Scobel Wiggins – Ultiphotos.com
The Portland Stags and the Philadelphia Spinners are set to meet in the MLU Championship on Saturday.
This is the first time that an MLU team has had home field advantage in the championship game, the first time either of these two teams have made it to the championship game, and the first time that the championship opponents have a common opponent (Boston).
Not only that, but there are so many things about this matchup that need to covered in-depth. Mostly because while both of these teams are good, they have not faced anything like each other over the course of the season. To get a sense of what I mean, let’s begin with a look at what both teams have in common:
Only two teams in 2016 to…
… Score over 210 points
… Score over 120 holds
… Get over 130 blocks
… Have an offensive scoring efficiency of over 66%
… Hold their opponents under 5 breaks per game
… Average at least five points in each quarter
… Outscore their opponents by more than five points per game
With that out of the way, we’ll take a look at the basics for each team.
The Spinners offense is patient. More patient than any legitimate offense on the West Coast. Without bombing it deep without remorse, they march toward the end zone using a corps of reliable and creative handlers, a trio of relentless cutters and a big man.
The handlers (Baer, Brandolph, Hirannet and Katzenbach) all have distinct strengths and styles of play. Hirannet and Brandolph see the most touches on the team, but they are different players. Hirannet will take the appropriate throw within the offense and often provide a first reset option for the offense. Brandolph is more likely to break down the defense with his throws after assessing the field. Baer tosses the deepest deep looks of the group, but has been prone to unforced errors over the season. Katzenbach is the epitome of consistency as he uses his wide frame, excellent footwork and field awareness to keep the stall alive and the offense moving. The surprising thing about this group is that only Katzenbach (98.7%) completed passes at 91 percent or above over the season.
Of the cutters deployed in Philadelphia’s primary offensive line (Glazer, Panna, Sickles) there is a strong mix of size, speed and throwing ability. Each of them scored at least 30 points on the season, completed 92-93 percent of their throws, and had 170-182 catches. Sickles, the Eastern Conference MVP, is the biggest two-way threat as he both plays big in the air and dishes the disc to dangerous places as well as throwing assists. Panna, on the other hand, is more of an underneath cutter who relies on speed to gain separation and will then use his powerful hucks to deliver the disc to deep threats. Finally, there is Glazer, who is one of the toughest downfield matchups in the East as he is constantly in motion and always ready to take advantage of a scoring opportunity with an excellent sense of timing.
Closing out most offensive lines for Philly over the second half of the season (since Himalaya Mehta’s injury) has been Vince Reydams who is, simply put, a big man. Listed at 6-foot-6, he seems to loom larger than this over every game he plays in. His obvious strength is his height which tends to force his defenders to allow him easy underneath cuts. However effective he is during the run of play, his ability to come down with quarter-ending scores in traffic might well be more notable.
This group, along with a pinch of Mike Arcata, is the primary recipe for Philly’s offense. If they get broken, they do not hesitate to put in their defensive line on offense, sometimes with a couple of holdovers from the the O-line.
As with seemingly every team, more players play on defense than on offense. In the case of Philadelphia, we’ll mention a top group of them but focus more on the overall style of defense played by Philly.
Bryant, Casey, Colton, Chou, Dunn, Esser, Lindsey, Martin, McCutcheon, O’Connor, Patel and Peck.
If we attempt to break these players down into categories of defenders, it becomes a trifle difficult as they are all capable of playing all over the field, which is one of the strengths of the Spinners defense. With four players (Esser, Martin, Casey, McCutcheon) with 10 or more blocks and four more with more than six (Chou, Colton, Dunn, Lindsey) it is less a specific player or two causing turnovers than a roster of players contributing. That said, generally Bryant, Colton, McCutcheon, Patel and Peck see duties against handlers while Dunn, Esser, Lindsey, Martin and O’Connor are primarily matched up against cutters. Casey and Chou seem most likely to go back and forth based on individual matchups or team-level dictates.
The style of defense is generally a man defense which looks for opportunities to get in footraces to the disc on lateral passes and dares you to throw deep over them. McCutcheon, Colton, Casey and Chou are all adept at anticipating when a reset or swing will be thrown and immediately challenging the completion. Testing Casey, Dunn, Esser, Lindsey, Martin or O’Connor on a deep shot is done at your own risk.
The other defense that Philly employs is a pull-play zone which drops one defender about 20 yards deep of the deepest offensive player and seems particularly effective against side stacks or offenses who insist or rely upon going deep early in possessions. This also allows their underneath defenders to break formation and look for poach blocks.
However, the most enduring and relevant characteristic of the Philadelphia defense is that after a turnover occurs, they attack the end zone immediately and relentlessly. This often starts with either Esser or Martin getting downfield in isolation and winning their matchup either before or after the disc is in the air. Martin led the East with 14 break goals while Esser tied for second with 11. Every thrower on the team has full faith in these two receivers. While O’Connor was just behind them with nine break goals, he did not often lead the charge to the end zone. Of course, someone must throw all of these scores and that’s the whole purpose of putting Peck on the defensive line. With 14 break assists, he was second in the East. He’s certainly the most creative and powerful of the defensive throwers for Philly while Colton and Bryant (each with nine break assists) are more than capable of working the offense and creating goal-scoring opportunities.
The Portland offense is forceful. They are more single-minded in terms of attacking the end zone at all times than any offense on the East Coast. While they bomb it deep with little remorse, there is good reason for it as they rely on one record-setting thrower, a singular deep-cutting talent, a handful of steady handlers, a solid set of replacement pieces and a couple big men for good measure.
If we started this section off describing the discipline of Portland’s vertical stack and their ability to complete resets at high stall counts we’d be missing the trees for the forest. The reason all of that forms an effective offensive structure is because they have the appropriate cutters to do the work demanded of the structure. The first name on that list is the Western Conference MVP: Cody Bjorklund.
Bjorklund is regularly the first cutter out of the stack, the first cutter on pull plays and the question which Portland’s opponents must answer before contemplating the rest of the O-line. The reason he is central to the offense is his skill set. While he’s a decent deep threat, his ability to create open underneath cuts when everyone on the field knows his first option (and that of the Stags) is to go underneath is remarkable. He has excellent acceleration and change of direction with the added bonus of a wide body which dissuades most defenders from even attempting to maneuver around him for a block. Once he catches the under, the trouble begins in earnest. Bjorklund turns upfield after the catch looking to unleash his biggest throw, a speedy outside-in flick, to whichever deep receiver is available. Failing that, he’ll quickly look to drop a hammer over the top of the defense. It isn’t that he hasn’t got a backhand, it is just that the flick and the hammer make it a tertiary choice.
The key recipient of these deep looks has been that one-of-a-kind deep cutter, Timmy Perston. Not only is he faster than the rest and trying to sprint into the end zone, he’s also 6-foot-3 and seemingly tireless. Oh and the man has climbed Mount Hibbert in addition to repeatedly outrunning double and triple coverage after giving them a 5-yard head start. Perston going deep for Bjorklund is a perfect start to any offense and their skills are perfectly matched. Bjorklund throws deep with pace while Perston catches up to all but the most-bulleted passes. This combination has put up ridiculous numbers over the course of their time in the MLU together. Perston is the only player with over 100 career goals and Bjorklund is the only player with over 100 career assists. Bjorklund is first on the all-time scoring list with 189 and Perston is third with 132. Bjorklund has the highest (41 in 2016) and third-highest (33 in 2015) assist totals in a season while Person has the second- (37 in 2015) and fourth- (33 in 2013) most goals in a season.
Now, with all of that said, a robust offense cannot be built on two players. So let’s consider who reliably moves the disc while Bjorklund and Perston do their respective duties. Hancock, Jensen, McGinn and Smith are the core handlers for the 2016 Stags. Each has over 145 throws, a TPOP (Touches Per Offensive Possession) of 1.000 or higher, completes over 91 percent of passes and none have tallied more goals than assists. For reference, Bjorklund and Perston both have a TPOP of under .800. This means for whatever brilliance that duo possesses, they must rely on this group of handlers to keep the offensive engine humming. Two of them, Smith and Hancock, are on the smaller side while the other two, Jensen and McGinn, are 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 respectively. They each have different timings and preferences as throwers which allows them to work as a group to break down the first line of defense.
The next player to add into this group is 2016’s Breakout Player of the Year, Raphy Hayes. Raphy is something like the second Perston for the Stags as he has speed to spare and can pull discs down from the top shelf with the best of them, skying even Perston from time to time. He was second on the offense in goals (18) and in assists (23). However, the most notable thing about Hayes is his dedication to getting the disc aback after a turnover. He’s registered 14 blocks, nine of which came on offensive points. If we go back and check the tape, I’ll wager that the majority of the other six came when the offensive line was subbed in on a defensive point after a timeout. Regardless, he led the west in blocks on offensive points. Hayes, overall, provides another speedy deep threat for the Portland offense and has progressed enough as a thrower that he cannot be simply forced under.
As we consider the rest of the offensive rotation, cutters John Siemer and Matt Melius fill in as asked on the offensive lines while Tyler Cable and Will Shaw fill in as handlers. Finally, we finish with the two big men that Portland keeps in the mix on offense in Aaron Adamson (6-foot-4) and Jared Fitzpatrick (6-foot-6). Whether solely used in end-of-quarter situations or during full points, they both (along with McGinn, Perston and Jensen) help force mismatches due to height all across the defense.
Similar to describing the offensive side of the disc for the Stags, the overall structure of their defense is made effective by beginning with individual talent. In the case of the defense, that talent is the two-time reigning Western Conference Defensive Player of the Year: Peter Woodside. Just take a look at these basic stat lines:
2014: 8 G, 1 A, 9 B, 18/18 (100%), 103 Points Played
2015: 31 G, 1 A, 17 B, 25/26 (96.2%), 147 Points Played
2016: 27 G, 7 A, 19 B, 37/40 (92.5%), 166 Points Played
Oh, that reminds me: He won the Breakout Player of the Year in 2015. Put simply, Woodside is the preeminent defensive big man in the league. He gets blocks by providing help defense over the top (and winning his one-on-one deep matchups) and gets goals both by pulling down hucks and through excellent end zone cuts in short and medium range situations. On top of that, he has thrown a total of four incompletions over three years putting his career completion percentage at 95.2. However, just like the offense, a single talent or two does not make a whole line of seven.
Next up for the defensive side for Portland are the other block generators. Topher Davis (15) and Riley Meinershagen (11) lead the rest of the Stags (with Adamson, Penner, Dan Shaw, Sam Franer, and Dan Suppnick each tallying seven or eight blocks each). Davis is the smaller of the two and tends to matchup against handlers while Meinershagen is the taller of the two and tends to matchup against cutters. Both are comfortable covering a variety of player-types and use their field awareness to supplement their remarkable athleticism to get chances at blocks.
Penner, Dan Shaw and Franer are all of a middling size (5-foot-9 to 6-foot) and able to matchup with handlers and cutters. None of them display the mix of athleticism and awareness that Meinershagen and Davis display, but none of them are slouches by any stretch of the imagination. Their ability to play sound, tight defense allows the Stags to pressure each individual matchup and if you give them a shot at a block, you can rely on each to take the chance.
Adamson, who we covered earlier in the offensive section, is the second big man on defense behind Woodside. Suppnick, on the other hand, seems to be almost exclusively a handler defender who relies more on awareness than eye-popping athleticism on defense.
Looking on down the defensive side for Portland, we come to Steven Rice, Grant Cole, Vinh Bui and Will Shaw. Shaw is a handler fill-in (as covered in the offensive section above). Bui is a strong one-on-one defender who rarely gets beat by much, and can be relied on as connective tissue after the turnover is forced (41/42 just like Franer for 97.6%).
Now to two of the linchpins for Portland’s defense: Steven Rice and Grant Cole. Rice is a lanky (6-foot-1) handler defender and Cole is a smaller (5-foot-10), quicker handler defender. Generally, these two will take on opponent’s top two backfield players and work to force them into second and third options. That said, their key contributions come after the turn.
Cole, Rice and Davis are the three core disc-movers after the turn. They are the only three primarily defensive players with over 100 throws and each has seven goals and 10-12 assists. Like Hancock, Jensen, McGinn and Smith for the Stags’ offense, their goal is to keep the offense moving while the downfield players go to work.
The players doing the heavy lifting for the D-Line are Woodside, Penner and Meinershagen. Woodside and Meinershagen are legitimate deep threats, while Penner is more of an opportunistic cutter who uses speed and quickness to make space for himself. Meinershagen as a thrower is not quite creative, but has the ability to put up shots from mid-range and to complete 55 of 57 passes (for 96.5%) while throwing 15 assists. That’s an excellent balance of risk versus reward!
The Stags defensive side is almost as keen as Philadelphia is to get on the fast break and attack quickly. But they also have a strong handler set which can walk them up the field to create a small-field scoring opportunity.