Week 4 in the Arena Football League presents another tough challenge for the Chicago Rush: a road trip to face the Cleveland Gladiators on Saturday afternoon.
For the fourth straight week to open the season, the Rush (3-0) faces an undefeated team. (Hey, the Milwaukee Mustangs were undefeated at 0-0 in Week 1!) And this isn’t your typical Cleveland football team (sorry, Browns fans). The Gladiators are good.
Cleveland (2-0) is fresh off a 66-26 shellacking of the Tampa Bay Storm on Sunday night, posting the largest margin of victory in franchise history and handing the Storm its worst loss in franchise history. The 26 points were also the fewest that Cleveland has allowed in team history.
After a Week 1 bye, the Gladiators opened their season with a 61-55 victory on the road against the defending league champion Spokane Shock. This weekend’s game against the Rush will be Cleveland’s home opener.
The Gladiators own the AFL’s highest-scoring offense, racking up a whopping 63.5 points per game during their first two contests. In each of their first two games, they’ve scored three touchdowns in their first eight plays from scrimmage. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they also have the third-best scoring defense in the league, coughing up only 40.5 points per game.
The Rush averages 55 points per game, good for an eighth place tie with the Georgia Force. Its defense is ranked #2, surrendering only 36.7 points per game.
The two teams rank pretty close to each other in nearly all of the season statistics so far. Both teams have very efficient offenses that score quickly, and both have staunch defenses to shut down their opponents.
The Cleveland Gladiators
The starting quarterback for Cleveland was John Dutton, who threw for 257 yards and six scores against Spokane, while delivering another touchdown on the ground. However, he tore his left Achilles’ tendon toward the end of the game and is lost for the season. Backup quarterback Kurt Rocco finished the game, throwing a 12-yard touchdown strike on his only pass attempt.
Rocco started Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, and he mirrored Dutton’s stats almost perfectly: 270 yards, six passing touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown. So it doesn’t appear as though there’s a real big step-down in quarterbacking ability here.
In case you’re wondering, Rocco is a rookie, and he played his college ball at Mount Union from 2006 to 2009, starting his senior year and finishing as the most efficient passer in Division III. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.
On the receiving end of Rocco’s passes will be WR Troy Bergeron and WR Robert Redd. Bergeron has scored seven touchdowns so far in two games, and his 21 points-per-game average is good for second-best in the AFL. He’s also the leading rusher on the Gladiators, with 18 yards on three carries.
Bergeron’s and Redd’s receiving statistics through two games are quite similar. Redd has 14 receptions for 184 yards and four touchdowns, while Bergeron has 12 receptions for 185 yards and seven touchdowns. Redd has also returned three kickoffs for 37 yards–a 12.3-yard average.
About the time you think you have these two guys contained, WR Victor Williams is right there with 14 receptions, 153 yards, and two scores.
It seems as though Cleveland has a rather well-balanced passing attack.
On defense, keep your eye on DB Joe Phinisee, who has 16 tackles and two assists in two games, good for third-best average in the league (8.5 tackles per game). He also has an interception, which he returned for 14 yards against the Storm. He wears #20, so watch him carefully when the Rush has the ball. He’s a sneaky little sucker. He might be part-ninja. I’m not sure.
The Chicago Rush
Is all this talk about Cleveland’s success making you a little warm under the collar? Bringing some beads up to the surface on that ol’ forehead? Giving you some hives?
Well, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. Our guys are pretty darn good, too.
A young fella named Russ Michna tosses the rock for the Rush. Ever head of him? He’s a pretty cool customer. He was the Offensive Player of the Game last week in the victory over San Jose with his seven total touchdowns, and he has seventeen scores in three games so far this season. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 63 yards.
Michna’s partner in crime is WR Reggie Gray, who leads the team with 19 receptions, 301 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns. That’s 100 yards and one foot per game. Yes, I measured it.
Pounding it on the ground will be FB Johnie Kirton, who has 48 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns so far in this young season. I owe Johnie an apology. I’ve been spelling his first name with two “n”‘s all season long. In my defense, it’s been spelled “Johnnie” on everything I’ve seen so far…until I ran into his University of Washington page. Being an enormous Washington State University fan (go Cougars!), I simply assumed that Huskies can’t spell (a perfectly reasonable assumption), but another page turned up the correct spelling of Johnie’s name. And another . And finally his Facebook page. So Johnie: I apologize. I will get it right for the rest of eternity.
Remember how I said Joe Phinisee has the third-best tackles-per-game average in the league? Guess who’s second-best with nine tackles per game. You guessed it! Do It All Vic Hall with his 25 solo tackles and four assists! I’ve probably gushed about him enough for awhile, so I imagine that I don’t need to remind you of his two interceptions (with a third one negated by a penalty, but who’s counting?), his team-leading four pass break-ups, and his unbelievable two-point conversion against Philly. Nah, I think I’ll forego mentioning that stuff again, so as to avoid overkill.
You want to know something that Cleveland doesn’t do particularly well? Cover kickoffs. In fact, Michael Lindsey of the Tampa Bay Storm returned two kickoffs for touchdowns Sunday night against the Gladiators. This bodes well for Jason Simpson, who has been about a gnat’s hair away from breaking one quite a few times this season, averaging 18.2 yards per return. (If Reggie Gray is back there, maybe he’ll take one to the house, too, since he averages 15 yards per return.) In addition to Simpson’s return talents–he also returned a missed field goal for 32 yards–he leads the team with three interceptions and has a pass break-up and a forced fumble on the year so far.
Bringing the pain to Rocco from the defensive line will be Chicago’s leading sacker, DL Quartez Vickerson (two sacks), along with fellow DL Mark Weivoda and Joe Clermond (one sack a piece). And with a game’s worth of film on Rocco now, you gotta figure these guys are licking their chops for a crack at the rookie from Mount Union.
Last season, the Rush beat the Gladiators by three points…twice: 59-56 in Chicago and 52-49 in Cleveland. This game looks like it’ll be another close battle.
Tune in to NiFTyTV on Saturday, April 2, at 3:00pm Central Time to catch the game between the Cleveland Gladiators and your….. Chicagooooooo….. RRRRRRRRRRUSH!
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