Heading into the All-Star break of its inaugural season, the Atlanta Blaze offense was torching MLL defenses. Kevin Rice was on pace to shatter the single-season scoring record with 58 points through nine games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Devoid of its superstar, the Blaze offense burned out down the stretch.
A unit that was scoring 15.9 points per 45 possessions (which would have led MLL) struggled to make much happen over its final five games, scoring only 11 points per 45 possessions. There was no presence behind the cage. With Rice in the lineup, the Blaze shot 32.7% off pick-and-rolls or isolations at X; without him, the Blaze managed a measly 20.6% initiating from behind the cage.
Unfortunately, Rice will miss significant time again in 2017 after breaking his hand in Week 1. A timetable has not been announced for his return, but there’s no doubt he’ll be back as soon as he can be. Until then, this version of the Blaze offense appears better suited to survive without Rice than last year’s was.
Look down the roster, and you’ll find players who can dodge from X who weren’t dressing for Atlanta when Rice missed time in 2016. Matt Mackrides was injured. Greg Coholan and James Pannell were acquired this offseason, via trade and the supplemental draft.
Though he has mostly played midfield in MLL, Mackrides is a swingman. He could play 60 minutes at attack if asked to do so, but it’s more likely that he’ll provide the Blaze with periodic inverted possessions. Mackrides’ quickness makes him a deadly dodging threat on the low wings and at X. Overextend, and he’ll juke back inside for a crease dive. Play off him, and he’ll tuck a shot from a low angle.
Coholan is mostly known as a midfielder, too. During his senior year, when his then-UVA and current-Blaze teammate James Pannell missed time due to injury, Coholan moved to attack. Those reps are paying off in the pros. Running both Coholan and Mackrides out of the box almost guarantees one of them will draw a short-stick. Whoever has the matchup can drag their defender to X and do this.
Inverting was (and will continue to be) done out of necessity without Rice. But last week it doubled as a tactic to slow down Boston’s fast break offense. The Cannons averaged 3.8 goals per game in transition last summer; last week against the Blaze, they only scored two.
Taking fast break threats like Josh Hawkins to X prevents them from leading the break. It’s easy to win the race to the substitution box when your opponent’s defensive midfielders are below goal-line extended. Boston scored on 5-of-8 possessions that began with a save or run out in Week 1 against Florida; against Atlanta, they converted on only 2-of-12 such possessions.
Even against teams that run less than the Cannons, expect to see more invert sets from the Blaze. Head coach Dave Huntley’s Canadian-style offense manipulates matchups with constant picking. Bringing Coholan (and the short-stick guarding him) into a pick play at X will often produce a switch for James Pannell to attack.
Like his brother, James Pannell is a natural attackman. Pannell punished the Cannons’ for sliding to eyes and not sending a second slide like Jimmy Dailey did in Week 1. With him at X, the Blaze can still put points on the board.
If this team hangs around .500 until Rice returns (they were 1-4 without him in 2016), then a playoff push will be within reach. It won’t require a record-setting offensive output to win games this year; last year’s seventh-ranked defense already looks improved, allowing 3.1 fewer points per 45 possessions.
These inverts – plus the weekly points Scott Ratliff puts up in transition – give the Blaze enough punch on the offensive end to stay in the hunt.