Monday, April 21, 2008

Soul trys to stay unbeaten in Columbus

ESPN Game Preview: Philadelphia at Columbus
Courtesy: Ray Bentley

Release: 04/20/2008

Courtesy: Arena Football League

Philadelphia Soul (7-0) @ Columbus Destroyers (2-5)

The History

By Ray Bentley
-- The Philadelphia Soul attempt to stay unbeaten as they visit the Columbus Destroyers on Russell Athletic ESPN Arena Football Monday this week. The game is slated for ESPN2 with kickoff at 8 p.m. ET and will also be shown in HD. This will be the ninth meeting between these division rivals with the series tied up at four wins each. Philly won the most recent meeting in 2007 but the Destroyers had won the previous three.

The Soul has struggled on offense in their last two visits to Nationwide Arena. They managed only 21 points in their visit last year and had only 20 points in the loss at Columbus in 2006. In last year’s loss at Columbus, the Soul were without QB Tony Graziani, however, it is expected Graz will return from a knee injury to start this one.

The Stakes

This is a really big game for both teams. Philadelphia has a chance to go to 8-0 and set up a showdown of undefeated teams as they host Dallas (7-0) next week. Coach Brett Munsey has done a great job keeping his team focused so far. Columbus needs the win to jump start what has been a disappointing season. The Destroyers have lost two games by just three points and another by just two as they have struggled in close games. A win for them will help their playoff situation and potentially launch a run toward the postseason.

The Players

The biggest issue in this game is the health of Graziani’s left knee. He injured the knee in the third quarter of the Week 3 win over the New York Dragons. He was expected to start last week’s win over San Jose, but on the bus ride to the arena it was determined he wasn’t ready yet and Matt D'Orazio continued as the starter. That is a good thing as D’Orazio has been nearly perfect filling in for Graz. D’Orazio is the highest rated QB in the AFL and has thrown 26 TD passes and only two interceptions while winning all four games in which he started.

But by all accounts this is Graz’s team and if he is ready to go, he will start. Graz had thrown 20 TD passes and just two interceptions prior to his injury. Either way, the Soul QB spot is a position of strength. And it doesn’t hurt that they have the leading scorer in the AFL to throw to in Chris Jackson (156 points). Jackson has been unstoppable this year with 65 catches for 851 yards and 26 TDs. It is almost impossible to keep him from posting huge numbers. It really helps Jackson that Larry Brackins (49-684-13TDs) has emerged as a consistent threat. He has learned how to use his big body to dominate defenders.

The Columbus offense is now in their third week of new offensive coordinator Larry Kuharich’s system. Kuharich was hired April 2nd to try and bring some life to the Destroyer’s offense. He has totally changed the terminology which has been a challenge to the Destroyers. They suffered a “step back” last week in the loss at New York, but feel like they have made great strides in practice this week. If anyone can get this offense playing up to its potential it is Kuharich, who has a pair of ArenaBowl titles with Tampa Bay in his 14 years of AFL coaching.

Columbus feels like they have not played up to their potential as of yet. They do have a talented roster including QB Matt Nagy and WR Derek Lee. These two played together in Georgia where they went to an ArenaBowl. Nagy is a great competitor who plays with poise and toughness. He gets the ball out quickly to the right spots. If the line gives him time he can make all the throws. He is one of the best in the game at moving around in the pocket allowing his receivers an extra split second to get open.

At the receiver spot Lee is in the upper echelon of players in the league. He is a fierce competitor on the field and has put up big numbers with 65 catches for 758 yards and 19 TDs. He has also been mentoring the younger receivers on the team. Rookies Rasheed Marshall (24-276-5TDs) and Calvin Russell (32-371-2TDs) have the tools to be outstanding. Their speed and quickness provide an excellent alternative to Lee’s physical game.

Coach Kuharich likes to use his FB and TE to keep defenses off balance and he has a tremendous weapon in FB Harold Wells. Wells has run for 125 yards and eight TDs and has caught nine passes of which four have gone for TDs. Expect the Destroyers to get Wells involved early in this one to help slow down the Philly pass rush.

The Destroyers will need to slow down the Philly rush, but nobody has been able to thus far. The Soul lead the AFL with 12.0 QB sacks and are getting great play from NG Bryan Save and DE Gabe Nyenhuis. Save has 4.5 sacks and Nyenhuis has five as they have been nearly unblockable. All of this pressure has led to big plays in the secondary. Mike Brown leads the way with four interceptions while Eddie Moten is among the league leaders with 13 passes defended. Much has been made of the Soul’s league-leading offense, but their defense is just as dominating.

The Columbus defense has solidified up front with the play of Mike Landry and the addition of Mondre Dickerson. Landry has moved to DE from Nose this season and is as good a pass rusher as there is. Jack Linebacker Tremaine Neal is also playing very well. The problem for the Destroyer “D” is in the secondary. Coach Doug Kay has tried multiple combinations but has yet to hit the jackpot. The one number that works is 24, which is Nate Coggins. Coggins is a physical player who is good at jamming the motion. The Destroyers brought back Sidney Haugabrook this week and plan to use veteran Jason Shelley at the other corner. They are desperately trying to find the right mix in the secondary.

The Game

This will be a highly contested ballgame. Both teams have a lot riding on this one. Philly really wants to be undefeated when they face Dallas next week in the “Game of the Year”. Columbus is fighting to turn around a disappointing first half of the season. The Destroyers will not go quietly.

One thing to keep an eye on is how the Philly offense will perform with Graz back under center. Will they pick up right where they left off? Or will it take some time to get the juices flowing again? Columbus has been a slow-starting, second half team, so if Philly struggles early it could give the Destroyers some confidence.

A good battle in this one will be between former teammates Jackson and Coggins who played together in Georgia two years ago. If Coggins can hold Jackson down even a little bit the Destroyers chances for victory will go up. Coggins has had experience covering Jackson, which could help. Then again, nobody can keep Jackson in check for four quarters.

Turnovers always play a big role in the outcome of Arena games. This one should be no exception. The Destroyers have not yet recovered a fumble this year and have only five interceptions, but these things have a way of evening out and when the floodgates open they come in bunches. Philly must be very careful protecting the football.

Just by looking at the record most fans would dismiss this as a rout for the Soul. Not so fast, my friend! Columbus has a lot of pride and confidence. Just look at what they did in their playoff run a year ago. Plus, you have to wonder, despite what Philly says, will they be looking ahead to the showdown with Dallas next week? The margin if error will be very slim for them in this one. This game should be highly contested and will likely come down to the final possession.

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