half of defense, and then trying to create offense after that,” said Quinlan.

Isolating cutters who still have their legs could help maintain the defensive offense’s conversion rate. Montreal wants to play slower when the defense gets the disc. Do they have the personnel to do that, though? Their best two quarterbacks who can go every-other as a handler, Quinlan and Stève Bonneau, both play with the offense. Montreal won’t want to move them after Montreal’s first truly impressive offensive performance of the season. Morgan Hibbert could fill the role of a workhorse in a slower offense as a lane cutter, but he’s still recovering from an MCL sprain, and though on the field, his mobility and fitness isn’t there yet.

“I felt like a pirate out there, with one peg leg,” Hibbert said of his game against New York.

Montreal already has a positive track record of adapting their strategies throughout the season. When their offense struggled early in the season, Montreal revamped it. Against Ottawa and New York in the past two weeks, the Royal have used a new and more effective offense.

“It goes back to the Toronto game, where our offense played like crap, and it was miserable,” said Quinlan. “It was miserable for our offense. We took a look at that game and realized that we were super stagnant as cutters, and we changed our offensive flow. We realized that the best way for us to play is to move the ball extremely early and to have continuous movement. During the Ottawa game, and during this New York game, we have a new offensive strategy of constant movement, and more flood plays to get people activated, and get everyone moving across the field. It's really allowed us to utilize what our biggest strength is, and I think that's our speed.”

Simplification has helped Montreal.

“The O-Line offense, though, what they have done is started doing some more side-stack stuff, and some more sequences," Hibbert said. "Just, let's simplify this, and go old-school of, you're the first, then you're the second, and you're the third. We're just going to do a sequence of a stack, instead of leaving it to be more dynamic. That has helped a lot.”

The next step is building more dynamism. Commentator Bryan Jones recognized that the Royal O-Line ran the same play several consecutive times, and you can bet that New York will be ready for it after a week of preparation. Montreal needs to build upon their flood plays, adding more options. However, using a specific playbook instead of a dynamic motion offense is clearly the right call, at least for now.

Montreal is leaving for New York on Friday night, so they will be well-rested for their Saturday game. That will minimize the difficulties of long travel before a game. If Montreal’s offense remains effective, and their defense begins to convert at a higher rate, then there’s no reason they won’t be able to beat New York again and put some distance between themselves and other contenders for second place in the East.

3. Pride In Atlanta

Losing two players the caliber of Dylan Tunnell and Nathan Vickroy was supposed to devastate Atlanta this season. A team that finished 5-9 in 2017 and lost two of their four best players was not supposed to be better. But here they are, 5-5, with control of their own playoff chances.

Losing two players the caliber of Dylan Tunnell and Nathan Vickroy was supposed to devastate Atlanta this season. A team that finished 5-9 in 2017 and lost two of their four best players was not supposed to be better. But here they are, 5-5, with control of their own playoff chances.

Hustle Head Coach Miranda Knowles’ foremost emotion regarding her team thus far has been pride.

“I'm really proud of how hard we've worked,” Knowles said. “The coaching staff, the owners, and obviously the players. They have worked hard physically and mentally. I'm asking them to do things on the field that they have not done before in their careers, and to play in a system that's very different than the traditional Atlanta open system… I never set wins and losses as goals, but it's also really cool when the stat sheet shows our hard work.”

The team has pulled together in a way that’s rare in professional sports. Players have fully bought into Knowles’ equal-opportunity system, and they have bonded.

“People just really enjoy spending time together, and working hard together, and they appreciate each other,” said Knowles. “We're not in it for the money. You have to enjoy the people around you, and care about them, and people play better when they like their teammates. We do.”

Despite the positive season thus far, Atlanta is far from assured a playoff position. They’ve played Dallas three times in the last four games and lost three times. None have been lopsided, but moral victories don’t count in the win-loss column. Atlanta also plays Raleigh twice in the next three weeks. Like always, Atlanta will try to beat their more-skilled opponents with their wits.

“I think our aim is just to play really smart,” said Knowles. “Raleigh relies a lot on their deep game, and we use a lot of force-middle defense. Our hope is to cover their first huck look, and make them pivot back to the middle of the field, throw over the stack, hope the timing's a little bit off, and be able to make some plays on those deep shots.” 

Atlanta is a game ahead of Austin in the loss column, with one extra game to play. Of course, that extra game is against Raleigh, so it’s not a huge advantage. However, Atlanta owns their own playoff chances. They have two winnable games left in the season against Tampa Bay and Nashville. Stealing one against Raleigh would punch the ticket to the dance, as long as Atlanta wins the games they’re supposed to. For a team that onlookers counted out even before the season began, that’s something of which to be proud.

4. Who Is Matt Smith?

Matt Smith is once again playing some of the most efficient ultimate in the AUDL. His numbers don’t pop anywhere on the page, but his contributions in assists (24) and goals (20) are solid. Most importantly, he’s elite in his ability to maintain possession. He has five throwaways and two drops on the season, which is unbelievable for a player so involved in the offense.

As a result, Smith is 18th in the league in raw plus-minus, which is simply a counting stat of his raw positives (assists+goals+blocks) minutes his turnovers. He’s ahead of far more heralded players, like Jacob Fairfax, Peter Graffy, or Antoine Davis. No one ahead of him on the scoring list (assists+goals) has a lower turnover rate. Smith’s 2.18 throwaway per touch percentage is the second-lowest in the league among players with five or more games played and 20 more or completions per game.

“I can't tell you how much I as a coach, especially within the system, value Matt Smith,” raved Knowles. “He is the gold standard of what we want our athletes to do on the Hustle. It's really cool, too, because he is a great competitor, and a great teammate, in that he really holds his teammates accountable. I just so appreciate that he has the stats, the completion percentage, to really back that up. He can say whatever he wants to the team, and everyone respects him, because he's walking the walk.”

Smith won’t make noise for MVP due to his relatively low assist and goal numbers. He should be considered for All-AUDL teams. He simply doesn’t make mistakes, and his play has been one of the most important drivers of Atlanta’s surprising success on the season.