Watching Lacrosse Offenses: A Fan’s Guide

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Watching Lacrosse Offenses: A Fan’s Guide

Postby Billax » Mon Jul 20, 2009 8:07 pm

Why I watch the backside rather than the ball side
In any lacrosse offense, there are two sides of the field - ball side and backside. For explanatory purposes, assume the offense is in 1-3-2 formation, with the 1 being the X Attack. Ball side consists of the perimeter ball carrier and his two adjacents. The other two perimeter players constitute the backside. As the ball spins around the outside, defenses are taught to flow as a unit, pressing out a bit to the ball side on the “crease above the crease” and pulling in from the backside, on the principle that the most threatening players are the ball carrier and his adjacents. Having the backside defenders pull in makes cross field “skip passes” to the backside more likely to be tipped or intercepted, or so goes the theory, and the theory is generally true. Still, a case can be made that those two players on the backside are the most threatening players on the field in most High School games. I will attempt to make that case to encourage fans to pay attention to the backside boys.

Backside players have at least two advantages over ball side players. First, their defenders cede precious geometries to backside players, potentially improving the backside player’s shooting angle. Second, because backside players are farther from their defenders, they gain running room, allowing them to get to full speed at the moment of the catch and dodge or catch and shoot. But, first, we have to get the ball to these backside boys, which defenses try to make difficult.

Fans often hear Defensive coaches yell out, “Head on a swivel,” and “Sticks up.” These are probably the two most common ways defenders have to keep backside players merely theoretically threats, rather than actual threats. “Head on a swivel” is a technique that has a defender alternating his view from ball side to backside, trying to simultaneously keep track of the ball and his man. A closely related concept, “Big eye, little eye” has the same intent. “Sticks up,” most often heard when the defense is man down, cautions that skip passes to the backside are both easier to make and are likely more lethal when a team is short a defender. The third method teams employ to inform defenders about ball location is goalie communication. Fans will often hear goalies calling out, “Ball’s top right, ball’s right, ball’s at X,” etc. This tool is designed to help defenders spend more time watching their man, because the goalie is telling his defenders where the ball is at all times. So, with all these tools at their disposal, why should defensive coaches worry about backside players?. Well, it’s because defenders are human beings - creatures of habit with an inborn interest in motion and change. They want to see the action. Because of the way people are wired, opportunities abound for a backside player to get the ball in a threatening place.

There are two primary reasons why High School lacrosse defenses are vulnerable to backside threats. First, it is the rare goalie who keeps his defensive unit continuously informed about ball location and keeps defenders aligned between their men and the cage. Without that goalie communication defenders need to check ball location on their own. Put differently, without goalie communication defenders have an innate desire to ballwatch, rather than watch their man. Heck, even with good goalie communication, many defenders watch the ball too much. These very human tendencies create dozens of opportunities in every High School game for backside players to sneak, flash, or cut. Given these defensive lapses, why do so few offenses take advantage of these opportunities?

Well, just as with defenses, there are both personnel constraints and communication constraints that keep offenses from fully taking advantage of their backside opportunities. Perhaps foremost among these constraints is the lack of a true ‘quarterback’ of the offense. Lacrosse quarterbacks are guys whose greatest interests lie in studying defenses, seeking out weaknesses within defenses, and then exploiting those weaknesses. Like football quarterbacks or basketball point guards, our quarterback gets more satisfaction from a perfect pass that results in a score than he does from scoring himself. Examples of good quarterbacks I've watched in recent years include David Perry, Miles Suter, Sam Schloemer, Jack Bergman, and Jared Welker. Ross Gordon, a rising Freshman, will be another. Perfect passes are the second constraint. For a quarterback type to satisfy his own desires to exploit, he needs to ‘thread the needle’ with bullet passes to the backside. Putting a twenty yard pass through a defense and right on a backside players stick, ‘in the box,’ requires tons and tons of practice and a deft sense of time and space. Several additional personnel constraints limit backside opportunities. A critical one is poor timing by the backside player. To make an effective sneak or flash, the backside player has to see the ‘seam’ through the defense that would allow a skip pass. Then, the flasher needs to get into that seam, to a threatening spot, at exactly the time the quarterback will have his hands free to make the pass through the seam. This skill, too, requires practice and an understanding of the quarterback’s preferences and tendencies. Timing is learnable, but some players (e.g., Gabe Garcia and Jack McCormick are current examples) seem to have an instinctive sense of timing on their backside moves. Two more constraints limit backside threats. If backside players aren’t thinking about being threats, they won’t be threats. Sometimes this is by a coaches preference for scripted plays. If so, that’s fine. But, if a coach wishes to exploit backside opportunities, he’ll have to point out missed opportunities to his players. I think the best way to do this is through film sessions. Finally, without a silent communication system between backside threat and quarterback, connections are haphazard and less frequent. The cutter needs to signal the quarterback that he’s going or the quarterback needs to signal the flasher that he’s looking to him on the next touch. In my limited experience, cutter and feeder often set up such signals in private, off field, conversations. I believe it would be better if coaches set up these silent signals to be used teamwide. Of course, there are more sophisticated ways to free up backside cutters through off ball picks and screens, but when so many opportunities are available for ad hoc connections, the principal of Occam’s Razor should apply. But, if a team doesn’t have the right personnel to make ad hoc connections, it becomes necessary for coaches to script backside picks and screens to get a cutter open at the right time and place.

I write this as a fan, who is not a former player or coach or theorist. But, thanks to the help of a good friend who is a fine coach and an even better dissector of the game, I’ve come to watch the game differently than many fans. I watch adjacents and the backside boys. It was really hard for me to stop watching the ball, but now I hardly ever watch the ball carrier. It’s easy to deduce where the ball is by watching these off ball players and it’s far more exciting to watch what’s about to happen than what is happening. How often do we get to see the future?

If fans train themselves to watch the game this way, they’ll observe some interesting things. Here are two recent examples of things I’ve observed. About a week ago, in one game at a camp, a very good flasher was consistently getting open on cuts from X to just above the cage. He scored two goals in about two minutes this way. His defender then suggested to his coach that they had to “shut off” this player. By training oneself to watch backside play, one would have noticed that the cutters’ defender was ball watching the entire time, allowing easy pickings for the man at X. It was defensive lapses, rather than offensive brilliance, that allowed those two goals. A day later, at the same camp, I watched the rarest of the rare - one team that had two legit quarterbacks! Boy was I excited about the prospects for backside sneakers, flashers, and cutters receiving breathtaking feeds. I expected to to see a 2-1-3 or a ‘deuces’ offense that would just shred the defense with pinpoint passes to cutters coming from up top. But the coaches were not familiar with their personnel and the players had not played with each other before. So, not a single cut occurred. The offense was all dodging middies from up top. It was a good plan, but perhaps not the best plan for the personnel on the field. As noted, the coaches knew absolutely nothing about their personnel when they coached the boys. so this wasn't their fault. Still, it was a frustrating experience for me. Of course, I had the advantage of knowing all the players, so i salivated over possibilities that never came to pass. Maybe some of you want to watch these backside battles. I’ve written this little guide for those fans who'd like to watch cause-and-effect and see one key method of offensive exploitation.

I’d be interested in hearing about other techniques fans use to watch games more richly.
Sports don't build character, they reveal it. - Heywood Broun
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Re: Watching Lacrosse Offenses: A Fan’s Guide

Postby WCLLPrez » Tue Jul 21, 2009 8:00 am

Billax,

Excellent educational piece for fans. Your breakdown of the advantages for backside players is spot on; here is a third advantage-visual field. The ability to see the play developing in front of them and what their defenseman is doing is huge allowing them to move more freely when they see their defender is paying more attention to the ball then to them; the old "ball watching disaster".

Defensemen can make one simple adjustment that would make it tougher for backside attack players but from what I have observed in watching many HS lacrosse games in my recruiting travels it doesn't seem to be taught to them effectively. If defenders were taught to "open up" their stance when put in a backside defender position and sloughing into the crease area, keeping their heads on the swivel would be much easier and allow the defender to have a wider visual field to see the ball and their man. If they line up with their back more to the goal and not their backside player and then keep their sticks up, they will have more success in keeping track of those pesky backside attackman. There "visual field" increases and they don't have to "swivel the head" quite so much.

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Re: Watching Lacrosse Offenses: A Fan’s Guide

Postby picknroll » Wed Jul 22, 2009 2:21 pm

Billax, excellent topic! I've studied this topic much and hopefully I can provide comments to further the discussion.

To see the offensive opportunity you need to analyze the responsibility of the backside defender in a man-to-man defense. In addition to covering his man he is an integral part of the the slide package. Consider a crease slide package against a 1-3-2 middie sweep.

1. The top middie dodges drawing the slide from the crease defender.
2. One backside defender is the second slide "filling" to cover the crease which has been vacated by the first slide.
3. The second backside defender "splits two". He must cover two backside offensive players while his partner (the other backside defender) leaves his man to fill the crease.
4. Finally the defender who was initially beaten on the dodge must recover and mark up on one of the backside offensive players being split, getting back to an "all even" situation.

Coordination in team defense is one of the most difficult aspects of lacrosse. If any of those steps goes wrong, there are opportunities for the offense.

For the backside defender to execute those responsibilities he has to be properly positioned. Many of the opportunities for the offense arise when the backside defender is out of position. I like to use a variation of the old basketball "flat triangle" system for positioning offball defenders. It goes like this. The three corners of the triangle are "BALL" (ball carrier), "MAN" (guy I'm guarding), and "ME". The base of the triangle is formed by drawing the BALL-MAN segment: a straight line between the ball carrier and your man. The apex (height) of the triangle is one stick length (3 ft for shorty and 6 ft for a pole) on the goal side of the BALL-MAN line. The defender's feet are positioned at the apex of the triangle with the feet perpendicular to the BALL-MAN line (which I believe is the same thing Coach Podesta is pointing out). Now the length of the BALL-ME and ME-MAN segments vary relative to the ball carrier's location. If the defender's man is adjacent to the ball carrier then the ME-MAN segment becomes very short (on the man). If the defender's man is two (or more) perimeter passes away the ME-MAN segment lengthens to the point that he defender's feet end up in the hole (crease on crease). Remeber that the apex of the triangle is always determined by the length of the stick so that never changes - thus the "flat triangle" terminology. If you have time play around with some diagrams. You'll find this "flat triangle" system is a very good methodology to know precisely where an off-ball defender should be positioned. If you're not into geometry the net result is that the offball defender is in the passing lane AND in the hole to help in the slide package.

As far as covering cutters it is much easier for the defender to pick up a cutter while he is sloughed off backside instead of tightly guarding his man. Remember the defender must play with a "head on a swivel". Having that cushion allows the defender to look at the ball and then back to his man in time to pick up the cut. If the defender is tight on his man he is ripe for a back cut as soon as he turns his head to the ball. As with most coaches I teach my guys to cut off ball when you see the back of the defenders helmet.

So now back to the offensive opportunity. There are several common defensive positioning mistakes that I use as "reads" to see if backside opportunities are open.

- Watch where the wing defender sloughs. If the ball is on the opposite wing, the defender will be sloughed back straight toward the goal. When the ball moves on the perimeter from the wing to the top middie, the wing defender should move up into the passing lane. A lot of time that defender will not move until the ball comes adjacent to him. That leaves a skip lane open from the top middie across to the opposite wing. I often have to correct this with my own players.

- Watch the D middies when the ball moves to X. Lots of times these guys are thinking more about receiving an outlet pass for a fast break than off-ball defense. Very commonly you'll see these D middies much higher than they should be when the ball is behind cage. This makes it difficult for them to fill the crease on an X dodge and also it leaves them vulnerable to backside cutters. This goes back to Billax's 2-2-2 or 2-1-3 cutter scenario. In my opinion the cutter opportunity is when the D middies are too high.

- Watch the position of backside defenders' feet. The "flat triangle" system tells you where the defenders feet should be pointing. If the defenders feet are pointing at the ball instead of perpendicular to BALL-MAN, then he's made "head on a swivel" hard for himself and he's in position to ball watch. That guy's a good target to send a cutter on.

I'm sure that there are many more "reads" out there, but that's the few that are most commonly visible to me.

Lastly there is still opportunity in attacking the backside even when the defense plays perfectly. That's the basis of the dodge-pass-pass-dodge pattern. Remember that every time a dodger wins 1v1 and forces a slide that there is a 2v1 backside opportunity until the defense recovers. Going back to the 1-3-2 middie sweep. As soon as the initial dodging middie draws the slide he should pass directly in front of him to the ballside wing attack (that's the dodge-pass part). Then the wing attack immediate transfers to X (now dodge-pass-pass). If the defense has not recovered from the slide yet then that leaves a 2v1 with the X attack and backside wing attack. The X attack should dodge (now dodge-pass-pass-dodge) to draw the splitting defender which finally leaves the backside wing attack open. That's beautiful theory, but difficult to execute.
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Re: Watching Lacrosse Offenses: A Fan’s Guide

Postby Billax » Thu Jul 23, 2009 8:30 am

Nice analysis, nicely written! Thanks, pick.
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Re: Watching Lacrosse Offenses: A Fan’s Guide

Postby Billax » Fri Feb 04, 2011 7:30 pm

An old, but excellent article on how feeders and cutters can work together. Cutting and Chemistry between players go hand in hand.

http://insidelacrosse.com/news/2011/02/04/instructional-archive-cutting-and-chemistry
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