Chicago Machine has been the surprise of the 2014 season with big wins at the Pro Flight Finale and Chesapeake Invite. It's been the simple offense leading the way.
September 9, 2014 by Alex Rummelhart in Analysis with 4 comments
At first glance, Chicago Machine is nothing special.
They don’t do anything outlandish or flashy. They don’t run a new innovative offense or a really intriguing zone. They don’t have one player or piece of strategy that opponents can point to as an indication of success. In fact, most of their players aren’t well known — mostly talent of the Midwest, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who was nationally recognized in college, let alone a Callahan winner.
So what does Machine do that allows them to win games?
They run plays very well. They stick to a basic, but strong system. And they win their individual matchups.
Sometimes, simple gets it done.
Below is a detailed analysis of the three most commonly used plays from Chicago Machine, a team that is red-hot and a possible pick to win the National Championship after two big regular season tournament wins (Chesapeake Invite and the Pro Flight Finale).
Three Simple Plays
Machine’s cutting system and plays have been commonly used for years by countless others. The team will run sets out of both horizontal and vertical stacks (and even the occasional side stack string), but rely on strategy that engages all their offensive weapons and forces defenders to play honest.
To put it quite simply, you can’t cheat against this offense; to use help defense or to guess on a cut won’t work, because that will leave someone open. All of Machine’s cutters are capable with the disc.
Most often, in fact, you’ll see those cutters doing the hucking. That’s not to say handlers like Bob Liu can’t huck (he certainly can). It’s to say that he doesn’t need to.
Liu and the other two Chicago handlers are usually content to shoot off one smooth break throw and then walk down the field while their cutters use their speed, athletic ability, and excellent throws to move the offense. Brett Kolinek and Tom Annen, both strong handlers, are rarely mentioned as key contributors because they are not the centerpieces of the offense.
The cutters steal the show, because if you shade one of Chicago’s tall athletes deep, such as A.J. Nelson or Madison pickup Pat Shriwise, they can show you a great huck to the other cutters Goose Helton, Cullen Geppert, and Taylor Kraemer. And vice versa.
1. The Diamond Cut
Out of a horizontal stack, Machine runs a very simple diamond cutting system. Generally, the force side cutter in the middle will make a slash to the break side, while the break side middle cutter heads deep. Generally, the Machine handlers look for the break throw and, when they find it, the team is able to get right into the flow of the offense.
Machine running the diamond cut against Revolver at ECC
The diamond cut offers a great embodiment of the Machine offense. Versatile cutters provide two simultaneous threats and a good throw goes off up the field (and often to the breakside), which then opens up a lot of options.
Above, Machine elects to hit a handler, Bob Liu, who uncorks a massive hammer after the defender helps deep, leading to a quick huck score cutter to cutter.
However, there are also a lot of cutting options downfield, often a continuation under from the other middle cutter (who had previously cut deep).
Below is a clip against Chain Lightning in the finals of Chesapeake. The initial break throw doesn’t go off to A.J. Nelson, but the second cut is open to Goose. This showcases Machine’s weapons very well. Goose, a very prolific deep threat is allowed the under in the initial cutting scheme, but is able to unleash a nice huck cutter to cutter.
The diamond working at the open final of Chesapeake
Guard one option in the diamond and the other will be available.
2. The Sweep
Any fan of Machine will have spotted this play, as it is probably their most commonly run. It’s also one of the most classic, yet effective plays in their arsenal.
In a horizontal stack, the first three cutters on the force side streak deep. The fourth cutter then makes a long, slashing cut across the field. Usually, his man is the deepest defender on the field and is unable to stop the easy throw to space.
Above, Taylor Kraemer is in the far position as he comes slashing across and the offense is easy from there, as Machine is quickly at half field as Chain was slow to set their defense.
Again, here is Kraemer running the sweep. Defenses are rightly worried about guarding the likes of Nelson and Goose, but Kraemer makes the easy cut across and continue to Cullen Geppert and half the field is behind them.
After that, it takes one reset before Machine’s cutters are open again.
3. The Split and Send / Zipper
Another time-honored classic play, Machine loves running the split and send out of a vertical stack.
The back cutter usually heads to the forehand side, the next farthest back to the break, and that leads the fifth man to streak deep to receive the huck or get a big continuation under.
This is especially a favorite after a timeout, as you see the D-line running it (cutter to cutter) above against Chain and shooting it deep.
The play seems like a simple guard, but it isn’t. Once again, Machine is opening up a lot of different options for their talented cutting core.
The deep threat is obvious the first look and is the most threatening, as Machine has fast, tall, and athletic players. However, both unders to either side are also threats, as is a deep fake by cutter number five before an easy under.
Early in the ECC final game against Ironside, Machine plays it conservatively. You see Kraemer get the under and then hit a speedy A.J. Nelson, who is well-guarded deep, for a great continuation. Machine is immediately rolling smoothly on offense:
Later that game, after a timeout, Goose showed a cutter to cutter connection with the deep threat of this play:
Weapons Across the Board
Machine has other plays that they run, but these three are the most commonly used and most effective because they showcase Machine’s best weapons:
1. Handlers who can break the mark well.
2. Cutters that are challenging matchups, as they are both athletic deep threats and strong throwers.
3. Hucks from cutter to cutter.
Indeed, all three plays above are simple, well-known, and well-scouted. But they have persisted for a reason. They offer a number of options. Should teams recognize what’s happening, they still will struggle to stop it. Cut off the designed target or the play’s focus (perhaps an initial under), and Machine can respond by bringing the handlers into action to hit the hucks or work the break side.
Machine is also good at exploiting favorable matchups. Taylor Kraemer is probably the best example of this: teams load up on Nelson and Helton, leaving him open, often underneath, after the former two pull away defenders deep. Notably, the sweep play is almost always run by Kraemer.
A Note on Frequency
Machine runs these well and they run them often. The zipper, for example, was run five times in finals of the Pro Flight Finale against Boston Ironside; it worked three times to start the offensive flow (or to score). Once it was blocked on a deep shot to Goose, and once the defense forced a swing.
Generally, Machine will run these three plays about three times per game.
Opponents have surely scouted and spotted the set plays. However, Machine varies their sets. Vertical, horizontal, and even a couple of side stack points a game will keep defenders on their toes.
Additionally, Machine has a number of counters: several plays out of each stack ready to go as decoys. They aren’t run nearly as often, and they aren’t nearly as simple, but they can be employed should teams begin to sit on their usual attack. These secondary pages of the playbook are specifically designed for variation, often running in reverse of their mainstays, to surprise opponents. Nothing will be easier for Chicago if the sweep suddenly turns into a huck play, for example.
Here’s a variation of a flood play on a side stack — another play (and indeed set) that could be pulled out of the bag of tricks should teams start guessing or defending the others. It’s especially effective, as the open space has the focus on the isolated cutter, Helton, but the offense opts for a throw on the other side of the field.
Here is the reverse of the split and send, run by the defensive line off of a stopped disc. The play doesn’t work, but you can see Machine has it in their playbook. If teams start poaching on the play, this version of the zipper can be employed to great effect.
See the reverse split and send
These plays are generally run later in games, and quite sparingly by Chicago thus far (about an average of one per game per tournament). However, that could change in the future as other teams adjust.
How to Slow Machine Down
It has become clear that Machine runs their best and smoothest offense in man to man situations. If you have to take on their seven across the board, they are often able to find someone open. Teams are so afraid of the deep threats that they back receivers like A.J. Nelson and Goose Helton. However, this means free unders to capable throwers that can put up hucks just as easily as their handlers.
So how can you slow them down? How do you ensure their simple, but effective plays don’t work?
Madison Club, in their upset victory at Chicago Heavyweights, knew Machine wanted to run the table with the long game and, for much of the finals, simply refused to play man. The zone slowed Chicago down to start, generally plugging up the plays and frustrating the team.
Receivers become bystanders instead of threats, roaming for openings, and resets become much more difficult, leading to turnovers and Madison chances.
However, be wary. Machine’s handlers have strong over the top throws, and if there is any space downfield (and a lack of sufficient wind), a fifty yard hammer may come flying, ending the zone threat quickly. Here’s how they handled a Chain Lighting zone at the Pro Flight Finale:
The zone shredded at ECC semi-finals
If it’s windy, zone is a definite option as it impedes such power. If not, it could give Machine’s handlers a chance to highlight their own skills.
2. Play like Revolver
Other junk defenses — or defenses that employ straight up marks, poaches, or force middles — could be effective, but there hasn’t been a lot of evidence of teams trying them. Besides Madison Club’s CHC upset, there has been one team that proved they could shut down Machine’s plays, and that team is currently sitting at number one in the rankings, one spot ahead of Chicago: San Francisco Revolver.
Revolver played man defense for most of their game against Machine at the PFF, but did it in such a way that was incredibly frustrating for Chicago, forcing long offensive points where the plays didn’t quite work and the resets were difficult.
To begin with, the Bay Area squad’s marks were very active; they often went straight up for one to two counts, determined to stop up-field throws initially, before moving around to hold the force.
Revolver goes straight up for early stall counts
See how the timing of the play is disrupted by the flat mark? There was only a split moment when the designed cutter was open; it was tough to read, and for fewer yards than designed. Yes, the early shift allowed an easy swing, but it disrupted the initial downfield look and slowed Machine’s offense — forcing them to cut in flow, rather than in the set pattern they prefer.
Another example can be seen below. Once again, Revolver goes flat on the marks for the early stall count. This allows a lot of short lateral passes; holding the force is sacrificed for disrupting the zipper play, chopping up the offense, and giving the handler defenders chances. Instead of Machine rolling with their cutters, they are forced to bail out and reposition.
Revolver ruining Machine’s Flow
Revolver also frustrated Machine’s resets; especially when guarding force side handlers, Revolver played tight, physical D. They are face-guarding at certain points, really using their bodies physically to push the offense off or force tight throws.
Above there is tight, physical defense downfield, and the space is limited. Meanwhile, the handler defenders are almost exclusively watching their man, and it almost leads to a D.
Look at the defensive positioning in the clip below. The disc is on the open side.
The defenders are face-guarding, pushing their men up the field to try to force a “hardest” throw. The dump goes off, but only because the second handler defender isn’t able to physically hold his space. His cushion is lost as Kolinek goes into him and then past him for a backfield pass. However, once again, the mark goes straight up and the downfield line of attack is blocked for a moment, before a less dangerous swing goes up.
Liu especially may be vulnerable to physical play; he looked very uncomfortable at several points in the Revolver game and called fouls away from the disc when trying to get open on a reset. Often, whether he’s setting the stack or cutting for a dump, defenders were using their bodies to push him off his cutting line.
Ironside took the same strategy in the finals on the point below: as Liu set the stack; he was bodied up by Wallack and looked uncomfortable.
The physical play hurt Machine largely because Liu is their quickest handler and often best up-line threat as well. Handlers like Annen and Ron Kubalanza are very solid, but aren’t as quick and are more often likely to move backfield, staying out of the way of the downfield connections. Liu is very nimble and likes to catch defenders looking with his first step; he also is probably the best and most aggressive hucker, enjoying upline power position for that purpose.
Revolver had the right idea, which led them to victory. Machine simply looked uncomfortable, forced to play long points early on, with plays running at less than 50% success rate.
It wasn’t zone, so Bob Liu and the other handlers couldn’t take over with their throws, but it wasn’t straight man either, and often the timing of plays was just a touch off. This gave Revolver more chances, as Machine had to slow down, look swing, and generally trim back their downfield game.
3. Good Pulls
It sounds simple, but a really good pull can destroy a play very quickly.
Stopping plays is all about confusing the offenders timing and clouding the avenue of attack. As Ironside saw late, with some excellent pulls and good coverage, you force the offensive set to change and suddenly you, as the defense, are regaining some control and dictating play.
Below, in the PFF finals, Machine isn’t able to run their vertical stack play. They are forced to move up the stack and seek help for resets, losing their flow and creating defensive chances on swings.
Great pull from Ironside in the finals
Remember, if Machine is forced to move backwards or swing, their best offensive weapons are left out of the play. This happened a few times late for Ironside and gave them some excellent chances to break.
Chicago Machine, as their name suggests, has an offense that hums with smooth, well-oiled efficiency.
In man to man situations especially, they are tough to slow down and can defeat you in a variety of ways.
Teams that have beaten them (see Madison Club in CHC finals, Revolver at ECC early) have done something a little differently to slow the team down. In the first example it was a frustrating zone, in the second it was man to man variations with marks that disrupted the plays and pressured resets.
This Machine team is good because they are incredibly deep. This is probably the most talented Chicago squad in years and they rightfully should expect to make semi-finals, if not finals, at the National Championships.
The question remains: will they have to struggle to get there? Will the weather, or a zone, or a junky look throw a wrench into their dominant offensive gearworks?
Chicago shouldn’t expect to see a lot of straight man in Frisco, but we will have to wait a few weeks to find out.