05/20/2008 4:40 PM
LB Kevin McCullough - pictured above, center - prepares for battle
Editor's Note: This article orginally ran in the May 10th edition of the Game Day Program. Be sure to pick your free copy of the Game Day Program at the next home game.
Hall-of-Fame Football Coach Marv Leavy once said that he would rather have a team full of Super Bowl Champions then a team full of Pro-Bowlers. Judging from the results of the first few games of the season, Head Coach Adam Shackleford and his staff have assembled a defense that is capable of challenging for the af2’s ultimate prize, an ArenaCup Championship
Through the first four games of the season, the Shock’s defense has allowed an average of 37.8 points per game – the sixth-lowest total in the league.
“We have a lot of talent on the team,” said defensive lineman Devon Parks. “We all work hard, care about the team, and complement each other well.”
Rookie sensation DB Sergio Gilliam, who leads the league in interceptions through the first four games with 7, elaborated:
“We all give 100 percent all the time. We don’t want to let each other down. We always have each other’s backs. When someone makes a mistake, it’s the rest of the team’s responsibility to make them forget about it and focus on the next play.”
Coming into training camp, Parks was one of only two returning starters for the defensive line-up. But Shackleford was confident that what they lacked in experience they would be made up for in athletic ability and football savvy.
“This is the most athletic defense I have ever coached,” Shackleford said. “In a 16-game season, if you have players who are athletic and coachable–that’s a good combination, and we have both. We have a group (on defense) that is going to be good very quickly and our goal is to be the best by the end of the season.”
The Shock defense is a force to be reckoned with, but the team faced a lot of challenges before becoming the strength that they are. The players agree that playing indoors and on a 50-yard field intensify the game, making them more accountable for their actions, and it took time to adjust to this fast-tempo game. There is less reaction time and less space to move around to make plays, forcing them to always be a the top of their game.
“The pace of the indoor game is much quicker than that of the outdoor game,” Gilliam said. “You have to realize if you make a mistake you have to move on. You can’t dwell on it. It goes the same when you make a good play. You can be happy about what you did, but you have to let it go and focus on the next play.”
The short-term memory that Defensive Coordinator Alex Sirianni has instilled in Gilliam and the rest of the defense has been a cornerstone of the team’s success.
“The success of our defense begins with the fact that these guys really believe in the system and the game,” Sirianni said. “They realize that this is where they are going to gain the experience and learn the ins and outs of the game in order to move on to the next level. It encourages them to play to the best of their abilities.”
For Sirianni, the defense is broken up into three parts: the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary. While each piece of the defensive pie is separate, the pieces come together to form a circular whole.
“As a whole it’s one defense, but if anyone of those three groups doesn’t do it part, we’re not going to be successful,” Sirianni explained. “That is what is great about football–it’s a team sport.”
In the trenches of the defensive line, the Shock have a combination of speed and power with Justin Warren (6 foot 3, 250 pounds), David Stanton (6 foot 4, 300 pounds) Jason Jack (6 foot 4, 265 pounds), Rod Wright (6 foot 5, 275), and Parks.
Rookie Warren – who was in camp with the New England Patriots at the beginning of last season – played linebacker in college but has quickly made the adjustment to defensive end.
“Being a defensive lineman requires both strength and technical skills,” said Warren. “Strength is essential because there are times when I’m matched up with a guy who is 300 plus pounds and I’m only 250. The technical part comes into play when I don’t beat the guy that I’m matched up with. That’s when I have to find a way to get around him by using a swim move or using my hands better than he does.”
Even when the defensive lineman aren’t able to record an official sack, the pressure they put on a QB can force him to make poor decisions and throw errant passes, resulting in more interceptions for the defensive backs. Conversely, the better the coverage by the defensive backs, the longer a QB must hold onto the ball which increases the likelihood of a sack.
“When the defensive backs are matched up on their men, the quarterback has no one to throw to,” Devon Parks said. “That gives us more time to get to him and puts even more pressure on the quarterback.”
When the quarterback is forced into a bad pass, the linebackers look for their chance to capitalize on the offense’s mistakes that their teammates created. That’s where the speed and athleticism of starting LB’s Lee Foliaki and Kevin McCullough come into play.
“As soon as the defensive line puts enough pressure on the quarterback, he is likely going to make a bad pass,” Kevin McCullough, who already has two interceptions for touchdowns said. “That’s when I look for my opportunity to make an interception and run it the other way.”
Fellow linebacker Lee Foliaki agrees.
“When the defensive line rattles the quarterback and forces him to make a bad pass, we are there to recover the ball and give our offense a chance to score.”
Furthermore, the linebackers complement each other well, since they each have a specialty and a unique role on the Shock defense.
“Although I am technically a linebacker, I consider myself an extra defensive lineman,” Foliaki said. “I’m always looking to put extra pressure on the quarterback whereas Kevin is looking to make interceptions. Kevin has an added responsibility of communicating with the entire defense.”
McCullough informs the defensive line about which play they are going to run by calling key words which signify different plays. He also uses hand motions to signal the defensive backs which formations they should be in.
The signals allow for the defensive backs to get in the right coverage formation and ensure that their abilities are being best utilized. Each defensive back also has a different specialty.
For example, RoShawn Marshall is the smallest of the defensive backs, but he is also the quickest, having registered a 4.2 in the 40-yard dash.
“My main job is to cover the fastest, quickest receiver on the team and stop him from catching the ball,” Marshall said.
While Gilliam – 6-foot 2, 193 pounds – and second-year starter Nygel Rogers – 6-foot 2, 210 pounds, are able to use their size to match-up against some of the bigger, more physical receivers.
“We complement each other really well,” Marshall said. “Because we have different specialties, we are able to defend all aspects of the opposing team’s offense.”
The different backgrounds of the defensive players combine to make a well-rounded team.
“We have a fine combination of strength, skill, and technique on the field at all times,” Sirianni said.
McCullough, a true iron-man in the tradition of arena football, has gained some helpful insight as a fullback on the offensive side of the ball that he has been able to apply to his defensive position.
“I’m familiar with offensive plays and what the offense is going to do which helps me predict the other team’s moves and inform my teammates of my predictions,” McCullough said.
Although McCullough has been given the duties of relaying the defensive play calls from Sirianni he certainly is not the only member of the defense who is chatting. Just ask Gilliam.
“I try to be the most talkative player on the field,” Gilliam said. “I like talking to everyone. I make sure that the linebackers and defensive backs are on the same page. I’m not really sure what to say to the defensive line, but I am constantly giving them words of encouragement.”
But despite Gilliam’s words of encouragement, Rogers, the team’s leader in tackles, who calls the coverage for the secondary.
“Nygel’s responsibility is to make sure that we are in the correct coverage for the formation and motion that the offense is showing,” Sirianni explained. “It’s not an easy job, but he’s been doing well. Every game we are getting better. Holding a team like Central Valley to 40 points is just a sign of what is to come for this defense.”
The communication between the Shock defense does not end when the game is over. For the Shock defense, it is all about Shock defense all the time. They make sure that everyone is on the same page during practice by watching film together and by hanging out together off the field.
“In order to be the best, we have to be prepared for anything,” Marshall said. “To do that, we are always talking to be sure we are on the same page. It lessens the chances of making mental mistakes on the field, so we talk about everything–not just football- all the time.”
It seems that this chemical blend is just the right dose for another successful season for Sirianni and his defense.
“We have a lot of good chemistry even though most of us just met less than two months ago,” Foliaki said. “We’re a big family. We’re still working on coming together, but when we do, it’s going to be trouble for the other teams.”