Cleveland Gladiators at Philadelphia Soul
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com
The surprising Gladiators continue their magical 2008 season after a very impressive road win over Georgia in the divisional playoffs. Now they play the best team in the AFL, Philadelphia, for the right to go to ArenaBowl XXII. That is an amazing turnaround for a team that was 2-14 and playing in Las Vegas a year ago. This team was totally rebuilt, with just three players remaining that 2007 team. The Soul did some rebuilding of their own in the offseason, adding QB Matt D'Orazio and WR Chris Jackson and those acquisition have been the best in the AFL. This game will feature two dynamic offenses with excellent QB play and big-time receiving corps. Both teams are well-coached and both defenses are solid, but Philadelphia is probably a little more explosive on both sides of the ball. This is going to be a terrific game and Cleveland will force the Soul to play at their best. It will come down to the wire.
Cleveland keys to success
1. Utilize the run game: The Gladiators have the best and most creative run game in the AFL. They scored a league-best 32 TDs on the ground during the regular season and have a dominating FB in Marlion Jackson. They also use two FBs in some formations occasionally and backup Joshua Rue is also an excellent player. Not only will the Gladiators run the ball with power, but they will flex their FBs out wide in the passing game to create good matchups and open up the rest of the field. They ran the ball a whopping 154 times during the regular season and they believe in it. As good as Philadelphia is on defense, it struggles to stop the run and gave up 33 TDs on the ground during the regular season. Cleveland has an edge in the red zone if it stays committed to the run.
2. Make adjustments in the passing game: QB Raymond Philyaw does a great job of finding a weakness in a defense and then exploiting it. Against Georgia, he went to a vertical passing game with a lot of jump balls and it led to a lot of Force pass interference penalties. If the Soul sits back and play soft, Philyaw will utilize his underneath passing game with a lot of quick hitches, bubble screens and allow his guys to run after the catch. Philadelphia has a good defense and are usually very aggressive, but might play it a little safer versus this offense. Philyaw will see what the Soul are doing early and make his adjustments.
3. Do not be intimidated: Cleveland has looked like a very composed, veteran team in two playoff wins over Orlando and Georgia despite very little experience in this situation. Led by Philyaw, the Gladiators are playing smart football and never seem to be intimidated. Philadelphia is very aggressive, especially on defense, and might try to turn this into a physical trash-talking game and take the Gladiators out of their rhythm. Cleveland is a smart team and if it plays that way in a hostile environment, it will be in this game all the way.
Philadelphia keys to success
1. Take away the Cleveland deep passing game: Philyaw did a great job of throwing a lot of deep lob passes and simply letting his receivers go up and complete for jump balls or draws an interference penalty in the divisional playoffs. It was a strategy that worked well against Georgia and led to 10 penalties. What is ironic is that none of the Gladiators' receivers are big guys, but they all can jump and they compete for the ball. The Soul secondary is very aggressive and capable of committing a flurry of interference penalties. They will need to play under control and if they play press coverages, they run the risk of letting the receivers run by them. The best way to stop the Cleveland deep passing game may be an aggressive pass rush that forces Philyaw to shorten up his receivers' routes and get the ball out quicker.
2. Attack the Gladiators' secondary: When Cleveland is playing well on defense it's usually because its pass rush is creating enough pressure to protect a secondary that does not match-up real well. With the exception of centerfielder Brandon Hefflin, the Gladiators are young and don't make a lot of big plays (they gave up 100 TDs during the regular season). The Soul need a solid game from their OL in pass protection. If D'Orazio has time to throw he will exploit the Gladiators secondary and he should have excellent individual matchups.
3. Adjust to the creative Cleveland offense: Cleveland's offense does an excellent job of showing defenses a variety of formations, exotic wrinkles and will make changes during the game. They use all types of motion, will flex their FBs out wide to open up its field and believe in winning matchups by creating numbers, especially in the run game. Philadelphia has to be aware of these offensive wrinkles and be ready to make adjustments. This may a week where the Soul play conservative and sound defense and force Philyaw and company to put together a lot of scoring drives.
Although we did not expect to see Cleveland in this game, they deserve to be here and are going to give Philadelphia all it can handle. The Gladiators are confident and are not intimidated in any road environment. While Philadelphia is a tough place to get a win, the Gladiators won't be scared. The Soul looked vulnerable in their last-second, divisional playoff win over New York. They did not look ready to play and seemed to lack their usual intensity. If they play that way on Saturday, they will wind up watching the ArenaBowl instead of playing in it. The Soul have more explosive playmakers on both sides of the ball and if this game comes down to a defensive stop, that probably favors them. But this shapes up as a terrific and entertaining game that won't be decided until the last minute.
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.