Zone Defense is different from man-to-man defense in that instead of guarding a particular player each zone defender is responsible for guarding an area or "zone" and any offensive player that comes into that area.
Zone defenders move their position on the field in relationship to where the ball moves. Zone Defense is often effective in stopping penetration and 1v1 moves because as a ball carrier dodges he makes his way into more zones and encounters more defenders. Zone tends to make slides more simple for defenders to learn and is very effective for promoting team defense. Zone Defense also helps defenders recognize and block passing lanes since they are more concerned about positioning and relation to teammates than with chasing an opponent around the field.
Tactically within a game a Zone Defense can be used to slow down the tempo of an opponent's offense. A team with a lead, for example, might switch to zone because an offense will not have as much success with individual run and gun dodges against a zone and will instead need to operate with passing and teamwork, which likely means it will take longer for the offense to develop shooting chances.
On the downside a Zone Defense can lead to "ball-watching", where defenders focus so much on the ball that they don't notice or don't react to opponents in their area. Experienced offensive players will watch for this. A good motion offense also can exploit the seams between the zones where defenders might not be clear who is supposed to cover the man in that spot. In another danger, zone defenders can develop a very passive style where they are on their heels waiting for the offense to bring the game to them, thinking they are doing the right thing on defense by staying in their spot when really they are not throwing any checks and allowing the offense to step right in and score.
These weaknesses lead to great controversy between those who favor man-to-man versus zone.
If a team is outmatched or athletically unable to keep up with opponents they will likely need to use a zone defense, but some high school and college coaches treat zone defense almost as if using it were blasphemous, or an admission of inferiority! This debate hit a peak when Virginia made their NCAA title run in 2011. In the middle of the season and unlike most of their opponents Virginia switched to primarily using a zone defense, which was met with much criticism, but by the end of the season Virginia played their way to a championship.
Personally I think all kids must develop their man-to-man defensive skills first. The great majority of offenses must be initiated by winning the first 1v1 confrontation and a defender who can get good at defending an individual on and off-ball will make themselves extremely valuable to the team. Additionally, a player who can learn when to stop guarding their man and go to help a teammate will develop a considerable Lax IQ.
On the other hand, most goals in lacrosse come during transition, unsettled, uneven situations, where the defense has to play zone since they are outnumbered and can not play man-to-man, so a young player who learns to hold their own and prevent a few goals in those zone situations can make the difference that leads to victory and be that kid a coach simply has to keep on the field.
In full candor the basics and fundamentals of defense in general, including team defense, are the same in man-to-man and zone, so as coach you do no harm in choosing either one and you will eventually want your players to be able to use both interchangeably. At the upper levels or as your team develops throughout a season, I believe you should assess your team's strengths and weaknesses as well as your opponent's, factor in the game situation, and use whatever tool you need to try to win.
Advantages Of Zone Defense
1. Not all teams have quick, good man-to-man defenders, or the offense may have a couple of outstanding players too quick to defend individually. Playing a zone can help against mismatches such as these; you may have a big, strong, but not particularly quick team, where a zone can be intimidating with all your big guys stacked up inside. If you have matchup issues with a few very strong defenders and a few very weak ones, in playing man-to-man defense the opponent will run screens to get switches and mismatches and will go right at your weaknesses, but you can help avoid this by using a zone defense to keep your weaker players in less vulnerable spots. For example, many teams like to put their weakest defender in the top left corner of a zone as it is rare to see an offense player who can fire a quality lefty shot from that region.
2. Allows no shots in close. In using a zone, you can protect the area in front of the crease and force the opponent to shoot from outside. Not all teams can shoot the outside shot consistently. Even good shooting teams have off nights, especially under pressure, and the fact is shots from farther away give your goalie more time to save them.
3. You can slow the game and control the tempo somewhat with a zone.
4. Opponents tend to become impatient against the zone and often rush shots.
5. Zone challenges the stick skills of your opponents. Most youth and high school players are just average passers (at best), and have difficulty making good inside passes and accurate skip passes.
6. By changing defenses from man-to-man to various zones, you can keep the offense off-balance and confused.
7. If you use an aggressive ride, if the ride is broken it is easy to slip back into a half-field zone defense.
8. Compared to man-to-man offenses, there are far fewer zone offenses to contend with, and zone defense can easily be adapted to counter the opponent's star player(s).
9. If you play zone defense exclusively (no man-to-man), you can save practice time in not having to teach how to handle ball-screens and other screens.
Disadvantages Of Zone Defense
1. If your team is behind, you won't get enough pressure on the ball, and the offense can eat up a lot of time by holding the ball for a good shot. There are pressure zones you can try but it still can be difficult to get the ball.
2. If the opponent is having a good shooting night and moving the ball well your zone is basically beaten and you must consider going to the man-to-man to get pressure on the ball out on the perimeter.
3. You can sometimes fall victim to teams overloading more then one player in one zone. This forces another player to come out of his zone to help and at times can be difficult to teach.
4. If you play zone most of the time, and rarely play man-to-man, your players may become complacent on defense and may lose their man-to-man pressure skills. Even if you intend to mostly use zone I would practice man-to-man 80-90% of the time and zone the remaining 10-20%.
Basic Pointers For All Zone Defenses
1. Try to keep the ball outside.
2. Be vocal, talk to each other, even more so than a man-to-man. Recognition and Communication are vitally important – recognize the formation the offense is in and YELL IT OUT every two passes the offense makes – “2 PASS RULE”
3. Move quickly and adjust your position relative to the movement of the ball. React quickly on the flight of the ball as soon as it leaves the passer's crosse.
4. Get your sticks in the passing lanes.
5. Close-out on opponents and get on the ball-carrier's hands to pressure the shot and the pass. We are less concerned with dodging penetration since the zone creates too much congestion inside for the drive.
6. Stay in your defensive stance even when you are not on ball.
7. No need for penalties... play good defense without stupid penalties. Being that you are not chasing a player around throwing checks there is no reason for stupid penalties. You have to also realize that if an offense has been trying to penetrate a 6 man zone all game long, when they go man-up and see 5 guys it will seem MUCH easier to them to penetrate as opposed to if this was the first zone they saw all day.
8. Give the offense no second chances. Zone defenses are very opportunistic. You are usually not as much trying to create a turnover as you are waiting for it to happen... ie a bad pass, a player dodging at a bad time or a poor shot. When this happens the defense must pounce on that ball and get it out of there.
9. When the offense penetrates, quickly close the gap. One of the ways offenses like to beat a zone is to have the best player walk to the ball to where the weakest defender is in the zone and dodge. Once that player beats the man he is expecting the slides to come crashing on him opening up many options to pass to. Therefore, slide as a defensive unit. This requires awareness and good talk from the goalie all the way to the third slide, and for that first slide, close the gap so quickly that once the ball-carrier gets past one defender another is instantly in his face and he never gets time and space to throw.
10. Get to know your opponent and adjust. Over-protect against the best shooters, or the "hot" shooter, and sag off the guy who never shoots. Don’t be afraid to shut-off the offense’s biggest threat and play 4v5 in man-down or 5v5 in even.
11. Especially if you are ahead, don't gamble or get too zealous. Keep pressure on the ball, but also protect the inside and force the outside, low-percentage shot. On defense position is more important than possession, and you want both!
12. Stay on their hands and do not give them time to look up and feed. If you let a good attackmen have time and space he will pick the zone apart.
13. Stick Arrival – long poles should arrive 6 feet early by getting your stick on the ball carrier!! PRESSURE BREEDS DECISION MAKING!!! – make the ball carrier force a pass.
14. Protect from the Inside Out – all shots by the offense should happen from outside 13 yards from the cage.
15. Defend the Skip Lanes – one man plays the ball and those defenders adjacent to the man playing the ball are in the Skip Lanes.