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Original Issue

Arena Football

Making a Stand

The San Jose defense stole the show in Arena Bowl XXI, yielding only 33 points for the team's third title in six years

IN SIX years as a noseguard for the San Jose SaberCats in the pass-happy Arena Football League, George Williams has learned to take the long view of his job. He has to. A man who can't see the big picture has no business playing defense in the AFL, where teams scored more than seven touchdowns and 53.9 points a game this year. In the face of such ridiculous numbers, Williams knows that it's the little victories that count. "One or two stops a game is all a defense needs," he says. "That can be the difference between winning and losing in this game."

In Arena Bowl XXI, on Sunday in New Orleans, Williams and the rest of the San Jose defense were better than that. Relying on their physical pass rush, the SaberCats held the Columbus Destroyers scoreless on five possessions, including the last three of the first half, and harassed quarterback Matt Nagy into two interceptions. San Jose thumped Columbus 55--33, winning its third AFL title in six years. The MVP award went to SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb, who completed 24 of 29 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns, but the day belonged to the San Jose defense. Said Destroyers coach Doug Kay, "They got overpowering."

Aware that Nagy prefers to release the ball quickly after a three-step drop, the SaberCats' front three (Williams and ends Alan Harper and Ron Jones) tried to keep their arms raised while rushing the passer; at the same time, defensive backs Marquis Floyd, Omarr Smith and Clevan Thomas jammed the Columbus wideouts at the line. The scheme threw Nagy off his game. A 62.6% passer during the season, he completed 24 of 43 passes (55.8%) on Sunday.

The game turned midway through the second quarter with San Jose leading 20--14. On first-and-goal for Columbus from the SaberCats' seven-yard line, Williams put center Will Rabatin on his heels and got up in the air to deflect Nagy's pass, which Thomas picked off. Grieb responded with an eight-play, 45-yard drive that was capped by a one-yard touchdown pass to Williams, who lines up at tight end in goal-line situations. It was his sixth reception—and sixth TD—of the year.

The moment was sweet for the 6'4", 314-pound NFL castoff, who played three years for the New York Giants before being cut loose after the 2000 season. His career has been revived by a new AFL rule that allows unlimited substitutions. As a result of the change, linemen no longer have to play both ways, and Williams, 31, was able to focus his off-season workouts on the quick-burst technique required of defensive linemen. With his game responsibilities cut almost in half, the former defensive tackle at North Carolina State reached career highs in sacks (three) and tackles for loss (eight). And he excelled in his new role as a pass catcher. "I'm a beast," says Williams, "on either side of the ball."

Turning a Corner

The concert was free, but AFL officials were still stunned when more than 10,000 people turned up in New Orleans's Spanish Plaza last Saturday night to see rockers Styx perform hits from the '70s and '80s. Coupled with the first Arena Bowl to sell out at a neutral site, the show made for a rousing conclusion to one of the most important seasons in the AFL's 21-year history, beginning last December with ESPN's $200 million investment in the league. If the ratings were underwhelming—regular-season games averaged a 0.2, or roughly 210,000 households—league officials say they're thrilled with the exposure the AFL received on the network's platforms. Plus, attendance this season topped two million for the first time.



TOP CATS San Jose, kicking off after one of its eight TDs, got an MVP effort from Grieb (inset, 10), but Williams (97) also had his moments.



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