The Toronto Rush Defense

May 1, 2018
By Louis Zatzman

The Toronto Rush defence is founded on the simple principle that they are more athletic than any offence they might face. Rush defenders will win contests at every position, and they offer a stable and highlight-friendly offensive arsenal after forcing a turnover. 

Though Mark Lloyd’s aerial aplomb is renowned, he is far from the only Toronto defender that coach Sachin Raina trusts defending deep threats. Jonathan Martin has long been a trustworthy marker on deep threats as diverse as Beau Kittredge or Antoine Davis. Bomber Powell is also a strong defender in the air. Both recorded important, momentum-building deep D’s against San Francisco during their Stadium Game of the Week against Davis and Marcelo Sanchez, respectively.

Mike MacKenzie and Marijo Zlatic are athletic and dependable defenders who patrol the middle of the field, enjoying the challenge of staying with cutters who come under or dance across the field. Both were in the top-3 on the team in blocks. Zlatic earns his blocks all across the field, equally capable of battling in the air, laying out for unders, and getting hand or foot blocks on the mark. 

MacKenzie on the other hand plays Frisbee like a goat simulator, fully willing to ragdoll his body across the field, again and again, at the great personal cost of perpetually skinned elbows and knees. 

Against New York earlier in the season, it took MacKenzie three or four attempts before one of his defensive bids actually made contact. Though his brother Iain explained that Mike usually has a higher rate of success, Mike’s missed bids didn’t stop him from continually trying.

“I’m inches away. I’m inches. It’s there,” Mike explained, laughing. “The second bid, I just missed it. I was over top of the disc, it just went under. If I can get up after, as long as I’m in position after the bid, then I think it’s a good call because a couple of them were very close.”

By the time MacKenzie actually made contact with the disc, all the pent-up frustrations culminated in a worthy highlight. 

“Mikey's a bit raw, in terms of his, he's just athletic. He's got some raw talent, and he's always had those wheels. He'll throw himself around and get Ds and pressure handlers, or whatever the case may be,” says Raina.

Notice in the above clip that a teammate had MacKenzie’s back after his tipped disc popped up into a catchable position? That’s Remi Ojo, whose athleticism has almost fully returned after an injury-plagued 2017 season. Ojo is happy baiting his opponents deep, and when the deep huck goes up, Ojo is able to make up 4-5 steps with the disc in the air before snatching the disc away in the nick of time. Ojo could be the most athletic defender on the Rush, and that’s a tough competition. Though only standing 6’0, Toronto is comfortable matching Ojo against practically any cutter in the league, no matter the height disparity. He can turn an opponent’s easy score into a turnover.

The Rush also have several defenders capable of locking opposing handlers in defensive prisons. Anatoly Vasilyev has a unique ability to handblock opposing throwers. He has feline quickness on the mark, and countless handlers have thought his raised hands allowed openings low, only for Vasilyev to beat them to the spot and swat the disc only moments after it leaves their hands. 

Jaret Meron, Jeremy Norden, and Bretton Tan are also terrific handler defenders. Tan especially has an athletic advantage against nearly any handler in the league. All three are smart defenders, capable of switching seamless to deny any easy continuation throws to handlers on the move or easy gainers up the line. 

“[Handler defence] is definitely something that Sachin has always preached, basically from sort of the time that he joined us in a coaching role, is really making sure that nothing comes easy,” explains Meron. “That really starts with taking away resets, making that tough. It's always been our number one focus, especially for myself, as I primarily play D on the handlers, is making sure that you're kinda always up in their space, forcing them upfield as much as you can, to make sure that you make everything pretty much as tight as possible. Making sure that if they are getting the disc, they have to work their asses off the do it.” 

Other important defenders include Iain MacKenzie, Jacky Hau, Jay Boychuk, Jonathan Edwards, and Jason Huynh. MacKenzie and Edwards are as fearless contesting anything deep as any players on the team, and Boychuk and Hau are track stars, content to sprint for long points until their legs prove to be the difference. Huynh hasn’t yet played a game in 2018, but he’s a young speedster who handles for the defence and can create openings in tight space with his acceleration and timing. 

With such depth playing defence, Toronto grinds opponents down. Though teams may find easy holds on their first few points, the effort required to beat Toronto’s athleticism wears on teams. By the ends of games, opposing teams are far more prone to mistakes, and Toronto’s D-Line capitalizes. Toronto dominated the final quarters against both New York and San Francisco earlier this year. They’ve been working desperately hard in the gym all off-season, and the difference in conditioning and stamina has thus far been a huge advantage in Toronto’s 3-0 start to the season. 

Once the Rush defence does force a turnover, the defenders all have important offensive roles to match. Meron and Norden turn into devastating handlers. They rarely play together and instead anchor opposing D-Lines. Both have varying skillsets. Meron offers a lefty howitzer that rivals Bubba Watson in power generated. 

He can easily throw the field, and his ability to stretch the offence vertically frequently proves the difference between a stagnant possession and one that scores in mere moments. With Meron alongside defensive deep threats like Jay Boychuk and Iain MacKenzie, the Toronto Rush have in fact outscored their opponents 5-3 on the young 2018 season – a remarkable feat for a D-Line. Oh yeah, and Boychuk’s got some faaaakes.

Norden is much more of a possession handler. He lives to throw fakes, and his inside lefty fake frequently opens up wider righty flicks. He’s capable in any conditions, which proved incredibly useful against the Philadelphia Phoenix during their windy game earlier in the year.

Young athletes like Mike MacKenzie and Bretton Tan frequently fly deep immediately after a turn. Their handlers trust their instincts despite their youth, and their athleticism in space offer Toronto an important advantage that didn’t necessarily exist on the team prior to their arrivals. 

“When Jerry [Meron] rips a backhand, and it's Mikey [running it down] and, I don't know if Beau was baiting him or now, and Mikey and Beau are going stride for stride, Mikey managed to run that thing down,” said Raina in reference to a play against the Empire in which Mike MacKenzie beat Kittredge to a disc deep. “Plays like that are a huge confidence boost, and it makes the other team, an eyebrow goes up, like, 'oh crap, this is now another facet of the game that maybe they didn't have before, and now we have to worry about it.'” 

Here’s a clip of the Toronto defence (in a club game) punching in a score last year. Observe how youngsters Tan, MacKenzie, and Huynh use their speed and cutting to dance around their opponents, the Winnipeg General Strike. 

Anchoring it all are veterans, such as Mark Lloyd and Bomber Powell. Lloyd is a foundational element of any offensive set on the D-Line, as capable airing out a flick huck to cutters downfield as he is chasing down a huck from a teammate. His size and speed mean he can get open at will for a reset or dump, and he has soft hands that will haul in anything thrown in his direction. Powell is another important playmaker in space or with the disc. Toronto has also played veteran Jeff Lindquist on the defensive side a fair amount this season, and his creative throwing offers another valuable injection of skill onto the athletically-gifted defensive offence. 

The Toronto defence thus far through the 2018 season has been one of the most dominant of the AUDL. Note that defensive efficiency is a measure of how many goals a D-Line scores compared with how many points it plays. Every team’s defensive efficiency is negative, as no team’s defence scores more points than the opposing offence; however, a number closer to zero reveals a defence that scores almost as many points as the opposing offence. 

 

  Ds per game  Defensive efficiency  Goals allowed per game  Opponent throws per goal  Opponent throwaways per game 
Number (league rank) 17.67 (4th most) -0.72 (4th  highest) 16.67 (4th fewest) 15.92 (3rd most) 25.3 (2nd most)

 

Those numbers in concert create some clear – and sweet-sounding – music. The Rush force their opponents to throw a monstrous number of passes per goal. This allows the Rush to use their athleticism to record a large number of blocks and force even more throwaways. The Rush defence is skilled after a turn, which allows them to score heaps of goals while holding their opponents to few. That’s the tune of good coaching and better execution. That’s the sound of the Toronto Rush defence.