Playing Against Zone Defenses
The popularity of zone defenses in high school and college lacrosse has increased considerably in the last few years. Lacrosse coaches across the country have started ditching the traditional man-to-man defense, opting instead for a zone, which can leave offenses scratching their heads. There are various strategic reasons for using a zone defense. Perhaps the coach feels as if his or her players are not ready or equipped to play man-to-man defense, or maybe it's an attempt to neutralize a team with a notoriously strong set of individual players on offense. It can eliminate the threat of mismatches as offensive players dodge and buzz around. It's important as an offensive player to understand effective play against a zone defense, so CoachUp has put together some tips on beating it.
Attack the Corners + Spaces
The best way to break down a zone is to make two defenders play one offensive man. In order to do this, you have to penetrate the defense. So, try dodging at the corners of the zone, this will allow you to draw an extra defender without getting caught in the middle of a collapsing defense. Another way to attract a second defender is to attack the open spaces of the zone. Every zone has gaps and spaces between each defender’s assigned area.
Dodging or stepping into those gaps can create confusion and indecision within the defense. By attacking those spaces you'll inevitably draw two defenders, even if it’s just for a second. In that moment, the zone is compromised and you should be able to move the ball quickly to an open man in one or two passes. The windows of opportunity are small against a good zone, so it’s important to keep your head and eyes up when you have the ball. If you feel a second defender shadowing you, find the open man and hit him.
Another great way to exploit the gaps and weaknesses of a zone is to overload one side of the field. The extra offensive presence will force the defense to compensate and shift their zone to that side of the field. When the defense does this, find the skip lanes and move the ball to the backside for more open space and the possibility for a quick dodge or shot. If you do run an overload offense, make sure to keep your spacing consistent. Too many players on one half of the field can get crowded, so make sure to keep space between you and your teammates or you’ll make the defense’s job a lot easier.
This should come as no surprise, but this is the most important thing to do against a zone. The easiest thing for a zone to defend is a stagnant offense, so get moving! Cut, pick, do anything to make the defense move, shuffle, and think twice about their actions. Quickly recognize that you’re playing against a zone defense, call it out to your teammates, and play accordingly.
Attacking the gaps isn’t only reserved for the man with the ball, either! Off-ball players should work to find the seams and spaces in the zone and cut into them – you’ll be open a lot of the time. Then, you'll get receive a pass in a good position to shoot, or it'll suck the defense in long enough to give to the handler or another cut elsewhere on the field. These movements, even if they don't amount tons tangible results, will cause confusion for the defense. At the very least, you've caused the defense to react and rotate to your movement, pulling them out of shape and breaking their zone down. Off-ball movement is the most dangerous weapon an offense has against a good zone defense, so get moving.
Zone defenses try to encourage outside shots, so time and time again, you’ll be invited to take a 15-yard time and room shot. While it may seem promising, that is the exact the shot the defense wants you to take. Think about it in context of other sports -- zones in basketball force three-point shots or long mid-range efforts; and soccer players will gladly allow shots from outside the eighteen-yard box any day of the week. Don’t succumb -- that is an incredibly low percentage shot. Resist the temptation, take your time, and work to get a higher percentage shot. A zone can slow an offense down, but if you're methodical and patient enough, an easy, open opportunity will become available eventually, we promise! A doorstep opportunity will present itself if you work the ball around crisply and move appropriately off-ball.
(Related: Read about being a complete two-way midfielder here.)
The most important thing to remember is that beating a zone is not a battle of brawn but of brains. You'll have to be smart and manipulative if you want to consistently score against a good zone defense in lacrosse. Find the gaps, time your cuts accordingly, and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. It may seem slow and unnerving at first, but stick with it, you time will come.
However, if you're still struggling as an individual on offense against a zone defense, consider booking one of CoachUp's private trainers to help you out. Our expert-level team will have you reading the defense, looking for gaps and space, and breaking down even the fiercest of defenses in no time. What are you waiting for?