Spike Malangone Wesleyan Lacrosse MLL Draft
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The Honest Truth About Zone Defense In Lacrosse

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  People are still bandying about, with outdated theories, and I’m here to set the record straight.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.