March 23, 2016
Nobody gets to the middle of the field as well as Florida's Kieran McArdle, says Joe Keegan. (Bill Danielewski)
Nobody gets to the middle of the field as well as Florida's Kieran McArdle, says Joe Keegan. (Bill Danielewski)

Keegan By the Numbers: Diving Into the Wing Dodge

by Joe Keegan | | Twitter

Over the course of a Major League Lacrosse season, leaning on one form of initiation is not a viable strategy. Even the most efficient offenses lack the ability to win the same matchup repeatedly. Different personnel and increasing access to game film will cause certain defenses to snuff out that initial attack better than others. When that happens, the offense that manages to locate mismatches elsewhere on the field will prevail.

In college and high school, many offenses go through similar progressions.

Before putting the ball in a playmaker's stick, they will work cat-and-mouse games in substitution to create numbers advantages. Next, most will use big-little picks to draw switches when their elite attackman is losing his matchup. If that fails, then a midfielder might drag a short-stick behind the cage for an invert.

Those tertiary forms of initiation are too time-consuming for MLL and its 60-second shot clock. In reality, that clock leaves offenses with just 40 or 45 seconds after substitutions.

Conveniently, another MLL rule — the crease dive — has made wing dodges an appealing alternative in offensive progressions. Already a popular place to exploit short-stick matchups in the collegiate game, the wing's increased versatility in MLL explains its emergence as the bread and butter of the Charlotte Hounds and Florida Launch offenses. For other teams, it's a Red Bull vodka when the offense needs a boost late in the game.

From the Chesapeake Bayhawks' Joe Walters to Jordan MacIntosh of the Rochester Rattlers to New York's Dave Lawson, almost every team has a player who can break a defense down from this area.

Slide and recovery rules are almost standard across the sport against dodges from the top of the box or from behind the cage. However, every defense seems to have found its own (unsuccessful) method for slowing down wing dodges.

"I feel like it puts the defense in a bind of where they're going to slide from," said Chesapeake Bayhawks assistant coach Tom Mariano. "Do we slide from X? Do we slide from the crease?"

A second of indecision by help defenders leaves a teammate on an island with Kieran McArdle for a second too long. As a MLL sophomore with the Florida Launch, McArdle built off his impressive 2014 Rookie of the Year campaign. He shot 38.2 percent with his dominant left hand while putting All-Star defenders on highlight tapes for all the wrong reasons.

Nobody gets to the middle of the field as well as McArdle. Flawless footwork is required to force him out. Get caught lunging while throwing your check, and he'll slip underneath onto the inside track.

Cutting the field in half is the first step for a defenseman to win a matchup. Driving a dodger below goal-line extended on that underneath move is what defensemen are taught to do from a young age. That would be solid defense from Jesse Bernhardt in college or high school, where crease dives are not allowed. However, MLL rules make it nearly impossible to cut the field in half from the wing.

In MLL, defenders are expected to deny top-side and shut the door on crease dive opportunities. That's unfair. Unassisted shots off wing dodges fill the net 27.8 percent of the time — more than unassisted dodges from X (27.1) or up top (22.5). Given the agility of guys like the Bayhawks' Matt Mackrides, who can throw it in reverse and redodge a recklessly approaching slide, those numbers aren't surprising.

The numbers skyrocket when you throw a picker into the equation.

Shooters made 41.5 percent of unassisted looks off two-man games on the wing; it's one of the best looks you can generate in the six-on-six. Even soft pick-and-roll games on the wing can spice up the spacing and dictate defenses into uncomfortable sliding situations.

"I know it was helpful for us to have Rob [Pannell] back there at X, because teams are a little slow to go off him," said New York Lizards associate head coach Keith Cromwell.

Pannell's gravity is on display in this next clip. His defender, Michael Evans, has no intentions of sliding or even hedging. Dan Burns is left alone with JoJo Marasco, who outmuscled short-sticks on the low wing all summer.

"JoJo was either finishing or he was getting tackled into the crease," said Cromwell.

Matt Gibson's equal but opposite gravity on the other adjacent defender plays a huge role as well. Alongside a less dynamic teammate, Marasco might not have as much time to work against Burns.

"One of the things that hurt [Joey Sankey] last year was that we didn't have a strong left-handed presence over him there," said Charlotte Hounds general manager Mike Cerino. "It was so much easier to double down on him and take away the top-side dodge. That forces him underneath and makes him more one-dimensional."

Feeding from the wing is difficult. Shooters buried just 27.6 percent of one-pass, wing-initiated shots. Crashing down with an adjacent defender forces dodgers either to make a pull-pass with their off-hand or to take a wide roll-back and, in turn, provide the defense with precious recovery time. Even the most lethal and respected wing attacks, like Will Manny and Kevin Buchanan's two-man games, can't rely on a defense to lose a finisher like Davey Emala for this long.

That's the major downside to wing dodges. The angle of attack leaves little room to bounce or free hands for a pass. The tenacious, pedal-to-the-floor mentality which makes Marasco, Mackrides and company such effective goal scorers from this area is exactly what sends them head-first, full-speed into slides.

Late in the shot clock, wing dodges are excellent options for any team. Sankey, McArdle, Manny and Denver Outlaws rookie Matt Kavanagh are too creative as dodgers to keep off-ball until late in the shot clock, though. For these dodges to have upside, they need an escape route or a way to keep the ball spinning.

The supporting cast must make help defenders second-guess sliding and swallowing a wing dodge — like Pannell and Gibson do for Marasco. McArdle and Manny have found pick-and-roll chemistry with Steven Brooks and Buchanan, respectively; it shouldn't take long for Kavanagh to find that with John Grant Jr.

The Hounds' offseason was spent assembling the pieces to the puzzle around Sankey. Draftees Dylan Donahue (Syracuse), Nick Doktor (Penn) and Joe Radin (Marist) are all left-handed, which will help alleviate the pressure Sankey felt in 2015. Midfielder Garrett Thul could serve as a Gibson- or Buchanan-esque north pole. A healthier environment can turn Sankey, who had 11 assists and 26 turnovers as a rookie, into the playmaker that Charlotte needs him to be. It's not that Sankey lacks the vision or decision-making to run an offense in MLL; he had 38 assists and just 34 turnovers as a senior at UNC.

Manufacturing goals in MLL can be complicated. It's not as simple as putting the ball in your best attackman's crosse and watching him work. Shutdown cover guys like Tucker Durkin, Joe Fletcher and Mike Manley can win that matchup on any given day. Sometimes, you need to get creative. With the right spacing and personnel, wing dodges can be instant, just-add-hot-water offense.

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