Monday, October 26, 2009

The Vertical Stack

The current trend is to play horizontal. Do you know why?


Without a proper understanding of the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of a particular offensive set, offensive players will not be able to maximize efficiency and defensive players will not be able to achieve their potential. At the beginning of the season when I am explaining plays to my club team, I always preface the explanation with the underpinnings of why we are employing a specific offensive structure (e.g. vertical, flood, split, horizontal, iso, etc...).

I don't have a full understanding of the vertical stack, but I do know a thing or two. The purpose of this article is to examine the vertical stack: its advantages, its disadvantages, and the trend that has led our sport to near universal adoption of the horizontal stack. 

Once upon a time everyone waged war with the same weapon: the vert. Usually the distribution of players sees two handlers back with five cutters in the stack. The 'top' of the stack (i.e. the person on whom the stack is set) is the third handler who can come back and help if need be. 

The Advantages

The vertical creates two clear lanes on the field, namely either side of the stack. The cutters isolate themselves on one of the sides, typically making long, pounding cuts ('V' cuts). Successive, well-times V cuts create flow up one side of the field. 

If this flow is on the force side, the disc will eventually end up on the sideline. At this point, the disc is swung to the middle. Rinse and repeat.

If the break comes out, all the defenders are out of place and the field should be shredded up the break side.

The vert is good for isolating players. It is hard to poach in the vert because your man can easily slip to an open space and burn you. 

The vert certainly facilitates the long bomb, but I would argue that it is more of an in-cut offence. The one place players always cheat is at the back of the stack where the defensive player will customarily 'cap' the stack (i.e. stand behind his man on the open side to provide help should there be a deep look). As such, going deep usually requires the back of the stack to be in motion, negating the defensive player's positional advantage. That being said, the very structure of the vert (a deep line of players extending towards the endzone) makes the deep look that much harder. 

I think the vert is particularly amenable to set plays. The players are more spaced out. The throwers have clean lanes to work with. As mentioned, it is hard to poach. 

One problem with set plays is that they tend to take longer to materialize because players are so spaced out. This allows the defense more time to adjust. 

The Disadvantages

If your team cannot break the mark well, the vert will be tough to run well. Think about one of the primary advantages of this formation: you have two clear throwing lanes. If you can't get the disc to the break side of the field (i.e. 50% of the throwing lanes), you are going to get stuck on the sideline - a lot. There aren't a lot of places where the disc can go in  a vert, so the defense (and marks) have the potential to be more effective in controlling the location of the disc. This can be problematic.

The deep shot is not always available in this formation. Not everyone is a threat to strike at any given moment (as they are in the horizontal), and the defense knows this. 

In the vert there are only two handlers back. The means the reset can be more problematic if the primary dump is shut down. 

As plays tend to take longer to materialize, and the primary option is often isolated, the defence can read the offence more effectively.

I think the combination of improved marks (and defensive play in general) resulting in offenses getting stuck on the openside sideline led people to rethink their formations. It is hard to speak about the vertical stack without comparing it to the horizontal, which, in my opinion, provides a far more dynamic offensive structure. But I will leave the horizontal for another post. 

Writing this article makes me realize how little I know about this offence. The way my teams have traditionally used the vert is to execute a set play, then to morph into horizontal once the play is completed (or abandoned). My teams almost never stay in the vert for the whole field. 

From what I remember, JAM still relies heavily on the vert. Not only are they reigning UPA Champs, but I believe they have been in the semis or finals each of the last ten years. Coincidence?

I think that it is a huge disadvantage to remain ignorant of the vertical stack. There are many top teams that have used this formation to succeed at the highest levels (JAM, DoG, and Sockeye to name a few). The vertical is far from a lost art, but it's moving in that direction. If you don't understand it, you can't take advantage of it or defend against it. 

A last note: the vert is much better than the horizontal for players who are not very experienced. This is simply because it avoids having people scattered all over the field. It creates two clear lanes for players to cut and thrown in. 

those are some of my thoughts.



  1. > the vert is much better than the horizontal for players who are not very experienced... It creates two clear lanes for players to cut and thrown in.

    With the caveat that most of your inexperienced players can't break the mark. But their opponents' inexperienced defenders probably can't defend the basic in-cut either.

    Anyway, I'm switching the low-level college team I coach from vert, which I coached last year, to ho. It's too early to tell how it's working out, but early returns are positive.

  2. Good point about the caveat BM - I say that the vert is better because these players usually cannot properly hold the force, so you don't really need to actively break the mark.

  3. Also the yardage gain on an in-cut with a poor setup is probably greater on average with a vert than with a ho... I need to stop coming up with arguments for it before I decide it was a bad choice to switch.

  4. If played right with patient cutters, working off of a specific goal, i.e. wait for the give go to set your first cut, or with the third handler just waiting for the break-side continuation, then vert stack can be used really effectively. It opens up the deep bomb, the under, and getting the disc back to the middle at the same time. Ho-stack, when played by inexperienced teams, can clog up quite a bit if you do a good job taking away the open side as a defense.