With the Maple League at the halfway point, it is time for rematches between all 7 teams. The Royals will now get a chance to re-establish themselves as a true contender with the League leading Roosters coming to town on Thursday. What is at stake?
[dropcap size=dropcap]The[/dropcap] Roosters have been cruising to a 6-0 record with convincing wins against all their opponents so far. Home advantage for the playoffs looks very probable. Their #1 spot is not threatened at the moment, but any kind of mid season slump can not be expected, either. The Roosters will likely just come to play at a high level like they always sem to do.The Royals are sitting at 4-2 with a three way tie between them, the Huskies and the Butchers. A win here would be a huge step towards hosting a playoff game in August.
The previous meeting between the two was a very one-sided affair with the Roosters running away early and never looking back. The 34-6 score leaves little room for speculation, but there are things to take into account before predicting the upcoming game.
The Royals offense turned the ball over 5 times (4INT, 1 FMB) and were 0/4 visiting the Red Zone. Much of this can be credited to the Roosters Defense, but a change could be expected with WRs Spencer Cutlan and Aappo Saloranta now in the Royals’ line-up along with a complete offensive line and FB Joakim Jakobsson also back on the field.
In fact, the Royals receiving core can now be seen elite in the Maple League with WRs Kaas and Long. RB Tom Suoste is having another good year, and QB Justin Sottilare, 2016 Maple League all star team quarterback, looks to be settling in better. The balance between Pro and Spread style play isn’t quite there yet, but the Royals have all it takes to be a very good offense, talent-wise.
Meanwhile, the Roosters defense has played outstanding. With only 4 of last year’s 11 starters returning they were expected t collapse, but have instead forced opponents into hard earned drives and halted them in the Red Zone latest better than anyone in the League. The Roosters do not give huge plays for a TD, and play the best team defense in the League. A player who doesn’t make the headlines as much as he should on the Roosters is definitely safety Curtis Slater. He has been everywhere on the field and is a Roosters defensive X-factor. Especially in the game against the Huskies Slater seemed to be in on every play and scored a defensive TD also. Two Finnish players that really give the opponents trouble are ‘the biggest Nickle LB in the world’, Santtu Äyräväinen and the relentless All Star DE Okko Outinen. The Roosters don’t have to ‘hide’ mediocre players among their eleven and have somehow found ways for some very young players to be able to contribute.
The Royals defense has not been bad, either. Yet somehow they have not been able to create any hype like last year. LB Chris Young hasn’t looked as dominating at 43 MLB as he was last year at 34 OLB. In particular the Roosters appeared to find ways to make him almost a non factor in the game played in Helsinki. Make no mistake though, Young is a force to be reckoned with. Now with DE/LB Efe Evwaraye back the Royals should be able to interfere the Roosters offenses rhythm better than in the previous meeting. CB Rufail Khalifa has had another dominant season and will be again in a big role matching the Roosters dangerous import WRs Luster and Thomas.
The Roosters hit jackpot signing QB Brandon Connette for 2017. He has been the best QB in the Maple League’s first half and appears to have even more up his sleeve than he has been forced to show so far. Also the Roosters have again been able to use RB Jaycen Spears’ services sparingly with young Karri Pajarinen in particular carrying the ball with success. Connette is calm and distributes the ball well, and the Finnish WRs Wasiljeff and Kadmiry have responded well when called upon. To top it off, the Roosters offensive line is in sync and Connette has the legs to extend plays when needed.
[dropcap size=dropcap]To[/dropcap] sum it up, the Roosters have a very clear identity while the Royals have not established themselves yet.
The Roosters are a spread offense that can grind it when needed, the Royals are a Pro style run first offense with a QB and perhaps now even talent better suited for spread.The Roosters offense exploited the Royals’ weak spots mercilessly in the previous meeting where the Royals were very inconsistent and not able to finish drives. They should now have studied the Roosters better and really focus on taking advantage of all possible mismatches and beneficial angles and leverages that the Roosters give them. They have talent that they can stretch the Roosters defense with, and they must both run and pass on them. Else they’ll be eaten up alive, again. This goes especially in the Red Zone where they’ve not excelled and where the Roosters have been dominant. Defensively, the Royals must make Chris Young a big part of the game. Young is a force when sent after the ball but can be avoided if dropped to coverage into unchallenged areas or left spying when the QB doesn’t need to run.
The Roosters should continue where they left off, play the numbers game and keep taking what the defense gives them. They’ve done that better than anyone in the League this year, no team has really been able to force any issue on them yet, it remains to be seen if the Royals will.
Defensively, the Roosters now have their hands full with The Royals added talent and will need very good play from their defensive line through the whole game to allow reasonable numbers vs the run and to create pressure and limit Sottilare’s time on passing downs.
The field. The Royals play on natural grass, This is considerably different than playing on the poor carpet of Helsnki Velodrome.
The weather. Royals QB Sottilare knows froma last year’s Maple Bowl all there is to know about how hard the Roosters are to beat in a rain. The forecast has 60% chance for rain in Vaasa n Thursday.
Extracurricular activities. The last game between the two got a bit heated towards the end leading to suspensions. Both teams certainly want to play a clean hard hitting game, and it remains to be seen if any of the tension has carried over from that day.
Clips are chosen to illustrate some of the charasteristics of both teams. See the pictures with notes for details.
Clip #1 shows the Roosters option play that they have used several times this year. It is also an example of the numbers game, the Roosters detect and use plays that are in their favor.
Clip #2 shows the Roosters alertly taking advantage of a Royals blitz. Hiding the coverage+rush is one area where the Royals could now be better.
Clip #3 highlights the Roosters gap fits and team defense. In essence, the cover 4 based structure of Roosters D allows up to nine players with proper reads to play the run vs a Pro look.
Clip #4 shows a successful play action pass by the Royals. Here perhaps #22 Slater is drawn by his natural safety instincts.
Clip #5 is a stick-draw by the Roosters with good reaction and execution. It is a bit uncertain whether the #3 stick pass is a real live option, it looks as if the QB checks the MLB pass involment and hands off the draw based on that, and if the Guard normally should skip and lead through a different lane but the x and o game is visible here.
Writer is the head coach of Finnish National Team