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Backfield’s Back For Cleveland

Jonah Rosenblum
Friday March 14, 2014

As Cleveland’s championship drought drifts on, an immediate solution seems unlikely, and yet the teams take bold steps.

The Browns enter yet another new era. The Cavaliers have built a team that on paper looks strong (Irving, Waiters, Deng, Varejao, Thompson and Hawes could beat anyone on any given night). The Indians are fresh off a postseason run.

Enter the Gladiators, who, similar to their counterparts, have taken some aggressive steps to break their drought.

Cleveland had a pretty clear weakness last year. It could not defend the pass – a deadly sin in the Arena game. Some statistics, of course, such as points surrendered are as indicative of a struggling offense as a struggling defense. Others are more telling.

The Gladiators surrendered the worst completion percentage in the league (67 percent) last year as well as the most touchdowns (105) and the second-worst yards per pass play (7.7). They failed to compile picks or stops and so they gave up massive points en route to a disappointing season.

Poor pass defense set a poor tone for Cleveland’s 2013 campaign. In the Gladiators’ first three games, they surrendered a 69.6 completion percentage and allowed 23 touchdowns without recording a pick. And though they did record three interceptions in three of their last six games, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the Gladiators trended up. A New Orleans squad that didn’t pass all that well against anyone all season torched Cleveland. Aaron Garcia and the Orlando Predators tossed 14 touchdowns without a single pick in two games against the Gladiators, averaging 9.4 yards per pass play.

Cleveland clearly went to the grocery store with that in mind over the offseason. They could’ve gone after a big quarterback. They generally stayed put. Same goes for fullback and wide receiver. But they went after a weakness that dogged them last year with unrelenting effort.

First came Chris LeFlore, a good, confident back out of Pittsburgh who had previously excelled under Derek Stingley. Stingley couldn’t say enough nice things about LeFlore and LeFlore had the potential to spike Cleveland’s interception numbers. Until LeFlore took a job in Phoenix instead.

The Gladiators would not be deterred. They brought in Dominic Jones, another quality back who spent his 2013 campaign in Orlando. In his second season in the league, Jones recorded career highs with 91.5 tackles and 18 pass breakups, doubling his previous year’s total, but still was part of one of the league’s worst secondaries. Cleveland will have to hope that Jones flourishes once surrounded by other elite backs like LaRoche Jackson, who led the Gladiators with 85 tackles in 2013 and has nine-plus pass breakups in all three of his seasons in the Arena Football League, and Joe Phinisee. Marrio Norman showed flare with seven picks for Cleveland last year and was also a weapon for Georgia in 2012.

Clearly, Cleveland has the pieces, a nice blend of old and new, plenty of players with plenty of games to their names. There is the opportunity for vast improvement.

So when will we know whether change has come? Sports is a fickle business and a great first week against Pittsburgh will leave Cleveland fans clinging to the hope that times have changed.

Before getting too excited, it's worth noting that the Gladiators’ first three opponents are the Pittsburgh Power, the New Orleans VooDoo and the Iowa Barnstormers. Of the 14 teams in the Arena Football League last year, seven averaged fewer than seven yards per pass play and six completed fewer than 60 percent of their passes. In both categories, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Iowa were among those scraping the bottom of the barrel.

There’s no saying that will happen again in 2014. All three made big changes in the offseason. The VooDoo hope to have a healthy Kurt Rocco, the Power hope they’ve taken the best of what Salt Lake City has to offer (Tommy Grady and Aaron Lesue) and the Barnstormers hope to begin the post-JJ Raterink era on the right note with Carson Coffman at quarterback. Rocco, Grady and Coffman have all had some measure of success in the Arena game. They’ve also all had some measure of failure. It’s hard to know what to expect from all three passing attacks.

Meanwhile, Cleveland's fourth opponent, the Los Angeles KISS, will feature Raterink coming off a career-worst 102.0 quarterback rating in 2013. The KISS could be a high-scoring bunch. They could struggle. So, how Cleveland does against all four, even if the Gladiators shut down all four, will only be telling to a certain degree.

After all, Cleveland will not see an elite, established passing attack until Week 5 when it travels to face Erik Meyer and the Spokane Shock. That’s when we’ll see what this defense is all about.

In the meanwhile, all the Gladiators can do is hope.

And avoid stumbling out of the gate like last year.

Jonah Rosenblum is a Northeast Ohio-based journalist who writes features for the Cleveland Jewish News and covers high school sports for Lacrosse Magazine and The Plain Dealer. A proud Cleveland resident, Rosenblum previously headed the media relations department of the Chicago Rush and interned for the Arena Football League. You can follow Jonah on Twitter @jonahlrosenblum.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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