Saturday, March 05, 2011

Introducing Your Pittsburgh Power

First of all, there are some key differences between the Arena game and the NFL. Wikipedia did a nice job of breaking down the rules for Arena football, so I'm not going to list them all.

The big differences are the field and the clock. The field is half as long and half as wide. This means two things: It doesn't make much sense to run and there's a lot more scoring. It's harder to run in the AFL because the players aren't significantly smaller and there are still eight defenders on the field, so there just isn't as much room in which to operate. That makes it harder to create seams in the running game and to get some space between the offensive line.

Passing makes a lot more sense because there are only five guys in coverage -- the two linebackers and three defensive backs -- so the three receivers in the pattern have more room. Only one of the linebackers (the Mac linebacker) is allowed to blitz and the other linebacker (the Jack linebacker) is only allowed to operate in a five yard box until the ball leaves the quarterback's hand, so the Jack linebacker is usually not a factor in deep coverage. Throwing the ball deep is also easier in the AFL because there isn't safety help. The cornerbacks on either side of the field are really left on an island.

The sweetest rule in all of Arena football has to do with the clock and that Wiki entry kind of glosses over it. At the one minute warning, the offense needs to advance the ball in order to keep the clock moving. This eliminates teams taking a knee at the end of the first half and basically makes it so that you need at least a two touchdown lead inside of a minute to play, since the clock is not your best friend, it's your worst enemy.

The clock also tends to run a lot faster during the course of the game to speed up the action and keep the scoring to manageable numbers. That means that how teams do in the last minute of each half -- and how they manage the clock in those situations -- is critically important. It's not uncommon to see four or five touchdowns scored in the last minute of a half, especially the first half. Teams will often onside kick in an attempt to maintain possession. If the opponent recovers and scores, they get the ball back.

So, basically, regardless of down and distance and who has the ball, the last minute of a half is the absolute worst time to grab a beer or hit the bathroom.

The bad news for the Power is that they are an expansion team, which is rough in any sport. The good news is that the Spokane Shock were an expansion team last season and they won the Arena Bowl, so it is possible to climb through the ranks that quickly and win it all. The Shock were a longtime powerhouse in the af2 league before they got "called up" to the AFL, but they were still an expansion team.

The other good news is that the Philadelphia Soul are basically an expansion team, since they took the 2010 season off, and fellow division rival the Milwaukee Mustangs are only in their second year in the AFL. Kansas City, San Jose, and Denver are all expansion teams, so there is fairly equal footing in that regard.

Compared to the NFL, the AFL is a much purer brand of football. That's one of the reasons I like Arena football so much. In the NFL, the scope is larger, the paychecks are bigger, and the players and coaches are different. In the AFL, players are playing for the love of the game and leaving everything out on the field in the hopes of catching the eye of an NFL scout. They're all looking for a bigger payday, since the highest paid Arena league player still makes less than an NFL rookie making the league minimum. But, there's an extremely short list of guys that have made the move from the AFL to the NFL, so they're mostly there to play competitive football in front of cheering fans for as long as they can before they have to grow up.

Arena football is also purer in the sense that it's all about the match-ups. Since contracts in the AFL only last one year, the system needs to be designed for anyone to assimilate and execute. Since the field is considerably smaller, there are only eight players on the field, and the rules are set up to strongly favor the offense, there's only so much a defensive coordinator can do in terms of scheme to limit scoring. He needs to coach his players, help them win those individual match-ups, and put them in a position to succeed. Most of the conventional schemes in the NFL don't translate to the AFL. The Cover 2 doesn't work because the Jack linebacker isn't mobile and there's only one safety. The zone blitz isn't practical because the Mac is the only player that is allowed to blitz. Tight press coverage is impractical because there's only one safety to help over the top and he's usually responsible for covering the third receiver in motion.

Purity lies in the match-ups. The players line up across from each other and determine which side succeeds after the snap by who wins the match-up. There is no scheming or triple coverage to take away another team's best weapon. There simply aren't enough players on the field. There are no zones, no fire dogs, no isolation routes, just a bunch of guys lining up and the best man wins.

Inversely, offensive systems can't be as complicated because there isn't an opportunity to bring a group of young players slowly through a complex system until they've mastered it. Offenses need to be simple enough so that any receiver can run the patterns and any quarterback can interpret the route progressions.

With simplified systems, the players are the stars and their ability to win the one-on-one battles determine the outcome of the game. The challenge in building a team is in deciding what kind of team you want to have. The Power had the luxury of building a team from scratch and I think they made some very interesting decisions along the way.

When choosing a quarterback for an Arena team, you have two options: Immobile players with sufficient arms and nerves of steel and mobile players that can escape pressure and move around until something opens up. Pittsburgh went with mobility. Bear in mind that velocity is more important than range when you're talking about a quarterback's arm strength. The field is so short that most quarterbacks at this level can throw the ball the length of the field. The important attribute is the velocity on their throws, since the windows they throw into are smaller and the pace of the passing game is faster.

Bernard Morris, formerly of Marshall, was the first player the Power signed and should be the quarterback of the present and future. He has some experience in the AFL, but he was also used as a kick returner and wide receiver, so he has not been "the guy" since his college days. Morris could make some plays with his feet, but quarterback scrambling yardage is usually limited in the AFL because the Jack linebacker doesn't have much freedom to roam and acts as a natural spy on the quarterback. It could be that the Power intend to run an option offense on occasion, but the most important contributions from Morris will come from his right arm. As an athlete, he presents a number of challenges for a defense. As a quarterback, he will need to refine his game in order to take advantage of the challenges that the opposing defense prepares for.

On the offensive line, you basically need to go as big as possible without losing range of motion, and the Power have done that. On the defensive line, you need one massive dude in the middle and two quicker guys on the outside, and the Power have signed those kinds of players.

At receiver, you can either go big and lumbering or small and fast. The Power have chosen the latter, with smaller, quicker receivers on the roster. There's only one player on the roster -- Terry Grosetti at 6'3" that stands taller than six feet -- and the Power targeted mostly return specialists and slot receivers, including Jerome Mathis, formerly of the Houston Texans. With more of a lean, fast offense, the Power should be able to put points on the board. The challenge is always in keeping points off the board.

At linebacker, they have two guys in Chris Graham and Caleb Bostic that have a great deal of range and were tackling machines in big college programs -- Graham went to Michigan and Bostic went to Miami (Fla.).

In the secondary, they have mostly guys in their mid-20s that have some speed and awareness, and they appear to have focused on youth and local talent. Being a defensive back in a pass-happy, offense-favoring league like the AFL is a thankless job, so the Power have signed a number of players that are young, but are not too green. They have signed players that have NFL experience but have not been overly influenced by the NFL game. I think they have identified a number of gems, including former Pitt safety Josh Lay, who should be able to use his closing speed and tackling ability to make a name for himself.

Overall, the Power have taken full advantage of their biggest edge -- their proximity to quality college football teams and the player bases of those teams. In addition to Lay and Morris, they have also signed two former Penn State players in quarterback Anthony Moretti and defensive lineman Josh Gaines. They signed Gannon University product Richi Anderson and quarterback Kevin McCabe, who attended California University of Pennsylvania.

Local recruiting could turn into a tremendous advantage for the Power if the owners and players don't come to a new labor agreement in the NFL before the draft at the end of April. If they have not reached an accord at that point, NFL teams will not be able to sign undrafted free agents from this year's class. Each NFL team signs, on average, seven to eight undrafted free agents, which is a talent pool of 220-250 players between the ages of 21 and 23.

Given the close proximity of Pittsburgh to Cal U, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Pitt, Penn State, WVU, Ohio State, Marshall, Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami (OH), Mount Union, and Gannon, the opportunity to play football in front of fans while still staying close to home will be extremely attractive to young prospects from those schools. If the two sides in the NFL do not sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement by the time the draft rolls around, the Power will have a tremendous recruiting advantage over every other AFL team. If the season is going poorly for them at that point, that advantage could turn their season around.

Regardless, it should be an interesting and entertaining season of Arena football in Pittsburgh this season. I can't wait for the season opener against Philadelphia on March 11th!

Feel the Power!

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