Battle of heavyweights almost too close to call
Scouts Inc.'s Gary Horton takes an in-depth look at the American Conference Championship.
These are two outstanding organizations and elite teams that expect to win this game. There are intriguing story lines everywhere. How do you stop Chicago WR Bobby Sippio, the best player in the league? How do you stop San Jose QB Mark Grieb, who has thrown 99 TD passes? How do these offenses move the ball versus defenses with excellent pass rushes and the two most aggressive secondaries in the league?
San Jose is perfect at home, but Chicago is mature and oblivious to pressure. The SaberCats did not play their best game last week versus Colorado, especially on defense, while Chicago played an almost perfect game on defense versus Los Angeles. This could be a classic.
When Chicago has the ball
As WR Bobby Sippio goes, so goes this offense. He is almost impossible to stop and QB Matt D'Orazio looks to him every time he needs a big play. The coaches are consistently trying to create ways to get him the ball. Last week versus Los Angeles, they even lined him up at quarterback several times, where he could pass or run. The complementary Rush receivers, Rob Mager and Etu Molden, are solid, but they don't require special coverage schemes.
San Jose has an excellent secondary and the depth to match up with Chicago. Look for DB Clevan Thomas to match up on Sippio. He had nine interceptions and 21 passes defended during the regular season and he is the best defensive back in the league at playing press coverage versus high motion. He will try to disrupt Sippio's routes and force D'Orazio to hold on to the ball. The other two DBs, Omarr Smith and Marquis Floyd, will handle Mager and Molden and maybe help Thomas over the top on Sippio.
D'Orazio might decide to shorten the Chicago passing game and throw a lot of underneath and crossing routes to Sippio, where he can run after the catch. That puts a lot of pressure on the Sabercats defense to break down in the open field and have a big tackling day. San Jose plays aggressively in the secondary, but it rarely blows coverages, so D'orazio must make smart decisions.
When San Jose has the ball
This is a very explosive and smart pass offense, and it is probably a little bit underrated. However, the Rush are playing the best pass defense in the AFL. Chicago not only plays with aggressiveness in the secondary, but it also has an excellent pass rush up front that forces quarterbacks to make hurried throws, which leads to interceptions. Chicago leads the league in takeaways and loves to play press coverages and disrupt the timing of the opponent's passing game.
The Rush secondary trio of Dennison Robinson, Jeremy Unertl and Jonathan Ordway will play tough man-to-man schemes versus San Jose WRs James Roe, Ben Nelson and Rodney Wright, and it should be a classic matchup. Grieb does a great job of spreading the ball around to all of his receivers and he does not make many bad decisions. Because of Chicago's aggressiveness and gambling style, there might be some big plays available to San Jose. The key might be the upfront pressure that Chicago generates. When the Rush's pass rush is clicking, their secondary seems to be around the ball on almost every play. If the Sabercats' offensive line can pass protect well for Grieb, he can have a solid day versus a great defense.
Chicago's keys to success
Play good defense in key spots
This is a veteran Rush defense that knows when to tighten up. The Rush have pitched two consecutive second-half shutouts and last week they held Los Angeles to just five conversions on 17 third- and fourth-down offensive attempts. They tighten up their coverages and seem to speed up their pass rush when they know they need a key stop.
2. Protect D'Orazio
He is playing with a sore back, but he's a tough guy. Los Angeles hit him several times last week and when that happens it hinders his timing with Sippio. The Rush offensive line needs a solid day pass blocking versus a good San Jose pass rush to let the D'Orazio-to-Sippio connection develop.
3. Takeaways and turnovers
These are two smart teams and they don't beat themselves. Chicago leads the league in takeaways and thrives on aggressiveness and big plays, but San Jose takes care of the football and doesn't commit a lot of penalties. This game could come down to a big defensive play or turnover.
San Jose's keys to success
1. 1. Where is Sippio?
The Rush lined up Sippio at QB several times last week versus Los Angeles. He can either throw or run from that formation and is a tough guy to bring down on a scramble. San Jose's defense is very aggressive and likes to take chances, but it must play under control and identify Sippio early.
2. Tighten up on defense
The SaberCats gave up a whopping 404 yards of offense to Colorado and QB John Dutton last week, and they just didn't play with their usual intelligence and aggressiveness. They must play better versus Chicago with attacking press schemes and no blown coverages and not let D'Orazio get hot.
3. Try to run the football
If Chicago has a weakness on defense it's stopping the run. San Jose is not an elite rushing team, but this might be a good week to try it -- and at least slow down the Chicago pass rush.
Either one of these teams would be a great representative of the American Conference in the Arena Bowl, but obviously only one will advance. This is as close a matchup, on paper, that you could ask for. These are veteran teams that know how to deal with playoff pressure and both have big-time performers at almost every position. Chicago has the best pass defense in the league and San Jose has a prolific passing game capable of spreading the field and putting up a lot of points. However, the SaberCats have an aggressive secondary of their own and they match up well -- but how do they stop Sippio? The key may be which team makes one or two defensive stops and which secondary either gambles and makes a big play or gambles and gives up a big play. San Jose is though to beat at home and it will come after D'Orazio and at least control Sippio in a very physical, low-scoring game that will result in a narrow win for the SaberCats.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.