While most eyes from the football world were trained on Indianapolis, for the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, the fourth week of action in the AAF saw two teams win their first game while another remained undefeated. Here is a quick look at some of the best we saw on the field over the weekend.
Passing Design of the Week
The Saturday tilt between the Salt Lake Stallions and the visiting Orlando Apollos saw one of the league’s unbeaten teams trying to win a tough game on the road against the Stallions, who despite their 1-2 record were viewed by many as perhaps one of the league’s better rosters. Battling both the Stallions and the elements, the Apollos came out on top 20-11. Quarterback Garrett GIlbert, perhaps the early front-runner for league Most Valuable Player, completed 22 of 32 passes in the weather conditions for 244 yards and a touchdown, without an interception. But it was this two point-conversion that earns the nod as the Passing Design of the Week.
Midway through the third quarter Orlando scored on a scoring strike from Gilbert to wide receiver Donteea Dye to take a 12-3 lead. On the ensuing two-point conversion try, Steve Spurrier reached deep into his bag of tricks and pulled quite the rabbit. Maybe it was this little guy:
Gilbert (#3) aligns under center as the Apollos use 11 offensive personnel. Running back D’Ernest Johnson (#22) is the singleback in the backfield. Wide receiver Rannell Hall (#16) aligns to the right side of the formation, outside of tight end Sean Price (#80):
Just prior to the play, Hall comes in motion towards the formation. As the snap, Gilbert pivots and fakes a jet sweep to Hall, before flipping the ball to Johnson to test the right edge. Price releases to block for his running back:
However, this is still a ruse. Johnson has no intention of running the football and Price has no designs of blocking for him. The tight end disengages from his defender and leaks into the end zone, and Johnson drops in an easy throw for the conversion:
The Stallions would notch a TD and conversion of their own, but in the final frame Orlando sealed their victory with a short touchdown run. With the win the Apollos moved to 4-0 on the season, and remain one of the league’s hottest teams.
Rushing Design of the Week
We have not discussed the Atlanta Legends much in these pieces, and with reason. Headed into Week 4 the Legends were one of the league’s two teams without a victory. Perhaps inspired by the other team – Memphis – who earned their first victory of the year Saturday the Legends matched that feat, earning a 14-11 victory on Sunday night behind backup quarterback Aaron Murray and kicker Younghoe Koo.
Atlanta’s sole touchdown of the game came in the first half, on a perfectly executed speed option play with Murray (#11) pitching quickly to running back Denard Robinson (#25):
What truly makes this play, however, is the blocking from wide receiver Seantavius Jones. He is aligned to the playside of this option, and is tasked with blocking the cornerback. He executed his job perfectly:
Koo would hit a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter, but this quick touchdown burst from Robinson, set up by the block from Jones, was a huge play in this game.
Pressure Design of the Week
An interesting cast of characters helped deliver the first win in the AAF to the Memphis Express, as they topped the San Diego Fleet 26-23 at home. On one hand you have quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was looking for his first win in the game off football since 2013. On the other hand you have newly acquired kicker Austin MacGinnis, who left a position as a financial advisor with Salomon & Company in Lexington, Kentucky a few weeks ago before finding himself in an Express uniform this past week. Five days after joining the team, MacGinnis delivered with four field goals, including the game-winner with less than three minutes remaining.
For his part Mettenberger completed 18 of 25 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown, and the touchdown came with just over six minutes remaining to cut the Fleet lead to just two. The quarterback then ran in the ensuing two-point conversion try to tie the game, setting the stage for MacGinnis’ heroic.
But the Express defense also played a huge role, forcing four turnovers and holding the Fleet to just three points and 22 yards of offense in the final quarter. Two of the turnovers came in the fourth quarter, the first coming on a strip sack of Fleet quarterback Alex Ross by defensive end Corey Vereen. The edge defender knocked the ball loose and cornerback Jeremy Cutrer recovered. Mettenberger would throw the touchdown pass on the next possession.
After MacGinnis gave the Express the lead, Ross and company looked for some heroics of their own. They faced a 3rd and 7 in their own territory with just over a minute left, needing one more big play to get into field goal range.
However, Vereen (#98) had one more big play of his own up his sleeve:
The defensive end gets past the left tackle with a combination of speed and power, first striking him with a bull rush, then ripping past him to the outside. From there, Vereen gets to the QB, knocking the football from the hands of Ross (#4). Defensive lineman Greg Gilmore (#97) alertly hopped on the loose ball, and the Express were able to run out the clock to secure their inaugural victory in the AAF.
Coverage Design of the Week
One of the great innovations from the AAF is the onside kick rule. Rather than rely on the whimsical bounces of the football on an onside kick attempt, the AAF instead puts the ball in the hands of the team attempting the “onside” and forces them to try and convert a 4th and 12 on their own 28-yard line. This rule should be near the top of any rule changes the NFL looks to implement from the AAF.
The onside conversion came into play Sunday afternoon between the San Antonio Commanders and the Birmingham Iron. After yet another short touchdown run from Iron running back Trent Richardson, and quarterback Luis Perez hit wide receiver DeVozea Felton for the two-point conversion, Birmingham trailed 12-11 with under two minutes remaining, and they elected to attempt the onside conversion.
They lined up with Perez (#12) in the shotgun and using 11 offensive personnel, with three receivers to the right and one receiver on the left side, L’Damian Washington (#17). The Commanders show a Cover 4 defense pre-snap, with two safeties deep. Among those safeties is Orion Stewart (#28):
As Perez drops to pass, he is flushed to his left, and towards Washington’s side of the field. His receiver sees that his quarterback is in trouble and breaks vertically in a scramble drill situation, getting a few steps on the cornerback covering him. The problem for the Iron – and Perez – is that Stewart is reading the quarterback’s eyes perfectly. When the QB uncorks the desperation throw, the safety is there to seal the victory:
The win improved San Antonio’s record to 2-2 on the young season, pulling them even with the Fleet and Arizona atop the Western Division. This was Birmingham’s first loss of the season, dropping them a game behind Orlando in the Eastern Division. While a showdown of the unbeatens will not be in the cards for Week 5, the meeting next week between the Iron and the Apollos will be the first truly “must-watch” game on the AAF schedule.
Game Ball – Corey Vereen, Memphis Express
MacGinnis and Mettenberger are easy picks for a game ball for Memphis, but Vereen’s two forced fumbles were huge in this contest. The first set the stage for the game-tying score, and the second sealed the victory for the Express. Two hugely impactful plays worth acknowledging.
Week 4 Question Revisited
We know nothing, Jon Snow.
Sometimes, questions do not get answered. That seems to be the case with last week’s question, pondering what team was “Best in the West.” Arizona lost to a team that had yet to win a game this season, as did San Diego. There is a lot of football left to be played, and this division remains anyone’s to win.
Week 5 Question
We might not yet know who is “Best in the West,” but this weekend will give us a chance to determine the “Beast in the East.” With Birmingham and Orlando squaring off, the two best teams in the league will meet in a game that will go a long way toward determining the top seed in the Eastern Division playoff game. An undercard question here is this: Whither Perez? After Birmingham’s season-opening win their quarterback (and his tremendous back story) was the talk of the AAF. But Perez has struggled in recent weeks and the Iron seem to rely heavily on their ground game – and their defense – to grind out wins. Can the Iron win games going forward with minimal production from the QB?