The Chicago Rush passed a big test last week with a victory over the Spokane Shock at Allstate Arena, but there's no time to rest. The team faces another huge test on June 9 in the Arena Football League against the Utah Blaze, and this one involves the dreaded "R" word: road.
What's at Stake
By now, it's pretty well known that the Rush (7-4) flounder outside of Chicago. They're a perfect 6-0 at home but a worrisome 1-4 on the road. This week's contest involves traveling to Salt Lake City and facing QB Tommy Grady and the Blaze (7-5) in a battle loaded with playoff implications.
After the victory over Spokane last week, Chicago remains in control of its own playoff destiny, despite sitting a game behind the San Antonio Talons (8-3) in the Central Division. The Rush and Talons face off once more in July, and if the Rush can win that game by more than a point, it will give Chicago the tie-breaker.
The Rush don't want to wind up as anything short of division champions because the West Division is so strong and is in a great position to send three of its teams to the postseason. Banking on a wild card team coming out of the Central Division is not wise. The Rush, then, must keep winning to earn that division crown and ensure a playoff berth.
Utah, which just snapped a three-game slide last week against the Kansas City Command, currently sits two games out of first place in the West and a half-game out of the wild card spot in the National Conference, trailing the Rush for that coveted ticket to the postseason.
The Blaze and the Rush are amazingly similar teams, so holding the head-to-head tiebreaker is vitally important for both squads in case the last playoff spot comes down to Chicago or Utah. Both teams should have that playoff mentality in this one.
If not for the different logos on their helmets, it would be difficult to tell these two teams apart. Utah boasts the league's No. 4 scoring offense (63.5 points per game). Chicago comes in at No. 5 (61.1 ppg). The Blaze have the AFL's No. 2 total offense (343.3 yards per game). The Rush are No. 3 (336.4 ypg).
Utah's defense is bad, allowing a league-worst 62.4 points per game. Chicago's defense isn't much better, allowing a second-worst 59.8 ppg.
For every punch landed by one team, the other has a counterpunch. Grady leads the league in total offense per game, but Rush QB Russ Michna is the league's most efficient gunslinger. Blaze WR Aaron Lesue is second in the AFL in scoring per game. Rush WR Reggie Gray is No. 7. Blaze WR Shaun Kauleinamoku has been red hot lately. So have Rush WRs Jared Perry and Terrance Turner.
Points of Attack
The Rush and the Blaze aren't identical twins, however, and each team has a point of attack to exploit.
The Blaze rank No. 2 in the league in sacks with 25 in 12 games. Mike Lewis and Caesar Rayford are each quite good at dropping their opponent's quarterback. The Rush are not particularly adept at protecting Michna, allowing 19 sacks in 11 games, which ranks in the bottom half of the league.
If Utah is looking for a way to neutralize Michna's efficiency, keeping him under constant pressure is likely way up there on the Blaze's priority list for Saturday night.
"The emphasis on passing in the arena game makes protection and pass rush a crucial element," said Blaze head coach Ron James through a press release. "The team that is able to apply the most pressure to the opposing quarterback is often the winner in these key matchups."
Chicago, meanwhile, has a point of attack of their own to exploit against Utah. The Rush's turnover margin is +5 while that of the Blaze is minus-5. Rush JLB Kelvin Morris is a ball hawk, recording a team-high 4 interceptions and a team-high 4 fumble recoveries on the year. Defensive back Brian Lainhart has been making quite an impression since arriving in Chicago three games ago, hauling in two interceptions already. Each of them recorded a turnover against Spokane last week.
"This is something we talked about," said Rush head coach Bob McMillen after the game against the Shock. "In the second half of the season, we've got to be better in the turnover margin. In the first half, we were +1. I told them that we need to be at least +12 or +15 by the end of the year. And if we are, we'll have more wins than losses."
In what appears on paper to be the makings of a wild shootout in Salt Lake City, Morris, Lainhart, and the rest of the Rush defense could turn the tide of the game by snagging a few turnovers.
The Blaze and the Rush take the field on Saturday, June 9, at 9 p.m. ET, 8 p.m. Chicago time, and 7 p.m. Utah time. The game will be broadcast on KMYU-TV and, for those outside of the Salt Lake City area, on Ustream.
The author is a Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and holds media credentials with the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedZoneWriting and on Facebook.