San Jose, Chicago play to their strengths
Although they produce similar results, Chicago and San Jose have different philosophies when it comes to the passing game, writes William Bendetson.
Both offenses are prolific, yet their styles are hardly similar. The Chicago Rush offense is centered around all-star wide receiver Bobby Sippio. The San Jose SaberCats offense spreads the ball more evenly among wide receivers James Roe, Ben Nelson, and Rodney Wright.
The two will meet Saturday in San Jose for a spot in the Arena Bowl (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET).
"We just know that one game it could be one receiver and the next game it could be another receiver," Nelson said. "We are patient and we know that will get our touches if we wait long enough."
The numbers support the rhetoric. Roe caught 124 passes for 1,512 yards and 39 touchdowns. Equally as impressive was Nelson, who played in only 10 games, yet still caught 96 passes for 1,208 yards and 35 touchdowns. Wright played in only 10 games and still managed to register 1,072 receiving yards.
The story could not be more different for Chicago. In 13 games, Sippio caught 125 passes for more than 1,739 yards with 53 touchdowns. Chicago's second-most productive receiver, Rob Mager, caught 72 passes for only 788 yards in nine games. Even if Mager's numbers are projected over a 13-game span, he still would have roughly 700 fewer receiving yards than Sippio.
"Our offense is not just designed to get the ball to Sippio, but that is the way it works sometimes," Rush coach Mike Hohensee said. "He is often the receiver that is open. But in many situations we would be foolish not to take advantage of his size and speed."
Although it is difficult to double team receivers in the AFL, defenses have centered their game plans on stopping Sippio, who made several circus catches in Chicago's win over the Los Angeles Avengers Monday night. With a receiver like Sippio, the Rush seem confident they can convert regardless of down and distance. It also helps that Rush QB Matt D'Orazio and Sippio grew up together in Chicago.
"It is a tremendous relationship," Hohensee said.
The most notable example on Monday night was a fourth-and-18 play in which Sippio made a leaping catch to bring Chicago within 1 yard of a touchdown. Sippio then lined up as quarterback and threw to an open D'Orazio for the touchdown. Sippio also caught a touchdown in the end zone despite being sandwiched between two defenders.
"It was a great catch, but it is important to remember that Matt made a perfect throw to give Sippio a chance," Hohensee said.
As for the fourth-and-18 play, "When you have a great athlete like Sippio, you can afford to take chances like that. We knew we would have to throw it up to Sippio and see if he could make a play."
The chemistry between Sippio and D'Orazio is special, and it has garnered attention around the league, particularly because the Rush have a chance to win consecutive Arena Bowls for the first time since the Tampa Bay Storm did it in 1995 and 1996.
"Sippio is D'Orazio's security blanket," SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb said. "But you really have to credit the Chicago coaching staff for finding creative methods to get him the ball."
The San Jose coaching staff also deserves credit for effectively utilizing three talented wide receivers with different skill sets. With their height, Nelson and Roe can catch a lot of deep balls while Wright is one of the more explosive receivers in the AFL. Critics expected Roe to become San Jose's No. 2 receiver behind Nelson, but Roe had the best statistical season of his career. The role of each San Jose receiver differs based on the defensive formation.
"If a team is playing zone coverage, my job is to stretch the field," Nelson said. "But if they are playing man, I am probably the one who will catch the pass."
Grieb has come to appreciate the unselfishness of his receivers.
"It is kind of nice because the three receivers are all about doing what it takes to win," Grieb said. "They don't care so much about personal numbers."
Chicago defeated San Jose 48-45 in their only regular-season meeting. Grieb threw two interceptions and spent much of the day being chased by the Rush defensive line. Grieb, however, distributed the ball well with Roe, Nelson and Wright all having 10 or more catches.
"We did not do a good job of protecting him," Nelson said. "If we don't give our quarterback time, it will be awfully difficult to win."
It is just one more thing the SaberCats will have to worry about. San Jose, though, should be pretty confident. After all, it has won 11 in a row.
William Bendetson is an intern for ESPN.com.