Tuesday Tips: Principles of Zone Offense

Different zones require different strategies, but a few concepts can help offenses against almost every zone.

Brute Squad working it among their handlers at the 2018 Club Championships. Photo: Kristina Geddert — UltiPhotos.com

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Zone offense can be a tricky thing to teach, because while matchup offenses can usually count on defenses behaving very similarly across contexts, each zone can operate very differently and require different individual actions to attack. Rather than looking to counter individual zone’s tactics, zone offense can be more effectively taught with principles that work against a wide variety of zones. These principles can be adapted to a given zone situation, but the key is to give players concepts to keep in mind when preparing to face a zone, whether it is one they’ve never seen before or one with which they are very familiar.

For many players, the first time encountering a zone defense is a bewildering and frustrating experience. How many first semester rookies have gone to a fall college tournament and found themselves ambushed by an enterprising zone? As they prepare to file into the stack for another bone-on-bone 1-on-1 matchup, suddenly they are either alone in space or surrounded, defenders are completely ignoring them to look at the disc, or they are completely ignoring the disc to look at them, a unfamiliar situation that never came up in practice. Where should they go? What should they do? Instructions are rained upon them from the sidelines as the team tries to learn on the fly.

Let’s review the principles of zone offense that can be used to prepare players for whatever zones they encounter.

Around, Over, and Through

There are three ways to beat a zone defense: around, over, and through. These ideas work the same way they do against a mark: throw around them by going to the outside, closer to boundary lines; throw through them by going to the inside, closer to the core of the field; or throw over them with high throws. By executing or threatening one of these elements, the defense overcompensates, leaving the other options more available.

In particular, around and through require different defensive approaches. In order to prevent the offense from going around the zone, defenders will often spread apart from one another. This opens up through lanes. Conversely, to challenge through options, the defense will often condense closer together, making the around more viable.

If you’re ever heard teams talking about “just swing the disc against the cup” on repeat, they are trying to attack the around fervently.

Much like it does against marking, over operates on a different axis, although forcing the defense to tighten or loosen can often expose spaces to drop in a hammer or scoober. But this can be a higher risk proposition, as zones are often used in unfavorable throwing conditions that make already challenging over throws even more difficult to complete.

Motion Encourages Defensive Mistakes

As the offense moves around the field, the defense is forced to move in reaction. Zone defenses are predicated upon the idea that each player is responsible for an area of space of the field, and that together, they can deny access to enough of the good space to prevent the offense from gaining any traction. But once the defense is forced to move and adjust, it becomes harder and harder for the defense to maintain the cohesion that underpins its effectiveness.

Imagine each defender is in a literal bubble on the field that encompasses the space they are responsible for. When given the chance to reduce how much they move, each player would be able to keep their bubble close to their teammates’, leaving little room for the offense to move. But once forced to travel around the field, bubble in tow, it becomes difficult to keep the bubbles from separating, leaving large gaps, or from overlapping (and thus popping) and exposing other spaces.

For the offense, creating these breakdowns typically manifests as moving the disc around the field. While nearly any throw does require some micro-adjustments by the nearby defenders, throws that travel to other portions of field are more effective at forcing the defense to shift positions. It also means that moving the disc is almost always preferable to holding it, waiting for a superior throwing option. The defense wants you stagnant. The offense doesn’t have to rush, but it should have a sense of urgency.

This concept also applies to players. In my coaching experience, I’ve seen so many players assigned their roles in the zone offense and never leave the space they started in. The handler on the left remains on the left, the handler on the right remains on the right, the popper on the left remains the popper on the left in perpetuity. Instead, cutters should be comfortable interchanging positions, forcing defenders to pass cutters between one another. Handlers can swap positions, or even change spots with a cutter, in order to further cross-up the defense. And one of the most effective ways to beat the downfield defenders can be entering their zone from a space they didn’t expect as you switch positions.

Use the Whole Field

Conceptually, a zone is dividing up parts of the field that the offense can access among the defenders, rather than defenders being assigned an individual offensive player they are responsible for. Recall the idea that each defender has a literal bubble of space around them, and it’s their job to shut down this the offense in that bubble. The bubble might slightly contract and expand based on the movement of the disc and their teammates (and their respective bubbles). When the offense uses the whole field, they force the defense to either stretch their bubbles or concede some space.

Most of us have heard someone adamantly encouraging crossfield disc movement — “swing, swing, swing!” While I believe too many people think this is a panacea for zone offense that will be effective across the board, it is a simple way to try to use the whole field. If the disc is getting to both sidelines, the offense is at least using the width of the field and creating new throwing windows.

However, this ideology should also be applied to the length of the field. It may feel useless to run deep into the waiting deep defender or sitting in the hammer slot behind the weak side wing defender, but these roles are important, even when the throw never goes up. They force the defense to extend itself further; without that offensive player’s gravity, the defense could simply cover a smaller portion of the field more effectively, ratcheting up the pressure near the disc. They’d be able to play with smaller, more tightly compacted bubbles.

A simple cue for offensive players is to avoid being in any situation where one defender can guard two offensive players. This should help keep the offense spaced out, which will help make more of the field a threat.

Ideas for Cutters and Handlers

The delineation between the roles of cutters and handlers is emphasized in many zone offenses, moreso than in matchup sets. In general, there are some specific ideas that apply to these two groups.

Before getting into those, I want to break down another concept: layers. I look at zone defenses in vertical layers — groups of players working together to contain vertical slices of field. The first layer is concerned about the front of the defense, usually the group of players assigned to guard the thrower and other handlers. In a standard three-person cup zone, this layer is simply the cup, for example.

As a result, handlers should focus on:

  1. Maintaining possession
  2. Advancing the disc past the first layer

The handlers should be working to get the disc past the first layer as a group, not as individuals. The thrower shouldn’t be staring at the field, looking for the perfect throw to break open the defense. Rather, they should be working with the other handlers to get the disc beyond the first layer, so the team offense can attack the downfield defenders without the front layer’s interference. Once the disc gets past the first layer, the offense should press the advantage, as they’ll typically be playing in a 6-on-4 or 7-on-4 situation.

How can cutters help the handlers break through downfield? One tactic they can use is attacking the edges of a defender’s bubble. If a defender’s bubble is 15 yards wide, they simply cannot defend two cutters simultaneously attacking opposite sides of their bubble. The defender will have to choose who defend or ask for help from a teammate. And that helping teammate will expose yet another hole.

And once the disc is into open space, cutters should present credible targets for the offense. Find a hole in the defense and attack it, whether that means cutting into it or simply sitting in it. Avoid cutting away from the disc unless you’ve got an uncontested path; instead, own your space and attack the disc once it comes your way.

Think One Step Ahead

The final idea is a bit more advanced but, once developed, is a critical concept for deconstructing opposing zones.

A lot of decisions in zone offense can derail the team’s progress when the thrower is too focused on just the throw they are considering. Players should be considering what throw is next after the one they are about to make, like in a chess match. If a center handler swings it to a handler on the sideline, what options does that thrower have? If they are going to be unmarked on the break side of the cup, that sounds a great deal. If they are going to be trapped on the downwind sideline, perhaps that throw isn’t worth it.

This type of anticipation takes experience to learn. The more situations a player sees and experiences, the more honed this sense will become, providing more accurate assessments. If the whole team is acting to set up the next play, the offense will be able to create advantageous situations, and pile them on as they expose the defense’s weaknesses.

***

Of course, there are subtleties to each individual zone, and certain tactics become more or less useful depending on the setup of the defense. But the above principles are applicable against any zone and will help your team more quickly assess the specific approach to take against any zone that you may face.

  1. Keith Raynor
    Keith Raynor

    Keith Raynor is a Senior Editor and the Business Development Manager at Ultiworld. He co-hosts our Deep Look podcast and does play-by-play and color commentary. He coaches UConn Rise, the college's women's team. You can reach him by email (keith@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@FullFieldHammer).

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