As Major League Lacrosse offenses have evolved into six-out sets that feature combo feeders-and-finishers, they’ve been able to produce higher quality stepdown shots. While only 26.2% of unassisted shots find the back of the net, a whopping 33.2% of assisted looks lead to points. Defenses are being stretched thinner than ever, which puts a premium on players who can cover two men while their teammates recover.
Defenders who can play on the wall and clog up passing lanes come from all different backgrounds. Some also serve as their team’s top cover guy. Others are long-stick midfielders. And many have accepted their role as an off-ball defender in the pros. The best defenses need all three types of poles buy into off-ball defense.
Slides to the ball are fun, but that’s a topic for another blog. This space is for the two slides; it’s for the guys who can identify offensive motions as they unfold and position themselves in a way that disrupts everything.
The road to a repeat has been rockier than the Denver Outlaws have made it look. Last year’s team allowed 17.3 points per 45 possessions through its first eight games. Jack Kelly has (rightfully) received most of the credit for turning that number around, but the personnel in front of him deserved more. After they bumped Matt Bocklet down to close defense to join Mike Skudin, BJ Grill and, at times, Max Schmidt, the Outlaws defense surrendered just 11.6 points per 45 possessions.
Both Skudin and Schmidt retired this offseason. Assistant GM and defensive coordinator Jon Cohen had to reload – again. He brought in Sullivan, partly because his game was reminiscent of Skudin’s. Sullivan, who was named to IL’s All-MLL 2nd Team, has been all over the field since joining the team.
In his first MLL season, Sullivan led the Outlaws in caused turnovers (23), defensive rebounds (10) and end line run outs (5). The Hofstra product has incredible length (6-3, 210), but his most impressive attribute is his ability to keep tabs on multiple offensive players at once. When Grill slides in this clip, Sullivan is responsible for both Josh Byrne – who set the record for most goals by a rookie – and Nick Aponte who is camped out on the backside pipe. Sullivan stays with the more immediate threat (Byrne) as long as possible before plucking this skip pass out of midair.
Joel White and John Lade (a.k.a. The Forest)
Saying John Lade is the best second defender in MLL is not meant to knock on his on-ball skills. It’s not because he dominates secondary dodging threats; as a help defender, he can hedge toward the ball-carrier and force him to cough up the ball sooner than he’d like. Lade has thrived alongside Mike Manley, and now Matt Dunn, as a pass-deflecting and rebounding machine.
White plays higher on the field than Lade, and between the two of them, they knock down nearly every pass. Their defense at Syracuse earned the nickname “The Forest,” and they’ve carried that to the pros. The Rattlers have the best six-on-six defense in MLL, allowing 12.0 points per 45 settled possessions – 1.9 fewer points per 45 than the league average.
This year’s version of the Rattlers defense has been stingier than ever against pick-and-rolls. The 2016 Rattlers allowed 2.6 goals per game in pick-and-roll situations; this year, that number is down to 1.3.
Two-man games – both true pick-and-rolls and shallow cuts – used to take away the Rattlers’ slides. Now, they’re sending those slides proactively and relying on White and Lade to take up extra space off-ball. White’s thought process in this clip is amazing. He directs Donny Moss to slide to the two-man game, while watching Moss’s man cut to the crease. The only open man is above the two-point arc; White is completely aware of the cutting midfielder’s whereabouts, and he deflects this pass intended for him.
The Faceless Men of Ohio
The Machine defense is best in MLL by many measures. The one that sums them up most adequately: Their opponents turn the ball over on a league-high 48.0% of possession. Are you kidding me??? The league average turnover rate is 40.3%. The Faceless Men fly around the field, dictating the tempo and disrupting offensive flow.
Matt McMahon has emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate – we wrote about him at length earlier this season. McMahon, Steven Waldeck and Jackson Place all compete on-ball and off-ball. This pass is forced into a tight window from the start, but the accuracy and ferocity of this “hello!” check by Jackson Place is something Machine opponents have to deal with for 60 minutes every game.
Anyone recycling the “Lizards didn’t win the title because of their defense” take didn’t watch New York this year. The defense wasn’t as great as Ohio, Denver and Rochester – especially in transition, where they allowed nearly 22.0 points per 45 possessions (8th in MLL). But when rookies Austin Pifani (UNC) and Jack Carrigan (Loyola) joined the team, this unit began to solidify.
With Pifani in the lineup, the Lizards allowed 13.4 points per 45 settled possessions. That’d rank fourth in MLL over a full season; and it is a tremendous improvement over the 15.7 points per 45 settled possessions that the team allowed without Pifani.
Entering the draft, head coach Joe Spallina believed Pifani was the best pole available. He snagged his dream draft pick as the third pole off the board (after Tim Muller and Matt Rees), and the pick already looks like a steal.
Last year’s Lizards sent reactionary slides, and elite passers toasted them because of it. Think of the lag that accompanies a panicked help defense. The second slide is unsure of his role until he sees the first slide’s decision unfold. Adding youth to this defense has allowed the Lizards to support their short-sticks early.
This deflection by Pifani is due more to readiness than reaction. He anticipates the pass as he stays just close enough to John Crawley to be in position to make a play regardless of which player Kevin Crowley passes to.