Commentary

Avengers and Blaze still fighting for playoff spots

Scouts Inc.'s Gary Horton takes an in-depth look at this week's Los Angeles-Utah game.

Originally Published: May 29, 2008
By Gary Horton | Scouts Inc.

Los Angeles at Utah
Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

Even with subpar records and significant flaws both of these teams have a shot at the playoffs, and that makes this a meaningful game. Utah is hot with four wins in their last five games and has the most reliable offense in the league, led by QB Joe Germaine. That is not good news for a Los Angeles defense that gives up big plays in bunches. The Avengers have not shown a lot of fight or resiliency, and if that is going to happen it better happen be this week. The Blaze is struggling to make key stops as well, so this could be an entertaining offensive game.

When Los Angeles has the ball

This shapes up as a battle of weakness against weakness rather than strength versus strength. Los Angeles has one of the most inconsistent offenses in the AFL, ranked 16th in passing, dead last in sacks allowed (27), and Avengers quarterbacks have combined to throw 20 interceptions. If there is good news for Los Angeles it's the fact that Utah rarely makes big defensive plays and has only seven interceptions through 14 games, just 11 sacks and has the second-worst overall pass defense in the league. All of that should be encouraging to Avengers QB Sonny Cumbie.

The Utah secondary does not match up well in man-to-man coverage and will be exposed to big plays if the pass rush is not productive. The Los Angeles offensive line has played poorly in pass protection, forcing many of the mistakes from the quarterback position. The Blaze does not need to play a perfect defensive game, just to make one or two defensive stops because their own offense should score easily. It is imperative that Cumbie avoid turnovers and avoid getting into a shootout versus a more explosive Utah offense.

When Utah has the ball

Germaine leads one of the best passing games in the AFL. The Blaze has the No. 2 passing offense in the league and ranks third with 101 touchdowns, numbers that should only get better against an Avengers defense that ranks 14th against the pass and dead last in scoring with 108 touchdowns allowed. Los Angeles gives up a ton of big plays and just doesn’t look sound in coverage. The pass rush must help mask that deficiency, which could happen given the fact that Utah has given up 21 sacks over 14 games.

However, Germaine does a nice job of getting the ball out quickly and identifying good matchups, and he does have a little more mobility that people think. Utah’s offensive explosiveness is a major advantage in this game and the Blaze will try to build an early lead and force Los Angeles into an up-tempo game that does not suit the Avengers' style. Los Angeles will need to play its best game of the year and might have to gamble by jumping routes and changing up coverages, because if the Avengers can't force Germaine into mistakes they don't have a chance to win the game.

Los Angeles Keys To Success

1. Pass protection -- The Avengers struggle versus good pass rushes and that has led to inconsistent quarterback play. The good news is that Utah does not have a strong pass rush and Cumbie should have some time to throw against a suspect Blaze secondary.
2. Pass rush pressure -- The Avengers don't create a lot of big plays with sacks, but they face a Utah offensive line that has given up 21 sacks. Germaine does a good job of getting the ball out quickly and identifying matchups, making it tougher for the defensive line to get to him, and if he has time then the Los Angeles secondary is in big trouble.
3. Stability at quarterback -- Because of shoddy pass protection, the quarterback production has been inconsistent. We have seen several changes and it seems that this offense just doesn-t have a leader it can trust, and thus it lacks an identity. Cumbie is back as the starter and hopefully the Avengers will stick with him even if he struggles early.

Utah Keys To Success

1. Pass protection -- The Blaze offensive line has given up 21 sacks and that number would be a lot higher if Germaine wasn't so good at feeling pressure and getting the ball out quickly. The Avengers don't have a great pass rush but they do show flashes of good production. If Germaine's line does a good job up front he will pick the Avengers apart.
2. Defensive pressure -- Avengers quarterbacks struggle and hurry their throws against good pass rushes, and they can make an ordinary secondary look a lot better than it really is. Utah doesn't usually threaten opposing passers with pressure and that exposes a secondary that does not match up real well. The Blaze defense can help its own cause by making Cumbie uncomfortable in the pocket.
3. Confuse the Avengers’ defense -- Los Angeles has struggled to make big plays, especially against the pass, and because they often look fundamentally sound the Avengers can be fooled by smart quarterbacks. Germaine must read the coverage and lure defensive backs into jumping routes and taking chances, which will lead to big plays.

Key Matchups

1. Utah WRs Huey Whittaker and Aaron Boone vs. Los Angeles secondary -- Whittaker gets all the attention and that gives Boone a lot of favorable matchups and single coverages. The Avengers have one quality DB in Damon Wheeler, and he doesn't get a lot of help. Los Angeles will struggle to cover both guys and Germaine does an excellent job of spreading the ball around.
2. Los Angeles WRs Timon Marshall and LaShaun Ward vs. Utah secondary – Much like Utah, Los Angeles has a premier guy in Marshall who gets all the attention, and that leaves Ward with excellent matchups. Utah does not have a great cover secondary and doesn't have a shutdown guy, so unless the Blaze pass rush is creating pressure they could struggle versus the Avengers receivers.
3. Los Angeles offensive line vs. Utah defensive line -- Pass protection problems are a big reason the Los Angeles quarterbacks have struggled. Utah does not have a very good pass rush, but this is a chance to at least hurry Cumbie and force some mistakes.

Prediction

At first glance this does not have the look of an intriguing prime-time game, but there are some good storylines and matchups here that could make this interesting. With both teams still in the playoff hunt the effort should be all-out by players on both sides. This game will likely come down to an explosive Utah pass offense versus a poor Los Angeles defense that that has given up a ton of points. The Blaze specializes in big offensive plays and the Avengers are prone to giving up those big plays.

To have a legitimate chance in this game Los Angeles must make a couple of defensive stops and create a turnover or two. Neither team plays great defense, so offensive plays will be available. And because neither team does a good job of protecting the passer there will be chances for sacks. Utah is playing hard right now and is at home, so it is hard to project enough resiliency and fight in this Los Angeles squad to give them a great chance to steal a much-needed road win.

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.

Gary Horton spent 10 years in the NFL as a scout and another 10 years at the college level as an assistant coach and recruiter. He is the founder and most seasoned member of the Scouts Inc. staff, and his extensive experience at all levels of football make him an excellent talent evaluator.