April 26, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
Here in Toronto, snow from before this young AUDL season began is still on the ground. But it’s not too early to begin wondering about playoff position. Playoff seeding is especially volatile in the South Division, with the Dallas Roughnecks and Atlanta Hustle both springing out to 3-0 records. The Raleigh Flyers – thought to be the league favourites heading into 2018 – sits in third in the division with a 3-1 record, despite not offering a single dominant performance so far. Raleigh’s upcoming weekend, offering matches against Dallas and the Austin Sol, will be one of the first chances for the South to untangle and illuminate possible playoff seeding.
How do the teams match up against each other? This week in Setting the Stack, I’m going to delve deeply into Raleigh’s upcoming weekend, offering matchups, gameplans, and important questions that might determine the games.
Raleigh vs Austin
Raleigh’s first game will be against Austin tomorrow night. Raleigh won’t have a full team, as they haven’t yet all season. They will likely be especially decimated this weekend on the toughest road trip in the league: Texas. Though Austin is 1-1, they topped the West Division favourite the Los Angeles Aviators in maybe the most electrifying AUDL game of the season and only lost to Dallas in overtime. Austin will be a difficult challenge.
Austin offers one of the largest teams in the league, with Joshua Zdrodowski and Mick Walter both serving as monstrous D-Line bodies, along with the gigantic and talented Ethan Pollack on offense. Zdrodowski and Walter are both larger than Raleigh's cutting core, which feature Jack Williams, Jonathan Helton, and Terrence Mitchell, some of the most talented cutters in the league. But can Austin’s giants keep up with the speed of the Flyers to take away unders, as well as limit deep shots? Williams, Helton, and Mitchell are all multi-dimensional players who can pick teams apart with their throwing as much as their receiving, so even if Austin keeps them from jetting deep, the battle will be far from over. Raleigh, for their part, will be happy if Austin concedes unders to their cutters.
“I think any of our players will take what is given, given a situation,” explained Raleigh Head Coach Mike DeNardis. “It's certainly not conscious. We want all of our throwers to, it's not a conscious thing, like we're saying, 'take unders' in general. It's very situationally dependent.”
Raleigh has some of the most complex offensive systems in the league. They run vertical stacks, horizontal stacks, and side stacks with frequency. One of their side stacks even starts out in a weird clump, like a junior high school dance. However, also like a school dance, the clump stack always ends up well-organized, with offensive cutters dancing their partners all the way across the field.
With Matt Bennett likely injured for the foreseeable future, Bob Lewis will step onto the D-Line as an important handler defender for Austin. Similarly, Ryan Purcell and Doug Richardson will be important playmakers for Austin’s defensive offense.
“I think that a guy who will pick up a heavier load kind of quarterbacking the D-Line will be Doug Richardson,” said Pollack, “who's just been a rock for the Sol all three years he's been around. He's not the kind of creative thrower that Matt is, but he's just a rock. He makes the hard throws. He makes that hard but necessary throws. He knows to keep an offense moving.”
How Lewis, Purcell, and Richardson contain Bob Liu and other Raleigh handlers, and then control the disc after a turn, may well determine the game.
Raleigh’s defense will similarly have its hands full. The core of Raleigh’s defense is physical, person-on-person. They won’t concede anything: “It's not anything super fancy that we do. We definitely have a lot of steps that we use, but the heart of our defense is just our matchup defense, and running our system well, and being technically sound on the mark and resets and downfielders,” said DeNardis.
Pollack knows to expect a physical, unyielding defense, even if Raleigh doesn’t have a defensive player with his size.
“Even if they're giving up a couple inches, they're not necessarily gonna park it 10 yards deep of anywhere and concede free unders,” said Pollack.
Raleigh will execute long enough and smart enough that offenses should never find an easy score. Even if opponents find clean holds early in games, Raleigh is betting that no offense can pay the sweat tax while making the right decisions, time and again, for 48 straight minutes against them. Raleigh will occasionally mix in switchy junks or full-blown zones, but those are only used to fluster opponents. Person defense is the staple.
Austin boasts a veteran offense, with talented, in-shape old-timers who will run forever in the form of Mike Natenberg, Kiran Thomas, and others. They take care of their bodies, are healthy, and spend eternities in the gym. Max Cook is an O-Line handler who may not bring the same imposing physical presence of some of Austin's larger players, but his smarts and wiles are invaluable.
Austin employs a monstrous thrower in Chase Cunningham who, at 6’3, can find himself open for resets and dumps at will. Though Raleigh’s defense is incredibly athletic, it lacks players with as much height as Austin’s offense. Raleigh won’t try to do the impossible and take Cunningham out of the game, but they will try to complicate his reads when he’s looking downfield. Junking up the D, switching on up-line cuts, and generally forcing Cunningham into difficult decisions preceding his throws will be foundational to the gameplan.
“It's really hard to dispossess Chase or stop him from getting the disc because he is such a big target,” explained DeNardis. “Defender-wise, we don't have a lot of size to matchup with a guy like that, but your job as a defense is to pressure him to make hard reads, and historically when he tends to do that, he doesn't do as good of a job as when he has easy reads.”
Among key throwers (defined here as players with 10 or more assists), Cunningham is first in the league in the dubious category of throwaways per touch, at 17.28 percent. He’s an elite throwing talent, but Cunningham has an uncharacteristic 14 throwaways in only two games. Raleigh will look to increase that number even further.
Will Austin’s size on the defensive end trouble Raleigh’s world-class cutters? Can Austin’s handler defenders make life difficult for Raleigh’s elite throwers? Raleigh’s defense and Austin’s offense are both disciplined, veteran units. Who will make more gameplan mistakes? The answers to these questions will determine the game.
Raleigh vs Dallas (Game of the Week)
Raleigh will face Dallas on the second leg of a difficult Texas road trip, and that game will likely be even more difficult for the squad from North Carolina. Dallas is 2-0 on the season against both Raleigh and Austin, and they will have a relatively complete roster this weekend. Abe Coffin’s injury is a tremendous loss, and a few players won’t be with the team due to obligations, but Dallas will be ready.
Let’s get the most important point out of the way first: don’t expect the hurricane-influenced Week 2 matchup to be an indicator of their only other regular-season game. “I'm expecting a different game with different conditions,” explained Dallas coach Wes Nemec. “I don't think we can draw a ton from the previous film, other than maybe just some small nuance stuff, but it'll be helpful to keep in mind, what we experienced, but I'm fully expecting it to be something that's not a repeat of last time, except for our inevitable victory.”
Though Nemec was ready with multiple defensive options in Raleigh-Dallas I, they weren’t required. The wind was an eighth defender on the field for both teams, who combined for an ungodly 77 turnovers. Raleigh saw a person defense all game long, but they only managed 14 points. With Raleigh’s offensive engines finally revving the past few weeks, including posting 31 points in Nashville last week, Dallas is ready to throw as many defenses as are required at the juggernaut Flyers.
“If they're running a bunch of different [offensive] looks, man may not be the most effective thing for us to run. Obviously we need to make sure we're ready with a couple of different things in response, or even proactively throw out a couple of different things to throw them off,” said Nemec.
“I think that's probably the best way to counter a team that runs complex offensive things is to have a couple of different defensive looks that you can throw that may throw them off a little bit, or may force them to change their gameplan based on us, instead of us changing based on them.”
Dallas will use sideline traps after rolling pulls out of bounds, junky sets, occasional zones, double-teams coming from handlers’ blind spots, and other tricks to force even the occasional mistake. Both teams have top tier offensive units, and they should combine for approximately 30-35 turnovers this time around. Even a single mistake forced by a weird defense will be important.
Important matchups when Raleigh has the disc will of course involve yet more giants. Dallas has nearly as much size as Austin on their defensive side, with both Joel Clutton and Dan Emmons standing 6’5 (though I suspect Clutton is a few inches taller than that). Flyers coach Mike DeNardis expects Clutton to see more time on Mischa Freystaetter - who will play for Raleigh on Saturday in Dallas, but will be absent for the Austin game - as Emmons usually plays a poachier role on a smaller cutter and enjoys shooting deep after a turn. If Clutton-Freystaetter is a reality, can Clutton stay with Mischa’s quick cuts under? Freystaetter is still growing into the Raleigh system, which uses him as just another cog instead of the featured star that he was in Jacksonville. Freystaetter is growing more accustomed to taking discs under and connecting the disc to deeper cutters; he has nine assists and only 10 goals on the season. Can Clutton slow Freystaetter’s throwing as well as his receiving play?
Raleigh has another tool that could prove problematic for Dallas. With Nethercutt not with the team against Nashville, Raleigh moved Jack Williams into a handler spot on the offense. He completed a ridiculous 58/58 passes and threw 6 assists. Dallas’ top handler defender could well be Sam Ward, who is a jitterbug and uses his quickness to stymie handler cuts. Ward (5’7) is 6 inches shorter than Williams (6’1), so that matchup seems untenable at first glance. Who could slow Williams from the handler position and bother his throws? Dillon Larberg should see some chances if Williams plays as a handler; however, if Williams has easy access to the break side all night, Raleigh’s offense will be unstoppable.
On the other end, Dallas allows its offensive stars to decide how their plays will develop. “We've got guys who can run small-ball easy, we've got guys that can put it deep,” said Nemec. “I give the O-Line the autonomy to make calls on the line based on what they want to run, whatever they feel is gonna be the most successful at that time. I feel delegating that to them gives them a little bit of ownership of the O, and that's a little bit empowering for them.”
Against Raleigh the first time around, Dallas frequently set up a deep horizontal stack and allowed three handlers to play wink-wink tag all the way down the field. Those dominator sets worked to perfection with gusty winds, as Matt Jackson especially is dominant in tight spaces. Dalton Smith also navigated the wind with ease. The Roughnecks handler core, with Brandon Malecek back in the fold after being unavailable against Raleigh, will not make unforced errors.
Similar to Cunningham for Austin, Malecek has had some early-season throwaway issues. He’s also compiled 14 throwaways, on 13.86 percent of his touches. Previous to this season, Malecek hasn’t spent a huge amount of time handling alongside Matt Jackson, who in past years has quarterbacked Dallas’ D-Line. Malecek is too good a thrower to be kept down for long, but Raleigh’s defense is not the most affable partner for Malecek to negotiate a return to form.
Coach Nemec isn’t concerned: “He's, I'm sure, just exploring his range with the players who are on the field with him. He's kind of feeling out the looks that he's gonna wanna take this year.”
If Raleigh beats Dallas’ person defense with ease, will junk sets and fancier arrangements help slow the Flyers? Can Dallas keep Raleigh’s gigantic throwers from accessing the break side? If Matt Jackson’s small-ball tendencies begin to mesh with Malacek’s deep game, can Raleigh generate their own break chances?
With the Atlanta Hustle (3-0) inactive this weekend, Raleigh’s double-header will determine the division’s arrangement at the top perhaps more than any other weekend in the regular season. If Raleigh wins both, they’re in pole position, with Atlanta yet to play Raleigh or Dallas. If Raleigh drops one or both, Dallas has a legitimate claim to being the best in the South. Though there are nine games on the AUDL docket this week, my eyes are firmly focused on Texas to unravel the mysteries of the South.