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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
SaberCats the defending champs, but Rampage have momentum

By Gary Horton
Scouts Inc.

Grand Rapids at San Jose
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com

Coming off a huge upset of top-seeded Chicago, the Rampage go into San Jose with tremendous confidence and a ton of momentum. They have won four games in a row, including two playoff games, and have the hottest offense in the league. Now they face the veteran SaberCats who are used to playing in this environment. They are battle tested and tough to beat at home. We will see two exciting offenses with excellent QB play and two aggressive defenses that will really come after the QB. This looks like a high scoring game that comes down to which defense can make a stop. One thing is for sure, though -- the Rampage will not be intimidated.

Grand Rapids keys to success

1. Smart offensive football: This looks like the most cerebral pass offense in the AFL. The play-calling is excellent and the Rampage do a great job of setting up defenses and getting the matchups that they want. Against Chicago, they went to a short passing game to neutralize the ferocious Rush pass rush and it resulted in an 87-percent completion rate for QB James MacPherson. Grand Rapids simply takes what the defense gives it and makes excellent in-game adjustments. San Jose has a defense similar to Chicago and the Rampage must play another smart, error-free, offensive game.

2. Playmakers must make plays: The Rampage have really developed some quality players on both sides of the ball and they will have their hands full versus a San Jose squad that is loaded with productive guys. WRs Kenny Higgins and Cole Magner must have a big game. Both are smart guys who understand this offense and they may have to adjust their routes more than usual. On defense, DB Ahmad Hawkins must play a great centerfield versus a deep SaberCats receiving corps. He needs to jump some routes and make a big play or two.

3. Solid red zone offense and defense: Not only did the Rampage almost completely turn over this roster in the last year, but they have also almost totally rebuilt their offensive and defensive lines during the 2008 season. They gave up a lot of sacks early and struggled to make stops on the defensive side. They were especially ineffective in the red zone. However, that has all changed in the last month. Using different personnel groupings, they made four stops against Chicago and now against San Jose, the Rampage must capitalize in the red zone on both sides of the ball.

San Jose keys to success

1. Slow down QB James MacPherson: MacPherson has a quick release, very accurate and is really making good decisions. When teams sit back on defense, he throws the underneath routes. When teams come after him with press coverages, he beats them deep. MacPherson has gotten better at utilizing his check downs, but has still thrown 16 interceptions. This great San Jose defense must make him uncomfortable and hesitant in the pocket.

2. Play to your strength: The SaberCats have the best pass rush in the league with 30 regular season sacks and the Rampage are near the bottom in pass protection, having given up 29 sacks despite having a mobile QB who can escape from pressure. If the San Jose pressure starts to get to MacPherson, expect the Rampage to shorten the passing game with dump offs, screens, and quick slants to negate the rush. Grand Rapids needs its O-line to play well. If San Jose can apply pressure, it is a tremendous advantage.

3. Donít lose this game on special teams: If Grand Rapids has an edge in any area itís probably in the kicking game. They have a terrific returner in Chris Martin, an excellent kicker in Brian Gowins and good cover teams. The Rampage are second in the league with 1,946 yards on returns and seven TDs, while San Jose is last with 2,068 return yards allowed. However, they have the best kicker in the league, A.J. Haglund. The SaberCats must contain Martin and not let the Rampage score in the kicking game.

Prediction

Nobody expected Grand Rapids to be here and at first glance, this has the look of an easy San Jose win. After all, the SaberCats, the defending ArenaBowl champs, have been in this position several times before, are tough to beat at home and are playing an opponent perceived to be inferior. But there seems to be something special about this Grand Rapids team. The new-look Rampage is getting excellent QB play and have a masterful play-caller in head coach Steve Thonn. San Jose is explosive on both sides of the ball and the Rampage will have to play their best game in the trenches to stay competitive. If MacPherson is on his game Grand Rapids will take the SaberCats right down to the wire. But in the end, the San Jose defense will make a key stop or two and that will be the difference.

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.