Very few teams played a lot of zone defense in college lacrosse 10 years ago. Almost no D1 teams ran it the majority of the time, and only a handful of D2 and D3 teams were using it heavily. The general consensus was that outside shooters at the D1 level would be too much for a zone to handle. I have argued against this theory for a couple of years now, and it looks like the tide is finally turning, as more and more D1 teams are using some form of zone defense.
Photo Credit: Greg Vasil
This begs the question: Can your team beat a zone defense? It’s simply not the same as attacking a man-to-man scheme, so can your team beat the zone? It’s a question you’ll have to answer sooner or later.
Before we talk about the complexities of beating a zone defense, we need to talk about the principles of a zone defense, and the two most common forms of a zone defense.
Form 1 – The “3-3” Zone
The 3-3 basically creates six boxes on the field, and players are responsible for anyone who enters their box. If a defensive player does not have anyone in their area of the field, they crush down to the middle and help on the crease. Offensive players are usually passed on the outside, or doubled if they are dodging hard into another zone. Defensive players can switch zones as well. This is a very basic form of zone. It is usually used to sit back against teams that lack great outside shooters, and is more of a read and react type of defense. When most people have been talking about zone defense, this is often what they are referring to.
Form 2 – The “Backer” Zone
The Backer is similar to the 3-3 in some of the principles in that offensive players are passed from defender to defender on the perimeter. Players are still responsible for their zones, and can switch zones. You can sit back with this zone as well, but it’s structure allows for the defense to dictate more, and apply better pressure on ball.
This form of zone utilizes a 2-man crease system, where all coverage bubbles extend from the crease. There is a high and low crease man, and then two low post defenders. Each player in this lower diamond is responsible to get out and play any man in their bubble, but the primary concern is crowding the crease, back side looks, and passing lanes. With the backer zone, defenders will often stay on a man carrying from the wing to X, and then switch zones once the ball moves on. The two short sticks seem to be out on and island up top, but teams will either force guys down the wings, or they will actually force them to the middle and double with the longstick. The crease is already covered, and the only look is behind the offensive player. If he does make the pass, the D has time to reset.
The backer zone is complicated, and relies heavily on communication and comfort within the system. It often takes younger players a season or two to learn fully. But it allows for the defense to do a lot more, and put the offense in bad situations. It also possesses tempting soft spots, which allow offensive teams to take seemingly good shots from the outside. These soft spots are predictable, and teams who play this zone make sure their goalies see plenty of these predictable shots in practice.
The backer zone is an offensive defense. It makes things happen, and it is much harder to beat than a basic 3-3.
Beating The Zone, Finally
In order to beat a 3-3 zone, you can use a relatively simple 3-man overload on one side of the field. Put three players in a tight space on the wing, and have the ball carrier dodge into a double (he knows the double is coming). As he does this, the other two offensive player slip picks or cut, creating a quick 2 on 1. Move the ball, inside goal is all yours.
Another option is to dodge from up top with a midfielder and take the alley, as the defender comes up to meet you in the lower zone, roll back quickly and attack the middle of the field. Your other two middies have stayed up top. The middle midfielder cuts through to the crease, the midfielder on the far side cuts to the middle of the field, 12 yards out, receives a pass, keeps running, and scores.
The basic lesson is to create a double team, and then flood that area with two players and forced that defender to make a choice. Go with whatever option he decides against. To practice this, run three on threes in tight spaces. Make sure that your other three offensive players are staying “dangerous.” They should be threats to score to keep other defensive players from crashing over too hard.
Beating the Backer Zone is a little harder. You can overload a typical 3-3 zone for good inside looks, and decent shots from short distance. A skilled dodge to pass team with some shooters can have a field day. But a Backer Zone doesn’t allow for the overload quite as much, as two defensive players are more or less dedicated to the crease, sliding, and knocking down passes and people. As a defender, you don’t ever really get beat in a backer zone, the slide just comes from somewhere else, so you go with it. Doubles are good. And since the crease and backside are all jammed up, there is really only option… and that’s the far side.
If you can attack effectively from X, and draw not only the bottom crease man, but also the lower defender, the short stick DM on that side of the field is pulled down to the next attackman. The LSM is kept on the high crease, the other SSDM has to then split the top. If you also possess a good shooter or dodger from up top, the attackman gets a pass through (or more likely, over) the defense, and the midfielder has about 2-3 seconds to attack the cage without a great slide lined up.
This approach can work from the wing as well, but the look often switches from a wing to wing pass (similar to the X to middie pass laid out above) to a wing to wing to cutting high crease set of passes, as that LSM should fire out on an attackman getting topside on goal. It’s all about timing and patience, and the ability to attack one side of the field and quickly swing the ball to other side and then attack again. In the end, passing through a defense is harder than passing around the outside of the defense, and that is what makes the Backer Zone so effective.
If you can attack, pass through, and then attack again quickly, you can see success, but you have to practice this approach. Knowing what you’re going to do and being confident in your looks is key. If it isn’t there, pull it out and try again. If you rush shots, the zone is winning.
Are There Any Drawbacks?
At this point, you must be asking yourself why every college team doesn’t run a backer zone, and it’s a fair question… but this more complex zone scheme does indeed have its drawbacks. First off, it takes time to install and learn, and I am not talking about 2 months of preseason or fall ball here. I’m talking about 2 YEARS in many cases. It can literally take that long to figure out all the details (like I said, it’s more complex than I will explain here, but I’ll spare you the minutia for now), find the right personnel, and get all your players on the same page.
When we started off with it at Wesleyan over ten years ago, we had smart guys, but we did not get it right away, and we practiced it ALL THE TIME. We ran man a bit, but rarely. We were a zone team, and it still took us a while to really get the right way to play within the system. Players today at Wesleyan often take a year or two (or three) to really shine because the zone is that complex. And this scares a lot of programs away.
Other than that, I don’t honestly see many weaknesses. If you’ve got any ideas, throw them in the comments. I’m always interested in talking a little zone.
(Older posts on Zone Defense: The Honest Truth About Zone Defense In Lacrosse, Why Don’t Some People Understand Zone Defense In Lacrosse?, & Quint Still Doesn’t Understand Zone Defense)