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Lacrosse Basics: Man-Down Rotations

This post has been updated to include our YouTube tutorial covering 3v2, 4v3 and 5v4 scenarios. We hope you like it!

The post on Defense Basics got me all fired up to talk about man-down defense. As a former defenseman, this was easily my favorite part of the game. Lacrosse, like its cousin hockey, features power plays while the defending team serves penalties of 30 seconds, 1 minute or, in some rare circumstances, multiple minutes. Success on killing an extra-man opportunity is highly dependent on good communication, protecting the middle of the field and playing fast!

Why Rotate? What's Wrong with Zone?

Many teams in their early development will default to a zone scheme that is extremely vulnerable to a skilled and disciplined extra-man unit. In a pure zone defense, you will have your defense guarding areas of the field. Unfortunately, this is prone to be stretched and then overloaded. Take this simple example of defending a 2-3-1. The man-down unit can be beaten with a simple carry-reversal between Blue #5 and #6, leaving #6 with a shot on the doorstep. To adequately defend this, we require either Orange #4 or #5 to come across the crease to challenge the shooter, and thus, starting our rotation.
If the defense had defined a rotation, Orange #4 or #5 would be free to rotate to the sneaking attacker.


Rotating in man-down situations provides the best opportunity to ensure that everyone on the offense is accounted for. I will give a number of examples to show how the defense should move when the ball is moving clockwise. Follow the players closely and you will notice that the defense will rotate opposite of the direction of the ball. In all situations, the defense will need someone identified as being On-Ball and someone responsible for picking up two offensive players; after all, we need to cover the entire offense with one less defender.


In a 3-on-2 situation, the defense will need to call out who is on "Ball" and who is guarding 2. In the animations below, notice that each defender will be alternating between the two positions. In the second, focused animation, notice that player 1, who starts out on-ball, will have guarded all 3 offensive players after the ball has moved just 4 times.

After recovering from being on-ball, it will always be the best practice to recover back to the middle. In this example, it is to shorten the distance to cover the next pass. In other situations, it will allow the defense to cover the "skip" lanes.
As a duo, the defense will rotate opposite of the ball movement.

Orange #1 will have guarded all 3 offensive players after just 4 passes.


This situation plays out much like a traditional fast-break. Rather than having a player identified as guarding 2 offensive players, we will now men playing to the on-ball man's adjacent sides, and therefore will be identified as "left" and "right." In this case, both of the adjacent men will be responsible for guarding 2 men ( the true adjacent player and the player opposite of the ball). For example, at the beginning of the animation below:
  • Orange #1 is guarding the ball (Blue #1) 
  • Orange #2 is guarding the right (Blue #2) AND the skip pass to Blue #4
  • Orange #3 is guarding the left (Blue #3) AND the skip pass to Blue #4.
If the ball is skipped directly from Blue #1 to Blue #4, the defense will be temporarily broken down and need to communicate their way back into the proper rotation.

As a team, the defense rotates opposite of the ball movement.

Notice that the highlighted player, Orange #1, will have rotated to three different positions during this animation.


If you remember back to the Offensive Formations post in this Basics series, you might notice that this offensive set is outlining the shell of a 2-3-1 formation. This rotation will cover the basics of defending a 2-3-1 in a live man-down situation using a 4-man rotation. Against a 2-3-1, we often ask the short-stick on our man-down to lock off the crease offensive player so that the 4 poles can rotate around the perimeter.

When the defense recognizes a 2-3-1, we will match-up with a man on-ball, the adjacents (left & right), and one man guarding 2. For all players not guarding the ball, they should fold back into the middle of the field. This is to move toward the next spot in the rotation, but more importantly, to discourage the skip lane. Again, if the offense is able to successfully skip the ball past an adjacent man, the defense will be disorganized and vulnerable to a possible open man on the offense.

As a team, the defense will rotate opposite of the ball.

Orange #1 starts in the top-left but is quickly rotated to the bottom-right after a few rotations.


In each of the examples above, on-field communication will be critical. Before a play even starts, the defense should be communicating the situation, the offensive formation and their individual responsibilities (Ball, Left/Right, Two). Having each of these items identified will have the defense focused and will also help to determine how to recover in certain situations. As the ball moves or the offense's formation changes, as is common in man-down situations, the defense should constantly be communicating the changes.

Recovering from Skip Passes

Allowing skip passes can be detrimental to the defense's man-down rotation. Here are two examples of the confusion that ensues after a skip has been allowed:


4 vs 3 Skip
In the example above, we are looking at a skip in a traditional fast break situation. Blue #2 successfully skips a pass through to #3. Because both Orange #1 and #2 are responsible for the skip lane, there will be temporary confusion as to who should pick up the ball carrier. It is likely that even with good communication that both players will make a move toward the ball carrier and free up both Blue #1 and #4 to be shooters. In this case, #4 steps toward the ball and is free for a shot on the doorstep.


5 vs 4 Skip
Now, we will take a look at a skip against a 4-man rotation. Blue #2 is able to successfully skip a pass to #5. Orange #1 is the 2-man in this situation and is able to recover to pick up his man. However, the next adjacent Blue teammate (#4) is unaccounted for and is able to sneak from his position at X. Orange #4 is forced to recover from across the field to pick up the rotation, but it is unlikely. Blue again gets a shot on the doorstep.

Effective communication and recovering back to the middle of the field will help mitigate these situations. However, I hope to illustrate how dangerous a skip pass can be in man-down situations (Hint: Man-up).


Man-down rotations will happen in many phases of lacrosse. The key to being successful when at a disadvantage is to play team defense. Here are a few key points to keep in mind.
  1. COMMUNICATE. Most confusion in these situations happens with the player that starts the rotation guarding 2 men. If the defense clearly identifies Ball, Left, and Right, the rotation will often take care of itself. Take note of which players are on your right and left and keep your rotation going.
  2. Recover to the middle. Assuming the defense's rotation breaks down, if the defense has recovered to the middle, they will have a good chance of recovering quickly and protecting from a dangerous shot in the middle of the field.
  3. Prevent skip passes. All defensemen should have their sticks up to discourage the skip passes. If a skip does occur, the defense will likely be vulnerable to an open man in the next pass.
As always, thanks for checking in. Each diagram in this post was created using our Free Play Designer. Try it out today at



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