|Defense Part Two|
|This article is the second in a two-part series discussing team defense, the proliferation of certain schemes, and the intricacies of playing successful team D.|
Defense is defense, especially if you are playing it as a unit, a system, a team, at least that’s what some coaches will tell you.
“Basketball teams slide, “ Don Zimmerman pointed out. “It’s just part of playing a team sport.”
As the UMBC coach pointed out, sliding is just a specific term built to describe what goes on in all team sports where two defensive players work in tandem, either one bailing out the other or both concentrating their efforts, to thwart the progress of an offensive player.
The parallel to basketball works well when analyzing lacrosse. The emphasis on footwork, offenses based on quick ball movement and off-ball play, having a ‘hub’ that the defense is built around, extending out to cover shooters, collapsing on the ball when it gets to the middle.
Much like basketball, in lacrosse teams can play different styles of defense depending on the strength of their players and the purpose of their schemes. A unit can pressure the ball, trap people in bad spots, and force an offense to make decisions faster than it wants to,. The defense could play aggressive and take risks, or it could sit back and just limit offensive opportunities.
“It’s not so much what you’re teaching,” said Dave Pietramala, head coach at Johns Hopkins University “but what you’re emphasizing. That’s were the subtle differences are between” one team’s defense and another.
While the styles, principles, and mechanics of each defense may be nuanced, successful team defense tends to be built around three key elements: sliding, communication, and defenders who execute their roles in the system.
“Basically, a slide is one man,” University of Denver Coach Bill Tierney paused while explaining, “getting himself from one spot to another in order to either help his teammate, or put pressure on an offensive player to do something that he doesn’t really want to do, or in some cases…to double team.”
The slide may be considered the crux of team defense. After all, if it were just six guys individually covering six other guys on offense, if no one provided defensive help, there would be a lot more free trips to the cage. Much like how offensive players use picks, cuts, and ball movement to involve the whole unit, therefore increasing the chances of scoring, a defense uses slides and help to take it from six one-on-one battles to a united front, much better equipped at protecting the goal.
“People slide for different reasons,” Pietramala began to enumerate. “Sometimes people slide because they’re beat. Sometimes people slide because guys get to dangerous areas on the field. Sometimes people slide because rather than be aggressive on the ball, they’re aggressive off the ball with sliding, and they up the tempo that way.
“For us, it depends on what defense we’re in,” he said. “We can do all those things, but what constitutes a good, solid, team defense, I think the fist words that come to mind are fundamentals and consistency.”
Those fundamentals can be the difference between chasing after a dodging middie and stopping him at the point of attack. Poor footwork or a lack of intensity on a slide might mean getting dusted. Poor stick work or over aggressiveness might mean a trip to the penalty box.
“We try to be fundamentally sound with our slides,” Pietramala explained. “When you slide, lead with your stick. Slide to where the player’s going to be, not where he’s been. Take an appropriate angle. Slide aggressively, but under control.”
“You’ve got to be able to stop and break down so that you can proceed under control to the point of contact,” Tierney added. “I believe that on a slide your stick should be in front of you…we want your stick to go across the ball carriers chest to his stick.”
While sliding provides immediate assistance to a defense at its weakest point—wherever anyone is getting beat or giving a dangerous offensive player an advantage—it can wreak havoc on a defense as the possession plays out. To avoid this confusion, coaches develop, “slide packages,’ systems in which a set of rules governs where a slide will always come from, and where the subsequent slides will follow.
Once individual players learn the finer points of effective sliding, the next goal becomes teaching a unit how to move as one. Zimmerman said he used the concept of a rope being tied to every player while trying to explain how the movement of each defender affects everyone else on the field.
If every player imagines he has a rope tied around his waste, and it is attached to a player ahead of him and a player behind him, Zimmerman said, then he knows that if the guy ahead of him leaves to run to another part of the field, he will be pulled into the spot his teammate just vacated. If he himself goes to another part of the field, that ‘rope’ would pull the defenseman he is attached to fill the empty space he just made. When a slide comes from the crease, the model can work the other way, were the second slide guy arrives to cover the crease, then pushes the former crease man out to cover.
While it may sound more confusing spelled out, the message is clear, “we are all moving together.”
A slide package can get very complicated with the first slide coming from here, and the next slide coming from here, but the slides tend to come from one of three places:
“You can go adjacent,” Tierney listed. “You can go crease. You can go COMA [come across the crease].”
An adjacent slide typically involves defender nearest the principle defender (the guy covering the ball), providing the slide help. Adjacent slides are very common, and at times almost instinctual. If you see the guy next to you getting beat, you are likely to go help since you are the nearest defender and have the shortest path.
Crease slides simplify the process be making every slide come from one centralized point. No matter who on the outside gets beat, the slide help will come from a defender whose main job is to cover the crease, and be everyone’s safety valve. If a guy on the outside is beat, the crease guy flies out. Usually a backside defenseman slides in as soon as the crease guy leaves, if not before, quickly covering the dangerous attackman or middie left open in the middle.
The COMA slide is exactly its namesake. Instead of sending the slide from the crease, therefore temporarily exposing the most dangerous area of the field and possibly leaving an offensive player unguarded on the doorstep, the slide comes from across the crease. Usually a less dangerous player away from the ball will be left alone and his defender will come to provide the help. This kind of slide is most often used when sending a defender to cover a player dodging from behind, Tierney said.
What becomes of immense importance when teams begin sliding is executing not just the first slides to stop the ball, but the subsequent slides afterwards. While a slide might create a temporary two-on-one advantage for the defense on a specific part of the field, it creates a four-on-five disadvantage everywhere else. If a defense cannot quickly rotate and recover, offensive players will find the open man and exploit the defense’s confusion.
“It’s funny, we had so many different slide packages,” Chris Peyser recalls of his time under Tierney’s tutelage at Princeton, “depending on where the ball was on the field, we’d be sliding and have the second and third slide from a number of different places.”
Peyser sites the experience level of his defensive unit and the repetitions at practice as some keys to the stalwart defenses he was part of with the Tigers.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” Peyser said, “just communicating with each other, and having the ability to anticipate what your other guys are going to do and playing off of that.”
“Always be talking; always keep your head on a swivel,” Peyser said, laying on the mantra of many a frustrated coach. “It’s like the first thing you hear when you’re first starting out, and they’re really true. Because if you’re talking all the time, and you’re saying the wrong thing, someone is going to tell you you’re wrong.”
If team defense is about several players moving in unison to create a stronger whole, than it is imperative for those players to be in constant communication. While offense is based around execution and opportunity, defense is about reaction and risk-management. By having its members in constant communication, a defense can react quicker and more cohesively, while also staying aware of where it is the most exposed.
“Everybody likes to talk about team defense and say it’s about communication,; we say it’s about conversation.,” Pietramala said. “We try to teach it now as if it were a seven-man conversation.”
While conversation becomes vital to actually exchanging needed information like who may be sliding next, where the slides come from, what’s going on behind the cage, or who needs defensive help, it also becomes a quality control check.
If each defender is talking about what he sees or what he thinks, it lets everyone else understand what is going on in his head and predict what he is going to do next, Peyser said. If someone is saying something different than what the rest of the unit is, he can be corrected before the defense is exposed. While each player may be yelling something a little different, the hope is everyone is operating on the same wavelength.
“One of the worst things that can happen to a team defensive group is you have guys on different pages,” Pietramala said. “We’ve always told our guys, ‘If we are going to make a mistake, we are going to make it together with all seven guys.’”
One way to try to avoid those mistakes and disorder is to have a leader or chief spokesman for the defense. While all seven defenders are still talking continuously, one defender, very often a goalie or a veteran inside defenseman, becomes the voice that cuts through the confusion. His word is edict, as if he were another coach on the field. He calls out where the slide comes from, where the ball is, how to play certain players so you push them to safer spots, and all the other concerns a defense juggles in a given possession. It is a role that tests a lacrosse player’s athletic awareness as much as his athletic prowess.
“You do need somebody to be kind of the super authority,” Tierney said. “The one who overrides everybody, but it doesn’t have to be the goalie, unless he really gets it. Unless a goalie really understands what you’re doing, he doesn’t need to. He needs to concentrate on making saves.”
“Chris Peyser was one of the best ‘understanding guys’ we ever had at Princeton,” Tierney boasted of his recently graduated former defenseman. “He had the uncanny ability to direct six guys while he was playing.”
Last season in particular, with a freshman goalie in the cage and a senior-laden defense in front of him, Peyser assumed the role of the “super-authority” for the Princeton defense.
“Obviously any defenseman, you don’t really want to say you’re just a crease guy,” Peyser joked. “I think there’s always a guy who’s more geared towards playing on the inside; who’s more vocal, and I think that’s certainly a role that I played.”
“Your inside guy needs to have those qualities,” Zimmerman pointed out. “He needs to kind of control the inside…He has to be a good communicator. He has to be a take-charge guy. Along with the goalie, he has to be the quarterback of the defense. He sees things much better than a perimeter guy. Some guys are much better playing the ball, and some guys are better off playing inside.”
“I think for more of the inside role,” Peyser added, “the biggest thing in addition to being vocal and just understanding what’s going on, I think the biggest thing is just anticipation.”
Tierney cited anticipation and understanding as what set Peyser apart from typical defensemen. It also made him the unsung leader of the defense. While great cover guys will always get more attention, great team defense guys rarely get the accolades they deserve. Sure, the great one-one-one defender has the arduous task of containing his opponent’s best offense threat, but the inside leaders like Peyser have the complex task of foiling an entire offense by insuring his defense is operating it’s system efficiently and effectively.
That underscores a larger point: it takes all those disparate elements and different styles of players to create formidable team defense. Talented players who execute complex schemes compose the defensive units we praise and emulate, and finding the right combinations of those elements is rare.
“If you only had good sliders you wouldn’t be able to cover anybody,” Tierney said. “If you didn’t have any smart guys you’d have guys sliding around covering, but running around like chickens with their heads chopped off. And then if you didn’t have any good cover guys, you wouldn’t be able to put the people in the direction they needed to, to be effective sliding-wise. I think it takes a combination of those three kinds of people out there.”
At the end of the day though, the buck stops with the mastermind of the scheme.
“As a coach,” Tierney said, “you’ve got to recognize what you’ve got as strengths and what you’ve got as weaknesses and work as a team, as a unit, to develop those things.”