Tuesday Tips: When To Block Attacking Space

There are times when simply staying step for step with the person you are guarding is a waste of your potential as a defender.

Raleigh Ring of Fire's Jack Williams. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Raleigh Ring of Fire’s Jack Williams gets the block. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

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Regardless of stack or set, a good offense uses spacing to successfully advance the disc, maintain good positioning and discipline, and eventually score. Often great defense, especially in matchup defense, is achieved by staying close to your mark. But there are times when simply staying step-for-step with the person you are guarding is a waste of your potential as a defender.

As a defender, therefore, one of the best things you can do is block attacking space. When done effectively, this can clog throwing lanes, frustrate potential looks, and nullify open cuts even before they begin. The key is knowing when and, to a lesser extent, where to block the space, rather than worrying about the offensive players or even the disc itself. That’s what this article will discuss.

The Basics of Spacing

First, it’s important to run through the fundamentals of offensive spacing. Most ultimate players have a basic grasp of stacks and their attacking goals/space, so it won’t be necessary to go too deeply into that, but here are the basics:

There are some areas on the field that are more valuable to the offense than others. Controlling those areas is often even more important than controlling the disc.

The value of the space is shown, ironically enough, by the lack of people in it. Isolated cuts or limited people taking up an area of the field show the offense wants to move in that area. Most offenses, for example, like the deep space as an attacking option and work to keep it clear — what rookie hasn’t been yelled at to clear out of the deep space once their cut wasn’t thrown to. The same goes for the backfield, with offenses maintaining a limited presence behind the disc in case of a required dump or swing — keeping five handlers back does not make for an easy bailout. 

The offense, likewise, has certain sides of the field they value based on conditions (rain or wind) or the defense (the break side vs live side).

Imagine the field as a long rectangular pizza pie. Some parts of the pizza are gooey delicious and loaded with your favorite toppings. You want to be the person to claim those delicious pieces before anyone else can. While that’s a reasonable way to assess where to be on defense, you can’t just guard space and nothing else. Even in a zone, most players know they have to be picking up and switching on to players in their area. However, there are opportunities when you can ditch the person you are guarding, block a specific attacking space, and frustrate an offense beautifully.

Three Examples of How/Where to Block Space

The “when,” i.e. finding the best opportunity to block space, is the focus of this article and will be discussed next, but here are a few key “how/where” examples of the best ways to deny attacking lanes.

  1. Last back (or leaving your person to guard the deep space): This one is so classic most people forget about it. Any time a team has a last back, or you, as a player, have your head up and see someone streaking deep, you are blocking space. The sudden flash of a defender into the deep space (even if it means leaving your person), can cut off what would be a good huck look, saving a dangerous throw.
  2. Clog the lane (handler sag): Another very common strategic move is to flash the force side throwing lane. Some teams over-use this concept, constantly poaching the lane to give free reset swings. This is not advised. Instead, a flash to the lane early in the stall count (followed by a swift recovery to the reset on stall two or three) can frustrate the hell out of handlers and take away free under cuts.
  3. Sit under (or race to the under space): Slightly more complicated, this can be in the inverse of the last back and is often used in conjunction with it, creating a bookends defense. However, good defenders can do this even in isolation. Seeing most of the field cleared by attacking cutters or with a sudden wide open space created by a side stack or isolation, it isn’t uncommon for a defender to run into that under space sitting as an umbrella defender, making those easy throws less appetizing.

When is the Best Time to Block Attacking Space?

Once you understand the why and how of blocking space and guarding it instead of a person, the main question is: when? When can I afford to leave my offensive threat to help the team? When can I do it in a smart and safe way that will support my teammates instead of them yelling at me for playing lazy or risky defense?

To be clear, these situations are not poaching. In a matchup defense set, a flash or a quick help in space coverage should always be followed by a return to tight coverage of your mark. Blocking space is just either a temporary safety valve or a hindering move to stymie the offensive flow. In most poaches, a player will sit and leave a person for extended periods of time. In these scenarios, we are seeking the key moments when we can afford to cover the space and help the team, rather than covering any individual.

Here are the top five opportunities to block space.

  1. When your opponent is resting. The best time for you to make the most of your defense is when your opponent isn’t doing anything on offense. As soon as your mark is stationary, whether at rest or in the stack, take the moment to survey the field, readjust your positioning, and if needed find a space, rather than a person, to guard. A hammer to a stationary target like your resting mark is a low likelihood, but you might put yourself in a position to be a last back or help cut off a throwing lane, which could stop a forward pass or even get you a free block.

  2. When your opponent is clearing. The clear is likewise an excellent spot to play heads-up defense. Linger in the lane or give a quick shoulder check to see if you can block an incoming attack route by moving into the space. Be fast and decisive. If there is a legit chance for a throw to go up, try for the block. If not, flash the lane and then recover as quick as you can to get back into good defensive positioning. In both the resting situation above and when your opponent is clearing, smart offensive players will notice when they are left alone and won’t stay stationary. They’ll take off to the opposite side of the field in a heartbeat and you don’t want to be stuck chasing them the rest of the possession.

  3. When your opponent is in less valuable space. There are times on the field when it’s okay for the player you’re guarding to be open, if only for a moment. If the player you are guarding is open in a space that isn’t a major threat to the defensive set, you don’t have to play tight the entire time. A great example of this is close, force-side handler reaching for a dishy reset. True, the offense could make a move to that person, but it isn’t as dangerous as covering the break space that is open after an over-committed mark or flashing to cut off a wide-open 40-yard gainer.

    But be careful. Good offenses thrive on flow and speed; one short swing could lead to another dish and another, and before you know it a fast-break or a big throw could be brewing with the defense out of position. This is also a wary spot because a tendency to let this kind of pass off can lead to lazy defense and lazy poaching. Bad defenders say they don’t care about the free resets and let them get off all the time, which only creates a new stall count for your teammates to defend against. Strive to be the type of intense player that helps the team when opportunistic, but also can shut down any small dump.

  4. When there is a larger threat. The same mentality, but with even greater stakes — there are times when the player you are guarding may be a minimal threat compared with a much bigger one on the field. If there is a wide-open player streaking deep, you’ll need to help stop it whatever way you can, whether putting on a straight-up, no-huck mark or sprinting to be the last back safety. The same can be (but isn’t always) true on a wide-open under cutter on the force side.

    If you need to leave your person to block valuable attacking space, be prepared to switch completely and make sure someone picks up your mark, who is sure to be the next target.

  5. When you overmatch your opponent. “I’ve got my person shut down.” While certainly a dangerous mindset, those words can reflect a possible opportunity. If you are truly better than your mark and can confidently deny them the disc anywhere — a rare feat, so this should not occur often — you can jump to block the attack lanes or space so long as our have time and space to recover. Conversely, you can try to bait a block. Both have upsides to the team defense, but helping your teammates by moving into the field might have a more consistent reward — although it is higher-risk, as the more often you leave someone open, the more likely they are to get a disc sent their way.

Be wary, but if you see a chance to help block space without harming your team defense, take it. It can be a big difference-maker in terms of frustrating the opponent’s offense. Even better if you have a team that can adapt fluidly, switch as needed, and play an overall help team defense to prevent and slow down the movement upfield.

 

  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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