The Pittsburgh Power will kick off their third season in the Arena Football League with a tough task as they face the Utah Blaze, a team with the 2012 AFL Player of the Year, Assistant Coach of the Year and a player who caught 64 touchdown passes.
The AFL Player of the Year is Tommy Grady, who in addition to being the MVP was the offensive player of the year and a First-Team All-Arena Selection. He threw for 5,870 yards and 142 touchdowns last season, 64 of those to Aaron Lesue, alo a First-Team All-Arena Selection, and the lone receiver from last year’s team to return. The 64 touchdowns between regular season and playoffs are an AFL single season high for a wide receiver. In addition, the team has Matthew Sauk who led the Blaze to be the top passing attack in both of his seasons with the team.
Power Head Coach Derek Stingley knows he has his hands full.
“They’re a pretty good team with talent, not just offensively but defensively as well,” Stingley said. “They have a great coaching staff with Sauk, with Rob Keefe and Coach James. It’s going to be a challenge. Week one is always a mystery with most teams. We can do a little film study and see what they may or may not do, but when teams have a whole off-season to prepare for one another, you’re going to get some different things we’re not ready for.”
The match-up sets up the top ranked passing attack against the top defense in the league last year and it has both teams excited.
“They’re really good,” Tommy Grady said. “They’ve got a really good defense, they’ve got some good players and guys in the secondary and that’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”
Blaze Offensive Coordinator Matthew Sauk also knows how tough their defense is.
“They’ve got four guys that when the ball is in the air, they have the ability to make the catch,” Sauk said. “You have to be really careful as a quarterback with how you’re throwing the ball in the right placement.”
Chris LeFlore respects their offense as much as their defense is respected.
“We’re going to throw a lot of different coverages at them and stay ahead of them,” LeFlore said. “Tom Grady is a great quarterback, he has a great offensive coordinator, so we’re just trying to mix things up.”
Stingley is expecting big things from Jordan Jefferson, the former LSU standout, who won the starting quarterback job over Shane Austin.
“He did a good job of understanding this offense, he picked it up pretty quickly,” Stingley said. “He’s an athlete and can make some of the tight throws. He’s a dual threat because not only can he throw but he can run the ball as well. He runs just as fast as any of the wide receivers we have on the team. That’s an x-factor that we as an offense and other teams trying to defend him can’t count on. We can count on it, but those teams can’t. He’s going to do the right thing with the ball.”
In addition to what seemed to be quarterback roulette last season, the Power also were consistently frustrated with inconsistencies with their kickers. Already this season, Joshua Smith their intended kicker is out with an injury and his replacement is Josh Czajkowski who was a .983% PAT kicker for NC State, second best in their school’s history. Stingley understands that kicking is much tougher in the arena game.
“The goal posts are so much smaller than the regular goal posts, and then you have to deal with trying to kick off and not hit the scoreboard in addition to kicking from certain angles,” Stingley said. “Most of them are going to make a lot of field goals but it comes down to extra points. If you’re going to be pretty accurate, that’s where as coaches we will want them to be because not too many teams actually go for field goals.”
“Kickers are just like golfers, if they’re off a little bit, it’s going to be hard to pull it back in. Mentally, they can get caught up. Josh is pretty good with being a mental guy. We can tell it’s all about business with him. Hopefully we’ll get a good game from him.”
For the Blaze it is all about the passing game shining and making as few mistakes as possible in order to get the win.
“If you can be efficient in the arena game, then you’ll probably score 90% of the time regardless of what the defense does,” Sauk said. “As you long as you stay efficient and don’t turn the ball over then you have a great chance to win. Pittsburgh was the number one defense in the league last year and they made people have to drive to score. With our offense, we don’t get structured, we just move the ball down the field.”
According to Sauk, the Blaze believe that they already are at a disadvantage against the Power in terms of being game ready.
“The unfortunate part is that we didn’t get two scrimmages like Pittsburgh got,” Sauk said. “To be honest, that’s really big for them. To already play two games against a team that has played nothing is huge. They’re basically a game into the season while our season has basically just started.”
Regardless, both teams will meet today at Consol Energy Center at 6 p.m. for their respective season openers and both teams believe they have a formula to win.
“We need to score on every drive,” Grady said. “We expect the other team’s offense to score on every drive, so we need to take care of the ball and if we do that, then we win. We’ve just got to come out and execute on offense, not turn the ball over and have fun.”
Stingley agreed with Grady’s statement as did LeFlore however he also cited a ‘swagger’ the Power have discovered and are ready to use to their advantage.
“Be physical,” LeFlore said. “They’re a high flying offense and fast on defense, so we need to be physical and we should come out with the W.”