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Zone defense is a type of defense used in team sports, which is the alternative to man-to-man defense; instead of each player guarding a corresponding player on the other team, each defensive player is given an area, or a "zone", to cover.

A zone defense can be used in virtually all sports where a defending team is present.

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Basketball zone defense history

Frank Lindley, Newton, KS High School basketball coach from 1914 to 1945, was among the first to use the zone defense and other innovations in the game and authored numerous books about basketball. He finished his career with a record of 594–118 and guided the Railroaders to ten state titles and seven second-place finishes.

Zone defense in basketball

A description of a zone defense corresponds to the number of players on the front of the zone and works its way to the back of the zone. For example, a 2–3 zone is a zone defense in which two defenders are covering areas in the top of the zone (near the top of the key) while three defenders are covering areas near the baseline.

Other types of zone defense include:

  • Match-up zone, a hybrid of man-to-man defense and zone defense where players apply man-to-man defense to whichever opposing player enters their area. John Chaney, former head coach of Temple University, is this defense's most famous proponent.
  • Box-and-one in which four defenders are in a 2–2 zone and one defender guards a specific player on the offense. A variant of this is the triangle-and-two, in which three defenders are in a 2–1 zone and two defenders guard two specific offensive players. This scheme was invented by the late National Basketball Hall of Fame coach and former Temple University head coach Harry Litwack.
  • 1–3–1 Half Court Trap where a quicker but long-limbed forward guards the ball handler and attempts to disrupt quick passes as the guards have to pass around the wingspan of the larger forward. The center stands around the free throw line with a guard protecting the low post. The other two players stand on either side of the center with all 3 players keeping their arms stretched out. From many aspects this works more like a man-to-man defense, as players wear down quicker and it is tough to shoot from the perimeter over a tall forward. This zone requires a single player to be the ball defender.

When a team plays a zone, the defenders must keep their hands up and in passing lanes and quickly adjust their positions as the ball and the offensive players move around. Teams that successfully play zone defenses are very vocal and effectively communicate where they, the ball, and their opponents are or will be.

Teams playing a zone occasionally try to "trap" the ball handler, an aggressive strategy designed to "double-team" the player with the ball. While this tactic may cause a turnover, it leaves one or more players on the offense undefended.

Zone defenses were prohibited in the National Basketball Association prior to the 2001–2002 season. The NBA currently permits the use of zones; however, teams generally do not use them as a primary defensive strategy and no zone defense may feature an unguarded defender inside the free-throw lane (a violation of that results in a defensive three-second violation, which is a technical foul). Zone defenses are more common in international, college, and youth competition.

Advantages of playing a zone defense

There are several reasons for a team to use a zone defense. Some are listed below.

  • The opposing team has a player or players too quick (in the case of guards) or too big (in the case of forwards or centers) for a man-to-man defense to be effective.
  • Many zones pack defenders in the lane but allow the offensive team to take long-range shots. If the opponents are poor long-range shooters, a zone can be very effective.
  • Unless trapping is involved, zone defenses typically do not involve aggressive pressure on the ball handler and allow the offensive team to pass the ball around the perimeter, leading to more time being used by the offensive team before a shot is attempted. Therefore, teams wanting to slow down the tempo of a game will often choose to play zone.
  • A poor defensive player can often be "hidden" in a zone because teammates can more easily help if he or she is beaten.
  • If players are in danger of fouling out (especially forwards or centers, who typically guard the lane), using a zone helps to take the pressure off them.
  • Playing a zone is usually less tiring than playing man-to-man, so fatigued teams are more inclined to use zones.
  • Some teams play a zone when the opponents inbound the ball under the basket to help prevent easy scores off of screen plays.
  • Against teams with inexperienced guards, trapping zones can disrupt the offense and force turnovers.

Disadvantages of playing a zone defense

Playing a zone entails some risks. Some are listed below.

  • Zones tend to be weak on the perimeter, so they are not very effective against teams with good outside shooters.
  • Zones have gaps (areas that are not well-covered by defenders) that can be exploited by teams that pass well or have guards capable of penetrating the zone.
  • If a team is behind in the game, playing a zone is a poor strategy because zones usually allow the offense to take more time off the clock on each possession, which limits the time remaining for the losing team to reduce the lead.
  • When a shot is attempted, it is often harder for players in a zone to find counterparts to box out for the rebound, which sometimes results in an offensive player getting an easy offensive rebound.

Attacking a zone defense

While strategies for countering zone defenses vary and often depend on the strengths and weaknesses of both the offensive and defensive teams, there are some general principles that are typically used by offensive teams when facing a zone.

  • Many popular zones (such as the 2–3 and 1–2–2) have a gap in the middle of the lane. Getting the ball in this area can be very effective because the defense is often forced to "collapse" on the ball handler, freeing up other players for open shots. To exploit this gap, many teams assign a forward to operate in the "high post" area near the free throw line to catch and distribute the ball. A forward in the high post area can also set screens on the players at the top of the zone to allow penetration by the guards.
  • Quick passing is an important element of attacking any zone. The defense will shift as the ball moves, but if the offense can move the ball faster than the defense can react, open shots can result. Quick passing against a zone often leads to open three-point shots, and zone defenses are less effective against teams with good three-point shooters.
  • Dribble penetration is very effective in breaking down a zone. If a guard can dribble into the gaps in the zone, multiple defenders must converge on the ball. The ball handler can then often pass to an open teammate for a shot. This strategy illustrates why preventing dribble penetration is important in playing an effective zone defense.

Zone defense in American football

Zone defense in American football refers to a type of "pass coverage". See American football defensive strategy and zone blocking.

Zone defense in Australian rules football

The zone defense tactic, borrowed from basketball, was introduced into Australian football in the late 1980s by Robert Walls and revolutionized the game. It was used most effectively by Essendon Football Club coach Kevin Sheedy.

The tactic is used from the fullback kick in after a behind is scored. The side in opposition to the player kicking in places their forward players, including their full-forward and center half forward, in evenly spaced zones in the back 50-meter arc. This makes it easier for them to block leading players and forces the kick in to be more precise, in effect increasing the margin for error which can cause a turnover and another shot at goal. As a result, the best ways to break the zone are for the full-back to bomb it long (over 50 meters), often requiring a low percentage torpedo punt, or to play a short chipping game out of defense and then to switch play as opposition players break the zone. The latter has negated the effectiveness of the tactic since the 1990s.

Another kick-in technique is the huddle, often used before the zone, which involves all of the players from the opposition team to the player is kicking in huddling together and then breaking in different directions. The kicker typically aims in whichever direction that the designated target (typically the ruckman) runs in.

Zone defense in art of war

Zone defense is a defense in art of war, mainly preferred if the invader is stronger than the defender and the defender is highly motivated. It replaced the line defense, a strategy which states that the army should barricade themselves in the way of the invading troops aiming to reach a target. Per line defense approach, if the defending army loses ground, it should withdraw until it reaches a certain place where all the friendly units can came together and secure themselves. Zone defense strategy states that the defender should hold the ground at whatever cost unless otherwise directly ordered. It also states that if a unit is ordered to withdraw, it should step back until the first safe zone, assuming that an army can fight everywhere if it is committed to the war. An example of zone defense is the Battle of Sakarya, where the Turkish Army defended its homeland against Greek invaders. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, commander-in-chief of Turkish Army summarized his doctrine as:[1]

There is no line defense, there is only zone defense. This zone is the whole homeland. Unless every single piece of the homeland is flooded with its citizen's blood, it cannot be abandoned to the enemy. Therefore, either small or big, every unit can be driven from its position. However, either small or big, every unit starts fighting again with the enemy at the first location it could stop. Any unit should not withdraw even if the friendly units are doing so. They have to insist and resist at their position until their end.

Comparison of zone defense and line defense

As part of their preparations for World War II, the French army built the Maginot Line, which was meant to stop the Nazi army in front of it.[2] However, the Nazi army found its way around this barricade by invading Belgium and the Netherlands. Although the Maginot Line was prepared for a heavy assault, it was never used, and France fell into Nazi hands during the Battle of France with less resistance.

The Viet Cong practiced zone defense in the Vietnam War As a result, the United States Army had to stop inside the Vietnam jungles.[3]

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