Lacrosse, just like any sport, utilizes penalties to keep the game in check and ensure player safety. The most notable form of penalty enactment in the game of lacrosse comes through a form of time suspension, commonly referred to as “man-down.”
Being man-down in lacrosse means that the defense will be playing with a one-man disadvantage as a result of a penalty. The player’s time suspension varies based off of the categorization and severity of the foul. The issuing of multiple penalties results in a greater disadvantage.
So, what happens when a defense plays with only six, rather than seven players? What does this mean offensively? Is it possible to stay man-down throughout an entire game?
Penalty time is a crucial aspect of the sport of lacrosse and carries many nuances. To help you better understand the concept of man-down, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know.
Why Man-Down is Such a Polarizing Part of Play
To truly understand the effect that being man-down leaves on a defense, one must have a functioning knowledge on basic defensive scheme. While this may sound complicated, defensive theory is a very simple concept at its core.
The Fundamental Basics of Defense
To put it simply, lacrosse is most often a 6 versus 6 game. Despite the odd add-on of each team’s goalkeeper, an offensive set consists of six players and a defensive set is composed of the same. What does this mean and why does it matter?
A set offense is an offense positioned on the opponent’s end of the field. It consists of three midfielders and three attackman and its objective is to maintain possession and score goals.
Conversely, a set defense is composed of six total players and aims to prohibit scoring while attempting to steal possession. A set defense has one more player (seven) than a set offense with that extra man being the goalkeeper.
Aside from the man in net, a defense is composed of three midfielders and three defensemen. The goalkeeper’s job is strictly to protect the net and move the ball up field, thus generally making it a six versus six game.
The Effects of Playing Man-Down
When a team is man-down, the missing player makes for an overall mismatch. With 6 players on the defensive side (excluding the goalkeeper), an offense generally has to make impactful plays (usually through dodging) to get high-percentage shots on net. With a man-advantage, that same offense now may focus on working as a unit to expose the defense’s shortcomings.
When man-up, the offense can capitalize on the defense’s lack of players and create open shots through tactics like quick ball movement and stick fakes.
For this reason, offenses have a much greater likelihood of scoring goals when the defense is playing man-down. If a defense plays man-down for a lengthy portion of the game, they can fall behind in score extremely quickly. This can cause the momentum to shift to the other team. Once the momentum shifts to the opponent, a team may never be able to get that momentum back.
This is why it is so crucial that lacrosse teams try to avoid penalties at all costs. The consequences are simply far too severe for a team to grant their opponent this weighty advantage.
The Strategy Behind Man-Down Defense
As aforementioned, defenses are at a noticeable disadvantage during man-down situations. Defenses cannot continue to employ the same defensive stratagems that they use in normal 6v6 situations because they are short a player.
Consequently, the entire mindset of the defense must shift from getting the ball back to buying time.
To do this, teams pack in their defense tightly around the goal. Defensive players do not venture outside the proximity of the goal because this leaves the entire defense in too much of a precarious position. Instead, defenses sit back and only apply pressure when a ball carrier is closing in shooting range.
Since the offense is not being contested far away from the goal, they can simply pass the ball back and forth without any worry of losing possession. Although this may seem counterintuitive, this is beneficial for the defense because they are trying to stall for time to get their sixth player back on the field.
Even if the offense does manage to get an open shot from 10 to 12 yards out, this still benefits the defense. From that distance away, most skilled goalkeepers are able to save these kinds of shots. A defense would much rather let up a low percentage shot from 10 to 12 yards out as opposed to a shot right on the doorstep of the goal.
In short, the more time that the opposing offense spends passing the ball back and forth away from the goal, the greater the chance the defense has at getting back to full strength without letting up a goal.
The Most Important Aspect of Man-Down Defense
The success rate of man-down defenses can have major repercussions on the overall outcome of a lacrosse game. For this reason, it is crucial that lacrosse teams take the time to nail down the basic principles of man-down defense.
Undoubtedly the most important piece of man-down defense is communication. Although communication is imperative to normal 6v6 defensive situations, it carries even more significance in man-down situations.
Since the defense is short one player, every defender has to be weary of where the mismatches are on the field and mitigating the biggest scoring threats. Ideally, a defense would like to limit the 2v1 situation to the back end of the play that is farthest away from where the ball carrier is.
To accomplish this, defenders must communicate with one another to identify where a defender has to guard two players at once. They also have to talk with one another to determine when it is necessary for the entire defense to rotate to reestablish their fundamental defensive setup.
They are the centerpiece of the man-down effort, coordinating which defenders go where and pointing out offensive players that are cutting toward the goal.
Someone needs to take charge of the chaos on the defense. The goalkeeper should be the captain of the defensive communication helm. Without proper communication, the defense will surely crumble.
Trust me, the opposing offense will show absolutely no mercy when the defense is man-down. After all, this is the easiest time in the game for offenses to notch some points on the board.
Like sharks, they’ll smell blood in the water and keep attacking and attacking until they score, regardless of whether the defense communicates or not. It is best for a defense to counteract this relentlessness by making the extra effort to talk with one another.
Example of What a Good Man-Down Defense Looks Like
To help you better understand the concept of man-down, I included a video showcasing what a fundamental man-down defense looks like. In this D1 men’s lacrosse matchup, the Syracuse defense is in a man-down situation trying to keep the explosive Villanova offense at bay for a full minute straight.
Click on the video below to get a better idea of how lacrosse teams put the man-down defensive tactics we discussed earlier into practice.
There are a couple things to take note of from the video above.
For one, pay attention to the audio of the clip. Virtually every time the ball moves, the entire defense is yelling out to each other. They ensure that every single defender is on the same page not just for the present situation, but for what the offense is trying to do next. This communication is one of the primary reasons that Syracuse is able to weather the storm during this man-down scenario.
Second, look at how each defensive player keeps their head on a swivel throughout the entirety of the play. Rarely do any of the defenders ever get caught ball watching. They are constantly keeping tabs on where the ball is and where their defensive assignment is. If a defender loses track of their assigned man for just one moment, they can let up a quick goal to a sneaky backdoor cut.
These may seem like petty details, but at the more competitive levels of lacrosse, these aspects are what separate a good man-down defense from a great man-down defense.
How is a Penalty Decided?
It’s important to understand that penalties range in severity and punishment. Not all penalties are the same and a lower foul calls for a lesser time suspension.
Penalties are generally broken up into both personal and technical fouls. Personal fouls range from 1-3 minute time suspensions while technical fouls are either thirty seconds or a transfer of possession.
Not only does an official decide if a play is considered legal, his jurisdiction is also used to justify whether or not a penalty is releasable.
What Do Releasable and Non-Releasable Mean?
“Non-releasable” and “releasable” are two terms used to further describe the nature of a given penalty.
When a releasable penalty is called, it is known that the event of a goal will end the given time suspension immediately. The teams will return to normal lacrosse no matter the time left on the disadvantage.
A non-releasable penalty is one of further severity and is often decided by the absence of sportsmanship. It will always be called on a personal foul rather than a technical foul which puts it in the 1-3 minute range.
Non-releasable penalties lock the offending player into the original time-suspension regardless of any circumstance. A team may score multiple goals within the course of the suspension and greatly change the outcome of a game.
Can a Team Be Man-Down for a Whole Game?
So, if penalties can be labeled as non-releasable, can a player serve a penalty throughout the entirety of a game?
The answer to this question is no. It is possible for a player to be ejected but it is impossible for a team to remain man-down outside of the given 30 second to three minute penalty times.
It is plausible that a team commits enough fouls to continually place themselves in a man disadvantage but this could only happen through an array of offenses. It is not like a sport such as soccer, where one foul may result in a team playing with a disadvantage for the rest of the contest.
A singular player may be ejected for a few reasons. The most common causes of ejection stem from misconduct violations, either physical or verbal.
Officials have the choice to throw players out due to foul talk, illegal contact, and various forms fighting. A player may also be ejected after having received five personal fouls.
What Does a Player Do While Serving the Penalty?
Similar to a child in time-out, a penalized lacrosse player serves his suspensions in the penalty box. There is no designated box for housing penalties like there is in hockey although there is a designated area to which players spend the time.
Although it may depend on the specific field you’re playing on, the penalty box is typically resigned to an area near the scores table located on the coach and player sideline at midfield. Normally, the scores table sits five to ten yards back from said sideline and also marks the middle of the substitution box. The substitution box ranges ten yards in total.
During the penalty, the player commonly crouches down onto one knee and sits as the time as served. In higher levels of lacrosse, the player serving the penalty often does not immediately return to the field once the time expires.
In order to strategically place themselves for the lowest possible amounts of man-down time, coaches and teams often use varying tactics to return to an even playing field.
In What Ways Can the Penalty Be Released?
The roles on a lacrosse field become more and more sophisticated as the level it is played at heightens. Although there are only four main positions (Goalkeeper, Attacker, Midfielder, and Defender), players tend to specialize in certain aspects of the game. If you would like to learn a little bit more about these basic lacrosse positions, I highly recommend you check out this article The 4 Major Lacrosse Positions: A Beginner’s Guide.
In order to maximize individual potential, coaches often break down positions into multiple categories.
Midfield is far and away the most complicated position on the field. Common forms of this position include offensive midfielders, short stick defensive midfielders, face-off specialists, and long-stick midfielders. There are many tasks demanded out of the position and it is crucial to maximize a team’s talent.
With that being said, it’s important to understand that a typical five player man-down unit consists of three defenseman, one long-stick midfielder, and one short stick defensive midfielder, or ‘middie.’
Once the penalty is released, it is in the team’s best interest to refill the unit with one more defensive midfielder. Below, we are going to take an in-depth look at the most efficient tactic of doing such.
Let’s walk through this tactic from a coach’s perspective:
- Bring your chosen defensive midfielder off the bench to the front of the substitution box.
- Pay attention to the clock. Once the penalty time begins to dwindle (let’s say under 30 seconds- it depends on the coach) call over an attackman you feel comfortable briefly substituting.
- Once the attackman is by the sideline, pull them out and replace them with your defensive middie.
- The defensive middie will then run to the center point of the field and wait at the face-off X behind the mid-line. The middie will stay on this respective side of the field as the penalty will have yet to be released.
- Once the penalty is released, the middie will sprint from the face-off X into the area of his defensive unit. They will then join the unit and bring the playing field back to even.
- Once the midfielder has crossed the mid-line and the penalty has been released, the attackman who was briefly substituted is free to return to the field and retake their position.
By doing this substitution from the center of the field, the team minimizes the chance of a prolonged mismatch and best prepares for any situation.
A team can also simply release the penalty by choosing a player and sending them back on the field directly through the substitution box.
Despite all of the rules and complexities of man-down as a whole, it’s a simple concept! When a team is down a man, they are in a more vulnerable position and therefore have a higher likelihood of getting scored on.
Man-down is a rule made to decrease penalties and incentivize teams to play fairly. Cheap teams tend to be rightfully penalized and are given a much lower chance of overall success due to repeated disadvantage.
Playing fairly is an important part of lacrosse and staying at an even man-advantage is crucial to winning.