March 30, 2023
By Ian Toner
The Madison Radicals qualified for six consecutive Championship Weekends between 2013 and 2018 thanks in large part to their defensive creativity and flexibility.
“The more adaptable our defense gets throughout the season, the more we can adjust the game plan to what we think the opposing offense is going to do, and more importantly, as the game progresses, adapt to what they are actually doing,” Radicals coach Tim DeByl explained.
“The margins are exceptionally thin at the top tier of the AUDL and converting breaks is the gateway to hoisting the trophy in late August,” Austin Sol coach Steven Naji asserted.
The AUDL debuted break percentage statistics in 2014 to measure how frequently a team scored on defensive points, and DeByl’s Radicals finished third or better in that category in every season except 2022, highlighting his ability to marshal defenses that force turnovers and convert crucial breaks.
“Back then we were one of the few teams that was trying to adjust our defensive style to the new rule set,” said DeByl, referencing some of the professional game’s differentiators like shorter stall counts and permissible double teams, which were new to the ultimate scene in the league’s early days.
“We doubled a lot more than other teams did and we played a lot more over the top help coverage to try to prevent teams from using the deep width,” DeByl added, evoking memories of Peter Graffy, Andrew Meshnick and others covering swathes of turf to knock hanging discs to the ground. “We also were a little ahead of the game on handler switches and lane poaches designed to slow down handler movement.”
Fast forward to 2023, and many teams around the league have studied enough tape to incorporate those approaches into their defensive structures. Sample any game from any division in 2022, and you’ll see multiple pulls intentionally rolled out sidelines to enable defenses to set double-team traps from the jump and disrupt scripted offensive pull plays.
“We do double team a fair amount, but the goal isn't necessarily to generate turns, it is to change what our opposition's offense is good at and find areas we can exploit in the latter half,” Naji added. “Our defensive schemes change based on our opponent and the personnel they have on any given day.”
“I think today all the good defensive teams in the league employ a variety of these approaches,” DeByl said. “You don't see a ton of teams willing to just put players out on an island in the deep space and hope they can win one on one matchups.”
While Colorado Summit coach Tim Kefalas is lucky enough to deploy Spicer whenever he wants, he still needs coordination and trust throughout his defense to generate turns and score breaks. Kefalas’ philosophies and structure merit their own separate film study, but generally speaking, his defenses don’t always employ a traditional “force” to one sideline or half of the field. He empowers his defenders to change the angle of their mark and emphasis on their downfield positioning throughout points to increase the cognitive load on opposing throwers and receivers.
“High-level offenses are based around patterns of motion: specific cutting and continuation patterns that are meant to generate good offensive looks,” Kefalas explained. “What a good look actually is varies from team to team–the Breeze and Shred are about polar opposite in this regard, for example–but the core idea is that offenses are generally trying to create clean movement based around specific triggers and patterns for their players. The more variables you can add to the decision-making process for an offensive player, the more you can work to overload their ability to react appropriately to what they see in front of them. When they can't react appropriately, clean looks become less common, offense becomes sloppier or more chaotic and the defense can take advantage of offensive miscues.”
“Let's say Bob knows roughly what cut to make when he's on the break-side of the disc and what cut to make if he is on the force side of the disc,” Kefalas elaborated. “If it is hard for Bob to recognize what space he's occupying, or if that space changes rapidly, it's more likely that he'll make a cut that doesn't generate the cleanest offensive look for his team. The counterpoint is that the defense must also react to these ongoing changes. But the goal for our defensive setup is to consistently defend in similar ways because we trust that our defensive progressions and patterns will stay reasonably similar regardless of the offensive sets. It's basically a push-pull: we are trying to exert defensive pressures in a recognizable trigger sequence or pattern for our defenders which simultaneously disrupts the offenses. It doesn't always go perfect, or even well, but that's the base idea.”
“I think teams have also started to realize putting their best players on offense isn't the only way to play the game,” DeByl added, citing New York’s decision to shift two-time MVP Ben Jagt to a defensive unit already jam-packed with championship-caliber block getters like Ben Katz and the Drost twins.
Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nuñez orchestrated that switch and the inner workings of an Empire defense that held opposing offenses to a league-low 16.6 goals per game in 2022 and the lowest offensive efficiency rate the league tracked since 2018.
“It’s so important for AUDL defenses to force their opponents to work through their plans B and C as often as possible,” Hoppes explained, aligning with Kefalas’ emphasis on overloading offenses’ decision making processes. “It’s much harder to actually make that happen [...] We build these basic structures that we can layer strategic concepts on top of, and then we just ask our players to execute that plan until they see something they can go make a play on.”
“We had a lot of player movement and new pieces last year on our D lines,” Hoppes added. “We feel that we are going to take a big step forward in 2023 and that we can be even better. It's a thrilling thought.”
A thrilling thought for Empire players, coaches and fans–but a terrifying one, indeed, for New York’s opponents.