Orlando at Cleveland
Monday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
These are two strong organizations with veteran players and while they may not quite be in the elite category, this shapes up to be a very competitive game. They are well coached and the only thing that seems to hold them back from elite status is their consistency. They seem to struggle in their ability to put a complete game together. Cleveland does have excellent offensive balance with a strong passing game led by QB Raymond Philyaw and a physical run game led by FB Marlion Jackson. The Gladiators are also capable of playing a cleaner offensive game than Orlando with fewer mistakes. However, both defenses will probably neutralize each other. The Predators have a hall of fame coach with a lot of veteran players and they have been in this situation before and Cleveland hasn't.
Orlando keys to success
1. Play a complete game: As well coached as this veteran team is, they just don't look in sync every week and don't play consistent football in all phases. When their offense plays well, they seem to struggle on defense and vice-versa. Plus, they tend to hurt themselves with turnovers and penalties, which is not indicative of a Jay Gruden team. Cleveland is a very efficient team, especially on offense and it doesn't turn the ball over often or give away offensive possessions. Orlando cannot get sloppy in this game. The Predators need to capitalize on almost every possession and match Cleveland in terms of efficiency.
2. Play good run defense: The Predators face the best rushing attack in the AFL. Jackson has scored 23 rushing touchdowns and this team is not afraid to run the ball in the middle of the field or in the red zone. The Predators do not have a great run defense and they are not overly physical inside. If they allow Jackson to run wild when Cleveland is in scoring position, they will be in trouble. The Predators must get a couple of defensive stops in the red zone, which probably means stopping Jackson.
3. Pressure Cleveland QB Raymond Philyaw: He is very cool under pressure and he does a great job of not forcing passes into coverage. He has thrown only 10 interceptions in 525 passing attempts for a sparkling 124.5 quarterback rating. He faces an Orlando secondary that can look good one week and so-so the next. This group has a lot of experience, but they are not a great matchup group and they don't have a lot of speed. That puts pressure on the guys up front to make Philyaw uncomfortable and either force him into hurried throws or flush him out of the pocket. If he has time to sit in the pocket Orlando will be in trouble.
Cleveland keys to success
1. Spread the ball around on offense: This has been a very good pass offense in 2008, despite the fact that the Gladiators lack a franchise receiver. However, they have done an excellent job of developing somewhat-unknown guys into stars. Robert Redd does a great job of moving the chains in the middle of the field, but Otis Amey is the big scorer and red zone option. Orlando has a very productive defensive back in Kenny McEntyre (eight interceptions) and another solid veteran, Ahmad Carroll, but the Predators' secondary has been a little up and down. Philyaw should be able to find good matchups, if he has time to let his receivers separate.
2. Pound the rock: Jackson leads the league with 356 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. He is especially effective in the red zone and he really makes it tough for defenses when they are close to the goal line. That is not good news for an Orlando run defense that struggles to make short-yardage or red zone stops versus the run. Cleveland ran the ball a whopping 154 times in the regular season, so we know the Gladiators are willing to use the run this week to keep Orlando off-balance.
3. Protect the secondary with a strong pass rush: This is not a great matchup for the Gladiators' secondary. This group tends to struggle versus elite receivers, especially in man-to-man situations. They do not have a defensive back who can matchup up with Orlando's best receiver, T.T. Toliver. If the Gladiators don't make QB Shane Stafford uncomfortable in the pocket, he will find matchups that he likes and pick them apart. Cleveland does not have an elite pass-rush, but Orlando's offensive line has shown stretches of inconsistency. When Stafford does not have great protection, he is not the same quarterback.
These teams appear to be evenly matched and both are good, but not quite elite. They are capable of playing with anybody, but they seem to struggle on a weekly basis to put a complete game together. Both defenses are much better when the pass rush up front helps the secondary. Both quarterbacks, Stafford and Philyaw, are capable of putting up big numbers, but the edge in offensive consistency must go to Cleveland. Philyaw has a great passer rating and a very effective run game. This game is a big deal in Cleveland and it will have a great fan base, which will keep the Gladiators going. This really looks like it will be a Gladiator victory.
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.