Quick Guide to Man Down Defense | Lax Goalie Rat

Quick Guide to Man Down Defense


All lacrosse goalies will likely face one, if not multiple, man-down situations per game.

So it’s imperative that you understand how to defend the 6 on 5 to kill the penalty and get your team back to even strength without conceding a goal.

A killer man down unit can help propel a team to a championship.

In 2016, the NCAA finalists University of Maryland was among the leaders in Man Down defense. During the season they had 52 man-down opportunities and gave up goals on only 14 of those (73% penalty kill).

Eventual 2016 national champion – University of North Carolina – was also among the leaders at 69% penalty kill.

There are numerous man-down defenses that can be run. Some are more advantageous than others depending on the personnel your team has (i.e. great poles, killer goalie, etc.).

Today I’m going to discuss a few man-down principles and then 2 specific man-down strategies teams can run. Please note that while some of the principles may apply to the women’s game, this post is really meant for men’s lacrosse.

There are so many intricacies to man down strategy that I couldn’t possibly cover everything in a blog post. So consider this a mini guide to man down defense.

General Man-Down Rules

Before jumping into the specific man-down defensive strategies let’s cover some basic rules that apply to every single type of man down defense.

Recognize the Offensive Set

You’re first task as the QB of the defense is to recognize the offensive formation your opponent is using.

3-3, 1-4-1, 2-2-2, 1-3-2, 2-3-1, Circle – whatever it may be, shout it out so the man down unit knows what they’re up against. Shout it loud, shout it with confidence!

Of course offensive formations can, and likely will, change during the course of a 1:00 penalty (and perhaps even a 30 second penalty).

Identifying the changed offensive formation should really be the job of the entire defense. But as a goalie when you see a cutter or you see the offense change formations, be sure to alert the defense!

That said, each member of the defensive man down unit should feel confident enough to yell out the formation.

Same goes for cutters. If the goalie, or any man-down defender, identifies a cutter, be sure to yell “cutter (jersey #)” so the defense isn’t caught off guard.

Sticks In the Passing Lanes

Many man-up strategies look for a skip pass (a pass through the defense) to create a great scoring opportunity.

Being man-down we’re susceptible to these passes so to combat that every single defensive player must have his stick up and in the passing lanes at all times.

Then any skip pass can be intercepted or at worst deflected resulting in a ground ball situation.

Everyone on the Same Page

To compensate for the missing defender it’s absolutely imperative that the remaining 5 players are on the same page.

Each man-down defender must understand the man-down strategy being employed, understand the offensive situation and know his/her role in the defense.

There is no forgiveness in a man-down situation. If a player rotates when they shouldn’t, or holds when they should rotate that almost always results in an easy goal for the offensive.

So every member of the man-down unit including the goalie must be on the same page.

Man Down Defense: 5 Man Rotation

In a matchup man down defensive set, the defense is not stuck to a pre-set formation aka a zone, but rather a set of rules. This strategy is also called a 5 man rotation or “5 man” and it’s one of most popular man down defenses.

This is different from a zone defense man down strategy that I’ll cover in another post.

The 5 man rotation is very versatile and matches up well to any offensive set. You can also use the 5 man to apply pressure or be more conservative with the defensive strategy.

Player responsibilities in the 5 man down defense are determined by their proximity to the ball.

The 3 roles in this man down defense are called 0, 1, and 2:

  • 0 – 0 passes away: the on-ball defender
  • 1 – 1 pass away: adjacent defenders
  • 2 – 2 passes away

The 0 is responsible for stopping the ball carrier. As with 6v6 even D, he should be playing solid lacrosse 1×1 defense.

The 1’s mark offensive threats who are adjacent – 1 pass away. The 1’s should be in good position to be a 0 if the ball is passed adjacently. The 1’s also have the responsibility to defend the skip pass so they can’t get too far sucked out.

The 2’s slouch into the middle of the field to help cover the crease and to serve as a slide in the event a 0 gets beaten on a dodge. The 2’s will also be responsible for splitting multiple attack players.

If the offense is setup with a crease player, such as a 2-3-1, 1-4-1, or 1-3-2 set, that player should feel the presence of the 2. That is if their stick isn’t touching they should be close enough to deliver a check on the feed.

This matchup man down strategy works against any formation that the offensive chooses to setup in:

Vs a 2-3-1


Vs a 1-3-2


Here’s an example if the offensive passes the ball to the wing. The adjacent 1 becomes a 0. The previous 0 becomes 1. The crease 2 closer to the ball is now a 1. The other crease 2 remains a 2.


Vs an open set:

Open Set Man Down

Finally the matchup mandown defense vs. the 2-2-2 set.


As the ball moves from one offensive player to another, the defenseman’s responsibilities change. 0’s become 1’s, a 1’s becomes a 0’s, and 2’s become 1’s.

The best resource I’ve found for explaining man down defense is Pow Lax Master Coach.

4 Man Rotation Man Down Defense

In the 4-man rotation man down defense, the short stick defender will essentially lock off an offensive player – typically either the crease man or the man-up unit’s best player. Then the remaining 4 players will form a box (or diamond) and cover the 5 offensive players.

The concept here is to take out the other team’s best or most dangerous player with your short stick and run a rotating box with your long poles. This strategy can work very well if the other team has one player that is the star – the catalyst of their offense.

It does get a little tricky if the offense removes the locked off player from the play and we’re left to play a 5×4.

This man-down strategy is sometimes called a “box and one”.


So the defensive middie will lock off A3 – remaining ball side all times and preventing a feed at all costs. The D middie is not involved in the defensive rotations.

The other positions are as follows –

  • Ball – D1 – Responsible for covering the ballcarrier
  • Left – D2 – Responsible for A1 AND the skip lane to A2
  • Right – D3 – Responsible for M2 AND the skip lane to M3
  • Two – D4 – Responsible for splitting two players on the backside (M3 and A2)

As offense moves the ball around the defensive responsibilities change but there’s always a ball, left, right, and two.

For example if the ball moves to A1 –


The responsibilities are now –

  • Ball – D2 – Responsible for covering the ballcarrier
  • Left – D4 – Responsible for A2 AND the skip lane to M3
  • Right – D1 – Responsible for M21AND the skip lane to M2
  • Two – D3 – Responsible for splitting two players on the backside (M3 and M2)

As mentioned if the D is dedicated to locking off a particular player and that player heads to X than you have a 5 v 4 which gets a little harder to cover.

Do You Want to Play the Ball at X?

A highly debated topic in man-down defense is do you defend the ball carrier at X?

There are pros and cons to both strategies but I tend to agree with Patrick Chaplan at PowLaxMasterCoach in that we should send a defender behind the goal to pester the ball carrier.

When left alone at X with the ball I feel an offensive is just too dangerous considering possessing the ball at X is very advantagous for the offense.

The majority of the defenders are facing the ball and not viewing cutters and it just leaves the man down defense too vulnerable in my opinion.

However there are coaches who prefer to let the ball carrier roam free at the X position and only pick him/her up when they attempt to drive and become a threat to score.

More Keys to a Successful Penalty Kill

Here are a few more things to keep in mind regarding man-down defense.

Determine the acceptable shot distance

In a 6 vs 5 the defense is obviously at a disadvantage and something has got to give. As a team you should decide on the distance of shot that you’re comfortable giving up.

This mostly has to do with your goalie.

A young, inexperienced goalie might not feel comfortable allowing a 12-yard shot while a senior All-Star or just a goalie in the zone that game might eat those up all day.

So pick a distance – 10 yards, 11 yards, 12 yards, 13 yards etc. – and as a team know that conceding a shot from that distance or beyond is ok.

As a goalie if you give up a goal from that distance or beyond, praise the D, take the responsibility and let them know you’ll stop the next one.

Don’t Get Over Extended 

A 6 vs 5 is easier for the defense to defend than a 5 vs 4. If the ball carrier gets too far away from the goal its important that the 0, the on-ball defender doesn’t follow him. As a defense we don’t want to get overextended.

If he does follow, with a simple adjacent pass the offense now has a 5 vs 4 with both the passer and his defender out of the picture.

So don’t get overextended when you’re a 0.

In fact, if you have a good goalie who is comfortable blocking outside shots the defense is at an advantage to remain as tightly packed in as possible.

Don’t be afraid to Gilman

If you create a turnover and are getting pressured heavily by riding attackman, don’t be afraid to ‘Gilman’.

That is where you chuck the ball down to the other end of the field.

You’re much better off with a successful clear obviously, but if you are in a sticky situation with man-down clears just Gilman it in the offensive end of the field and away from their goalie.

You’ll kill penalty time and perhaps even win the ensuing ground ball scrap.

Get in Shape

Good man down defense is tiring. You’re constantly on the move, sprinting in and out

So be sure your team is in good physical shape to handle the demands of man-down defense.

Scout the Opposition 

Understanding what the opponent is going to do is a great method to improve your man down unit.

What formations do they run? Who takes the shots? What plays do they run?

Knowing all these details before you get into that man-down situation will help your team kill the penalty.

Real Penalty Time

As a defense, it’s imperative to understand that you’re not “even” until your defender sprints back to the hole and everyone finds their matchup.

I always coach my team to understand that a 30-second man down penalty means you’re actually man-down for 35 seconds. 65 seconds for a 1 minute penalty.

That’s because of the time it takes the released penalty to sprint back to the crease.

Then and only then should the team yell “EVEN” and normal lacrosse defense ensues.

So be sure your team isn’t getting out of the man-down setup immediately when the box official releases the penalty.

Man Down Videos

Here are a couple of videos from coaches explaining their man down defensive strategies:


My very first save came on a man down situation after our starting goalie was hit with a slashing penalty.

While I knew very little about man down defense strategy back then it sure would have helped if I did.

That’s because to lead a successful man-down penalty kill the goalie must understand the strategy and be a field general.

There are so many variables to man-down defense – if they X, you do Y. If they do Z, you go R. So this post really covers some basic strategies and also covers the 5-man and 4-man rotations at a high level.

Follow the tips and strategies outlined in this post and you will help your team escape the man-down situation without conceding a goal.

Until next time! Coach Damon

Any other questions about man-down defense? Leave me a comment below. 

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