=By Ross Mather
There is no surprise the Arizona Rattlers are one of the best teams in the league. In part, it is pretty easy to notice the usual outliers that garner most of the attention and notoriety. Despite clinching a second-straight playoff appearance, it has taken more than a record breaking performance from their offense to maintain as much dominance as they’ve demonstrated in the last several weeks to proclaim themselves as a contender for an Arena Bowl championship.
Not much credit is given to a tough but talented defensive line, led by stars Antajj Hawthorne, Alex Guerrero, Ron Jones, Marcus Pittman, Darrell Shropshire, Dale Robinson, and Alan Harper. However, they have sure been noticed around the league after producing a league-high 19 sacks in the past nine weeks of play. According the players themselves, the emergence has been due in part to the comfort they have felt playing with each other. In the first full year playing together, the defensive line went cold for their first five games, accumulating zero sacks and taking a lot of the criticism for a lackluster defense that ranked close to the bottom in most defensive statistical areas.
It all seemed to turn around, they say, on the road trip to Iowa when they sacked the Barnstormer quarterback three times. Since then, seemingly every game the defensive line has been in the opposing quarterback’s face. Since starting 3-2 after the first five games, the defense has been dominant against opposing offenses. Since their turnaround against Iowa on May 21st, the defensive line has produced 19 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, and five forced fumbles while holding teams to a remarkable 49.1 points game, nearly 15 points fewer than in the first five games.
Another major emergence in their defensive gameplan has been the position change moving Guerrero to defensive end and Shropshire and Robinson to the rush linebacker position. Head Coach Kevin Guy made the switch to move the quicker, more elusive Guerrero to the defensive end position to increase the outside pass rush, while moving the bigger Shropshire and Robinson to mack linebacker, in a sense a second defensive tackle to plug the middle of the offensive line.
The change, Guerrero says, has given them a new look that they feel is the best fit for increasing pressure on the opposing teams’ quarterback.
“The mentality of the defensive line has changed [since the first five games]. The defense needed to gel together and the pieces have to be put in place. Once you practice with [the position changes], it goes down like it in the game.”
The guys on the defensive line have reiterated all season that success comes as a team. The entire roster must play at a high level in order for the team to be successful in reaching its ultimate goal of winning a championship. Not only do these guys have what it takes, they do it with style and humor. Never failing to provide antics during practice, the defensive linemen are arguably the most vocal leaders for the entire team. While it’s fun to joke around with teammates during practice, they mean all business on the field.
Guerrero, Jones, and Pittman have been the mainstays at defensive end, while Hawthorne has done an outstanding job at a more underrated position at nose guard. By no means is the nose guard a glamour position to most AFL fans, but Hawthorne does much of the grunt work that his defensive teammates around him value and need in order to do their jobs better. He has come on like wild-fire the past few weeks and now leads the team with 5.5 sacks and a team’s lone safety.
The key to any successful defense always starts up front with the defensive line and the constant pressure they put on the quarterback. The defensive line has been a blessing for the defensive secondary as well. The less time the opposing quarterback has to throw, the easier it is for the secondary to cover defenders, which has led to eight interceptions over the same time period. Defensive end Ron Jones gives his fellow line mates a lot of the credit for the emergence of an underrated defense that has quickly materialized into what Coach Guy has been looking for since the onset of the season.
“We’re playing as a whole right now,” says Jones, “we have chemistry [as a defensive team] and we know what’s expected of us as a core.”
The entire team has high expectations going further into the season and into the playoffs.