San Jose SaberCats vs. Philadelphia Soul
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC
These were the two best teams in the regular season and proved it in the playoffs. This is a case of the best teams meeting in the championship game. They are evenly matched in almost all areas and many of the unit matchups are strength versus strength. San Jose has been here before and is looking for its second consecutive championship and fourth in the last seven years. Philadelphia, meanwhile, it making its first ArenaBowl appearance. But don't get carried away with the seemingly huge differential in playoff experience between the two teams. Both have veteran players who know how to handle pressure and actually mirror each other in a lot of areas. They have excellent QBs, dynamic passing games, good pass rushes, aggressive, game-changing secondaries, two excellent kickers, and two good kick returners. This should go right down to the wire and it could be the most entertaining and well-played title games in recent memory.
San Jose keys to success
1. QB Mark Grieb on the same page with his receivers: San Jose has a very sophisticated pass offense and they have some NFL like wrinkles. The receivers have the freedom to adjust or change their routes while on the move depending on the coverage, but it takes tremendous communication with their QB. Grieb must make the same reads as his receivers and when that happens, it is almost impossible to slow down this passing game. But if Grieb makes the wrong read, it will lead to turnovers by a very smart and aggressive Philadelphia secondary.
2. Tight coverage leads to sacks: Most of the time when we see a defense that creates turnovers with sacks and interceptions we credit a strong pass rush for pressuring the QB into mistakes. However, in San Jose's case it is just the opposite. The SaberCats' secondary is so good that opposing QBs are forced to hold on to the ball too long because the receivers cannot get separation and that gives the guys up front more time to get to the QBs and create those coverage sacks. Rush QB Matt D'Orazio takes care of the football well and he will really be tested versus this secondary, but his receivers are very good at separation.
3. Be aggressive, but play smart on defense: The SaberCats play a very aggressive style of defense and they get their share of penalties, especially in the secondary. In most cases they are willing to live with those penalties in an effort to maintain that nasty attitude. However, this looks like a very close game and a key penalty could have a huge impact. The Philadelphia offense is very smart and does a great job of exploiting opponents' mistakes. The SaberCats need to play hard and physical versus the Soul receivers, but they must avoid silly interference calls or personal fouls.
Philadelphia keys to success
1. Utilize underneath passing game: The Soul have become very good at the short passing game, especially if defenses play off coverages and try to take away the deep ball. They love to throw quick hitches and little bubble screens that allow their receivers to run after the catch -- and they do it very well. The Soul receivers are also excellent blockers and that really helps them turn a short pass into a big play. Case in point: Larry Brackins is excellent at blocking outside for Chris Jackson on the bubble screen. San Jose is very aggressive and plays a lot of tight schemes. It will try to take away the Philadelphia short passing game with solid tackling before the receivers get going.
2. Surprise San Jose defense in the red zone: The Soul have a very explosive red-zone offense and can score in a lot of different ways. Obviously, they has two excellent receivers, Jackson and Brackins, and both are tough matchups. Brackins is especially effective on jump balls in the end zone because of his superior size while Jackson can make plays anytime, anywhere. D'Orazio is an excellent scrambler and he is a threat to tuck the ball and run. However, Philadelphia also likes to utilize the other complementary guys. OL Martin Bibla and Phil Bogle have combined for seven TD catches as outlet receivers and FB Wes Ours (fives TDs) is an underrated receiver out of the backfield even though he doesn't look like one.
3. Don't take too many defensive chances: The Soul love to jump routes and gamble, but they are playing a very complicated San Jose pass offense. Grieb and company will adjust their routes on the fly and if the Soul guess the wrong route, it can lead to a big play. They need to change up their defensive looks with a combination of coverages and sitting back in some zones. Although it is not their style, it could be effective. They really need to play smart on defense and the last thing they want to do is get into a chess match with the San Jose offense. Defensive discipline and patience is a big deal in this game.
This has a chance to be a classic game between two excellent teams without glaring weaknesses. When they met during the regular season, Philadelphia squeaked by San Jose 58-57 and this Arena Bowl matchup promises to be another close and exciting contest. Even though the Soul have never been in this situation, Matt D'Orazio has experience in this type of situation, leading Chicago to the ArenaBowl championship two years ago. San Jose has veteran leadership and know how to handle the pressure of this game. The rosters are loaded with quality players and game breakers on both sides of the ball. Both offenses are explosive and both defenses are aggressive and excellent at creating turnovers. This game will come down to which defense makes a key stop and which QB makes a critical mistake. That gives the edge to D'Orazio and the Soul. D'Orazio threw 80 TD passes with only four interceptions and his play should lead Philadelphia past San Jose in a very close game.
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.