Tuesday Tips: 3 Principles To Maximize Your Cup Defense, Presented By Spin Ultimate

A solid cup is the key to many zone defenses.

The UCF Sirens are famous for their zone defense. Photo: Billy Dzwonkowski -- UltiPhotos.com
The UCF Sirens are famous for their zone defense. Photo: Billy Dzwonkowski — UltiPhotos.com

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

One of the first defenses any ultimate player usually learns is a standard cup zone. Whether to take advantage of adverse weather conditions, limit the impact of an opponent’s pull play or star player, or just keep an opponent off-balance through a new defensive look, surrounding the disc with multiple players will force opponents to adjust the shape and pace of their offense.

As the first line of the defense, the cup has arguably more influence over the field than any other part of a zone. When done well, a cup zone will induce many more throws per possession to move the disc up the field, and thus more opportunities for a defense to produce a block or turnover. However, when a cup is ineffective, it can result in giving up an easy goal. Given these two extremes, it’s worth tweaking your marking and cup positioning to get the best out of it.

Let’s look at the key principles of effective cup defense.

1. Work As A Unit

The most important thing about any cup or wall defense is working as a single, coherent unit. Keeping a cup working together as a unit is tremendously difficult but vital to the success of a team’s zone.

As with any defense, this starts by making a conscious decision about what you are trying to take away and where you are expecting to generate turnovers. Some cups will try to stay as tight to the throwers as possible, pressuring even the easy dump options and encouraging risky, over-the-top throws. Other cups may play a little looser, standing in downfield throwing lanes to force an offense to swing to a sideline where the defense can set a trap. However your zone is designed, it is critical that every person playing in the cup knows the plan and moves together to achieve that goal.

The UCF Sirens have become famous over the past few years for their suffocating zone defense, one that is effective because every player is on the same page and works together to force the disc where they want it to go. In the video clip below, they demonstrate fantastic synergy; when the thrower looks to the dump, the cup reacts by quickly taking that option away and double-teaming the handler who pops into the cup. The remaining cup players are able to tighten in, shifting forward to deny the swing passing lane to the third handler and forcing her backwards. The cup, initially happy to just contain movement, quickly turns into a high pressure defensive set.

Cup Tightening On Handlers

In another clip below, we see that even when the offense does connect on moving the disc to the primary dump in the middle of the field, the UCF cup works to recover their shape to reset the defense. As the disc moves forward and creates new angles of attack for the offense, #13 in blue quickly shifts to the left to take away a downfield throwing lane. Meanwhile, as #6 catches up to the play, she drops backwards to keep the cup formation from collapsing in on itself and, in so doing, takes away the continuation throw to the popper. When #13 then recovers back into position after flexing to take away an immediate threat, the cup retains its integrity and goes back to preventing a break through the middle of a zone.

Shifting targets

Reacting in real time to threats, flexing and relaxing as a group while maintaining the overall cup shape, makes this an effective defensive unit — it’s obvious that they have plenty of experience playing together. While not easy to master, this level of cohesion is the key to an effective cup or front wall.

2. Contain First, Pressure Second

In zone defense, the ideal situation is to keep the disc trapped inside the cup, creating pressure and forcing difficult throws. On the flip side, most zone offenses seek to move the disc quickly to prevent this from happening. When the disc is moving, it is vital that the defense find ways to contain offensive continuation options so the cup has a chance to reset.

As a cup unit, this means a couple things. First, don’t overplay an initial dump throw or short swing pass. Staying together as a unit is most difficult — but most critical — when moving laterally, and having an off-point aggressively sprinting directly to close down a new thrower, the cup is likely to open downfield throwing lanes or let off a bigger, more dangerous swing. Instead, recover backwards as unit and take a wider path to contain downfield throwing lanes before closing in on a thrower. By denying the downfield continuation throws, you can avoid simply chasing the disc from side to side.

The Buzz Bullets are masters of containment defense. In this clip, you’ll see how their first motion as the disc swings is to deny downfield continuation while the mark catches up to the play.

Containment defense

There are several things to note here: the zone is not trying to prevent the swing passes — the disc is being moved toward the sideline where the cup is forcing. Rather than trying to immediately pressure the new thrower, notice how the wall defender closest to the sideline checks behind him for offensive options then flares out into the cutting lane to stop flow. In terms of communication, notice also how the Buzz player in the white hat points out the threat for his teammate while the disc is being swung, communicating information and sharing responsibilities. With the downfield threat now contained, the mark is able to put pressure on the only player close by, guarding the dump tightly while the third defender over pushes in to shut off the dump-swing.

No zone defense is able to completely stifle all options, so the key is containing what is most dangerous. This next clip starts with a Radicals dump set to get the disc off the sideline against a Buzz Bullets zone, forcing the defense to make a decision about what options to contain first. With so many defenders currently committed to the force side, again we’ll see a Japanese defender flare into the passing lane after the initial pass to prevent a swing that could lead to an easy goal across the field, instead forcing the disc back toward the force sideline.

Defending 2 v 1

Even as the disc goes back, the Buzz Bullets react to take away the most dangerous options. While they have conceded a 2-on-1 on the force side, the defense is easily able to contain the give-and-go, not only preventing the score, but reducing the gain to just a few yards. See how the mark backs away as soon as the thrower runs for the give-and-go, while communicating to his team that he’s going to cover the runner. By choosing to back off instead of immediately pressuring the next throw, he prevents the Radicals player from running past him for the goal, and gives his teammates time to close back in to help. A few seconds later, and what could have been a scoring opportunity is reduced a few yards given up and another trap that applies pressure on the disc. The Radicals end up throwing a speculative hammer turnover.

Let’s take a look at how the UCF cup contains an offense. Here we see a Sirens cup forming a wall in front of a thrower to take away downfield throwing lanes, then keying in on shutting down the primary dump in the middle of the field. As the disc is swung closer to the sideline, notice how the cup shifts into the new throwing lane to prevent the next downfield pass, in this case getting a D even before the rest of the cup closes in to apply pressure.

Jump the throwing lane

Once downfield continuation throws are contained, it’s time to apply pressure at the disc. As the stall count rises and the thrower has no downfield options available, they will shift their focus to a dump for a reset. Now the cup can get a little more aggressive. Knowing that the offense is only interested in a small area of the field makes playing defense easier and makes this type of gamble more effective.

Here’s another example that shows UCF applying high-stall pressure on a thrower by taking away a primary dump option. The trigger for this is when the thrower turns to look at the dump; the defender has her eyes on the thrower the whole time, and as she turns to look for a reset, the defender — part of the cup — switches almost to a person defense. This forces the thrower to go to another option at a high stall, moving the disc closer to the force sideline to a cutter rather than keeping the disc in the hands of a handler in the middle of the field — a win for the defense.

Shut down isolated dump

3. Apply An Active Mark

Marking is a vital part of any defense, but marking in zone is an especially difficult and important role. As anyone who has ever played chase in a cup knows, marking in zone is hard and there is no time to rest. But once a cup has done the hard work of staying together, containing downfield options, and creating a high-pressure situation for an offense, a good mark can help produce a turnover.

With the disc inside the cup, don’t just stand there without applying pressure to the thrower. After slowing the tempo of a game down with a zone defense and allowing an offense to casually swing the disc, a sudden switch to energetic, active marking can create a sense of panic for a thrower — especially a weak one. In this example from the Madison Radicals, an effective mark leads to a high stall turnover.

Intensity on the mark

With the disc swung toward the force sideline and with downfield options contained, the Radicals recognize an opportunity to set an active mark. Applying a high-energy, no-dump mark, Madison turns up the heat on a Buzz Bullets thrower. As the stall count rises, the off point in the cup — who has been sitting in the lane — closes down the force side swing option only as the thrower looks to it. The thrower is baited into making a long downfield throw into a very tight window and the Radicals complete the block with some intense, person-to-person defense by the wing defender.

Here’s a very different example of applying an active mark in a zone. Having a handler pop into a cup is a common tactic in zone offense, as it changes the angles of attack for the offense and uses forward momentum to put a cup on their heels. UCF combats this attack through an active mark. As the disc is thrown to the popping handler, the marker immediately steps up, not allowing the thrower to pivot forward into the new throwing lanes and giving the rest of the cup time to recover. The thrower no longer has a continuation throw forward and she’s forced backwards to a swing.

Anticipating poppers

Both of these are examples of using a mark to dictate where the offense can and can’t attack. Just like a person-to-person defense, the marker is the cornerstone of defensive pressure.

Put In The Practice Time

Zone defense is where we see some of the best innovation in the sport. The ability of a team to slow the pace of the game, to frustrate an offense, and to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of a team that had been operating confidently, often relies on the strengths and adaptability of their zone defenses.

When done correctly, cup zones can be a devastating weapon for your D line. But be prepared to dedicate the requisite time to get there. Too often, teams get quickly frustrated when their zone fails and they switch back to person defense immediately. As we’ve seen, a well-executed zone requires high levels of synergy — which often means hours and hours of practice.

By working as a unit, containing offensive movement, and applying intense pressure through a mark, you will be able to generate turnovers with your cup and make your zone defense stronger overall.

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone

    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@sionscone).

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