Avoiding Common Mistakes Against Zone Defense

A Dartmouth player throws over the top of an Oregon mark at the 2013 College Championships.
Photo by CBMT Creative.

It’s Sunday.  It’s windy.  The high, blady pull lands on your goal line, and after stopping the roll, you look up to see four defenders standing within fifteen feet of you. Your coach warned you this might happen. But the defensive look makes you nervous, anxious. The six other guys who jogged off the line with you remain stagnant for a few seconds, assessing the situation and trying to decipher the yells of screaming teammates. You’ve caught your breath by stall four, but your heart beats faster as your internal clock starts to warn, “Move the disc before you get stalled!”

Where should you turn?  Where shouldn’t you turn?  Here are some mistakes to avoid when navigating a zone look.

1. Trapping Yourself

Most zones try to trap you on a particular sideline. Remember: the zone wants this to happen. Maybe the defense questions your flick throwing ability, or maybe the opposition thinks the wind will majorly impact your throws off/down that line. It could just be that, when trapped, the mark will bait you to throw into a certain area or within the vicinity of a key defender.

Closer to the middle of the field, zones (cups and walls) will not wrap around the thrower. Instead, they’ll leave the swing to the trap side handler open.  At a high stall count with other options exhausted, that swing can be your only reset. And you may sometimes have to take it.

But at a low stall count, inexperienced zone handlers are too often enticed by such seemingly innocent and open looks.  Compounding the issue is that often players will throw the open swing without thinking ahead: Is there a proper continuation or dump to combat the trap that is about to set? Too rarely does the handler think whether she can plan or time her swing in such a way to have that next continuation come before the trap even sets.

Trap Sideline Solutions

So how do you avoid playing right into the defense’s hands? There are a few things to keep in mind.

First, your team can have your trap side handlers attack the middle of the field. Even leaving a little distance between yourself and the trap sideline can help.

Another trick: while the swing is being thrown, run some towards the middle of the field – you’ll catch the easy reset in a slightly less challenging position. Try to catch this reset either even with or a yard or two upfield of the central handler, as shown below.

Avoiding Trap Video

Teams that play zone defense are almost always emphasizing the spatial and field position aspect of the game.  They want you to throw lots of passes but keep you in a contained area.  Because of that, learning how to get an extra yard or two with each reset like this – while running towards the middle and still keeping the trap at bay – will be a big advantage for your team that almost multiplies itself.

You may not make the cup run as much, and you might even catch that reset in the middle of the cup. You may even lose a yard compared to what a full sideline swing would get you. But by keeping the disc off the sideline, you’re making it harder for the cup to establish an effective trap. The more you reset easily, the more the defense has to work, and the easier it will be to expose zone holes later in the point. Cup defenders may lose patience, get greedy, and move out of position to gamble for a block.

Though this play is not exclusive to zone offense strategy, the trap-side handler can also attack the central handler to receive a dump throw behind the central handler and his mark.

Losing Yards For Possession Video

Ideally, if the central handler completes the dump directly behind or slightly to the break side of his pivot, the trap side handler will have a brief window to attack the break side. Alert break-side handlers or cutters/poppers will slide (horizontally and/or vertically) to milk the maximum yardage gain from the break throw, or to set up a second break continuation after the first break swing.

Again, this dump strategy to attack the break side is not unique to zone offense, but it’s very effective against zones and easy to practice.  When practicing, be sure to emphasize completing the dump on the break half of the thrower’s plane – the thrower must seal off his mark with a solid box out as he pivots backward for the dump.

If you don’t lead the dump enough, the cup will seal before you can get a swing off and you will only have lost yardage.  But even the least comfortable throwers can do a good job turning and sealing off the mark for a simple dump. Name the cut (“Shorts!” “Sporcle!” “Spongebob!”) and give the handler and dump receiver authority to call the play.

When using this move, you’ll want to watch out for super aggressive cups that try to trap both sidelines. In these situations, what looked like the breakside can suddenly turn into the cup trap sideline. But, once your team is aware of this possibility, you can still use the behind-dump. Be alert and set up a throw immediately off the first swing, before the trap can get there -– or send it quickly back to the middle to keep the cup chasing horizontally before good traps can be set.

If you’re going to swing it to the trap sideline, you want a surefire way to get the disc off that line. Your poppers and designated rail can work together on that half of the field to flood the trap-side handler’s throwing lanes as the swing goes up. With one or two defenders (a wall/cup member and/or a break side/hammer-stop) having to quickly choose between two or three cutters flooding those lanes, the trap-side handler will more than likely be able to complete a quick continuation closer to the middle of the field. With more defenders lurking in the force side half of the field, be less liberal with your milking of these swings and continuations.

There’s another nice advantage to being increasingly reluctant to swing to the trap sideline, staying thoughtful about when you do throw it, and leaving space on the trap sideline as long as possible. Because most zone defense want to set up a sideline trap, it will almost be an open option. The longer you leave space between you and the sideline, the longer you will have an easy bailout option after stall 7. Your team may also want to plan who is the best person to receive the trap throw. That could be a player who is good at throwing around trap marks, throwing break side hammers into the wind, or picking out downfield targets that are splitting defenders up the trap sideline. You may find yourself in situations where the sideline trap is unavoidable, but at least it will be your player that is best equipped to handle the pressure.

2. Failing to Identify the Best Continuation Throw

Elite zone poppers rise above run-of-the-mill poppers through an important pattern: their progression of looks. The first completed pass through the cup provides arguably the broadest window to attack downfield, with anywhere from three to five defenders usually caught behind the disc for a few seconds. Inexperienced poppers will immediately turn and look for their dump; intermediate poppers will turn upfield or to the near side for the closest open receiver. It can be fun and beneficial to play small ball and gain 10-20 yards while the cup staggers back into place. But if you’re not looking in the right places, the zone will reset and still have you closer to the trap sideline than you’d like.

Upfield Poppers Video

Where to Look Once You Break Through

The best poppers immediately look upfield and to the break or opposite side of the field for another popper, a rail/deep, or a streaking handler. In early spring zone practices at Virginia, we would briefly pause focused zone reps after passes through the cup to emphasize the need for poppers to gain comfort immediately pivoting to that target area.

Looking Upfield Video

Playing small ball once you’ve gotten the disc over to the break half of the field is significantly easier and more effective – it often thrusts you into a hockey-style odd man rush. The break side/hammer stop defender and deep deep are usually the two closest defenders – they’re stretched and outnumbered by their rail/deep cutter assignments (usually two), sprinting poppers (one or two), and the occasional handler that joins the rush. They may also be desperate to protect the deep space, feeling forced to give up the small give-go yardage.

3. Running a Single Zone Offense

You might not always see a defined cup. You might see a wall. You might see a Christmas tree. You might see sagging handler poaches. Past a certain threshold of talent, some offensive lines can wing a zone point against any one of those looks. But many college zone offensive units haven’t reached that threshold, and they haven’t diversified their offensive capability. They’ll call three people back to handle and two people to pop (or vice versa), and they’ll just try to throw to the open guy. Frustration can take over after twenty swings; eventually someone loses patience, which will lead to an errant throw or risky decision.

Preparing for Different Looks

You don’t need to spend months at practice finding detailed answers for every type of zone imaginable. But you do need to have some adaptability. Try not to do the same thing against a wall (like Arizona’s) that you would against a massive four-man cup.

Get comfortable swinging the disc back and forth to tire out a cup – as the cup’s exhaustion increases, the windows for break and continuation throws will expand in time and size. Get comfortable cycling handlers and poppers as one continuously flowing unit to eat yardage between the thrower and the wall – wall defenders will be forced to abandon their spots to break up crashes, and holes will open. This cycling can move in one large circle or oval, with five offensive players constantly taking turns crashing toward the thrower from behind.

Be sure to identify your entire offensive set as early as possible (preferably before the pull). If you’re in a leadership position, keep the message simple for the players on the line: Hey, let’s keep it off the away sideline for as long as possible. Having an easy rule of thumb fresh in players’ minds simplifies strategy and calms fellow teammates.

4.  Rushing It and Learning to Take Your Time

Playing against a new defense, looking into a large cup, or facing a 20 MPH upwind gust is a stressful situation. Too often inexperienced players will respond to that anxiety by trying to move the disc quickly against zones; in fact, quick disc movement is one thing that’s often taught to young players who are learning to play zone offense.

The problem is that you need to strike the right balance between taking what the defense is giving you and moving the disc into an area where your offense will be successful. We’ve already talked about how a defense can tempt you into throwing to a wide-open trap sideline, only to push your team into a much more difficult situation on the next pass. But that’s not the only way the opposition can trick you. The deep deep can stand a few steps in front of your deep stretcher and tempt you to throw a 50-50 deep ball. The defense may have a super athletic wing player who wants you to throw two or three big hammers per point, figuring that the wing can make a play on one of them.

Against man defense, teams generally want to move through progressions in a way that moves the disc before stall 5.  Playing against zone requires shifting that mentality. Many zones, again implicitly playing a field position game, will give up lots of free resets behind the thrower. Others will prioritize cup spacing and discipline over stopping one-yard crashes into the cup.

The key is to take an extra moment and think more about how you want to attack the zone. Holding the disc until stall 7 is less of a concern against the average zone defense than it would be against man defense, especially if your fellow handlers know what dump cuts the zone leaves open. Thinking about a viable bailout (perhaps over-the-top) throw to one of your breakside options early in the count can give you a chance to pursue other receiving options without the late-stall panic. Anticipating how your fakes will move the cup and short deep will give you a chance to make those fakes early on and then find a great hole at stall 6. All of these tricks are much easier to execute if you can find a way to relax when you catch the disc; remember that you’re in control. Sometimes rushing through your reads and throwing to the first option will only serve to play into the defense’s hands.

  1. Ian Toner

    Ian Toner is an Ultiworld reporter and analyst. He began playing in high school with the Canisius DISCiples (2005-2008), learned the game as part of the University of Virginia's Night Train (2009-2012), and has contributed to Ring of Fire (2012-2013), Johnny Bravo (2014 national championship-2017), And The Warhawks (2016 beach men's national champions) and USA Ultimate's Under-23 national team (2013 gold medalists). In recent years, he has supported professional, club and college ultimate broadcasts on ESPN, Stadium and other outlets.

  2. Sean Childers

    Sean Childers is Ultiworld's Editor Emeritus. He started playing ultimate in 2008 for UNC-Chapel Hill Darkside, where he studied Political Science and Computer Science before graduating from NYU School of Law. He has played for LOS, District 5, Empire, PoNY, Truck Stop, Polar Bears, and Mischief (current team). You can email him at [email protected].

  3. Cody Johnston

    Cody Johnston is an Ultiworld video analyst. He grew up playing ultimate in Arlington, Virginia and has played for HB Woodlawn, William & Mary and Truck Stop. You can reach out at ([email protected])

  4. Kahyee Fong

    Kahyee Fong is an Ultiworld statistics contributor. He started playing Ultimate in high school for the Watchung Hills Warriors. He went on to play for -- and captain -- NYU's college team. While at NYU, he studied finance and actuarial science. Email him at [email protected].

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