Breaking Down Michigan: Three Video Lessons for Any Team To Learn

Michigan's Matt Orr at 2013 Great Lakes Regionals.Michigan’s run through the bracket of this past year’s Easterns was impressive. It turned a potentially light Great Lakes region into a conversation and lent legitimacy to a high seed for Michigan in the USAU Rankings.

Prior to Easterns, MagnUM hadn’t really chalked up any big wins. Their season wasn’t bad, but it lacked oomph. Easterns Sunday was a different story: Michigan beat a Harvard squad who had beat them handily at QCTU, knocked off the defending Easterns champions (Minnesota) and finished Sunday off with a win over last year’s national champion, Pittsburgh. What was more impressive was that those three wins came on the same day and were won by a total of four points. Their game against Pitt was actually their biggest numerical win, with a whopping +2 by the end of the game.

Now with a Regional championship as well, and with Nationals around the corner, we took a look at what Michigan did to be so successful on that Sunday in March. This isn’t meant to be a complete unpacking of MagnUM as an ultimate team. But there will be plenty of teams at Nationals looking to avenge previous losses, put down regional rivals, and defeat higher-ranked national powerhouses. Michigan did all three in one day.1

Making their Own Luck: Three Things Michigan Got Right

During their run, three things in particular helped Michigan rattle off the big wins: effective double cuts and skilled cutting techniques, aggressive use of the break space, and a successful zone defense. Oh yeah, and luck — there was plenty of luck. But we can’t control luck.

What’s most interesting is that the other three factors could have easily gone the wrong way for Michigan, as they are by no means a cocktail for success that any generic team can implement. But by looking at how Michigan made it work shows some important factors in those three things that any team can use, and that all teams should understand.

1. Double Cuts

I remember a practice, a long time ago, when one of our best players struggled to get open against our fastest defender; in particular, he kept getting stuffed on under cuts from the back of the stack.2

I told our player to try a double-cut. More athletic and aggressive defenders will often overreact to a first move and then lose their positioning. Mechanically, it can cause the defender to lose their ability to correctly absorb the second move, often because the overreaction gives up the body positioning the defender originally tried to establish.

Michigan used this move repeatedly to generate easy under cuts against the opposing defense. Here are a few cases:

Often these double cuts would bail Michigan out of tough situations where their reset offense had failed to work. Tactically defenders need to stay in proper positioning during the cut and turn their hips the correct way so that they can see their offender and can absorb the second move. Watch how some Pitt defenders did that here:

The great thing about the double cut is its utility against defenders who start with excellent positioning — and who may be athletic enough to make a play on the first move — but who are a bit worse at playing correctly throughout a longer cutting sequence. Similar to a high pick-and-roll in basketball, if the defender involved doesn’t know what to do, then they look bad and make the offense easy. Even athletically mismatched players can get open if they juke enough against an unprepared or less-disciplined defender. Different cutting techniques can really help an offense that doesn’t win on athleticism. Here is a brief montage of Michigan players using a “seal” cut to out position their defenders and generate easy unders.

2. Use of the Breakside

Lots of teams like to use break side throws to open up the offense. But Michigan relied heavily on forcing those throws, especially to the skinny space between the mark and a downfield defender. Often times the thrower would pivot aggressively, ensuring a foul and forcing the defense to pay attention to the break space. Here are a few examples:

Defenses that try to pressure the mark through physicality are going to have a hard time against Michigan, particularly against senior captain Yonatan Rafael. The better way to play this is to give the thrower more space and be more mobile, but even that might not work. Rafael has a long step that catches star defender Trent Dillon as he moves in on a fake.

Perhaps the most important use of the break side for Michigan is when the disc is near the endzone. Michigan tends to put a single cutter in the front of the disc. At this point it is an isolation cut, but the outcome is often s a “skinny” break: a break throw but one that goes in the horizontal space between the mark and the downfield defender. It is an incredibly difficult thing to defend against as a single defender.

What typically happens is the defender plays straight up and eventually loses the offender after a few jukes for a “skinny” pass. But it is also quick so the defender has little time to react to the disc being thrown.

RzIsoStill.png

One defensive option would be to position the defender on the break side to push/press the defender away from the disc. This is technically towards the “open” side of the field. The point would be so that the offender has to take the long cut towards the far side which would have the disc in the air longer and give you more time to recover. If the open side of the field is the wide side (towards the furthest sideline) they you also have the option for defensive help from a reset defender or other cutter defenders.

RzIsoStill-Press.png

There are other defensive options, but playing the isolated cutter straight up seldom works.

Remember what I said about being lucky? Michigan had a knack for making possession-saving passes.

3. Defensive Pressure:

This is the most important part of Michigan’s victories, especially the last two. Michigan overcame a large deficit against Minnesota because of defensive pressure and created the same pressure against Pitt in the finals. Midway through the Minnesota game they shifted from a cup-based zone to a frantic 2-3-2. From that point on they stayed with the 2-3-2 as their counter to a less-than-impressive man defense.

The 2-3-2 was really their savior, but the key to understanding why the 2-3-2 worked is understanding how Michigan plays man defense. They spend a lot of time looking at the disc and recognizing where the active space is on the field. As cutters engage that space they are able to bring multiple bodies to the area and possibly get a block.

It is a defense that requires Michigan to quickly read how the field is changing. It is also a defense that benefits from a stationary disc and suffers from a quick-looking offense. The longer the disc is in one place the better the read Michigan defenders can make. The better the offense is at getting through looks quickly, the better that offense will be at finding the open receiver. Here are a few glimpses at Michigan players ignoring current defensive assignments because of other threats.

In most of those clips, all of Michigan’s defenders focus on one active cutter, sagging into lanes or running deep with someone already covered. The sagging defenders creates larger windows to non-active spaces that can exposed with with quick swings and hammers.

These types of throws move the disc away from the defense’s attention — as a result, defenders take longer to find the disc and are out of position to make a play or even recover to set a good mark.

On the other hand, this type of defense can feel very stifling if an opponent is one-dimensional in what they do with the disc. Suddenly the space that was once open due to good off-ball movement and cutting is being encroached by defenders that are coming out of nowhere or leaving previous cutters. Sometimes that can lead to dangerous plays, and Michigan’s opponents played into Michigan’s hands by being predictable.

Sometimes that led to simple turnovers that could have easily been avoided:

Furthermore, if a team isn’t ready for this type of defense, it can create a pause in their offense. The spaces to put the disc are out there, they just aren’t between 10-20 yards in front of the disc where you normally look to move things quickly. Michigan is spying that area so they see your open offender, too, and are ready to pounce.

Yet Michigan’s man defense wasn’t much to write home about, and wasn’t going to win them this tournament. But the keys to their man defense, and the way their defensive attention is directed at key places is important to understanding how their 2-3-2 became so effective. To understand this, let’s look at three different points, two from the Pitt game and one from the Minnesota game.

None of these zones seem to be doing much good here. The reason? Both offenses are able to move the disc away from the defense’s attention by throwing hammers and wide swings. Michigan’s 2-3-2 keeps all of its attention in the belly of the defense between the front 2 and the middle 3. Those five players are typically within 10-15 yards of the disc, so if you can get the disc to an opposite third you can run free for a little bit or expose through passes as the zone expands. Punching through their 2-3-2 proved to be pretty difficult. Looking at the past clip, it is hard to imagine that Michigan’s 2-3-2 was the backbone of a great Sunday run. Let’s look at a few more, in two separate videos.

How is this the same zone? What happened from the first set of clips to the second? The answer is that both Pitt and Minnesota had unforced errors. Once those errors occurred, it looks like both opponents were going to play it “safe” by completing shorter (i.e. less risky?) throws. This effectively reduced the size of the field to something that was much easier for Michigan to manage. All of a sudden a Michigan zone that seemed incapable of containment and slow in response now seems more rabid as it aggressively attacks offenders near the disc. It gets easier to play zone on a smaller field and it is easier to find and stop the next offensive target when they are only two steps away.

Michigan heavily capitalized on this change by getting Ds (or at times being given them) and throwing goals as quickly as possible. Once the field shrunk, Michigan’s defensive attention was able to see everything, up the intensity, and play to their overall defensive strengths.

From that point on, their zone did what good zones do, force the offense to play faster than it wants and to rush things. This created easy Ds as well as miscues that just made it feel like Michigan was in total control. Michigan seemed aware of this and continued to be aggressive with their break throws and took advantage of the defensive lag that occurs after a zone turn as everyone was trying to figure out who to guard.

Watching the field shrink for Minnesota against Michigan’s 2-3-2 is was something you could almost tangibly see. Minnesota’s Jason Tschida isn’t a particularly swing happy center handler anyway, but when he got the disc towards the middle of the game (and middle of the first clip) you could almost guarantee that no one outside of a 10 yard radius was getting the disc. Minnesota did the right thing trying to ride Josh Klane as a feature handler. Klane’s best contribution was for naught as Ryan Schechtman made a great D to stop a sensible huck from Klane that stretched the defense. But even when possessing the disc for short passes, Klane looked in control and was slicing the zone.

In the finals I expected Pitt to be able to handle the zone even more effectively, which they did at first. But after a Saul Graves turnover on a reset, Pitt got conservative and kept everything in the belly of the 2-3-2. The result was a few blocks for Michigan and an easier defensive load during that game. I don’t think Michigan has the personnel to actually beat Pitt in a straight-up game. But when Pitt decides to shrink the field for Michigan, they lose their advantage and make things easier on MagnUM.

All of the things that Michigan did were ways to reduce the gap between their roster and the opposing roster. Double cuts work against more athletic defenders. Attacking the break space prevents the defense from keeping their attention on the open side. Running a poachy man and a 2-3-2 are ways for Michigan to preserve legs and avoid getting beaten by faster offenders.

Keep in mind for most of this run Michigan was without one of their stars, Matt Orr, who tore a knee ligament early in the first half of the semifinals against Minnesota. I don’t think they are legitimately deeper than any of the teams they beat that Sunday, and they had to find a way to grind out three games without one of their stars. Kudos to Michigan and their coaches for finding a way to do that. That is going to be a trickier proposition at Nationals than it was at Easterns, and it will be harder against teams who have the Easterns video and time to prepare for MagnUM’s attack. That still wasn’t enough to stop them at Regionals, however.

How To Counter Michigan’s Strong Suits

1. Double Cuts

  • Stay on your man! Many defenders have grown accustomed to strong single cuts followed by hard clearing. The type of cutting allows the defender a glance at the disc after the first cut expires because they can assume their offender is clearing. As some of the clips show, it isn’t that much harder to defend a double cut, but you must keep your attention on your man to absorb the moves and rely on communication to figure out if the disc has been thrown.
  • The style comes with a tradeoff; allowing a single cutting player to isolate himself for too long takes away from other player’s opportunities to cut. It also makes the offense on a whole less smooth. No one would say that Michigan’s wins on Sunday were necessarily pretty.

2. Breakside Space

  • Michigan’s aggressive steps to the break side are difficult to avoid. If you start too far back you give up angles on the outside and make breaks easier, if you come in then you might get suckered into a bailout foul. One way to handle this is to remember the marking triangle and drop step when the thrower pivots. This should help avoid contact and still maintain the force.

3. Zone Defense

  • The examples that worked well against Michigan’s defense were when the field remained large. Crossing hammers and blades are a great way to punish a defense that is pinching in, but you can find other, less risky ways. One big difference between how Minnesota and Pitt ran their zone was where the disc moved on a failed crash. If a defender bit on a crashing handler Minnesota would often get the pass to another offender close to the disc. This doesn’t punish the defense for collapsing and allows them to maintain containment with minimal movement. Pitt would often read the busted crash and move the disc to another handler outside of containment, forcing the teeth of MagnUM’s defense to run across the field and set up again.

  1. Ok, Michigan and Minnesota aren’t technically regional rivals, but they are separated by a lake and the wonderful state of Wisconsin . . . they are in the same region of the country. 

  2. That was how we initiated our offense; it was a long time ago! 

  1. Martin Aguilera
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    Martin Aguilera is the Assistant Coach for Paideia High School's Varsity ultimate team (Gruel). He has been coaching for 11 years, starting in college at Georgia Tech, then Emory University's Luna and landing at Paideia 5 years ago. He has coached at both college and club national and last summer was the Head Coach for the USA U-23 Mixed Team. Martin's playing career started in 1992 at Paideia High School. He played college at Georgia Tech and spent his club career playing for multiple mixed teams, one injury-ended season with Chain Lightning and most recently Reckon (SE Masters).

  2. Sean Childers
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    Sean Childers is Ultiworld's Editor Emeritus. He started playing ultimate in 2008 for UNC-Chapel Hill Darkside, where he studied Political Science and Computer Science before graduating from NYU School of Law. He has played for LOS, District 5, Empire, PoNY, Truck Stop, Polar Bears, and Mischief (current team). You can email him at stats@ultiworld.com.

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