Colorado at Arizona
Monday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
These are two teams that entered the 2008 season with high hopes, but now are heading in different directions. Colorado appeared to be a team with playoff talent and while the Crush continue to underachieve, they have the potential to play a competitive game versus any team if they avoid mistakes and show more explosiveness. Arizona, on the other hand, probably plays better than its talent level and despite up and down QB play, some defensive deficiencies and earlier pass protection problems, the Rattlers play hard every week and are not intimidated by any environment or any team.
When Colorado has the ball
For most of the season the Colorado offense has shown flashes of productivity, but it just doesn't play with any consistency. Now, to make matters worse, the Crush have been hit by the injury bug at wide receiver. Brad Pyatt and Chad Owens (ACL) are on the DL, leaving Ben Nelson and Willie McQuinnie as John Dutton's go-to guys but their ability to spread the field is limited. Despite getting great pass protection (only seven sacks allowed), this is the 14th-ranked pass offense in the league which means the offensive shortcomings have a lot to do with the QB. Arizona does not have a dominating defense and doesn't make a lot of explosive plays, but the Rattlers are steady and don't give up a lot of big plays. The pass rush is anemic (only nine sacks) and that exposes a secondary that doesn't make a lot of interceptions and break up a lot of passes, but they play with pretty good discipline. Dutton should have time to throw the ball to Nelson and McQuinnie, but the Rattlers may try to change up their coverages to fool him. His ability to make safe throws and not force the ball into coverage will be the key to Colorado's hope of an upset road win.
When Arizona has the ball
Instability at QB has been a problem for the Rattlers for most of the season, going back and forth between Lang Campbell and Jeff Smoker (partly because of injuries). But in the last couple of weeks Matt Sauk has started with excellent results. Offensive coordinator Skip Foster has a very creative scheme and Sauk seem comfortable with it. It helps that he has two big time receivers in Siaha Burley and Trandon Harvey to get the ball to. The Rattlers are still not an explosive offense (ranked 15th in pass offense and 13th in scoring offense) but they are making fewer mistakes and not turning the ball over as much. Part of the recent success is due to better offensive line play, especially in pass protection. This was a shaky unit early in the season, and while they have given up 22 sacks there has been solid improvement in recent weeks and that leads to better QB play and fewer hurried throws. Colorado has a defense that looked pretty good before the season, but continues to underachieve. They are 14th in pass defense, 16th in scoring defense and have just two playmakers, DB Rashad Floyd and DE Aaron McConnell. This just is not a good matchup defense. Floyd is good enough to go one on one versus either Burley or Harvey, but he can't cover them both and the Crush don't have another DB who can match up in man to man situations versus elite receivers. The key for Colorado is its pass rush. If the guys up front don't pressure Sauk, he will pick apart the Colorado secondary no matter how good Floyd plays.
Colorado keys to success
1. Find some explosive passing plays: This is the league's 14th-ranked pass offense and it just doesn't make a lot of big plays. Dutton does not play with consistency even though he has good weapons at receiver and gets good pass protection from his offensive line. He should have time to throw versus an Arizona defense that has only produced nine sacks (last in the league).
2. Be prepared to play hard: Arizona is playing with confidence and having fun. The Rattlers have rewarded their fans with an unexpected playoff berth and now have a rare chance to show a national television audience how good they are. Colorado looks uninspired and if it is not ready to play a full and physical game, it will get embarrassed.
3. Pass rush! A bright spot for the Crush is a pass rush that is probably a little better than most people realize. Led by McConnell, who has nine sacks, the Crush have posted 16 sacks this season. Arizona has dramatically improved its pass protection in recent weeks, but the reality is that it has given up 22 sacks. Colorado needs to make Sauk uncomfortable in the pocket.
Arizona keys to success
1. Create pass rush pressure: The Rattlers have the most anemic pass rush in the AFL, with only 9 sacks, and opposing QBs have plenty of time to throw and Crush Dutton can be productive if he has time to identify his matchups. Colorado does a nice job of protecting Dutton and if there was ever a week in which he could put up big numbers this is it.
2. Protect QB Matt Sauk: Sauk has really created a spark for Arizona in the last couple of weeks in a much improved pass offense and he has benefited from an improved offensive line in pass protection that really struggled early in the season. However, Colorado has a solid pass rush and we have not seen Sauk struggle yet. When under pressure the offensive line must play well and give him time to attack a vulnerable Crush secondary.
3. Find secondary receivers: Burley is the go-to guy in this offense and when the Rattlers need a big play they usually look his way. However, Colorado has an elite defensive back in Floyd and he will likely try to take Burley out of the game. Sauk should be able to take advantage of matchups versus the other crush DBs, who struggle in coverage, and he can expose Colorado's lack of secondary depth. This could be a huge game for Harvey.
1. Arizona WR Siaha Burley vs. Colorado DB Rashad Floyd: Even though Floyd does not have great size he is the ultimate ballhawk and routinely draws coverage versus the opposition's best receiver. Both of these guys are excellent technicians and this should be a classic battle. They could neutralize each other, which could force other players to step up and make plays.
2. Colorado WR Ben Nelson vs. Arizona DB Isaiah Trufant: Nelson is the go-to guy in this offense and has a nice combination of size and athleticism. Physically, he should win this battle, but despite Trufant's lack of size he has good ball skills and closes well. This is a good week for Dutton to get some high throws to Nelson to exploit the size difference.
3. Arizona offensive line vs. Colorado defensive line: This game may be won or lost in the trenches and both of these units have played well recently. Arizona's offensive line has made great strides and it is leading to good QB play by Sauk. But Colorado's pass rush is underrated and a big key to their success. If Sauk has time to throw he can exploit the Crush secondary.
Colorado is fading and Arizona is surging. The Rattlers are one of the pleasant surprises in the AFL and have made good on their playoff promise to season ticket holders. For some reason this team plays better than their talent level, while the Crush continue to underachieve even though they have pretty good talent. Arizona has significant holes and yet seems to play with confidence and it is not afraid of any situation. The Rattlers just find a way to win. They will relish playing in on national TV and this is a rare chance for them to prove that they are a legitimate playoff team. Hopefully, that same national stage will encourage Colorado to play with passion and make this a competitive game, but beating the Rattlers in the Valley of the Sun will not be easy.
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.