Patchwork Secondary, Cleveland Survive Up-And-Down Performance, 62-54
CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Gladiators remain a work-in-progress after five weeks.
Certainly, orange cones are needed in the secondary, where a banged-up squad put up an up-and-down performance Friday night in a 62-54 win over the Tampa Bay Storm.
“(The defense) was very erratic, as you would expect with a patchwork secondary,” defensive coordinator Ron James said. “We’ve been very inconsistent. We’ve got to settle in on personnel, make sure that we get the right group playing, and just get better every week, and that hasn’t been the case because we’ve just been a revolving door.”
The revolving door giveth and the revolving door taketh away might be the most apt summary.
The revolving door gave the Gladiators 14 points on two pick-sixes in the second half.
One came from Collin Taylor, a frequent defensive substitute for Cleveland, who picked off a liner.
“He’s actually a very good Jack linebacker,” coach Steve Thonn said.
The other essentially clinched Cleveland’s win over Tampa Bay, as Donnie Fletcher, added on Wednesday, took one to the house with 34 ticks remaining.
It wasn’t all so pretty. The absence of Dominic Jones, expected back sometime in the next couple of weeks from his hamstring injury, led to erratic play.
Surprisingly, a good deal of that erratic play was from Joe Phinisee, who had to shift from Jack to defensive back Friday night but is also among the most experienced defensive backs in the Arena Football League.
“We asked him to play a position that isn’t tailor-made for him,” James said. “Obviously, when you have Dominic Jones out of the lineup, there’s a big void that has to be filled.”
Joining Jones out the revolving door was Trevor Coston (Canadian Football League) and Terrance Sanders (broken arm).
“We were juggling guys all week,” Thonn said. “We didn’t know who was going to play and who was not going to play.”
Unfortunately for Cleveland (3-2), Tampa Bay (2-3) had just the weapon to test its banged-up secondary: the speedy Kendrick Ings. James knew Ings well. When James was head coach at Pittsburgh last season, Ings came for a tryout. James’ takeaway? He can fly.
“He’s got a lot of speed and he’s hard on those go routes and flash routes,” James said.
The Storm threw the gauntlet down early, going to Ings on seven of their first eight plays.
The early returns were mixed.
Ings was left untouched on Tampa Bay’s first play from scrimmage, but Jason Boltus threw short and Ings dropped it. Boltus struggled, but Nick Davila and Dan Raudabaugh, whom the Gladiators hope to challenge for an ArenaBowl title in 2015, are unlikely to leave such plays on the field.
Ings v. Phinisee started going Tampa Bay’s way on a critical fourth down and six, when Ings stuttered and slanted left, beating Phinisee for a leaping catch along the sideline.
“We wanted to hit him a little bit, but it seemed like when we hit him a few times, we messed up our coverages,” Thonn said. “If I had to say one bad thing, we just messed up too many coverages tonight.”
Phinisee responded with a big play of his own at the end of the first half, as Ings reached high over his head for an apparent score, before Phinisee knocked it out.
That didn’t last. The Gladiators were caught as Boltus stumbled out of a sack and tossed a desperation heave to Ings. Phinisee was five steps back and Ings had himself a 45-yard score.
“First of all, we lost leverage on the quarterback, and when that happens, he’s able to throw that knuckleball up there, and we did have a busted coverage,” James said. “Ings ended up being wide open.”
T.T. Toliver v. Phinisee was shaky too as one of the sport’s all-time greats kept Phinisee guessing on a deep route. He ended up a solid three steps behind as Toliver made the touchdown catch untouched.
(In fairness to Phinisee, he also had one of the plays of the game, controlling a tough clang off the goalpost on a kickoff and absorbing a huge hit from Al Phillips, thus keeping the ball in Cleveland’s hands.)
Meanwhile, Brandon Stephens was left stumbling on Toliver’s first score down the left sideline – and was flagged for pass interference. In the second half, Stephens was there, draped all over Jarvis Williams, but couldn’t get a hand on the ball to prevent the score.
Also, while you can’t blame Stephens for his earnestness, his insistence that Thonn throw the red flag on Tampa Bay’s score to tie the game at 48 led to a failed challenge and blown timeout.
Then, there were the broken coverages for whom the blame is always less clear – most glaringly when Toliver somehow ended up wide open downfield to tie it at 28-all.
“There were too many wide-open looks,” James said.
The potential is there for Cleveland, of course.
Shane Austin, while not perfect Friday, continues to demonstrate elite pocket presence. Take a play with the Gladiators in the red zone down 28-14. Off the snap, Everett Dawkins had a practically uncontested route to Austin. The quarterback deftly took two steps right and lobbed one the other way to Collin Taylor, who bailed him out with a fine basket catch.
Speaking of Taylor, he continues to turn into one of the best young wide receivers in the Arena Football League. His run down the sideline to tie the score at 28 was one example, as he stiff-armed Phillips en route to the score. He finished with 11 catches for 111 yards and three scores.
“He’s making big plays for us,” Thonn said. “(Austin and Taylor) are really doing a great job hooking up and being on the same page.”
And they wouldn’t be the Cleveland Gladiators without the late-game heroics, including a huge hit from Anthony Degrate on a two-point try to keep the score tied at 48, a touchdown by Dominick Goodman in traffic to take a 55-48 lead with 52 ticks remaining and Fletcher’s pick-six.
“We rallied and played strong when we had to, and that’s the mark of a good team,” James said. “Was it ugly? Yeah, it was ugly, but we’ll take an ugly win any day of the week.”
Now, it’s time to put on the hard hats.