Get and hold your position, then know what you're willing to concede.
February 7, 2017 by Alex Rummelhart in Opinion with 0 comments
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One of the best offensive weapons in the game of ultimate is the huck — it’s quick, it’s lethal, and it can be deflating to a opponent.
Conversely, if you want to be an effective defense, you need to be able to prevent easy goals off the long ball. But this can feel like a tall task, especially for certain types of players — if you’re height-challenged, lack speed or hops, or generally just struggle defending against deep shots for one of a variety of reasons, you need to find ways to stop getting beat deep.
Many players focus on the outcome — getting skied, getting roasted deep — without actually identifying the main cause of their problem. Most often, getting beat by a huck is the result of a failure of positioning throughout a point. This is a guide to stop that problem from happening — useful knowledge for any ultimate player should they wish to make a no-huck stand against an opponent, but especially critical for shorter players or those who have trouble in the air. Likewise, this can be extremely effective for any ultimate player (even strong deep defenders) against teams that excel or specialize in hucking.
Before the step-by-step process of becoming a better huck defender, three things have to be recognized.
First, in order to stop getting beat deep, you need to be a smart defender — or at least smarter than your opponent — able to constantly read in-game situations and adjust. By reading this article, you’re already on the path to being more intelligent about how you play deep defense.
Second, you will likely need to cultivate some other area of strength to help you effectively guard your opponent. If you’re not the tallest or the best at jumping, what are you good at? Do you have an explosive first step? Do you have great agility? Do you have excellent top speed? You need to make the most of the strengths you do possess.
Last, you need to acknowledge that by prioritizing not allowing your opponent to catch the disc deep, you are in some ways conceding other things. This is hard for many players; it is near impossible to completely shut down an opposing offender, yet defenders often try to do it all and fail in critical areas. However, if you follow the steps closely, you can vastly limit, stifle, and frustrate your opponents to the point where even the biggest deep threat will be encouraged to attack elsewhere.
With that, here are five critical steps to not getting beat deep.
Step 1: Field Positioning
The most basic — and most important — concept to grasp is that defense vastly changes depending on where you are located on the 70 x 40 ultimate field. Every offense is set up around making space: ensuring cutters have the maximum amount of space to attack and clear lanes to get there. Defense is about shutting down or limiting that space; you want to position yourself at different points in relation to your opponent based on where you are on this field to take away the most dangerous threat.
If your primary concern is to stop an opponent from receiving a huck, think of your defense in terms of vertical spacing and divide the field into thirds mentally. There is the safe third (the third closest to your attacking endzone), the middle third (middle of the field), and the dangerous third (closest to the endzone you’re defending). Your job is to deny your opponent open access to the dangerous third.
When the cutter you’re marking is in the safe third of the field, she has set herself up with tons of space to cut into toward the dangerous third, though likely with a lot of traffic to cut through. In this instance, it’s okay to set yourself up several yards deep of your opponent, directly in the way of her shortest path to the endzone. The threat of her either cutting within or continuing further into the safe third is minimal or non-existant — if they go underneath, she’ll gain either a small amount of yardage or won’t get thrown to because she is so close to the handlers. Either is a win — you’ve successfully stifled a deep threat.
On the other end of the spectrum, if your opponent is already standing or setting up her cut in the deep space, her window for receiving a huck to space has already shrunk considerably. Even the tallest, best skying player will rarely get thrown to deep if both she and her defender are already parked in that area, so now is a time to stay close in case a throw does go up and to be ready to respond to where they’ll attack next.
The middle third of the field is obviously the trickiest, as this space allows offensive players to both cut into and put a huck out to space, meaning the cutter is a threat to attack in either direction for big yards if defense over plays. Much of the time, you’d play even with your mark here, but if you’re worried about the deep threat, you need to be behind your player, keeping the play and disc in front of you.
As a cutter moves across these zones on the field, you should likewise adjust your positioning to reflect the new threats. Keeping this spacing discipline is the hardest part of defense, especially moving at speed and with fakes thrown in along the way. But by constantly evaluating and adjusting your positioning based on where you are on the field, you’ll be ready to play the disc whenever a huck does go up without completely conceding yards elsewhere on the field.
Step 2: Hip And Body Positioning
Keeping the play in front of you is half the battle. In addition to being on the correct side of your mark, it is equally important to position your body to take away the expected cut. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.
Ideally, you want to keep the entire play in front of you, so you’re able to see your defender and the disc at the same time. Position your body such that any deep cut for a huck has to go directly through you. Be ready to backpedal when your cutter starts moving deep to maintain your position; if they plant and go under, follow, but stay on their back hip so that your body stays in the way of a cutter who turns deep again. Only turn your hips on a deep cut if you know the huck is coming or you know your opposing player has committed entirely to the cut.
Defenders may start in a good position, but then lose it after a couple of cuts or fakes; maintaining your position without turning your hips allows you to avoid getting turned around, leaving your opponent running free. Once you turn your hips or let your player get two or three steps running free away you, then you’ve likely already lost; your odds of being able to catch up to and then defend a huck go down drastically. Being able to keep your hips square while running alongside your opponent means your odds of being in position to defend a huck get considerably better, regardless of your in-air abilities. Even better, if you’re able to stay even or behind your target as they make a deep cut, the handlers probably won’t even throw the disc.
Step 3: Proximal Positioning
Playing deep defense and keeping your player in front of you without turning your hips is extremely easy if you are far away from your mark. If you simply keep a ten yard cushion, you’ll know exactly which way the cutter is going, you won’t bite on stutter steps or fakes, and you’ll likely stop him from ever really going deep. However, he’ll be torching you for unders all game long. This is where proximal positioning — how big of a cushion you give your opposing player — comes in.
Generally, you should attempt to stay within 2-5 yards of your player, keeping your field position and hip/body position. The very best defenders can stay close enough that, at any given time, they can reach out and touch their opponent’s jersey. Your particular proximal positioning will depend on a couple of factors: your relative speed and how likely your opponent is to cut deep.
The faster you are compared to your opponent, the less cushion you need to start with to protect the deep space. If you’re incredibly quick, you can stay close enough to challenge most cuts and know that even if your mark beats you with a fake and earns a 3-5 yard head start, you can close the gap in an eye-blink. On the other hand, if your enemy is equally fast or faster, spotting him a five-yard head start toward the endzone means you might never catch up. Give yourself enough of a buffer to protect against a deep cut.
Figure out your relative speed as quickly as possible and then work to maintain an appropriate cushion constantly; it will give you room to adjust to fakes and time to commit towards your player once you know where they are cutting.
The second factor in determining your proximal positioning is you’re opponent’s likelihood to cut for a huck. Is your opponent a primary cutter who struggles with throwing or gets tired easily? Know they want to go to the house. Are you guarding someone shorter than you or someone that needs to touch the disc a lot to keep the offense moving? Know they are less likely to bust deep and abandon their teammates in the backfield. Where on the field are you? The closer the opponents are to scoring, the more your proximity radius should shrink.
Step 4: Force Positioning
One of the reasons defense is so hard is that you are constantly adjusting to what the enemy is doing. However, team defensive sets and help defense can make this considerably less of a challenge.
A force is set up to the express purpose of limiting where an opponent can easily throw. Not only does this apply to horizontal space, it can also help vertically. If you are concerned about getting beat deep, decide on and execute a team force strategy to challenge hucks not just in the endzone but also at the point of the throw. Once you know your strategy, trust your teammate to do their job on the mark and focus your effort on defending the space assigned to you.
For example, you can use the force side to help from turning your hips. Instead of being totally square to the vertical side of the field (i.e. standing with your back to an endzone), you can position your body at an angle and play this angle constantly.
Turning to follow an opponent’s cut, you have your team helping limit where the play can go. Instead of the entire deep space to protect, you have the deep force side only — hopefully half or a third of the field. Likewise, when the player moves to go under, you can turn your hips to follow knowing one side of the field is safe (or safer).
Switching, calling for help, or using another team defensive set — like a zone or a last back — can also give you a safety net to rely on. Try to mentally adjust not only to your own player, but to all the players on the field. If two or three people are already deep, you don’t need to respond as drastically to chasing down a deep cut as if there was a side stack isolation.
Step 5: Target Defense
It all comes down to the last and most important step: what area of defense are you targeting to take away and what are you willing to concede? Unfortunately, limiting the deep space and frustrating the huck often means you are conceding an under cut as a more palatable alternative. It’s up to you and your team to determine how important stopping the huck is in comparison to containing the under.
Think of your defense in terms of 100% of your focus and effort. A 50/50 split to stopping the under and deep means you’ll protect or be beat in both directions with the same frequency. Any adjustment from there is about honing in on what specifically you want to take away. Evaluate what the bigger threat truly is and adjust.
If you’re serious about stopping the deep, then commit to it and put 75-80% of your effort there. That means you are taking the extra step deep in field positioning, you’re willing to turn your hips that direction more often, you’re maintaining a larger cushion on their back hip, and you’re always evaluating where your deep help is. While you never want to totally concede free unders, know that you are choosing that as an acceptable trade-off for protecting deep. Just have a specific plan in mind for when they happen.
Here are some tips for limiting the damage on these conceded unders:
- If they’re definitely going to catch the under, don’t overcommit on a late bid to try and get the block.
- If they’re definitely going to catch the under, turn and look to see where the next big threat is and adjust your mark to that point, closing in to stop the next throw upfield.
- If they’re definitely going to catch the under, communicate to your teammates; possibly try to deny a free dump from not a great thrower by having your handlers tighten up.
- Hassle your opponent with a big mark, but one that is not especially tight; standing further away makes it easier to break your mark, but harder to throw-and-go.
- Most importantly, don’t let your player get rid of the disc and then immediately get deep of you. Your first step off the mark should be deep. Your player is likely not the kind to throw a pass and then get one of the next two. Instead, they’ll either race for a big huck or set up their next shot.
It can be frustrating, but this becomes about limiting damage, frustrating an enemy game plan, and protecting your weak area.
Eventually, even over the course of a single game, you’ll find a happy medium. Oftentimes, in the second half of a game (after playing total deny deep defense) you can slowly start to adjust to your opponent’s new game plan. He or she will be convinced you aren’t letting them use their strength and so they won’t even try to do it as much.
Keep your positioning, use your strengths, concede a little if you must, and frustrate the enemy player until you’ve done your job of preventing the huck.