Cleveland at Georgia
Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Everybody assumed Dallas would be visiting Georgia in this game, but when the New York Dragons upset the Desperados everything changed. This now shapes up to be a very entertaining offensive game. Georgia and Cleveland are the No. 2- and No. 3-rated passing offenses in the AFL. Both have big-time veteran quarterbacks who are capable of putting a lot of points on the board. Gladiators QB Raymond Philyaw is coming off an impressive performance where he threw for 436 yards and eight touchdowns. Force QB Chris Greisen is coming off an outstanding regular season where he totaled 97 touchdowns. As good as both offenses are, this game could come down to which defense makes a few key stops. Both teams are smart and this is not likely to be a sloppy game.
Cleveland keys to success
1. A disruptive pass rush: The Gladiators' pass rush was impressive versus the Predators. They kept QB Shane Stafford off balance all night and even when they didn't sack him, they put some big hits on him. The Gladiators do an excellent job of getting their hands up, deflecting passes and taking away throwing lanes. However, they do not play very good man-to-man schemes behind the pass rush. As a result, they are forced to play a lot of zones, but this is only effective if the guys up front can put pressure on the Greisen.
2. Spread the offense: The Gladiators have the second-best pass offense and they are very creative in the red zone. Cleveland also isn't afraid to spread the field and run the ball. This offense lacks a franchise receiver, but two players have developed nicely. Robert Redd is a tough player who does a lot of his work in the middle of the field. Otis Amey is the home run threat and a great red zone target. This will be a tough matchup for Georgia's secondary.
3. Make Georgia respect the run: This may be the most physical run offense in the AFL. The Gladiators have a bruising FB in Marlion Jackson, who is very effective near the goal line and not afraid to run the ball in the middle of the field. However, Georgia has the second-best run defense in the AFL and the Force are physical in their own right. Cleveland ran the ball a whopping 154 times during the regular season to keep defenses off balance. The Gladiators must adopt a similar strategy versus the Force in order to help Philyaw move the ball down the field.
Georgia keys to success
1. Pass protection for QB Chris Greisen: The Gladiators' pass rush seems to be a little underrated, but they do an excellent job of penetrating, getting their hands up and putting a helmet on the quarterback. Georgia has the top pass protection in the AFL, which will be a problem for the Gladiators. If Greisen has time in the pocket, he will be able to pick apart the Gladiators' secondary, which particularly struggles versus elite receivers. This battle in the trenches will be very important.
2. Make QB Raymond Philyaw uncomfortable: He is a very composed veteran and he does an excellent job of anticipating his receivers' routes, getting the ball to them in the break and getting the ball out at the last second. The Force have a veteran pass rush, which does a good job of pressuring the quarterback. Philyaw will throw a lot of slants and crossing routes, so the Force's defensive linemen need to get their hands up and take away throwing lanes. Philyaw rarely makes a throwing mistake and the Force's secondary is unlikely to cover well enough to force coverage sacks -- so it's up to the guys up front.
3. Make a couple of defensive stops: This game looks as though it will be a high-scoring affair and defensive stops will be at a premium. Philyaw is not likely to throw the ball away and he does a nice job of converting almost every offensive possession. The Force will need to make one or two stops and play good red zone defense because the offense will do its part.
This shapes up to be a high-scoring game with a lot of big plays. Both quarterbacks can put up big numbers and both teams have quality receivers. The defenses are adequate, but both pass rushes may be a little bit underrated, which could be the key to the game. Neither secondary matches up well if Philyaw or Greisen has time to throw, so it is important that both defenses make the quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. In a game that features great offenses, the outcome could come down to a battle in the trenches. Due to this, Georgia gets the edge because of its very good offensive line.
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.