The Honest Truth About Zone Defense In Lacrosse

Spike Malangone Wesleyan Lacrosse MLL Draft
2009 NCAA D3 Defender of the year, Spike Malangone

I have heard more straight up nonsense about using a zone defense in lacrosse than I care to remember.  And foolishly, I thought that because a number of D1 teams were using the zone more, both this year and last, more lacrosse people might actually start to understand how a zone really operates.  And maybe even how to beat one!  So far, this has not been the case.  People are still bandying about, with outdated theories, and I’m here to set the record straight.

I was at Wesleyan when we decided to install a zone, and as a 4 year starter on defense and a 2 year assistant coach, I saw just how the zone evolved, how it could be used, and what the drawbacks were.  I played against a great zone D when we scrimmaged NY Tech every year.  I feel pretty comfortable in a good zone.

Right now, most teams run a pretty basic zone, and in order to help their players understand it, the teams often don’t press as much as they do in man.  This says nothing about the zone, and only speaks to the abilities of the players and coaches using the zone in that instance.  Their approach is like having a crease slide, but no 2 slide… it’s a partial defense at best, that is being used to try to make up for shortcomings.  And it’s boring to watch because it’s timid.  But when done right, the zone can be exciting AND effective.  So I’m going to help these guys out a bit and bust some myths and drop some knowledge.

Quint Kessenich tries to break down the zone over on Inside Lacrosse and he definitely inspired me to write this.  While he finally admits that a zone can be effective at the D1 level (after saying for YEARS that a zone wouldn’t work in D1 lacrosse. Seriously, YEARS.), he still doesn’t seem to really understand the benefits of the zone… and he definitely doesn’t understand how to beat one.  Of course, it doesn’t seem like Paul Rabil has much of a clue either.  Even some of the coaches that use the zone, and are quoted in his article, seem to miss the point.  So it’s not uncommon.

I’ll try my best to explain this complicated but effective defense in theory, and in order to do so, I’ll dispell some rumors and false assertions and then tell you how it really is.

Zone defense is great when you have smart, but less athletic players: Not really true.  Players do need to be smart.  That is definitely true.  But less athletic?  No way.  A good zone presses out (even behind the cage!) and the ability to be inside helping and then get out to cover a man passing through your zone requires both top level conditioning and a lot of athletic ability.  Because of the help requirements a zone places on every defender, the average distance to get out to cover a man is actually further.  So you really need MORE athletic players to run a great zone consistently.

Spike Malangone Wesleyan Lacrosse MLL Draft
2009 NCAA D3 Defender of the year, Spike Malangone

Zone defense in lacrosse is similar to basketball:  Yes, basketball was invented by a lacrosse player.  And yes, one on one defense in both sports is similar, in that you play it primarily with your feet.  Other than that, there are simply way too many differences between the two sports for this comparison to be at all relevant.

Basketball is soft, you can’t really play that physically on defense.  There is no goalie, so zone busting shooters are actually effective (even if American players can’t shoot the rock for $#%& anymore).  The floor is also very small compared to a lacrosse field, so making a zone D illegal in the NBA makes sense.  The importance of every goal in a lacrosse game is measurable.  Many baskets in a game mean almost nothing, especially when the total points scored verges on 200 points or more.  Basketball is a great training tool for lacrosse, but theory doesn’t translate perfectly from one to the other.  I think people need to be more careful with that and look deeper.

Here is one example:  the drive and dish approach.  Drive and dish in basketball and get a great open shot.  Perfect.  Drive and dish in lacrosse and you get an open shot the goalie is expecting, that the defensive team WANTS to give up.  In basketball, you’re winning.  In lacrosse, you’re doing what the other teams wants.

Zone defenses slow down the game of lacrosse:  I couldn’t disagree with this statement more.  The game of lacrosse has been slowed down by ONE thing and one thing only… COACHES.  They are the reason for 3 minute offensive possessions that result in 2 wing dodges by a middie on a shortie, and one shot over the cage.  This is not the fault of the zone defense.  I can say this because this type of O existed LONG before zone D became more popular.  And this is a HUGE miss by Quint that really demonstrates his lack of zone understanding.  There have been 5-4 games with both teams playing man long before zone defenses became popular.  It’s coaching.

Now, the slow down of lacrosse can be traced to the narrow sticks as well, but in the end it comes down to coaching.  Shamel Bratton carrying the ball for a minute, then pulling it out, dodging, shooting and then repeating is not fast lacrosse.  He can do it because of the stick technology.  He DOES do it, because Starsia wants him to.  It has nothing to do with the defense and it rests with the coaches.  Quint needs to realize this.  Until he does, he’s just making excuses.

But what is fast lacrosse anyway?  To me, it’s run and gun, transition heavy, lots of passing and lots of goals.

So because a zone defense can be so effective in 6 on 6, a team playing zone actually encourages the other team to push more transition.  To me, this speeds up the game of lacrosse.  If coaches aren’t willing to push transition, even though that’s where the opportunities are, it is once again THEIR fault, and not the fault of the zone.  It’s easy to blame an inanimate concept over people… but that’s the cheap way out.

Quint even uses a Tierney quote to illustrate how a zone slows the game, “Zone defense has its flaws.  The flaws exist inside on the crease or with a lack of pressure behind. How do the zones rotate when they are forced to shift?”  and then Quint goes on to say that the zone is creating a “slow death”.  Um, what?  Tierney JUST SAID his zone suffers from a lack of pressure at X and allows for crease looks.  How is that slow death?  To me it seems like ripe pickings!  I know Quint hates the zone, but this is getting ridiculous.

Simply switching to a zone is a good, quick way to change things up: This is ONLY true if a) your team is prepared to run a zone effectively and b) the other team didn’t prepare for the zone.  If you can run an effective zone, you get some benefit from switching it up.  No doubt there.  But the main benefit of using it is that you can play good defense… not that you are switching it up for the sake of making a change.  If the other team has prepared to break a zone, switching it up does little for you.  Just be prepared to play good D.  It’s much more simple than how it’s painted by coaches in the IL article.

You give other teams different looks… this is Coaching 101.  You use a zone as one of those other looks, if you can run it well.  Simply switching to a zone for a change of pace is NOT a convincing argument.  The reason you do it, is because you’re actually GOOD at it.

You beat a zone with ball movement and forcing the defense to rotate or dodging gaps and forcing doubles, then moving the ball: False.  Simply moving the ball will NOT force a good defense to leave their zones and rotate.  A good zone D will move together seamlessly and this ball movement around the outside will do nothing.  Dodging the gap  and THEN moving the ball to find a backside look is a better start and starting to get on the right track, but again, not completely accurate.

The key to beating a zone is getting two players to play one player, Paul Rabil is right about that.  But by simply moving the ball to the next man in the offense, you allow the D to recover.  The more passes you make after the double comes, the greater chance the D can recover.

And the answer is not a simple overload either.  A zone can easily shift to cover this, and more outside players may result in more 12-15 yard shots, but the zone wants to give that up.  Take that shot.  They want you to.  The goalie knows it’s coming and that brings me to one point that Quint nails… you need to have a good goalie.  But isn’t that true of any great defense?  It is?  Moving on…  Overloading the inside also doesn’t work as the zone can crumple in, and like I said earlier, explode out to cover when needed.  So what can you do to beat a zone?

Play 3-man games.  It’s almost like a timed or delayed small overload.  Here’s one way to run it from a 3-1-2 set.  The two-man game starts it out as one defender extends to cover at top right.  The offensive player carries the ball towards another zone (side right) and as the pole comes to receive the player into his zone on the defensive pass, a soft or false pick can be set by the bottom right O player, who then quickly flushes to the goal, receives a pass, expects the low crease slide and moves the ball to the cutting crease player who gets the inside look.  If the LSM, who usually plays the top crease middle slot comes down to cover, the crease player must find a cutting top middie with a feed.  Either way, this results in a 5-8 yard shot off of a pass.  If your team is practicing box lacrosse skills, they’ll be better prepared.

If you can’t pass and time your cuts, you won’t beat the zone.  Man to man defense relies solely on defensive footspeed.  It can be beaten with better offensive footspeed, shooting from unexpected places or crisp passing.  A zone defense uses the footspeed of the team, but increases its effectiveness, AND limits outside shooting, so the only way to consistently get good looks is by crisp passing and inside movement.  Ball movement on the outside may result in a couple good dodging opportunities, but a team will be lucky to put up 8 goals that way.

I’m happy that Quint has given up on the idea that a zone defense isn’t effective at the D1 level, the next step is truly understanding how it works.

A good zone D looks like man, an aggressive doubling man that presses out and forces the O into lanes.  On an average week, I can’t tell you how many people say “wow, why was Wesleyan playing so much man?” on the Laxpower forums and I can’t tell you how many of them are wrong.  To the untrained eye, it looks like man.  And sometimes there may even be elements of man in the zone, but it’s a zone defense.

The key is passing non-dangerous players to a new defender once they leave their current zone location.  This changes the entire look of the defense and forces the offensive players to reset their looks.  So like I said above, unless you have predetermined pass option package installed, simply moving the ball is not effective as the looks continue to change.  Forcing the zone to move is not enough.  You must force the zone to expand and then get inside because this changes the zone “passing” of offensive players into sliding.  And this is where you find uneven offensive opportunities.

A zone passes players as they move around the perimeter, and inside, of the set.  Certain players may not be passed if a particular defender matches up with them well.  When this happens, the rest of the zone simply switch positions and it becomes level again once that particular player moves the ball on.  A defender’s responsibility is an area, and therefore they have to recognize each player on the field that could possibly get a look in their zone.  They are responsible for every player that could get a look in their zone.  This mindset is 100% different from man to man where you have one responsibility and “help” somewhere else.  That is predictable.  The zone is fluid.

So as I demonstrated above with dodge, pick, pass, pass sequence above, to beat a zone you must make a player commit to a choice and induce a slide as opposed to an intentional pass.  Getting two players to cover one is a first step, re-engaging the zone in its weakest area (the part you are already attacking) is the next key.  Timing, preparation, precise passing and heads up play will get your team the furthest on offense.


  1. Nothing like taking the big ones on-head on, Quint, Paul Rabbi, coach Starsia etc. At least from the article I can rationalize my difficulty in recognizing a zone. I tend to think of a zone as a packed in defense, but obviously it is much more that that when played well. At the MCLA level, I have seen several occasions, when the defensive team tries to switch into a zone and gets burned before they are reorganized.

    It seems to me that one of the things slowing down the game is switching almost all the midfield between defense and offense. Clear the ball, call yellow and wait as players shuffle in an out.

    Great article, keep them coming.

      • Lots of thoughts on this, especially, since our base defense in HS was a zone. However, we were far from timid, and coached (in my humble opinion) by two of the best coaches around. Connor, you are completely right about the athleticism of the athletes playing. A truly affective zone pressures the ball – to an established perimeter – and forces each player to move in sync. “Zone” means you are playing good defense in whichever “zone” that you happen to be in at any particular time during the posession. It doesn’t mean that you’re sitting back waiting for things to happen. You also MUST be able to play good man-to-man defense in order to be able to play a zone defense. That’s both on and off ball. If you can’t you are going to get beat for goals all over the place.

        As for the slow down of the game … yes, sticks have plenty to do with that (which I noticed after watching the 1st half of Quint and Petro vs Gait and Gait in the ’89 NCAA Championship ( The ball is dislodged a lot less frequently these days. But the biggest difference is still the death of the 2 way middie. There are now so many more great athletes playing lacrosse. Unfortunately, we now take a an athlete in high school that’s a 6’1 190, fast, and strong, and say you’ll make a great defensive middie. And he does. And he’s a shut down guy, with a deeeecent stick. Well, a college takes a chance on said player and thinking the exact same thing. Great. Shuts people down, but is either a liability on offense, or just not as good as the 5’10 175 kid that can pick corners (but usually cannot play a lick of defense). There are a lot less clean breaks, etc. these days. So now we have to waste time getting him off the field. Even once the ball is settled, you always see the cat and mouse game with the pole/d middie and the offensive middie. Between that and the general substituting, the game is tremendously slower.

        This is also the reason you see so many players changing positions once they get to the collegiate level. There are lots of kids that come into college, having been great scorers at the HS level. All of a sudden, there are plenty of other players that can handle and shoot and go by somebody, leaving said player as the odd man out. But because he’s too much of an athlete to not be on the field, he gets turned into a d middie. Happens to attackmen and middies. Same thing from college to pro.

        That was a lot longer than I anticipated, so I’ll stop.

        • btw … that also applies (as I mentioned briefly) the other way around. There are kids that can put the ball in the net, but NEVER learn to play defense in high school. So when they get to college, they have to get off the field as soon as the ball is lost, or there’s probably going to be a goal as a result of something that they did/n’t do.

          • some great points! all-around players seem less and less common in college AND even in HS. I personally think more players will be coached differently as teams and HCoaches realize specialization only gets you so far!

  2. “Zone defense is great when you have smart, but less athletic players”

    This is soooooo true and I can’t thank you enough for pointing it out! As a coach teaching a zone, the biggest problem you often see is kids believe the zone allows them to conserve energy and stay in one spot, when in actuality a zone forces the individual players to work harder both mentally and physically, playing defense in a more “offensive” fashion.

    Great stuff Connor!

  3. First off, I really enjoy articles like this that analyze the game. Usually Quint is the only one doing these, so it’s nice to get a different viewpoint. That said, I don’t totally agree with some of the points above. 1) If you have smart AND athletic players you can run a good man to man defense, as well as a good zone. The zone allows you to compensate for maybe one or two guys within your defensive group who might be outmatched by the guy they’re playing. Smart, less athletic guys can be great crease guys in a zone and they can still play a role even if they aren’t the best one on one d-man. 2) Playing zone doesn’t slow the game down necessarily, but it certainly changes the mindset at both ends of the field. If my defense is running zone, my offense might not see the ball for 2-3 minutes. If we don’t get a clean break out of our defensive end, do you think I want my guys rushing to shoot as quick as possible? No thanks. This comes into play especially if you’re not having a great day at the face-off x. If I’m only going to get 4-5 possessions in a quarter because my zone is holding strong for a few minutes at a time, you’re damn right we’re going to be more deliberate when the ball is with our offense. I guess that’s it. I also don’t think Quint was actually suggesting that simply moving the ball around will beat a zone, but that’s just me. Like I said, I really enjoy analytical articles like this one, whether I fully agree with you or not. Keep on writing….

  4. Connor I’m buying you a beer if we ever meet! Excellent work man.

     I had the privilege to run this same type of zone when I was in high school from a very non traditional defensive coach. I remember the other coaches not even understanding what he was teaching us in practice and questioning his logic. They where angry with him for disrupting the pace of practice and the slow stand around walk throughs over and over again. I should mention that we had run a man to man and a “basic” zone before this. Like UVA this past year we made a switch to this mid season. We came in everyday over the Easter break except Sunday to learn how to implement this properly. It took a whole week+ to get it into our heads and we were still refining it til the end of the season. Unlike UVA we made this switch not out of necessity, but as an upgrade. You see our defensive coach saw how rapidly our goalie was developing and how astonishing save percentage was for shots outside of 10 yards(keep in mind high school ball). He also saw how fast learners we where and had confidence in us to learn it. But it was the COACH who really made it happen. He was an excellent communicator and knew how to talk to young men to get our brains engaged and motivate us.

    From the game we implemented it in we went undefeated for the rest of the season until the championship game which we lost by 2 goals. We noticed a 50% or greater decrease in goals against us from running this type of dee. It should be noted that this particular coach just happens to be Doug Carl,  VP of Eligibility for the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association(MCLA). I see my old Dee coach has come a long way from his time spent on a swampy youth club lax field in the mid 90’s.