Why Don’t Some People Understand Zone Defense In Lacrosse?

Shooting from a naturally occuring shooting gap.

I’m not sure most casual lacrosse fans truly understand how a great zone defense works in lacrosse.  It would be like me deeply understanding the benefits of a 1-3-5-1 formation in soccer.  I love soccer, but I don’t get it like I do lacrosse.  I’ve definitely never coached it before!  Consider that a zone defense in lacrosse is complicated, and for the past number of years, hasn’t been all that popular.  So most people haven’t even SEEN it that much.  If I hadn’t played at a University that used zone almost exclusively, and rode it to a couple D3 Final Fours, I probably wouldn’t have a great understanding either.  Add on to that the fact that the best zones can take a full year to install, and even longer to truly understand fluidly, and you have a recipe for curiosity, but also an opportunity for learning.

Jamie Munro recently took a stab at the zone defense on Inside Lacrosse, and I appreciate that he took the time to talk about the zone.  But to be honest, I’m still not convinced he really understands it.  Without a doubt, Munro nails a bunch of the talking points, but whiffs on a couple of the other ones.  90% ain’t good enough, because as anyone who has run a zone before can tell you, if you’re not doing it 100% (or at least 99.99%) right, it’s probably not worth doing.  The MOST important zone key is ATTENTION TO DETAIL!!!!!!  ATD.

Munro says that NCAA lax is just like the NFL in that it is a copycat league.  Teams see what other teams do, and then do it themselves.  This is pretty true.  So maybe we’ll see more teams try to run zone.  But to run a good zone defense, it takes a lot of time, so if schools aren’t installing the defense now (and correctly), I doubt we’ll see a lot of teams whip it out early in 2012.  If we do, we’ll also see those same teams lose a lot of games.  Like I said, if the zone isn’t tightly run, it will fail you.  So while I agree with Munro that more teams will try it, I don’t think that many teams will stick with it in the end.  I hope Quint doesn’t blast the zone whenever these teams are getting spanked, because he should be blasting the coaches for not practicing it enough.  But it’s always easier to blame schemes than people.  Especially people you have to talk to those people.  Or maybe not.  UVA ran it well, so maybe the pressure will be on the coaches now, and not the system.

Speaking of running the system correctly, Munro ALMOST skips over one of the biggest parts of a good zone defense, but does mention it ever so briefly.  The Team NEEDS a great goaltender.  Period.  If you think your goalie is great, or that he can at LEAST stop an open look from 12-13 yards, then you can consider a zone.  A little suspect between the pipes?  Stick to man.  And then some goalies like to just react.  They’re great for a pressing man defense and saving defenders on an island.  Others like to think a step ahead, figure out where the shot will come from and get set for it.  The latter is PERFECT for a zone defense.  You want a bunch of thinkers out there, and your goalie HAS to be one of them.  This is really personnel point #1 for any team considering a zone.

Munro then goes over why a zone can be effective.  Points 3 and 4 are pretty solid, but points 1 and 2 make almost no sense at all.  Points 3 and 4 are that by playing a zone more often, it helps you be better at it.  Solid.  And having the right “help D” personnel is key.  True.  But points 1 and 2?  Read them for yourselves and see if they make sense to you.

Point 1: so if a team runs their same offense, and it’s effective against a zone because it’s basically a zone offense, like Bucknell’s, who gets the little win?  Bucknell ran their offense, which is basically a zone offense, but Virginia won that battle?  The case he used to prove his point is the same one that falsifies it.  Bucknell put up POINTS!  When I played at Wesleyan and we played Middlebury, they didn’t really change their offense that much against us.  Why?  Because it already worked against a zone.  So did we “win” that battle by “forcing” them to play their own style of offense?  Not always.  These types of blanket statements can really get you in trouble, especially when you’re teaching something as complex as a zone.

Point 2: If a coach runs scripted plays that involve dodging and quick passing, this point falls apart completely.  Basically, Munro is saying the zone works if opposing coaches do what the defense wants them to do, which is isolate and dodge, or pass it around and shoot from the outside.    You want to dodge into an area where the zone overlaps, occupy two players and make a quick pass from there.  Okay, I guess that’s actually true when I explain it.  But I had to explain it because the original wording isn’t very precise. ATD.

Oh, and there was no mention of paying attention to detail.  That is still the most important aspect of an effective zone D.

Then we get to bullet 2, where Munro goes into some of the details on how to line up, responsibilities, passing of players, etc.  It’s not bad, but really doesn’t go deep enough to really teach you enough to think about running a zone.  You might watch a game next season and see a player passed on to a new defender, and say, “oh, they’re playing zone”.  So I guess that’s a start!  If you want to know more about the principles of a zone however, you can always check out my Honest Truth About Zone Defense post.  ATD.

But my real problem with this post on IL isn’t the lack of attention to detail.  It’s a quick hitter, so it’s going to miss some stuff.  My problem is the diagram they use to demonstrate how the positions work.  Observe:

Inside Lacrosse Zone defense graphic
Awfully boxy.

Each player is in his own rectangle.  No zone operate like that, not even remotely.  If they were trying to dumb it down, they made it too dumb, because the main point of overlapping zone responsibilities is lost.  As the offense shifts, the zone shifts.  And guys can’t be expected to be in these boxes.  Imagine a coach using that to teach his kids a zone D.  Then imagine the O goes into a tight 1-4-1 from the corner of the top of the restraining box.  If the players just stayed in their boxes, 2 D guys would be covering NO ONE, and 2 offensive players near the crease would be very open.  The responsibilities chart looks a little more like this:

zone defense home drawing
Sloppy, and hand drawn, but truer.

With this set up, any type of offensive set up can be covered, and it shows how and where players might pass the offensive players, and where they might carry them.  It’s less rigid and much more adaptable.  And this is one of about 10 different bubble alignments you could come up with.  This is basic, but the point is that these bubbles overlaps each other.  Sometimes 3 in one place.  It’s a key distinction.

The other thing it shows are what I like to call naturally occurring shooting gaps.  On both the right and left, both from up top, and on the sides, there are areas where offensive players can shoot from 13-15 yards relatively cleanly.  These exist naturally, and they are a by product of running a zone defense.  No one can cover a large square area.  But these bubbles are more realistic.  The zone basically gives these shots up to the other team.  But the great thing about this is that if you have a goalie who likes to think one step ahead, and prepare for a shot, then these are bread and butter saves.  A zone WANTS the offense to take these shots, because they know their goalie is prepared for it.  When the offense takes what you give them, THAT is when you’ve won.

Shooting from a naturally occuring shooting gap.

Photo courtesy Laxbuzz

I know I was a little hard on Jamie Munro in this post, and that wasn’t completely fair. He put his perspective out there for everyone to read, and I thank him for that.  But putting in a zone the right way isn’t like running a new play on man up, and it won’t work itself out.  You have to think about it, long and hard, and find the right way to run it with the group of guys you have.  A team of high lacrosse IQ guys may be able to take more risks in a zone, because they’re never truly on an island.  A team with great athletes must make sure they also are a team of great thinkers.  Teams that are used to “sliding” will need to get used to “passing”, doubling and still staying home.

Switching to a zone can be a tough transition, and there are a million places to lose ones way.  But by thinking it out, committing, and paying attention to ALL the little details, a zone defense in lacrosse can be very effective. And iIf teams work on it from day 1, and really think it through all the way, it might just be as popular an option as Munro thinks it could be.


  1. It’s very rare for player 5 (in your drawing) to have responsibilities behind or anywhere besides the crease for that matter. In most match-up zones, player 5 is the designated crease man and is responsible for ballside cutters. The remaining 5 players would share perimeter responsibilities with players 4 and 6 sharing duties behind the goal. Player 5 might occasionally come off the crease if the offense moves into some sort of circle or overload type of set. You’re right to draw the areas as overlapping, but player 5 has the most specific responsibilities in most zones. 

    • the bubble alignment I used, while not as popular as many other variations, was the simplest one I could think of.  You’re right, most 5s don’t have responsibilties behind the X.

      Funny that you would bring this up actually… the first year or two we ran zone at Wesleyan I played the 5 and had a bubble JUST like the one I drew above.  It was a really tough assignment to cover the crease, then get around the goal to cover X as the ball moved.

      Eventually we switched to either having a 4 or 6 carry the man to X (instead of passing him off to the 5, and then the 4, 5 and 6 could all flip flop and switch with each other.  It became a much more fluid defense, and harder to predict.

      Thanks for the great points!

    • zone and help defense principles can be taught at almost any age… but putting in a fulltime zone?  I probably wouldn’t start before HS.  Maybe teach it a bit at the JV level, but run man mostly, then play it at the varsity level…  just my $.02 on that one…

      • Conner… I’d like your thoughts on running a “backer” zone. We ran this years ago in HS over a decade ago. It was a hybrid of man to man and zone play.  It worked very well at that level at the time, but I rarely see it mentioned any more.

        Also, great job adding more strategy articles to the site.  I’m really liking it. You’re bringing the entire lax community up.

        • Thanks for the kind words Vin!
          I like the backer, and there are numerous effective ways to run it.
          We used to run two shorties at the 1 and 3 spots and sink our 2 guy a bit lower.  Probably 10-12 yards.  Then the shorties in our 1s and 3s woudl actually give the guys in their zones the inside dodging lane… which forced them right into our aggressive 2, which was played by our LSM.

          It’s less of a backer actually, and more of a “doubling zone” but the slides or doubles are similar.  In this case though, we weren’t waiting for our men to get beat and then sliding with the backer, we were getting beat on purpose to push guys into takeaway opportunities.

          This allignment can be shifted to take on dodgers from anywhere, but the only real change is when a guy dodges from X, and here’s why:
          When you double in the front, you leave someone open.  This is usually the X guy.  The pass from up top to X is tough to make, and the X guy isn’t instantly at threat to score, so you get a second to recover.  However, when the dodge comes from X, the skip pass up top can be tough.  Bryan Griffin at Tufts was a MASTER of the floating skip pass to a middie up top as the double came.  And that is where a pure backer gets dicey.  Invert your middies, put your shooters up top and make good passes.  It’s that easy to beat, once another team figures that out.

  2. Connor,

    Again excellent points on running a no BS effective zone. What are your thoughts on the new NFHS rules for field ball this spring? http://www.nfhs.org/content.aspx?id=5604

    They claim that, “This change
    allows teams to run their offense more efficiently and simplifies the
    requirements for officials,”. While that may be true, I personally think that what they have done is just allowed the defense to “pack it in” on a tight zone set up thus hoping outside shots that goalies favor to stop. Another way I view this a poor man’s way of implementing a long shot clock as the “stalling” call will be less likely to be called. “Regarding
    stalling, the committee revised Rule 6-10-2 to state that the warning
    will be
    made when, in the judgment of the officials, a team in  possession of the
    is keeping the ball from play by not attacking the goal. The phrase “in
    judgment of the officials” was used to replace the former term
    “obvious.”. So by trying to ease the burden on the officials by not having one of them count to ten, they have essentially given them a personal “shot clock” by letting the Refs dictate the pace of the game. Si or No?

    How does all of this relate to this article? Ehh, I think that because of these changes, you are going to see a bunch of zone defense being implemented at the high school level this spring and with it more specific set plays on offense. Sounds like just one more step closer to basketball if you ask me… Perhaps a full article on this?

    Cherrs Bru,


  3. Good article Connor. I used to love running zone in college because it was a nice changeup to the Tierney influenced Slide, Rotate, Recover that emerged in the late 90’s.

    We ran almose exclusively a zone in H.S. and it had a ton of pressure on the wings, at x, and top center. It tried to force everyone to x. It was tons of fun to play if you were a wing defenseman.

    But mostly this article reminds me of the best zone d I have ever seen and that was the one Ward melville was running in the late 90’s. I am not sure if they still run it and if they don’t when they stopped. But they ran a backer zone that pressed out on the adjacents and would double the ball all over the field. I have been told this was adapted from Jack Kaley’s D that he ran at NYIT. It was nearly impossible to beat and some big time defenseman were assigned as the backer throughout the years. Grasso (brown) and Passavia (umd) are two that come to mind. But like you said this was not a junk D that Cuozzo and the fellas threw together. It was something that they tought at a very young age and coached it all the way up throughout the program. Their players knew the ins and outs of it as good as the coaches. The chemistry was almost overshadowed by the aggresivness of it but it sure was something of beauty.