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Extra Width and Extra Marks: Double Teams in Semi-Pro Ultimate

The more AUDL and MLU games you watch, and the more you witness just about everyone repeatedly getting open on the country’s best defenders.

And the more you come away with an ever-growing awareness of just how crucial the expanded width of the field is. More so than any of the other important differences1 between club and semi-professional ultimate, field width and consequent spacing have dictated and defined the ultimate of the AUDL and MLU.

One of the other highly visible differences is the ability to double team: two marks is illegal under WFDF and USAU rules, but allowed in both semi-pro leagues.

But the two variables interact together, not in isolation; double teams are way less effective in practice than you might think they could be in theory. I originally intended this piece to examine how double teams worked in the semi-pro leagues. But during the research process of watching many games, even ones with gusty winds, shows that the vast majority of the time they simply don’t work. Here’s the bottom-line — at least for now — on the doubles:

  • The extra width on the field makes it very difficult to pull off an effective double team. There is so much open space somewhere on the field that even less-skilled throwers can usually find it.
  • Successful double teaming schemes require much more spontaneous and malleable approaches — think more based on chemistry and a team’s ability to communicate and adapt to the offense’s reaction, rather than a rigid positioning setup or go-to static defensive look.
  • With good communication and switching, or off really good pulls, the double team can be a tool for containment, confusion, and for forcing teams out of their best pull play look.
  • Much of the success of the double team (like any defensive strategy) rests on whether or not the offense recognizes early enough. With an early recognition, the offense almost always gets out of it.
  • Offenses also vary in how well they punish the double team once they break out of it — good teams don’t necessarily use the advantage in any single way, but rather show great vision as the defense reacts and potentially over-reacts in their recovery scramble.

Extra Width Makes the Double Team Tricky to Pull Off

There’s a reason you see much fewer out-of-bounds calls or turnovers in semi-pro, barring severely windy games when no amount of field space could prevent the sport from veering into the comical. There’s a reason you see almost no zone or junk sets — at least not for very long. And when you see defensive lines composed almost entirely of layout D machines playing catch-up for entire points (maybe even entire quarters), it’s not because they no longer have the mechanics or physical fitness to stop the cuts.

There’s just too much territory to cover. The jump from USA Ultimate’s 40 yards wide to the pro leagues’ 53 and 1/3 yards creates a massive shift in how the game is played.

Even the new teams pretty much know this already, which explains the minimal implementation of schemes like double teams, which, from a theoretical perspective, sound like game-changers.

Sometimes the double team works, and teams can generate a D from the pressure. But the majority of the time an immediate hammer to a big space nullifies the strategy and leaves the defense in a 5-on-6 situation, usually resulting in a goal. Sure, if you get someone trapped on the sideline in 35 mph winds, especially if he might be a less-experienced thrower probably brought in for his athleticism, go for it. But even then, there’s a good chance he’s going to be able to find a guy open by 15 yards and hit him with an over-the-top or big around.

When it comes down to it, the field is just too big and the throwers too good.

Double Teams: What Works

Yet, there remains hope. The one application that has a modest success rate and legitimate practical use is the flash double team, particularly when coupled with strong communication and good switching. When different defensive looks are used more as wild cards than full approaches to the game they tend to have more success, as good teams with that much space to work with will eventually adjust.

Take the San Francisco Flamethrowers’ crucial home win over the San Jose Spiders in week 6 in the AUDL. The signature San Francisco gusts were in full effect; even an unmarked veteran handler throwing a 15-yard pass to a wide open in-cut could result in a turn. Consequently, it’s tough to discern when to credit effective defensive strategies and when to give Mother Nature the D.

Both squads employed double teams throughout the game — a bit sporadically but on more than twenty points in aggregate. Though it may have been difficult to tell whether a turnover would have occurred anyway regardless of the double team, what could be discerned were tactics and details that looked to be more successful at pressuring throwers and forcing riskier decisions.

Malleability

In this first clip, the Spiders throw a handful of double teams, but they’re loose and aware enough to not go all-in on the approach. They keep their heads on a swivel, switch a lot, and use it more as a tool for containment and confusion than just straight-up pressure. It generates a tough throw into double coverage that’s easily knocked down.

Context:

Just about any time you can rip a big winding pull and have it roll out the back, making the opponent have to work it upwind 100 yards, it’s probably a good setting to try double team. In the first clip, Nate Bosscher’s (#7) monster pull enables the Spiders to set up some double teams that make an already difficult task that much more challenging.

The Flamethrowers do manage to work it up using well-timed cuts and precise throws, aided by an excellent flick huck over two defenders by Cassidy Rasmussen (#9). But that doesn’t mean the double team didn’t work.

It forced a lot of tough passes that were completed largely because of the skills of the throwers and the intelligence of the cutters. Even at the pro level, execution that smooth in such trying conditions isn’t 100%. The Flamethrowers’ eventually turn it on a Brett Petersen (#9) point block on the fifth double team of the point.

Recognition and Awareness:

Sometimes the best uses of the double team are not so much to try and force a turn or apply pressure, but simply to stop a big or easy play from occurring — and potentially aggravate your opponent in the process.

When Ashlin Joye (#27) receives the disc in the clip, he takes a step to the left, potentially winding up for big backhand huck, but Zach Travis (#11) steps in front of his way and Joye swings instead. Travis doesn’t have to leave his man and an upfield throw was taken away.

The scale may be small, but as far as defensive maneuvers go that’s a pretty solid win, particularly when it’s against one of the opponent’s best throwers.

If you can force your opponent to keep the disc out of the hands of their best players and make them beat you with their (comparatively) weaker players, that’s a modest victory. Especially at the pro level.

Double Teams: How to Beat Them

Much of the success of the double team, or any defensive strategy, rests on whether or not the offense recognizes early enough and does their job.

For this match, it became apparent over the course of the game when it was better to take a big shot over the top and when quick disc movement and smart cutting were the better course of path.

Spacing:

When just about everyone on your team has the throws to go over the top and just about all your receivers have the athleticism to go up and get it (like the Bay Area pro squads), hammers and hucks are no longer the impatient choice of an undisciplined O line. They’re just good ultimate.

In this clip, we see a Flamethrower offense resetting near the force sideline after a yardage penalty. The double-teamed Chuck Cao (#5) taps it in and quickly breaks it back toward the middle with a dump to Eric Greenwood (#18). As the defense shifts its focus to the breakside, expecting some kind of continue look as any defense would, Flamethrower Jake Coleman (#23) crosses over to the open side corner of the end zone, slipping past the Spiders’ notice.

He becomes so open that even a rainbow, floaty hammer from Greenwood still has time to get to him without much challenge from the out-of-position Kurt Gibson (#20).

Thanks to the placement of three different viable receivers on the break side, and intelligent switching on the part of Coleman, that hammer space on the open side is cleared free and San Francisco gets the easy goal.

Opportunities like this are exactly what offenses are looking for and precisely what makes the deployment of methods like double teaming risky. With the discerning eye, however, one can spot how any of these easy and similar opportunities aren’t so much handed out as created by good movement and decisive action.

Movement:

Much like zone offense, breaking a double team is largely about hitting the open spaces while they’re still there. Due to the stifling feeling of two or three markers smothering the thrower, that player’s ability to see those holes and hit them with ease diminishes.

Consequently, although space can still be opened up by dumping and swinging like traditional zone offense, a great deal more responsibility falls on the cutters, especially since the lanes are still essentially open.

Notice in this clip how the combination of slashing cuts from Sam Chatterton-Kirchmeier (#14) and Nick Slovan (#22) across the lanes and smart, find-the-space-and-stay-there positionings of Greenwood and Cao work together to create the smooth score.

Just as important are the cuts that run away from the disc and bring defenders along with them. The early wide cuts to the break side by Alex Evangelides (#13) and Slovan keep the offense from collapsing in on itself. Slovan’s, for instance, drags Spider Greg Cohen (#18) out of the middle, opening it up for Greenwood and Chatterton-Kirchmeier to get the disc.

Similarly, Evangelides second clear to the deep break side pulls Nathan White (#6) out of the area to make way for Slovan’s horizontal slash to the open side. All of this attracts enough attention to allow Cao to jog down the sidelines and be wide open for an easy goal.

Every single one of these cuts, whether they be to the disc, away from it, or simply the maintaining of distance to not clutter up vital middle and open space, lead to a score that looks like cake. Without each of the ingredients, administered at the right time and in the right order, however, there’d just be a mess for the baker to clean up.

Double Teams: What Doesn’t Work

Much like the Flamethrowers vs. Spiders game, last year’s AUDL Midwest Championship between the Chicago Wildfire and the Madison Radicals exhibited a wide gamut of the strengths and weaknesses of the double team and its various permutations. In a match-up that featured less star-studded rosters (though certainly still filled with great players) grappling with very aggressive gusts, the use of double teaming, employed more than 30 times throughout the game, yielded more positive results than numerous other contests.

Perhaps more than anything, though, it displayed how vulnerable it can leave a team when poorly executed. Here’s a look at the pitfalls to avoid when running the double team set.

Poor Communication:

This can’t be overstated. Good communication is key to any defense and essential to any kind of zone. With double teams, it’s downright indispensable. Without it, you’re going to get scored on. Example:

Madison’s Brian Hart (#13) roasts Brett Kolinek upline (#7). This is bad, of course, but not the end of the world.

In the Wildfire’s struggle to play catch-up, however, they lose even more ground and give up an easy goal. After he gets burned upline, Kolinek overcommits to the open side to stop a potential threat. Teammate Bob Liu (#1) in turn jumps in on the mark to apply pressure, leaving his man, Kelsen Alexander (#55), free to cut wherever he wants.

By the time Kolinek realizes the switch has taken place, Alexander is already in a power position to drive upline and score.

Had Liu and Kolinek communicated they could have engineered it so that Kolinek picked up Alexander earlier, Liu never left his man, double teamed anyway and called for a pinch-in from another Wildfire player, or just about any other combination that would have ensured enough bodies in the right place to pressure an opponent nearly trapped on the sideline.

Revealing Your Hand:

Here’s another really important one. One of the chief characteristics of a successful double team is the element of surprise.

If your team advertises its intention and gives the offense time to figure out adjustments, chances are you’re going to find yourself sprinting to catch up to an opponent open by twenty yards with no mark.

Pretty early in the clip Madison clamps down on AJ Nelson (#51), one of Chicago’s ballers, with a double team. Almost immediately, however, they get called for a marking foul.

As Nelson enacts the yardage penalty, the Radicals decide to stay with the strategy and awkwardly backpedal to the spot where the disc will be tapped in. Unfortunately, since Nelson has plenty of time to survey the field while the rest of the Wildfire set up however they like, the defensive approach now has little hope of working.

Nelson turns and dumps to a poached Rob Greenberg (#17) who hits Cullen Geppert (#14) on a great continuation cut, and Chicago flow from there, scoring easily.

Not Enough Wind:

Here’s a clip from the Washington D.C. Current’s first win against the Boston Whitecaps in week 2. It not only features one of the key problems just mentioned but illustrates perhaps the most important weakness of the double team set: If it’s not windy enough, it’s almost guaranteed not to work.

The two teams ran double team a collective five times in the game. Only one resulted in a turn. And it looked really more like just an execution error, possibly connected to a lack of awareness, rather than a legitimately generated D.

This clip shows why neither team ran it more often.

The Current commit the crucial mistake right off the bat of making it terribly clear what they’re going to do. As a result, the Whitecaps’ main handler Brandon Malecek (#13) immediately swings it to the other dominant handler Matt Rebholz (#4), who hits the streaking Danny Clark (#77). Clark moves it up to Jim Foster (#17) and the Boston offense continues from there, with the DC defense just then scrambling back into position.

Although not too much more than twenty or so yards were given up, essentially nothing was taken away and the Whitecaps found no impediment to getting right into the flow of their offense. Thus, the defensive set was essentially for naught, but risked the possibility of missed defensive assignments.

Is It Worth It?

That’s basically what it comes down to. Since defensive looks in general are already a gamble, and even more so in the pro leagues with stacked rosters and wider fields, it becomes a question of what you’re willing to risk to get a leg up on the other team.

Do you trust your D line’s man pressure and discipline after the turn to convert enough breaks, staying conservative and winning on fundamentals and grit? Or are you and our opponent so close that you have to experiment with different looks to avoid essentially relying on a toss-up of whether the last few points go your way?

Is it worth potentially giving up an easier score for the chance to maybe generate a turnover? Or does that seemingly imply a lack of faith in your D line’s man defense and eventually tire out your O line with all the shorter D points?

There are plenty ways of looking at it. Yet, on some level, the overall effectiveness of different defensive looks sometimes seems beside the point.

Sure, you want to always be adjusting your defensive sets to be the best they can. But with the supreme advantage given to the offense in the pro leagues, the results of various defensive strategies may not be the best indicator of their use or value.

When the offensive lines of just about every team in the AUDL and MLU look like they’re just having fun in one big, open sandbox, can you really fault the defenses for not stopping them?

If you assemble some of the best throwers in the world, pair them with some of the best receivers in the world, then give them an even greater expanse to work with, there’s really not much the defense can do but try to figure out how to contain them and capitalize on the occasional errors.

During a coaches’ roundtable organized by the MLU last year, the league asked three coaches what they thought about the use of double teams.

Each of them said they had found little success.

Between the precision throwers, the marking fouls, and the wider field, they noted that despite their efforts they had as yet been unable to discover any solid defensive strategies that proved effective, let alone in multiple contexts.

If you watch enough pro games, you can’t help but empathize with their plight.

Takeaways:

-With the wider fields in the pro leagues, if defenders don’t have better recognition of their assignments, regardless of the defensive look, they’re going to get burned. The throwers are just too good.
-Though not a universally effective strategy, double teams can be effective at shaking up O lines out of their rhythm and force them into tougher throws, as long as the defense maintains good awareness, talks to each other, stays malleable, and implement the double teams in good contexts, such as high winds, sidelines, and the backs of endzones.
-Double teams are most successful when they occur as an unexpected flash and dissolve quickly back into man.
-Even if a team executes the double team perfectly, a great thrower can still break through it and set up a 6-on-5 situation. As a result, the tactic is always a significant risk, even if it’s really windy.
-The best way to beat double teams is with smart, well-timed cuts made together as a team and decisive, on-target throws. Without good disc movement, as well as good movement away from the disc, the defense’s chances of generating a turnover greatly increase.

Ideas for Further Exploration:

-Is it more useful to go with downfield poaches? With the wider fields, more throws tend to be put out to a big space for receivers to go out and get the disc. Does this allow for a greater capacity for downfield poach Ds?
-What, if any, defensive strategies will be drummed up in the future to slow down the domination of O lines? What will they seek to take away?


  1. the active calls, the yardage penalties, the different discs, the stacked rosters, the traveling, the exposure and marketing, the almost non-existent practicing, the time restrictions, the hurried pace, the quicker stall count 

  1. Alec Surmani
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    Alec Surmani and some close friends began playing ultimate in high school and started Hercules Jabberwocky. He played college ultimate with UCLA Smaug and has played with various Open and Mixed club teams in the (former) Northwest and Southwest divisions. He started and now leads the team Bay Area Donuts.

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