Deconstructing Defense

Deconstructing Defense

Deconstructing Defense

Deconstructing Defense

  Defense Part One  
  This article is the first in a two-part series discussing team defense, the proliferation of certain schemes, and the intricacies of playing successful team D.  




“I was asked to do a speech at the national clinic; I’ll never forget it,” Bill Tierney recalls. “There must have been 2,000 people in there. It was a huge room. That’s when I gave away the defense.”

Tierney was coming off his fourth national championship, an undefeated campaign. It was Princeton’s second-straight title, a streak they would turn into a three-peat in May of 1998. The tremendous success the Tigers were enjoying was due in large part to Tierney’s forward thinking coaching, most notably in how his teams played defense.

“At the time everyone was trying to figure out what we were doing, and what I basically did, I did this speech that told everybody exactly what we were doing,” Tierney said. “They realized it wasn’t that intricate, it just looks real intricate.”

Tierney explained to the standing-room crowd his vaunted “Princeton Defense,” as it had become known. Though he said it was built on simple principles, the defense had been giving opponents fits, as it still does.

Quick slides and double teams forced offenses to be sharp and decisive, yet despite the aggressive play, the Tigers rarely were exposed. Instead of reacting to an offense’s attack, Tierney’s defense would corral and control the flow of the ball. Middies were pushed down allies and into bad angles. An attackman who sat too long with the ball would often get more heat than he bargained for. Anyone actually able to dodge his man would find open space quickly disappear as a slide came crashing in, often times the packages changing before the offense had time to counter.

“It’s a style of defense where you can cover up for some individual flaws through sliding,” Tierney said. “It’s a very comforting, very supportive defense.”

It was a formula almost everyone wanted to at least get a glimpse of, if not implement on their own teams.

“There were days I wished I’d never given that speech, and there are other days where I am thankful that I did because you still have to coach, you still have to implement it on your own,” the former Ivy coach said. “It’s kind of funny being at [the University of] Denver now and people are talking about ‘playing the Princeton Defense.’

“It’s kind of nice to know that people think that it is something very special.”


“I always believed in a double-teaming, high-pressure defense,” Tierney explained as a principle idea behind his scheme. “Not high pressure on individual coverage, in fact I’m totally anti that, but high pressure with a team style.”

That belief has been fundamental to how Tierney has coached and developed his defenses going back to his time as the head coach of Levittown Memorial High School on Long Island, N.Y., and his stint at the helm of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Tierney taught his defenders to double the ball whenever they saw their offensive opponent’s back, forcing that attackman or middie into making a quick decision under a lot of pressure, a very inauspicious spot for an offense to be.

“It was kind of a double teaming around the perimeter, with the guy in the middle kind of being the safety valve in case anybody else screwed up,” Tierney said. “That’s kind of how we did it…but it wasn’t quite as sound as the one that Freddy started in my mind and we kind of developed after that.”

The ‘Freddy’ Tierney refers to is the late Fred Smith, a man involved in Hopkins lacrosse for forty years as a player and coach. After finishing his playing career in 1950, Smith served as either a head coach, assistant, or scout on every Hopkins’ staff, until his untimely death in 1987 from cancer.

In 1987, Tierney joined Don Zimmerman’s staff at Hopkins as an assistant. Though in title he may have held rank over Smith, Tierney quickly realized it was smarter to let Smith run the show the way he always had. The young coach would instead take this time to learn.

“I learned more lacrosse from Fred Smith than,” Tierney paused, then started again, “he’s forgotten more than I could ever know. He was just such a phenomenal guy, and he kind of took me under his wing and taught me the Hopkins-style defense.”

That Hopkins defense was formidable. The defensemen were skilled individually, yet played as a cohesive unit. They stuck to the rules of their defense and didn’t put themselves in bad spots.

“Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals, that’s the Hopkins system,” Coach Zimmerman explained. “Playing smart; making good decisions; not taking chances, especially on the defensive end; always giving your goaltender a chance to make a save against a low percentage shot, everybody being on the same page.

“[Freddy] was a teacher of fundamentals and really just kept things simple,” Zimmerman said. “He wasn’t a really big check guy. He didn’t believe in throwing a lot of checks. He would just put the opponent in a position where he was going to have trouble.”

Yet Smith also wasn’t afraid to break from conventional thinking if he thought it gave his team a better advantage, current Hopkins head coach and former defenseman under Tierney and Smith’s tutelage, Dave Pietramala said

Both he and Zimmerman recall the last game Smith coached as one of the best examples of his ‘think outside the box’ cunning. In 1987, Hopkins played a Maryland team loaded with athletic playmakers on offense, particularly in the midfield.

“They ran this ‘splits offense,’ they used to call it,” Pietramala explained. “They would have two middies come down from out top and curl around screens that were set by attackmen, and they’d have a guy in the top middle with the ball, and he’d pick one guy to throw the ball to. They throw it there, and they dodge from there, and it just caught us in strange match-ups. Simply put, we had never seen anything like it, and we struggled with it.”

Maryland would exploit those match ups, winning the regular season game convincingly.

So when the two teams met again in the semifinals, this time Maryland carrying the #1 seed in the tournament, Smith and his staff developed a new defensive technique.

“What we did in the Final Four, we just switched,” Pietramala said. “We didn’t care about match ups, we didn’t care about fighting through the screen which we had struggled with before, and we wound up winning the game, and in my opinion a big part of that victory was because of the game plan that Coach Smith put in.”

By letting the Blue Jays’ stud defenseman stand toe-to-toe with Maryland’s formidable midfield, therefore pushing short sticks down onto attackmen, Smith defied convention.

“It was really ingenious because it took our strength and matched their strength,” Zimmerman added. “It got to the point where our defense was shutting down the Maryland middies, and then they had to go behind the goal, and their attackmen, who were obviously great players but weren’t used to initiating as much, were now being played by short sticks, and our short sticks did a nice job there, and that plan worked.”

Hopkins went on to win the 1987 championship two days later, but they would suffer a monumental loss just 10 days after hoisting the trophy, with the passing of Coach Smith.

“Freddy was an institution when it came to Hopkins lacrosse,” Zimmerman warmly remembered.

Despite the loss of Smith, much of his defensive ethos would live on in Tierney, eventually influencing the next generation of young coaches.

“I think at the time Coach Tierney had a lot of those same traits that Coach Smith had,” Pietramala said. “He was willing to think outside the box, willing to do things a little bit differently, willing to try things that maybe weren’t the typical Hopkins way. I think you saw that when he went to Princeton…Coach Tierney showed that he was an innovator, which was in my opinion very much like Coach Smith.”

When Tierney arrived in Princeton in 1988, he inherited a team unfamiliar with success. Yet that blank slate was a blessing in disguise. With no pressure of tradition or expectation, Tierney could finally run the show the way he wanted to.

“When you go 2-13 in your first year, kids buy into anything,” Tierney joked. “It was new, it was things that people would have to figure out…It was something that I believed in. And you know what, I was finally a head coach at a Division I program that had fallen on hard times, so why not.”

He began molding his new defense around the aggressiveness he employed at RIT and Levittown, and the successful schemes of Hopkins.

“I decided to combine those two things: the soundness of the Hopkins defense, which they called the ‘Seven Defense’ where everybody including the goalie is involved in the defense,” Tierney said, “and include that with the mentality I always had of a high pressure, early-sliding defense, and hence the ‘Princeton-style’ defense evolved.”

Tierney knew that while his players may not have been the best athletes in the country, they were Princeton students.

“At a school like Princeton you’re going to get some pretty bright kids,” Tierney said. “You could explain [the defense] to those guys, and they would really get it and really understand it.”

The new defense would be aggressive, pushing offensive players around the field and promptly sliding to turn up the pressure. Yet it would not be haphazard. Every slide was backed up by series of recovery slides. As quickly as a man might seem open, he would be swallowed by the defense’s intricately moving parts.

It didn’t take long for Tierney’s teams to master his schemes and worry opponents. In his third season as head coach, Princeton made the NCAA tournament, defeating Hopkins before getting ousted by Yale. Just two years after that, Princeton would win its first of eventually six national championships while under Tierney’s stewardship. The ‘Princeton-style defense’ grew from an outside the box concept of a young coach, to a system envied by almost every program, spawned from the mind of a defensive guru.

“Lots of grand plans in life become grand plans after they work,” Tierney laughed. “That’s kind of what happened there.”


“Getting back to Bill Tierney, I think his slide and recover defense has really made a tremendous impact on the college game,” Zimmerman said. “It used to be if you slid you would stay on the double and force a team to escape a double and find the open man, but with the new sticks and the quality of athletes, it was easier and easier to pick that type of defense apart, so the slide and recover, the show and recover, the fake slide, those things, I think you have to give Billy credit for that.”

Blame it on his speech at the convention in ’97, or more obviously on the incredible success enjoyed by Tierney at Princeton, but what was his own unique style has permeated practice fields and coaches’ offices across the lacrosse world. Though each mutation might look its own, at heart they are principally similar.

“I’d like to say I was able to reinvent the wheel,” Pietramala said, a guru in his own right after the years of success built around solid defensive units at Hopkins, “But I think quite honestly, a lot of us have taken what [Coach Tierney and the late Coach Smith] have done and kind of added our own piece to it, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do here.”

Tierney even saw Princeton’s status as the pre-eminent defense begin to fade slightly as other teams began to master and tweak the schemes they may have borrowed from him.

“I’ve often said that there are teams like Navy at times, Cornell at times, Hopkins at times that play Princeton defense better than we did at Princeton,” Tierney said. “In one way, it’s frustrating because they beat you. In another way…I do feel good about the fact that this thing is being spread because I think it’s the right way to go.”

The spread of the Princeton defense has also hastened the evolution of offense and increased the emphasis on X’s and O’s. Preparation became more and more important. Games at times became battles of wits as much as battles of skills.

“Playing this kind of defense is not for lazy coaches because there are so many things that can come up that you’ve got to be able to institute at a moment’s notice,” Tierney said.

“Offenses have evolved and here we go with the chess match,” Pietramala said. “If they’re evolving, we have to evolve and change and account for the way they’re attacking us, and then the offense is going to have to do different things…it’s who’s got the chalk last.”

Some people credit Tierney’s defense as being the beginning of the end of the free-flowing, wide open lacrosse of the late ‘80’s, ushering in the modern era of specialization, match ups, and a tendency to slow the tempo. Tierney doesn’t seem to let that bother him.

“I laugh because my naysayers say I’ve ruined the game of lacrosse, and my supporters say I’ve kind of recreated the game,” Tierney said, adding a slight laugh. “My take on it is lacrosse is a great sport, and if you’re paid to coach it, you should coach it.”

Now Tierney is at the helm of a new program, another chance to build a team and a defense to his specifications. Perhaps the next wave will be the ‘Denver-style defense,’ and will again alter how team defense is played. Or perhaps he will just build on what has worked so well for so long. That’s seems to be what a lot of other coaches have done.

“You see zones come and go; you see the man-to-man defense come and go; you see the sliders come and go,” Tierney said, “but in general, most people are doing some sort of version of the Princeton-sliding defense.”


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