As the rest of Major League Lacrosse has trended toward two-way midfielders, the New York Lizards have become more specialized than ever. On Saturday head coach Joe Spallina’s squad dressed four short-stick defensive midfielders: Steve DeNapoli. Chris LaPierre, Tyler German and Tyler Albrecht. When two of those four got on the field, the defense hardly resembled last year’s league-worst unit (15.95 points allowed per 45 possessions). But when the Lizards’ offensive midfielders were trapped on defense, the Denver Outlaws capitalized.
Fast break defense was a point of emphasis for the Lizards following their Week 1 overtime win in Chesapeake. The Bayhawks stayed in that game because of their ability to turn defense into offense. Multiple times, the Bayhawks got a bigger head start than Jerry Seinfeld racing Duncan Meyer. On both of these Matt Bertrams goals, five Lizards are within a few yards of the two-point line as the last Bayhawks midfielder crosses midfield.
The Outlaws weren’t able to run like this. Their unsettled goals came off failed clears and counter-strikes. Following saves, the Lizards’ offensive midfielders hustled to the hole this week — only to be attacked by the Outlaws’ isolation shortly afterward.
The Lizards were slow to slide all day, and when their offensive midfielders were on-ball, their matchups were exposed. Outlaws’ shooters buried 10-of-33 unassisted looks (30.3%). Brian von Bargen and Tim Barber each took Paul Rabil to the cage early in the game, shooting between (and through) his desperation stick checks.
Defending for 60 seconds with the wrong personnel seems like it’s simply prolonging the inevitable. Whether they score on fast breaks or by isolating offensive players, Lizards opponents are converting on 30.8% of possessions that start with a save (4th most in MLL). But after those two goals against Rabil, the Lizards showed that they may be able to hide an offensive player for a defensive possession.
In an adult game of hide-and-seek, whoever was trapped on defense – Rob Pannell or Joe Walters – found Mike Bocklet and tried to shut him off. Bocklet isn’t known for his shot off the dodge (23.3% in 2016), but he’s crafty enough to exploit those matchups. In this possession, Walters was forced to defend a Matt Kavanagh pick-and-roll and a Mike Bocklet isolation.
The defense behind Walters on both of those actions is airtight. Plus, those aren’t exactly Denver’s go-to forms of initiation. Seeing #1 in black on the field may have disrupted the offensive flow. An impulse to temporarily abandon the gameplan kicks in when offenses are presented with those mismatches. Whatever they were going to do can wait for the next possession; that opportunity to dodge Joe Walters is like a flash sale that expires in 60 seconds.
It’s only been two weeks, but this New York defense already looks better. They’re hovering around the league average, allowing 12.93 points per 45 possessions. Kevin Unterstein traded in his short-stick for a six-foot pole. Kyle Sweeney’s days of carrying across midfield and setting razor picks are behind him, but his cerebral off-ball defense is not. Joe Fletcher is a perennial DPOY candidate.
If Walters, Rabil and Dave Lawson can contribute to two or three defensive stops per game, then the Lizards’ fast break strategy will be vindicated – and their overall defense will be among the best in the league. So far, that hasn’t been the case, and their collective first step from offense to defense has been the Lizards’ Achilles’ heel.