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  • 2 Sep 2014

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Rattlers set the bar in AFL; Thunder have to leap over it

Portland's Arena Football League fans saw Sunday night what Thunder coach Matt Sauk envisions his team looking like some day.

The Arizona Rattlers -- the AFL's version of the San Antonio Spurs --- rolled into the Moda Center and put their talent and efficiency on full display in a 61-32 thumping of the Thunder.

The Rattlers, 8-0, are two-time defending Arena Ball champions, and there's little reason to think they won't claim a third title in August.

"They're the template we're trying to go by," Sauk said. "I don't know if it will happen this year or next year, but we will be that team like an Arizona. We will get there one day."

The expansion Thunder, 2-6, had a two-game win streak snapped in half by a poised, well-balanced Arizona club that was efficient and capitalized in Portland's mistakes.

The Thunder won the battle in first downs (20-17), total offense (306-252) and offensive plays (54-33).

"We moved the ball well enough to win," Sauk said.

Two things killed the Thunder. One was four turnovers --- three Danny Southwick interceptions and a fumble -- that Arizona pounced upon for scores. The other was the Rattlers' fine-tuned offense, led by quarterback Nick Davila, the 2012 ArenaBowl most valuable player.

Half of Davila's 16 completions went for touchdowns Sunday night, bringing his season total to 65 TD tosses. Arizona had nine possessions and scored touchdowns on them all. Maybe it was a moral victory for the Thunder defense, which held the Rattlers just below their 66-point average.

"It's the best offense in the league, and has been the most efficient over the past couple of years," Sauk said. "They're that good. If you're off a few inches in coverage, Davila will get it to (the receiver). There's a reason he's the best quarterback in the league year after year."

Southwick is one of four quarterbacks Sauk has used already this season. A month ago, he brought in Kyle Rowley, a 35-year-old 12-year AFL veteran who had quarterbacked Spokane to the ArenaBowl crown in 2010 when Sauk was the Shock's offensive coordinator (say that three times, quickly).

In his second start, Rowley threw for eight touchdowns in Portland's first victory of the season, 69-62 over Jacksonville. But Rowley suffered an MCL injury and is out six to eight weeks. With 10 games left on the schedule, he may be done for the season.

Southwick, 32, is in his fourth AFL campaign, so his learning curve at the indoor sport is ongoing. Southwick completed 27 of 48 passes for 331 yards and five touchdowns, but missed some open targets and served up the three picks that were costly. Arizona's defensive front provided plenty of heat, and Southwick was sacked four times and hurried into several bad throws.

"Danny was good at times, but missed some throws, too," said Sauk, who calls the plays. "Rowley is good. He knows the offense we run. Danny is still trying to learn it. He struggled a little bit at times. He's still trying to picture what I'm calling.

"I don't go by script. Everything is what I feel is going to be open, and he has to be able to see what I call in his head and understand how he's going to throw it. He'll get there; it just takes reps."

Southwick said he learned some things from the Rattlers.

"They have a good D-line, and a good overall defense," he said. "If you make a mistake, they make you pay. When you play a team like that, you have to be more efficient."

Portland's star Sunday night was receiver Eric Rogers, signed only three weeks ago. In his debut at Jacksonville, the 6-4, 210-pound former Cal Lutheran player's only catch was on an 11-yard touchdown play. In last week's win over Tampa Bay, Rogers hauled in seven passes for 110 yards and five touchdowns, including one that made ESPN SportsCenter's top-10 play list.

Rogers was even better against Arizona, snaring 13 balls for 152 yards and five scores, including one in which he leaped over the wall at the back of the end zone for a circus catch.

"He makes tough catches, he has great body control, he has a good sense of how to adjust to a throw," Southwick said. "When I get him the ball, he's going to pick up extra yards. He's like an agile basketball player, but tough and strong and smart.

"I don't know many players who have come into Arena ball and done what Eric Rogers is doing. He's phenomenal."

Said Sauk: "Eric is exactly what we thought he'd be. He's the one guy I can count on to make every single catch. Doug McNeill (seven receptions for 112) yards is a good one, too. We have to get more from our other two (receiving) spots."

The Thunder were overmatched Sunday night, but Sauk was in it to win. I love that he tried three onside kicks, converting one with the Rattlers leading 26-14 late in the first half. Why not go for broke when you're behind?

It's hard to tell how much progress the Thunder are making in their maiden AFL voyage. For sure, they're light years behind the Rattlers.

"When you start your franchise fresh, you want to template the best team," Sauk said. "They're the best team. We're just not there timing-wise and with the ability to know what's going on like they are. They've thrown thousands of passes and played hundreds of games with each other. We're on Game 8.

"In this league, the teams that have stayed together are the most successful. Arizona, Philadelphia, San Jose -- those teams have been together and stayed together, and every year they've improved. It makes a difference."

Ten games to go. The best news is, only two more games against the Rattlers.

"Does it suck to be 2-6?" Sauk asked. "Yeah, it does. But we've shown flashes. We have the talent to get better."

Southwick thinks so, too.

"We moved the ball well tonight," he said. "We had drives end with dumb mistakes. We're an inexperienced team, but we have a lot of young, athletic, talented players. We're not where we're going to be in week 18."

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