Tuesday, July 02, 2013

NexGen Filmroom: Ring of Fire

There are few teams that I enjoy watching as much as Ring.  I think it comes from being from the south and playing against many of their now gone players in college and club.  There is something that the old Ring teams were able to do that was both frustrating and impressive.  Many of those faces are gone now (and are instead beating me in the masters division) but some of these kids still have that Ring flare, and when I heard Puolos' name from the commentators I knew there was a chance that the old Ring would show up.

Nexen was coming off of a loss and in need of a win.  When teams have their backs to the wall the do what they think they do best.  It is incumbent on a defense to know what the opponent does best and have a game plan to tackle that.  I don't think Ring was able to do this and instead responded by doing what they do best defensively.  That worked a little bit but NexGen responded back in a way that Ring could not (or did not) counter.  Ironically it was by doing exactly what Ring started doing to them.

Figure 1: Ring comes down and tried to hide their 3-3-1
According to the commentator (Mario O'Brien) Ring decided to run open lines.  They also decided to run some zones.  The Ring I remember was all about hard man defense and force middle, so seeing this zone was surprising.  They would often run it shadowed as a poachy man but it was pretty clearly a zone and NexGen handled it just fine.  Figure 1 is a picture of their zone which usually took the form of a mark with sagging poaches on each side.  Kind of a 3-3-1 or maybe a 1-3-3.  They never had it working for long enough to really tell.  Unless you can bring a zone that really slows NexGen down and forces them into lateral passes they are going to get trough it pretty quick.  They like to break the mark and that is what they see when a zone comes at them.  If you are going to be effective against them you have to force them into a zone where swinging and handler work is required.  A 3-3-1 is fine, but you have to be able to shut down their poppers and over the top throws (which Ring doesn't do).  The two times Ring tried zone were both failures.  I would have liked to see them run something that changed NexGen's offense rather than play into it.

Figure 2: Ring's starting man defense giving a slight cushion.
Fig. 3: Ring's ending defense.  3 out of 5 cutters have a hand on their  back.
So Ring did what they should do, play man defense.  But their tone changed through out the game.  In Figure 2 you can see the defenders are giving a slight cushion.  In Figure 3 (towards the end of the game) the defenders all have a hand on the cutters.  This is a common tactic that Ring employs and is successful in ways that you don't always see.  The obvious advantage is giving the cutters less free space to run (which is something the NexGen cutters thrive on).  But the lingering effect is that it slows down the desire to cut.  Ring's defense, which is atypical for some of these college kids, will bump you and seal you to take away angles.  At times it will blatantly foul you, but not as often as you (the cutter) might think.  This slowly saps the cutter's desire to move away from the ball and shuts down continuation cuts because cutters aren't in the right space.

NexGen had no problem getting open through most of the game because Ring was letting them run in motion.  But towards the end of the game it turned into a battle of "dominators" where only 2 or 3 people were producing for NexGen.  This wasn't because Ring had effectively stayed with NexGen's cuts.  It was because Ring employed (starting in the second half) their standard, tough defense that required NexGen to work hard to get anything.  The result was a tired NexGen that wasn't moving as well as it did in the first half.  That is a win for Ring.

One of the other ways that Ring's defensive style allowed them to stay in the game were through plays like the one in the video below.  Puolos (black #14) is guarding Mickle (white #23) in the middle of the field and is clearly leaning on him, preventing him from getting to the open side.  Mickle doesn't really do much to respond.  He doesn't try to move Puolos out of position, or break the contact Puolos is using to position the cutter. But when the break cut (the easy one to cut for) is open Mickle instinctively pushes against the contact as part of getting open.  Puolos is a savvy player who calls the foul and stops the effective play.  Classic Ring of Fire, aggressive ultimate where your counter to their strategy results in a foul that seems (but isn't) unfair.  The camera angle isn't great, but I'd be hard pressed to believe Mickle didn't push off of Puolos in this play.  Based on how hard Puolos is leaning into Mickle in order for Mickle to hold his ground he has to be pushing back at least a little.  What Mickle needed to do was move away from the contact and get Puolos in motion and unable to maintain the contact Puolos is using.

So Ring employed their defensive strategy to stop NexGen's easy offense.  The counter that NexGen came up with was to run what O'Brien called a "dominator" (20 years ago we had a different, less intimidating name for it).  Handlers run a weave forcing the handler defenders to control space well as the handlers are given 40 yd x 20 yd to work with.  In this case the dominator was run between Dylan and Simon and excessively used Beau-and-gos and high release backhand.  The video below is an example of that process.  While other cutters provide forward targets during this point no one makes a forward pass other than Dylan and Simon.

Beating that two man show is tough and you have to use a team defense in order to do it effectively.  Toward the end of the video the Ring defender on Dylan (Weeks) is so far off of Dylan he isn't able to contest anything and allows the Beau-and-go to happen without any trouble. I would have expected Ring to have those adjustments ready since Chain used them effectively in the previous game.

Ring also employed a more straight forward dominator out of an H stack that gave three handlers (Saul, Green and then Puolos) plenty of room to work.  In the video below it is clear that the NexGen defenders don't know how to stop that offense.  It requires a technical defender who can triangulate lanes well and use that to stop the cut back look.  The dominator runs at its most effective when the thrower makes on fake to get the mark off balance and then throws to a cutter moving from open side to break side at the moment of the fake.  As a defender it is tough because if you are guarding the cutter you have to pursue the open side cut hard enough to stop that, but remain close enough on the break move to stop that as well.  If you are just chasing your cutter then you need to be really fast and change direction well.  Those of us who are slow and have bad knees know that what you really should do is pursue the open side move well, read the fake early and seal the cut back with your body.  Very few of the NexGen defenders do this instinctively.  They are just too fast to be concerned with playing technical defense.  They will jump on the mark and over pursue on the cuts.  But Puolos and Saul are smart and use that against them effectively (especially towards the end of the video).  They see the angles quickly and use fakes and positioning to maximize the angles and pushing the NexGen players for trying to pursue hard rather than well.

NexGen wins this on the backs of Dylan and Simon and their ability to create offense despite little motion from downfield.  Ring lost the game because they didn't have an adjustment to take that away effectively.  Ring was able to stop the bus from cutting effectively and was able to get some points from  an effective dominator and good breaks.  But Ring made some mistakes late that gave NexGen a chance that they capitalized on.

One number of note:  NexGen was throwing more hucks, catching 11 out of 15 (73%) while keeping Ring to 5 out of 10 (50%).  Most of those hucks were from a stand-still or after a simple forward pass.