Here’s an ArenaBowl XXII preview, broken down by position. Philadelphia opened at 3.5 point favorite. Admittedly, I’ll probably be a bit biased, being a 12-year fan of the SaberCats.
Matt D’Orazio has kept turnovers low and taken advantage of his two big receivers all season long, and may be the top free agent pick up in AFL history, stepping in for Tony Graziani after an MCL injury. Mark Grieb started out the season with 14 INT’s in his first 10 games, but finished the season with 50 TD’s against 4 picks in the last 6 games. Both come in with championship experience, D’Orazio winning one ring with Chicago and Grieb winning three, and playing in the ’04 and ’07 games. D’Orazio had the better season but struggled against New York, which utilizes a physical secondary similar to that of the SaberCats.
Offensive Line: Even
The Soul allowed 19 sacks to San Jose’s 16, but had far more continuity throughout the year. San Jose C Dan Loney has struggled with snapping the ball recently and has seen those struggles continue into the playoffs. Phil Bogle of the Soul and Gene Frederic/Julius Gant of the SaberCats have proven themselves able as tight ends and pass blockers.
Wide Receivers: Edge to Philly
San Jose will be hurt immensely by the loss of all-time receiving leader James Roe, but was only mildly fazed by the loss in defeating Grand Rapids in the Conference Championships. Cleannord Saintil and Rodney Wright have taken the lead and have kept the WR core afloat. Jason Geathers has stepped in for Roe while continuing to play the Jack Linebacker spot on defense. Chris Jackson and Larry Brackins of Philly are the best 1-2 punch in the league and will be difficult to stop for the relatively small San Jose secondary. However, these two did struggle in the week 7 meeting in San Jose. However, Jackson is the league’s best receiver and it will take a fantastic mix of coverages to stop him.
Fullback: Edge to Philly
Brian Johnson of the SaberCats won 2nd team All Arena honors but struggled all year to run the ball especially in late game situations, and has since lost the carrying duties to Rodney Wright and Jason Geathers. He is still a superb pass blocker, and pretty much the only one on the San Jose roster. Wes Ours and Clifton Smith have been incredibly difficult to stop, Ours out of the standard formations and Smith out of a QB-less shotgun formation. Ours is also surprisingly adept at catching swing passes. The combination of Ours and Smith give the Soul a distinct advantage in the backfield.
Defensive Line: Slight Edge to San Jose
San Jose led the league in sacks with 30 to the Soul’s 24. Both have a combination of depth and strength at the lines, with seemingly the only edge at this position going to San Jose for having 4 defensive linemen, McIntyre, Williams, Jones, and Harper capable of providing the rush. With all healthy, San Jose will be capable of generating heat on D’Orazio all game. Bryan Save and Gabe Nyenhuis man the ends for Philadelphia, but match up against San Jose’s guards who have played very well of late.
Linebackers: Slight Edge San Jose
Steve Watson had an unheard of 9.0 sacks from the Mack position and Jason Geathers did not lose a step playing both ways, WR/JLB, pick-sixing a pass against Grand Rapids in addition to his 3 offensive TD’s. While Philadelphia has a number of above average performers playing the two Linebacker spots, San Jose has two players who can take over the game from spots that don’t usually get much attention.
Defensive Backs: Slight Edge San Jose
Philadelphia doesn’t have as many problems to deal with as James Roe is out, and they get back Brian Mance. Both teams utilize shorter, more physical DB’s, but as of late, San Jose’s DB’s have all been playing well. After a subpar season, Omarr Smith tallied 3 INT’s, as well as a pick on a 2 point conversion against Grand Rapids, while Marquis Floyd and Clevan Thomas were All Arena performers this year. Eddie Moten and Mike Brown are great players in their own right, but San Jose’s DB’s have the championship experience and the strength advantages here.
Kicker: Edge to San Jose
There isn’t a better kicker in the league than San Jose’s A.J. Haglund. He kicks, recovers fumbles, and makes tackles. Connor Hughes is an above average kicker.
Kick Return: Slight edge to Philadelphia
Mike Brown has the big play capability, but over the season, Rodney Wright had the better average, and has more consistency. San Jose’s kick coverage gave up a TD to Chris Martin and the Rampage last week, but the closed rectangle endzones in New Orleans play to San Jose’s strengths.
So overall, San Jose has a defensive edge, Philly has an offensive edge, and the special teams game is pretty much even. In theory, this should be an instant classic a la ArenaBowl 18. I’m gonna be a homer here and err on the side of Grieb:
And hopefully I’m right and San Jose grabs its 4th title in 7 years. Sunday 7/27 at noon PST on ABC. Go to ArenaFan.com for some more great info on the game.