Very few teams played a lot of zone defense in college lacrosse 10-15 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. The successful ones find a way to cut down significantly on deadly outside shots from the opposing offense.
Photo Credit: Greg Vasil
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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 a really good zone? It’s a question you’ll likely 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, centered around a low crease, 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, but remain responsible for players who enter their portion of the field.
Offensive players are usually passed from defender to defender on the outside, or doubled if they are dodging hard into another zone or the middle of the field. Defensive players can switch zones as well if they decided not to pass a certain player, or in a certain zone. This is a very basic form of zone. It is often used to sit back against teams that lack great outside shooters, and is more of a read and react type of defense. When people generally talk about zone defense, and how it’s not a great defense, this is often what they are referring to.
Form 2 – The “Backer” Zone 2-2-2
The Backer is similar to the 3-3 in some of the principles list out above. Offensive players are often 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 chevron 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. As you can see, it’s basically a 2-2-2 or a “box and 2” defensive set up.
The two short sticks seem to be out on and island up top, but teams will typically either force guys down the wings knowing that a low defender is ready to take on the dodging middie, or they will actually force them to the middle and double with the longstick from the high crease. The crease is already covered by the low and back side defender in that case, and the only open look is behind the offensive player. If he does make the pass, the D has time to reset. The key is that the D-mids get their opponents to go where they want them to every single time.
The backer zone is complicated, and relies heavily on communication, trust, and comfort within the system. It often takes younger players a season or two to learn fully, whereas the 3-3 is more simple, and easier to learn. 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.
Many offenses are tempted to shoot from 12-13 yards, and when they do so from the low angles arrows above, they have truly settled for a bad shot. When they shoot from the better angle arrows, they are getting an ok shot, but one that is score-able for many D1 players. The key here is to have a goalie who is great on outside set angle shots. The zone won’t give up much inside, but you need a keeper who can stop an outside rip or ten.
If you do posses this goalie, the backer zone becomes an offensive defense. It makes things happen in terms of turnovers, but can also lead to predictable shots, open outlet passes, and plenty of transition the other way. Oh, 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 to scoring space, creating a quick 2 on 1. Move the ball, and a goal from 5-9 yards out 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. This one is all about timing and making the first cutting middie a true threat so the second option opens.
The basic lesson is to create a double team, and then flood that area with two more players and force that third 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” so the backside can’t help. 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 both 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 dreaded far side, where all those sticks are jamming up the lanes.
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. Then the defense recovers, so this MUST be done with urgency.
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. Against a 3-3 outside ball movement works, against the backer you have to pass THROUGH the defense to get consistent chances.
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. Building the trust alone to run a good backer will take months.
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 find the right way to play within the system. Defensive 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 in an aggressive backer zone, and I’m surprised more D1 programs don’t run it. NY Tech won a ton of D2 titles running zone under Jack Kaley (it’s where Wesleyan got their zone as well), and if done right, it can work anywhere. If you’ve got any ideas, throw them in the comments. I’m always interested in talking a little zone.