Looking back on a few things that caught our eyes as we head into Week 5.
Thank goodness for Matt D'Orazio!
After an injury to starting QB Tony Graziani basically ruined Philadelphia's 2007 season the front office decided it needed a quality backup as insurance for the aging Graziani. D'Orazio was excellent as the starter in Chicago before a back injury curtailed his effectiveness late in the season, and he has excellent physical skills and can make every throw. There were concerns about his health and durability before he came to the Soul, but this looks like the personnel move of the year so far.
The offense has not missed a beat without Graziani (knee injury) and the chemistry between D'Orazio and star wide receiver Chris Jackson is excellent. In Week 4 D'Orazio shredded a usually good Los Angeles defense for 328 yards and eight touchdowns, spreading the ball around to five receivers. He is doing an excellent job of identifying favorable matchups. Graziani is expected to miss another couple of weeks but with D'Orazio playing so well the coaches don't have to rush him back. Could we have a developing QB controversy in Philadelphia?
The VooDoo knows how to play defense
While New Orleans fans are excited about he emergence of local product QB Danny Wimprine and an explosive offense, the VooDoo defense seems to be flying under the radar. They have the best pass defense in the AFL in all categories and lead the league with 11 interceptions, and an underrated pass rush that has produced a league-leading eight sacks. New Orleans forced five turnovers last week against Cleveland and held the Gladiators to a 4-for-13 conversion rate on third and fourth downs and red zone opportunities. Throw in four interceptions, two sacks, two tackles for loss, two fumbles recovered and four passes broken up and it was a very good day. The VooDoo is producing without a lot of big-name defensive stars and taking a lot of pressure off Wimprine and the offense. This could be a team to watch in the next few weeks.
Watch out for Chicago
Chicago actually looked mortal in losing to Philadelphia in Week 2 and for the last two weeks has been flying under the radar. However, in their three wins the Rush have outscored their opponents 204-117 and simply dominated games. This is a complete team with both excellent offensive and defensive production, but they are also outstanding on special teams. Linebacker DeJuan Alfonzo keys a defense that creates turnovers and big plays and their secondary is one of the most physical and aggressive in the league.
Offensively, QB Sherdrick Bonner is everything they expected and his chemistry with WR Damian Harrell gets better each week. They have a solid offensive line and also the best short-yardage runner in the league in FB Dan Alexander. Chicago has a very winnable remaining schedule until facing Dallas at home in Week 17 and should be favored in every game the rest of the way. They also play in a weak division with no serious competitions and their only real obstacle on the way to the ArenaBowl is San Jose, and the Rush will likely play in the conference championship game at home.
Is Grand Rapids for real?
First-year head coach Steve Thonn arrived with a great offensive reputation, but until Week 4 his offense did not produce a lot of big plays. The coaches started the season with Adrian McPherson at quarterback, and while his mobility is off the charts and he is the best athlete in the AFL at his position, his decision making and accuracy are inconsistent. He just didn't run a precision offense very well. When the Rampage made the switch to James MacPherson they got a guy with less athleticism but much more discipline, and MacPherson runs the offense well and the coaches seem to trust him. This isnt a team with a lot of big names, but the way they played in Week 4 (scoring 92 points, an AFL record for a road team) will create some optimism in western Michigan. They may not yet be a contender, but this is a team that will get better offensively and be competitive if the defense plays hard every week.
Never underestimate the value of a backup QB
Have we ever seen a season where more starting QBs were injured and replaced by backups with mostly positive results? It all starts in Dallas, where Chris Sanders is undefeated in place of Clint Dolezel, who is doing a great job of calling offensive plays from the sidelines. D'Orazio has been nearly perfect in Philadelphia and Wimprine has become a hero in New Orleans, while Jeff Smoker has done a nice job replacing Lang Campbell in Arizona.
Non-injury QB changes have occurred in Chicago, where Russ Michna played an excellent game against Grand Rapids when Bonner had to leave the team for the birth of his first child, and in the aforementioned situation in Grand Rapids. Kansas City has also had some success with Matt Kohn replacing John Fitzgerald. Front offices in the AFL are realizing that you need two quality QBs to get through a long season.
The 'Jack' linebacker
Defense has changed in the AFL with the new rule that allows the Jack freedom of movement and the ability to slide to the outside, and it should lead to better coverage schemes and more interceptions -- especially in the flat. It is fun to watch quarterbacks try to read the Jack in coverage and decide whether to continue to attack the outside or throw the ball back inside areas the Jack vacates. A lot of defenses are playing some zone schemes, almost a Cover 2 look with two DBs deep and one DB and the Jack in the short zones. Quarterbacks could counter and either run the ball or attack the short middle, creating productive plays or forcing the Jack to stay home. It will be fun to watch the evolution of this new rule for both the offense and defense in the next few weeks. It could lead to more check-downs and safe throws in the middle, and Jacks might end up playing cat-and-mouse games by showing outside then staying inside, or vice-versa.
A lot of AFL passers are utilizing pump fakes and double moves on routes by receivers to create big vertical plays. With receivers having big matchup advantages because of motion a lot of DBs try to jump routes, and the pump fake gives the receivers a chance for deep routes on an out-and-up move. But remember, when a quarterback uses that pump fake all the restrictions on defenders in the box are lifted and the defense has more freedom of movement.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.