Tuesday Tips: Tactics for Covering the Pull

There's more to covering a pull than simply running down to find your mark.

Endless Sunset at the 2019 USAU Masters Championships. Photo: Ken Forman -- UltiPhotos.com
Endless Sunset at the 2019 USAU Masters Championships. Photo: Ken Forman — UltiPhotos.com

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Covering the pull seems like a simple idea. Your team stands behind the endzone line, waits for a hand raised in readiness, throws the disc, and runs (careful not to be offsides) down the field.

And yet many teams are very bad at covering the pull. Seen in college, club, and pro levels, most offenses get two to three free passes off before a defense arrives and sets up.

Just because covering the pull is a basic concept doesn’t mean that it is an easy one. Just like all aspects of ultimate, it deserves a little thought, a little strategy, and a little practice.

These small efforts can go a long way. Every team knows the terror of those rare moments when the pull is caught and the defense is already on top of the offense. Without a single open look, initiating cuts and plays tend to be defeated immediately, offenses get jittery, and the turnover rate skyrockets.

Covering the pull well can be a serious game-changer that leads to breaks. Here are a few tips to improve your team’s pull coverage.

1. Have a good starting position

Most players just pick a spot on the line randomly for where they are going to run down and find their mark. Not only is this more likely to create confusion (nothing worse than bumping into your own teammate), but it can make the run longer, the setup more tentative, or (worst of all) lead to blown coverage and a free deep score.

Pick a spot with purpose. First, think of the angles of coverage. If you are playing person defense or zone defense, go to the side of the field you anticipate covering (or where your opponent is standing). Next, set up a good angle. Which way is the force? Start by running from the breakside to the force side if you can, channeling the offense naturally into where you want them to go. A little thing like this can be amazingly helpful. Running on this purposeful angle, you may stop or impact a break throw, forcing a team to the space where your defense is more prepared.

Next, be sure you are at least three big steps behind the line. Not only is this to help prevent offsides, but it is also to ensure acceleration. Every athlete needs time to accelerate to top speed. Those three steps will help you be closer to your peak when you cross the line, giving you a better chance at getting down to the pull quickly. It is even better if you can time your runup with a countdown from the puller.

Finally, keep your eyes fixed on your target and mentally run through what you anticipate this person will do. This is where scouting pays off, as it helps to know whether this person handles or cuts, initiates or waits back. If you can mentally prepare, you give your legs an extra-ready chance before the action.

2. Create hard coverage

Once the pull goes up, successful coverage comes down largely to effort. Most players just aren’t in good enough shape to sprint down at full speed and then play defense. Aim to be the player (or the team) that can do this. Run hard, accelerate to your max, and keep your eyes up.

Your team should have aggressive coverage as often as possible. Even when setting zones, people should run hard to their position. Pull coverage is one of the best chances to really fix the offense in place and apply pressure on them.

At the same time, this is why a good pull is critical. Pulls need to be practiced. Have designated pullers who work hard at the craft. Goal number one to creating hard coverage? Keep the pull inbounds. Again, an extremely simple, yet extremely important thing.

If you can keep the pull inbounds consistently, next try for height and distance. In practice, genuinely run a drill where you simply cover the pull well. It will pay off to create hard coverage.

3. Communicate and switch

Once the pull goes up, the defense’s greatest weakness immediately begins to take effect: reaction.

Defense is constantly forced to respond to offensive movement. A good team will scout and prepare, but you have to be ready for anything.

Here’s where communication comes in. The sidelines need to be loud (not just chanting or screaming for effect) but telling players where the disc is and where matchups can be found.
Aggressive offenses will strike hard and fast, taking whatever the defense gives them. Don’t be afraid to shout to each other to adjust positioning and marks even before you get to your player. Also don’t be afraid to switch.

For cutters, this is critical and why so many teams employ the “last back” strategy. Aggressive pull coverage might mean you suddenly have your opponent sprinting towards the deep space. Yell to your teammates if you see this happening, try to prepare, and if you cannot, call for help and switch.

Likewise, handler defenders should work as a unit, rather than individuals. Be willing to trade off if suddenly a handler sprints upline or deep, or moves into the breakside for a swing. Stopping quick passes and give-and-go offense is a sign of a communicative defense.

4. Don’t over-pursue

Perhaps the biggest blunder many young players make is overly aggressive pull coverage, running so hard that they run right past their mark.

Many players have been burned by this, with their opponent racing for power position or the deep space. As a result (and as a result of fitness and or laziness), players tend to be fairly cautious on pull coverage. Don’t overreact by ramping up the caution. You can still cover aggressively, but you have to assess your moment. About 15-20 feet away from your mark, judge their position in relation to the disc and read what the offense’s next move is. This is a key decision-making point.

Deceleration is just as important as acceleration. At some point, you need to slow down, find the force positioning, and lock in. However, at other times, your offender may be the person about to receive the next pass. Judge carefully. If you can stop the next pass or get that big block, then go for it. If you can’t, begin to slow down and get ready for the next cut.

Either way, make sure you don’t overcommit such that a single fake will leave you wildly out of position. Recover quickly if you fail, or even if you succeed in shutting down the first option, as your opponent will already be setting up their next move. Anticipate where the offense will go next. Remember, you have to be able to play defense throughout the point. If you shut down the first pass, great! Now, where will the next look be and how can you shut that down as well?

5. Hold the crux

Every team defense should have a crux: a main goal or focus for the point. This is still a game with advantages for the offense and as the saying goes, to defend everything is to defend nothing.

As soon as you are setting up your position to cover the pull, that goal needs to be drilling through your head. It could be as simple as “Don’t get beat deep” or as complex as “Forehand force, slight shade to the inside mark, pushing defenders out downfield.” Lock in on your target and then prepare the team defense.

This isn’t something you can simply respond to after you have found the player you are guarding. This is a classic mistake. A player runs down, searches for their opponent, finds them, gets next to them, then realizes they need to reposition. Meanwhile, the offense is moving, ready to go, and more than likely your player has taken off.

Covering the pull is often your one chance at a fixed position on your player. As you approach, keep a good angle and know exactly what your defensive crux is. Then you can slide right into it without missing a beat.

This is especially tricky in junk/zones or switch/help defenses. You need to adjust to player positioning and then decide exactly where you need to be. For example, you might have one defender stopping the first under, and another defender stopping the first deep, with the others picking up immediately after. As you come down on the pull, if anything, you need to be more aggressive and quick to set up positioning in these defenses. Work hard, get to your spot, communicate loudly with pointing and shouting, and make sure you lock in on your team defense.

Pulls should be difficult

Remember, pulls are not the easy time or the warm-up time. Pulls should be and are difficult to cover. Think and anticipate, work hard, then make your move.

Seven players practicing these tips in unison can be an extremely dangerous force that will drive offenses crazy.

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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