How Chain Isolates Deep Space: Video Analysis Powered by Agility from Five Ultimate

Chicks dig the longball. Here's how the longball happens.

Chain takes on Machine in the 2014 Chesapeake Invite finals.
Photo by Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Atlanta Chain Lightning loves to brag that “chicks dig the longball”; it’s become the tagline that commentators, analysts, and Chain itself have used to illustrate how committed they are to building their offense around an aggressive deep-throwing game. Atlanta focuses on the long ball, but one of the most remarkable aspects of this success is how simple they keep their underlying deep offense.

Chain uses a small handful of straightforward sets and patterns, but these patterns mostly just look to:

  1. Isolate their best cutters
  2. Strand the defenders guarding them and exploit their positioning, and
  3. Create high-percentage looks for their throwers that develop with very favorable spacing and position

The Basics

Cutting Deep from the Break

One of the most basic deep cutting principles is to minimize the margin of error by cutting into large open spaces whenever possible. One way to measure the quality of a deep throw is by evaluating how much space (both on the field and through the air) the thrower has to place the disc into that still gives the receiver the best chance to make the catch. If a thrower has a large swathe of field space to throw into, then even if they miss their spot by a small margin, they still retain a high likelihood of completing the pass. Conversely, if a thrower has to fit a throw into one exact spot, then any small deviation in execution is more likely to lead to an incompletion.

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Chain adheres to this simple deep cutting maxim by setting up deep cuts from the break side. In the clip below, Chain’s Joel Wooten (positioned as the second-to-last in the stack) begins with motion to that side that then gives him an unobstructed opportunity to cut deep.

While a deep cut in the open side space is more likely to attract a strong physical presence, here Wooten is able to create physical separation from his defender while also opening up a wider portion of the field to attack. While the path Wooten takes to the disc forces him to make a more difficult catch, the spacing that this cut creates for thrower Michael Spear is very favorable. Wooten’s cut created both width and a significant downfield target area; Spear can put the disc straight ahead and out to space on a simple flight path.

His teammate at the back of the stack cuts under, bringing his defender with him, and rendering the defender unavailable to potentially help deep.

Getting the Defender on the Back and Bodying Out

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That same breakside principle can be seen in this Chain offensive possession against Ring of Fire. Asa Wilson initiates the offense with motion to the breakside before turning deep and accelerating, giving him a clean release and a step of separation from the young and speedy Terrence Mitchel. Even though Jared Inselmann’s throw hangs, the separation allows Wilson to seal Mitchel out behind his back, which gives Wilson a clean attempt at a two-handed catch, and forces Mitchell to foul (uncontested) in order to disrupt the reception.

When a receiver creates good initial separation, he is able to put and keep a defender on their back; consequently, the thrower can put the disc anywhere in front of the receiver and know that the defender will be forced to go over or around the receiver to make a play. That’s a tall order, and it’s a situation that favors the receiver.

Conversely, a look that starts with a receiver shoulder-to-shoulder with a defender forces the thrower to fit the throw onto the receiver’s side of the field in order to stack the odds in the receiver’s favor – the thrower has a smaller target area to hit, and therefore less margin for error.

By starting many deep cuts on the break side, Chain is looking to create situations where defenders end up flatly behind (rather than shoulder-to-shoulder) with the Chain offensive receiver.  Because defenders trail in their pursuit of breakside cuts — necessary if the defender wants to control the openside — it is easier for a offensive player to make a decisive deep move that avoid contact and generates immediate separation.

While the defender guarding the deepest cutter in a vertical stack typically has responsibility for denying that cutter a clear path to the endzone — and establishes body position that prevents the cutter from taking a straight-line path to the endzone — a break side move creates enough lateral separation from the defender, so there is a free release when he turns deep.

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Here, Wilson again uses this same cut to create a favorable deep look, cutting in on the breakside before turning and accelerating deep. In the time it takes for the defender to react to the change in the cut, reverse his momentum, and get to full speed in the other direction, the receiver has created separation and given himself a head start in the race to the endzone.

Classic Zipper Play

You might expect complicated deep cutting tricks from a top 10 team that relies so heavily on the deep ball. But, sometimes, the simplest move that plays to your team’s strengths is all that it takes.

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Here, Chain uses another pattern that optimizes the spacing on a deep look by targeting a cutter from the front of a vertical stack. Christian Olsen initiates this play from the back with an under cut towards the near sideline, and Andrew Hollingworth follows suit to the opposite side, giving Asa Wilson a free release on a deep cut pointed straight down the middle of the field.

By placing Wilson towards the front of the stack, Chain is maximizing the size of the downfield window Tyler Conger has to throw into. By working out of a centered vertical stack and pointing Wilson’s cut vertically towards the endzone, they are preserving the width for Conger to throw into. This deep look is dangerous, and forces the mark to strike to prevent the throw from going up.

The zipper pattern also exploits positioning that defenders often take against cutters In the middle of a vertical stack. As defenders guard cutters closer to the front, they will typically expect deep help, adjust their position away from protecting the deep space and front, making it harder for the cutter to get open in the handler space for a reset or short gainer. Defenders are more likely to position themselves even with, or even underneath a cutter closer to the front of the stack.

By spotlighting a cutter from the middle of the stack, he is more likely to have a free release on their deep cut, which will help create downfield separation in the time it takes for the defender to react and get to full speed.

Using the Deep Game to Open Up Other Avenues

Because Chain creates looks that isolate defenders and exploits their positioning, the Atlanta deep game puts tremendous pressure on opposing defenses. When Chain’s cutters attack the deep space, they stretch opposing defenses, forcing them to either send a second defender to help, or encouraging defenders to sag off of their assignments in order to prioritize protecting the deep space. These adjustments allow Chain to gain easy yards underneath, gleaning additional benefits from their deep game even when the deep pass doesn’t actually get thrown.

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Above, Chain initiates a pattern they use often, sending Jay Clark underneath on the break side and Austin Taylor underneath on the open side almost simultaneously, clearing space for Russell Snow to attack deep from shallower in the stack.

Snow has separation from his defender, but Clark’s defender, either anticipating the deep cut, or seeing the initial deep movement from Snow, sags off on his pursuit of Clark and switches on to Snow to take away the deep cut. This concedes an unguarded breakside cut, which Chain completes to Clark.

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Here, initial deep motion from both Joel Wooten and Asa Wilson on successive cuts forces their defenders to commit to covering the deep space, which allows them to break their cut off underneath, gaining relatively easy yards, and quickly advancing the disc up a large portion of the field.

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Joel Wooten initiates this play by flaring out to the open side and then taking off deep, securing a free release and creating separation from his defender. The advantage Wooten has earned on his defender draws a reaction from Ring’s Kristjian Loorits at the back of the stack, who opens up his hips and takes a step towards helping deep.

Jay Clark, Loorits’ assignment, recognizes this action from the defender and promptly cuts under, getting the disc from Inselmann. This gainer to Clark is much less pressured because of just the half step his defender took towards the deep space as a result of Wooten’s cut.

Defense’s Goal: Recognizing The Deep Threat Early On

The simplicity of Chain’s deep attack also simplifies the choices an opposing defense has to make about how to combat Atlanta: they can choose to either let the deep look develop and attack the deep pass itself, or prevent the deep throw from going up and create more opportunities to get a block on an underneath throw or a reset. The simplicity of Chain’s deep game makes it easier to diagnose plays as they develop and make that choice smartly in real time.

When defenses choose the battleground that favors their individual players’ skillsets, they can have success against the Chain offense.

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Here Chain sets up a deep look for Wilson, setting him up towards the front of the stack and sending him deep down the break side. This pattern generates separation for Wilson from his defender, but because it initiates from a shallow position, it gives Machine’s Kevin Kelly enough time to diagnose the play. Kelly positions himself so that he can see the disc, his assignment, and the streaking Wilson at the same time, which lets him break deep as soon as Hollingworth begins his throwing motion, and ultimately get the block.

Machine had repeated success against Chain by recognizing early and sending help deep. In the clip below, Jolian Dahl gets free deep in the flow of the chain offense, and has a step on Kelly. However, the Machine defender at the back of the stack is able to recognize the play developing and immediately moves to help deep, with the result being a one-on-two disadvantage for Chain.

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Simplicity

Chain builds their offense around their deep game because they have talented throwers and receivers that can execute at a high percentage. But, watching the film, the most surprising development is that Chain keeps the deep attack simple, using patterns that make smart use of spacing and positioning. Universally they look to reduce the game to a two-on-two battle that pits one of their best throwers and one of their best receivers against defenders that start the play at a disadvantage.

By remaining committed to attacking deep, Chain gets direct value from these deep looks in the form of high-percentage deep passes and tons of yardage. There is also indirect value in the form of easier yards underneath when defenses overcommit to taking away the deep look. Chain is obviously talented enough that taking away the initial deep look and forcing them to simply score another way will not be enough; opposing defenses need to create blocks.

Teams facing Chain must make a decision, based on the strengths and skillsets of their defensive players, about where they think they have the best chances of getting a block, and create the situations that give their defenders the best chance to succeed.

A defense that is strong in the air, like Machine’s, may decide that they are more likely to get a block on the deep throw itself. These squads may prefer to allow Chain’s deep cuts to develop, but then send an additional defender once the throw goes up, looking to get the block on the deep throw itself.

Conversely, a team without the deep defenders to match up with Chain in the air may decide they are more likely to get a block by contesting an underneath cut, or by defending the reset. For these defenses, reacting quickly to a deep look, and either preventing it from developing or preventing the throw from going up in the first place will play to their advantage. For both strategies, though, early recognition of the deep movement — whether it be a deep threat setting up something to the breakside, or a traditional Zipper-type setplay — is crucial to executing a solid defensive counter.

Chain digs the long ball because they are good at it. They are committed to it, and it will continue to be a focal point of their offense down the stretch. We know what we can expect to see from Chain. But what we see from their opponents’ defensive schemes will tell us a lot about where those teams see their strengths on defense, based on what they choose as their battleground in their effort to slow Atlanta down.

  1. Dave Lipson
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    Dave Lipson is a former player and captain for the Harvard Red Line and Boston's Sons of Liberty club. He is a current co-coach of the Harvard BRed Line. He resides with his wife in Cambridge, MA.

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