The same endzone plays may not work equally well for all teams, but the general principles are pretty consistent.
July 26, 2016 by Rob Doyle in Opinion with 6 comments
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In baseball, great starting pitching is meaningless unless it’s complemented by a bullpen than can consistently close out games. Likewise, in ultimate, an offense might be able to march the disc down the field with skill and precision, but those gains can be painfully unraveled by inefficiency near the goal line.
I’ve coached at Marcus High School (Flower Mound, TX) for nine years. Our endzone offense was very average for the first seven of those years, meaning we endured our fair share of costly turnovers. However, two years ago we redesigned our approach at the goal line, creating a clear playbook with contingencies for different disc placements and defensive looks, and devoting ample and consistent practice time to our endzone sets. The results have been overwhelmingly positive, as the past two seasons have been the strongest in the program’s history.
Below is our endzone blueprint.
1. Decide When To Transition
My team employs a horizontal stack-based offense over half the time as an offense, but all of our endzone plays are designed for either an isolation set or a vertical stack. Having everyone on the field on the same page about when to transition into our endzone set is critical to our success.
As a general rule, I teach my players to transition whenever the back line of the endzone prevents our cutters from making viable deep cuts. It’s not that we need to throw the disc deep, but our cutters need to be able to clear deep so that the intermediate space isn’t congested with defenders.
2. Democratize Calling For The Transition
Another tenet of our endzone blueprint is that anybody with proper awareness of the situation can call for the transition. Placing the onus on a single person — the handler with the disc, the deepest cutter, a captain, a coach — is too risky because, at some point, anybody can get swept up in the excitement of the game and lose track of a basic responsibility. I don’t care if the call comes from the playing field or the sideline as long as it’s the right call and it’s loud enough for others to hear.
3. Define Acceptable Risks
Some teams preach patience at the endzone. They’re content to dump and swing until they see a high-percentage scoring option. I’m not of that mindset. I’ve seen too many incomplete dump and swing passes in my life. Plus, mathematically, I know that if you string together enough high-percentage throws you’ll reach a point where it would have been smarter to take a larger risk. You have better odds of completing a single 75% pass than five consecutive 95% passes (73.5%).
Of course, the key is developing throwers who can attack a defense. We run breakmark drills at every practice and oftentimes before games, and I encourage my top handlers to work on their upside-down and off-hand throws. However, it doesn’t mean that every player has a green light to make those throws in our endzone offense. I constantly have conversations with my players about green light throws versus red light throws. Each conversation is different because each player is different, but once I become comfortable both with a player’s situational awareness and accuracy then I’ll allow the player to make attacking throws in our endzone set.
Once a player receives the green light, my job really becomes twofold. First, I need to be on constant lookout for “hero ball” — when a talented handler only wants to make attacking throws. It’s hard for some players to sacrifice an assist on the stat sheet for a thankless hockey assist, but sometimes a low-risk throw is truly the team’s best option. Second, I need to be encouraging after incompletions. It’s easy to question a player’s judgment after missing on a 75% throw despite having an available dump or swing pass. However, we can’t become paralyzed by a fear of failure. We live by the math and die by the math. It usually works out in our favor, but we have to be resolute when it doesn’t.
4. Design A Playbook
Over time, our program has developed a playbook of a few key endzone looks for our offense. As a general rule, we don’t want to confuse our players by including too many plays in the playbook. We’d rather have a small number of plays that we know intimately and can execute efficiently, as long as our players understand how to adjust for poaches and what to do when Plan A is foiled. You can view the setup and motion for all of our endzone plays here.
Our base set is named “Alpha” and we run it 50-75% of the time. It’s an isolation play with three handlers, three cutters spread at the back of the endzone, and an isolated cutter (the alpha) set up a few yards past the goal line. The reason for the shallow iso is to create an easier throw for the handlers and to eliminate the likelihood of poaching from the back three defenders. Thus, most of our scores are caught within the first five yards of the endzone.
In this set, the handlers will swing among themselves until they’re able to hit the alpha for a score. Generally, striking from the handler position is discouraged because it cuts off the throwing lanes, but it’s not disallowed altogether. The handlers are just expected to use their best judgment and only strike if they have a clear path for a score.
When choosing which player to isolate, I tell my handlers that it’s more important to choose the best matchup rather than the best player. It’s entirely possible that our best player is guarded by our opponent’s best defender. I’d rather identify and attack one of our opponent’s weakest defenders.
The alpha sets up slightly on the force side – allowing for more break space – and is expected to cut laterally from the force side to the break side as many times as it takes to get open for the score. If the alpha gets tired or we see a better matchup at the back of the endzone, then we yell “Beta” to activate the next cutter. The alpha clears, the beta drops down to become the new alpha, and we continue to run our isolation set until we score.
If a defender in the back of the endzone is poaching close enough to challenge the alpha, then the unguarded cutter is instructed to find an open space for the score. That could mean cutting straight to the front cone, or it could mean asking for a hammer or blade at the back of the endzone, depending on the skill set of the thrower.
Our second set is named “Delta,” though I’ve seen others refer to it as a triangle offense. Essentially, three players run a vertical stack handler weave while the other four players are completely inactive. Some teams spread all four inactive players across the back of the endzone. We spread three across the back (like in our “Alpha”) and ask the fourth to camp out at the front cone on the break side. This alignment gives us a clear “Beta” option and the player at the front cone can activate either as a safety valve dump or as a transition into our “Alpha” play.
If the disc is centered, then the handler can either throw a score to the iso or swing to the force side handler. After a swing, the handler will strike. The force side handler can then either complete the strike pass for a score or swing to the original iso, who should flare out to the center handler spot. The pattern then repeats itself until we score. As with “Alpha,” we can activate a new cutter by yelling “Beta,” and the inactive cutters are all given the freedom to exploit poaches.
Our final set is a vertical stack. The movement is very similar to “Delta” — swing, strike, re-center, repeat — but there are two significant differences between the sets. First, in the vertical stack, the inactive players and their defenders occupy the middle of the endzone rather than the back of the endzone, meaning that most of the scoring should take place along the outside boundaries. Second, it opens up the potential for breakside continuation throws. In “Delta”, when the disc is re-centered,, the first look is to the iso (the handler who made the previous strike cut). However, in the vertical stack, when the disc is re-centered, the first look is to a breakside continuation for the score.
Some teams prefer the continuation cut to come from the back of the stack, but I teach my players to continue breakside from the front. I think the shallow throw is the easier throw, and breakside cuts from the back of the stack often lead to pick calls. So, essentially, the 3, 4, and 5 in our vertical stack are inactive. The two handlers and the 1 run “Delta” while the 2 is a breakside continuation option.
The vertical stack also offers the potential for some creative plays. The force side handler can roll behind the center handler for a dump to the break side and quick continuation look — we call this play “Gamma.” Or, the front four in the stack can part and allow the 5 to cut toward the disc for a score – we call this play “Omega.”
There are numerous other possibilities, but we script those during timeouts near the goal line.
5. Drill, Drill, Drill
First of all, frequency leads to fluency. If you want to have an efficient endzone offense then you need to practice it throughout the year. Don’t just cover the basics with an early-season walkthrough and expect everything to fall into place. Instead, make it a regular part of your practice schedule to drive home its importance.
Since most of our sets only utilize four or fewer players, we do a lot of 4v4 endzone scrimmages. One way to make it more interesting is to play a game to five, make-it-take-it. Every time there’s a score or a turnover then the disc has to be walked back in a straight line to the designated tap-in distance — usually about 5-10 yards from the goal line — by either whoever caught the score or whichever defender was closest to the turned disc.
For 7v7 scrimmages, we’ll modify rules so that it takes a double-score to earn a point. After a disc is caught in the endzone, the player has to walk the disc in a straight line back to the tap-in distance and orchestrate a second consecutive score.
Another technique is lining all 14 players up at midfield, telling them which team will be on offense, and then tossing the disc close to the goal line. It forces the players to practice hurried communication in transition.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach in ultimate. What works for my team might not work for yours. So, let’s start a dialogue and share our philosophies. How does your team run an endzone offense? What are your core values? What are your set plays? How do you incorporate endzone offense into your practices?