Norwich Devils v East Essex Sabres
Sunday 17th June 2018
Report by Alan Baxter-Smith
Photographs – Kelvin Read
American Football is often likened to a game of Chess. Sounds silly considering one is an highly intellectual board game played out on a small table between two opponents, often dressed in a shirt and trousers, and the other is a brutal sport played out on a large field by 100 or more guys dressed in what is tantamount to battle armour. The similarity occurs when you delve deeper into the tactics of the game. Essentially the players on a football field are just like the pieces on a chess board. Different players have different skill sets like different chess pieces can perform different moves. The plays called by Defensive and Offensive Coordinators determine what each player will do. Get the moves right and its checkmate.
The Coordinators and Coaches jobs become even more important when two teams play each other back to back. After the first encounter lots can be learnt by both teams and success or failure is built on the lessons learnt. Things are however made more difficult when a number of the pieces are not available and it seems you are taking to the field with too many pawns and not enough knights and rooks. The Devils had that problem when they travelled down to face the East Essex Sabres, who they had only just beaten two weeks prior. Injuries still remained on their Offensive line and combined with two of their starting Linemen choosing to book their annual Holiday during the middle of the season, the pieces from which offensive plans are built were made up of Rookies and somewhat inexperienced players. Likewise some strong Defensive players were also missing and the Sabres’ Offence was going to be different due to the retirement of their Quarterback, but the coaches had to make a plan with what they had.
For the first time this season the Devils won the toss and elected to receive. A decent return by Tyler Alfred was brought back for a Block in the Back penalty and the Devils began their first drive from their own 23 yard line. Unsurprisingly enough the patched up Devils’ Offensive Line got off to a shaky start with an immediate offside penalty. What was surprising? The mistake came from starter and usually reliable stalwart Offensive Tackle Luca Ferrara. Clearly feeling the pressure to perform in light of the lack of experience on the line he subsequently jumped early again on the next snap and the Devils quickly found themselves at 1st and 20. Finally the Devils managed to get a snap off but the powerful Sabres Defensive Line were quickly able to get through to Quarterback Andre Belles-Flores and he was unable to connect with his rushed pass. Another false start penalty took them back to 2nd and 25 and despite a good catch by Slot Receiver Matt Bowers, jumping to take the ball between two Sabres defenders, the Devils fell short of the 1st Down marker and were forced to punt. It was a disastrous start for the Devils’ Offence. 3 penalties without a first down. But there was no panic on the Devils’ sideline. Offensive Co-ordinator Craig Thompson reassured his guys that it was a long game and he had faith in their ability.
A long punt by Punter Adam Jones meant the Sabres would begin their first drive on their own 35 yard line. The Sabres seemed to have caught the penalty bug as their first play was called back for an illegal formation when two players went in motion during the cadence. However, they then took to their running game with great effect. Cornerback Wayne Diggines and Linebacker Ed Bowling made the tackle but not before the Sabres’ Running back made a 13 yard gain. It was early evidence of the Sabres game plan for the day following the departure of their long time Quarterback. On the next play the Sabres again showed that they had obviously been working on their run game, since the last encounter, when an impressive surge from their Offensive line, and screen by their receivers, enabled their Running Back to reach the Devils 39 yard line before being pushed out of bounds by Cornerback Tyler Alfred. Continuing with the run, and despite good tackling from Defensive End Chris Waterhouse, Linebacker Ed Bowling, and Veteran Linebacker Dan Bowen, the Sabres continued to move down field. The drive stalled however as the Devils’ Defence began to adjust to the run heavy Offence and the Sabres were forced to punt. After a short return the Devils began their next drive from their 22 yard line.
Things began badly again with two more false starts, this time Wide Receiver Adam Jones going slightly early twice . It seemed however, that the timing between the Quarterbacks call for the snap and the ball being snapped was different from what the Offence were used to and this was causing them all to jump a split second to soon. At 1st and 20 Receiver Jones seemed to wait almost a full second before starting his route just to ensure there was not another false start. This meant that when he was thrown the ball he was easily covered by the Sabres’ safety. But, it didn’t matter, Jones was able to out muscle the Sabres’ player and bring the ball down for a first down on the Sabres’ 35 yard line. The Devils then took to their running game with Running Back Ben Rayner taking off for what looked like a certain score before just touching the sideline, at the Sabres’ 35 yard line, on his way to the endzone. Quarterback Andre Belles-Flores elected to keep the ball on the next run play and weave his way down to the Sabres 5 yard line after the Offensive Line of Luca Ferrara, John May, Josh Allgood, Stuart Theobald and Morgan Page, split the Sabres’ Defensive Line apart. It was a sign that the Devils’ Offensive Line were starting to believe in the faith their OC had in them and even drew a little fist pump from the Offensive Line coach Andy Starling. A Block in the Back penalty saw the Devils move backwards. But this only seemed to give Quarterback Belles-Flores more room for a passing play. A combination of the Devils’ Offensive Line showing their ability to pass protect and the Sabres’ Defence seeming to forget to cover the Devils’ most prolific scorer resulted in a simple 10 yard pass to Wide Receiver Adam Jones and the Devils’ first score of the day. The extra point was missed but the Devils’ Offence returned to the sideline very happy with the opening score.
Score: Devils 6 – East Essex Sabres 0
A good return by the Sabres, before Connor Tooke made the flying tackle, meant they would begin their next drive from their own 32 yard line. Continuing with their run game they found no joy, as the Devils had adjusted to cover the gaps, and after attempting some passes which didn’t seem to be being thrown towards their receivers, often the case with a new QB, the Sabres went 3 and out and were forced to punt. A short punt and a Face cage Penalty on the return meant the Devils would start their next drive on their own 47 yard line.
The Sabres’ Defence began well, forcing the Devils Offensive Line backwards with some all out blitzes which took the Devils to 3rd and 17 and struggling to make the first down marker. However, a catch and, with Tackle Morgan Page carving a route through, powerful run by Running Back Ben Rayner, in a well executed play, the Devils moved towards the 1st down marker. An excellent spin move to void a tackle , straight from the practice drills, took the Running back far enough to move the chains to the Sabres 41 yard line and bring the 1st Quarter to a close.
End of 1st Quarter Score: Devils 6 – East Essex Sabres 0
The Devils began the second quarter with a Delay of Game Penalty, although it seemed a little harsh when it was the Sabres chain crew and sideline judge who were not ready when the ball was snapped and the whistle did seem to have been blown to start the Quarter. Another harsh penalty for a false start which looked perfectly timed and a sack on Quarterback Belles-Flores took the Devils way back into their own half and at 3rd and 27. Yet another contentious false start call took the Devils to 3rd and 33 and some questions were asked of the officials, by the Devils Head Coach Chris Mills, since there seemed to be no hint of movement prior to the snap from any Devils’ players. Despite another good catch by Slot Receiver Matt Bowers on the next play, the Devils fell short of the 1st down and were forced to punt.
A thumping 50 yard punt, rolled out of bounds on the Sabres 3 yard line and the Devils’ Defence took to the field looking to put pressure on the Sabres’ Offence so close to their own endzone. That’s exactly what they did. Electing to pass the ball the Sabres’ QB threw to what seemed to be an open receiver, but he failed to spot Linebacker Ed Bowling haring across in coverage. Making a diving catch, in front of the Receivers open hands, the Defensive MVP from their previous match up gave the ball back to the Devils’ Offence on the Sabres’ 16 yard line.
It didn’t take long for the Devils’ Offence to take full advantage. In a case of Deja Vu, the Devils’ Offensive Line once again provided an impenetrable pocket and Belles-Flores found Wide Receiver Jones once again left uncovered in the Endzone for his second Touchdown of the Game.
Wide Receiver Dom Howes, returning to the Devils for his first game for the Devils this season added the 2 point conversion and the Devils found themselves two scores in front.
Score: Devils 14 – East Essex Sabres 0
A Block in the Back penalty on the return team meant the Sabres would begin their next drive on their own 10 yard line with the Devils’ Defence champing at the bit to get another turnover. Linebacker Bowling once again showed his defensive prowess by taking down the Sabres’ Running back for a 1 yard loss and then a Block in the Back penalty took them back to their own 4 yard line. Another stop by Bowling this time with support from Linebacker Bowen meant the Sabres found themselves at 3rd and 16. Going for the pass they attempted to find an open receiver but good coverage by Linebacker Piers Harrison-Reid foiled that attempt and the Sabres were again forced to punt, much to the delight of, and testament to, Defensive Co-Ordinator Sean Gray.
A Delay of Game Penalty took the Sabres back to punting from the back of their own End Zone and a short punt gave returner Adam Jones a chance to run it back towards the Sabres End Zone. On the return Linebacker Steve Bunyan introduced himself to the Sabres’ Kick Chaser with what appeared to be a fair and devastating block which lifted the Sabres’ player off his feet. However, a very late flag was thrown as the players began to huddle up for the next play and, following a lengthy discussion between the referees, he was called for Clipping, which seemed a little unfair on the Devils’ player. But the Devils’ sideline didn’t complain as they still had the ball, good field position on the Sabres’ 40 yard line and a chance to add to their lead before the halftime break.
After a short run the Devils went to the passing game, once again the Devils’ Offensive Line kept a clean pocket and gave time for Quarterback Belles-Flores to find his open receiver, Offensive Tackles Luca Ferrara and Morgan Page in particular showing their footwork speed to cover the outside rush, and, following on from his great performance in their last match up, TightEnd Charlie Keohane leapt to take the ball for a 15 yard gain. The Devils hurried to the line fully aware of the seconds ticking away, but a discussion about where to spot the ball slowed them up.
What followed was one of the most spectacular individual pieces of skill, and possibly travesty of justice on a football field, those in attendance will probably ever witness in real life. After scrambling out of the pocket Quarterback Belles-Flores launched a pass towards covered Wide Receiver Adam Jones. The pass seemed to be flying high and out of bounds before Jones sprang into the air and, contorting his body, he reached out backwards with one hand, grabbed the ball, and planted the toes of both his feet at least a foot inside the sideline before being pushed out of bounds. Both the Devils sideline and crowd in attendance erupted in appreciation at what they had just seen. Even some of the Sabres’ players were seen applauding the fantastic catch. However, the sideline judge seemed to be the only one who didn’t appreciate what had just happened and to everyones surprise he signalled an incomplete pass, citing Jones was out of bounds. Despite the small protest from the Devils players and a discussion between the referees the call stood and Jones was denied his recognition for what could have been submitted for the league’s Catch of the Season. After the game its clear from the game tape, from photographic evidence and from independent eye witnesses that the catch was good. But that’s football. Sometimes bad calls are made, even in the NFL where they have the benefit of several camera angles and instant replays. Britball referees are not infallible but do their best to help the British players to play the sport we love. Sometimes coaches and players forget that, but the jovial banter between the Devils and the referees on the field following the decision is credit to the sportsmanship the Devils as an organisation pride themselves on. They shook it off and got back to the game but a sack on Quarterback Belle-Flores took them backwards and when a pass failed to find its target on 4th down the Devils turned the ball over on downs with the ball on the Sabres’ 22 yard line.
A Block in the back penalty took the Sabres backwards and 2 failed passing attempts took very little time off the clock. Eventually they returned to the run but Linebacker Ed Bowling yet again stopped this with a crunching tackle on the Sabres’ Running back and the Sabres were forced to punt having only taken 11 seconds off the clock.
A good punt went out of bounds at the Devils’ 39 yard line and the Devils’ Offence took to the field again just before the half time whistle. Looking to the sidelines Belles-Flores found Wide Receiver Dom Howes who stepped out of bounds, stopping the clock, after an 8 yard gain. A loss of yards on a run play caused the Devils to use a time out then another pass to Howes who again stepped out of bounds moved the ball to the Sabres 36 yard line. A mazy scramble by Belles-Flores took the Devils down to the Sabres’ 15 yard line and forced the Devils to take another time out. On the next play it looked like the Devils had scored when Wide Receiver Howes caught the ball in the Endzone however, the catch was called incomplete with the referee judging he didn’t have full control of the ball when he landed. Again the Devils shook off the call and returned quickly to the line of scrimmage still looking for the score to end the half with. They didn’t have to wait long. On the next play the Devils’ Offensive line, with Rookie Offensive Guard John Taylor on for Theobald, looked like a wall President Trump would die for and Belles-Flores was able to pick out Tightend and Offensive Captain Keohane. Collecting the ball on the 5 yard line with two defenders to beat the big man dropped his shoulder and powered through the desperate tacklers for his first score of the season and indeed league football. It was just reward for a guy who has been putting in solid performances for years and always gives his all for the Devils both on and off the field, and drew very loud cheers from the Devils Sideline. It also topped a fantastic 7 play, 60 yard drive by the Devils in less than 2 minutes that would bring the half to a close with the Devils in a commanding lead despite the missed two point conversion attempt.
Halftime Score: Devils 20 – East Essex Sabres 0
The half time team talk on Devils’ sideline focussed on not becoming complacent despite the lead. The Sabres had proved their stamina in their last encounter and the Devils had to make sure they kept focussed on the task in hand for the whole 4 quarters. The Sabres’ Kick Returner looked to have a chance to break free before a tackle by Jordan Knights dtopped him in his tracks and the Sabres’ began their first drive of the second half from their own 31 yard line. The Sabres went immediately to their running game and began to move the ball down field in small increments. Despite good tackling from Linebacker Connor Tooke, Defensive End Liam Lane and Safety Ricky Darrall they continued to move the chains. Eventually it looked like the drive might stall when 2 False Start Penalties took them to 2nd and 20 and then a good run only took them to the devils 35 yard line, still 5 yards short from the first down. When Linebacker Ed Bowling stopped them at the line of scrimmage on the next play, with another crunching tackle, at 4th and 5, it looked like the Sabres would have to go for it rather than punt due to the scoreline. As the teams lined up the Devils’ Defence stupidly made a mistake and were flagged for a substitution infraction when they broke the Huddle with 12 players. This gave the Sabres the 5 yards they needed and they were able to continue their drive. Another good run took the Sabres to the Devils’ 18 yard line but a sack by Defensive End John Mills, charging through the line after a well executed move on the Sabres’ Right Guard took them back to the Devils 29 yard line. After another short run they found themselves at 3rd and 18 and had to go for the pass. Unfortunately for the Devils the pass attempt found the Sabres’s wide receiver in the Endzone and the Devils conceded their first points of the game. It was a blow to the Defence who had performed so well so far in the game and with the successful extra point conversion hinted at a momentum swing in favour of the Sabres’, which is just what the Devils didn’t want to happen.
Score: Devils 20 – East Essex Sabres 7
As the kick off went for a touchback the Devils’ coaches endeavoured to gee up their players on the sideline, reminding them that the Sabres’ drive had taken 13 plays and eaten up nearly 12 and a half minutes off the clock. They still had a good lead but they needed to swing the momentum back to the Devils quickly or that lead could quickly disappear. The Devils’ Offence however, failed to gain any significant yardage on their next drive and were forced to punt. A long kick from Punter Adam Jones meant the Sabres would begin their next drive from their own 32 yard line with the Devils’ Defence looking to provide the momentum change.
Again the Sabres’ went to their run game, which was strange considering the time left in the game. Especially as they still didn’t seem to be in an hurry on each play. They did however, begin to move the chains despite Linebacker Steve Lee’s efforts to stop them. However, as is often the case, Coach Sean Gray’s Defensive Unit came up trumps when needed when, on a Sabres’ outside run, Cornerback Tyler Alfred sped down to grab the Sabres’ Running Back around the ankle with such force it yanked him backwards and the momentum shift meant he was unable to keep hold of the ball. Linebacker Piers Harrison-Reid recovered the ball and the games momentum suddenly moved back in the Devils’ favour.
Taking over on the Sabres’ 33 yard line it was the Devils turn to run the clock down. Waiting nearly a full 30 seconds between plays they went to the run game with Running Back Ben Rayner moving the chains down to the Sabres 12 yard line. Eventually Quarterback Belles-Flores went to the pass and the Devils’ playmaking Wide Receiver Adam Jones. Leaping to collect the ball in the end zone, and in front of the Sabres’ Cornerback, Jones was tackled as he went to land and the Sabres’ player was able to rip the ball from his grasp. A tackle by Offensive Lineman Morgan Page prevented too much loss of yardage on the return upfield but the momentum had quickly returned to the Sabres and they would begin their drive from their own 17 yard line.
It was a dejected Devils’ Offence who left the field but the pumped up Defence were determined to get the ball back once more. The Sabres again went to their running game, strangely, for a team nearly 2 scores down, running down the clock to end the 3rd Quarter on their own 31 yard line.
End of 3rd Quarter Score: Devils 20 – East Essex Sabres 7
It didn’t take the Devils Defence long to get the ball back. On the first play of the 4th Quarter, after a powerful blitz from the Devils forced him out of the pocket, and under pressure from Linebacker Steve Lee, the Sabres’ Quarterback launched the ball high above his intended target. Linebacker Ed Bowling sprinted across and, with a dive, caught the ball before it hit the ground right in front of the dejected Sabres’ coaching staff. It was yet another crucial play from the Devils’ star Defensive player and swung momentum back to the Devils with the ball on the Sabres 35 yard line.
The Devils’ Offence were determined to take full advantage and put the game to bed. Again opting to run the clock down and run the ball, the Devils began to move the ball down field. Another pass to the safe hands of Tightend Charlie Keohane took the ball down to the Sabres’ 16 yard line. Another good run by Running Back Ben Rayner ended agonisingly short of the goal line and left the Devils at 1st and goal from the 1 yard line. The Devils’ Offence had been having trouble punching it in from that sort of distance all season and this had obviously been worked on in training when a cleverly worked play enabled Quarterback Belles-Flores to cross the line and break the spirit of the Sabres fightback in the 2nd half. Yet another extra point attempt failed, suggesting there is work to do for Special Teams Coach Andy Starling, but the Devils’ Sideline felt a lot more relaxed as the teams lined up for the restart.
Score: Devils 26 – East Essex Sabres 7
A good run back by the Sabres meant they would begin their next drive from their own 34 yard line. Again returning to their run game, and subsequently playing into the Devils hands by running down the clock, the Sabres suffered a small loss of yardage. A long pass attempt was almost intercepted by Safety Ricky Darrall and when a False Start penalty took the Sabres to 3rd and 17 it looked like the Devils’ Offence would get the ball back and have a chance to add to their score. A good Catch and Run play took them 15 yards and the Sabres were forced to go for it on on 4th and 2. A great cut to the outside by the Sabres’ Running Back moved the Chains and then some, making it to the Devils’ 40 yard line, before Cornerback Tyler Alfred took him down in bounds and kept the clock running. Perhaps finally realising they needed to manage the clock the Sabres went to their passing game, trying to get balls out to the sideline, but the Devils continued to make the tackles to keep them inbounds. Another good run from the Sabres’ Running Back took the ball down to the Devils 25 yard line and when the Sabres tried a No Huddle play Defensive Co-Ordinator Sean Gray called a time out to ensure his unit were ready. Again strangely the Sabres went for an inside run play and this time Defensive End Liam Lane was able to wrap up the runner for only a very small gain. A fumbled snap took the Sabres backwards as the QB scrambled away from the swarming Devils Defence and ran to the sideline. Eventually the Sabres once again had to go for it at 4th and 10 from the Devils’ 25 yard line. A long pass into the Endzone seemed to have been covered by Cornerback Tom Brown but he was flagged for pass interference and the Sabres’ drive continued from the Devils 10 yard line. A good run took the Sabres down to the Devils 1 yard line and when the Sabres Quarterback made a run for the corner the Sabres’ sideline celebrated when they thought their man had crossed in at the opposite corner to them, only it was clear that a crucial hit by Linebacker Steve Lee had forced him out before he got there. At 4th and inches the Sabres fumbled the snap again under pressure and Defensive End Chris Waterhouse was denied a sack when the Sabres QuarterBack cleverly tossed the ball away to keep the ball at the Devils’ goal line. The Devils’ Defence however, had once again proved their quality with a stop and the Devils’ Offence took over on downs.
Sending on their back ups with not much time on the clock the Devils set up to run the ball, accepting that a safety might be a possibility if they were unsuccessful but better than a possible pick 6 interception. However, things don’t always go to plan. A fumble by Running Back Joe Jacobs was recovered by the Sabres’ Defence in the Devils Endzone and, after a long conversation between the referees who seemed to be unsure if the Sabres’ player had his knee down before he crossed the line, the Sabres were able to celebrate a very fortunate score. The Extra point was converted and the Sabres had a glimmer of hope that they could pull things back.
Score: Devils 26 – East Essex Sabres 14
The Devils fully expected the Onside kick from the Sabres but it never came. Instead they elected to kick it long to the Devils’ 15 yard line where Returner Tyler Alfred collected it and ran it back to the Devils’ 35 Yard Line. Following that it was Deja Vu for the Devils when, as in their last encounter, Matt Ward began to run the ball and the clock down collecting first downs for fun as he skipped his way through the tired Sabres’ Defence, reaching the Sabres’ 27 yard line before Running Back Ben Rayner took it to the 15 yard line. Rayner could smell the chance of a TD so ran out of bounds on the next play but he failed to cross the line on his next run and the game ended with the Devils not bothering to snap the ball before time expired.
Final Score: Devils 26 – East Essex Shares 14
Defensive MVP – Tyler Alfred
Offensive MVP – Andre Belles-Flores
As the team returned home from their first away victory of the season they were left to reflect on what had been a very good win all things considered. They had once again proved they had strength in depth which bodes well for the future. Indeed some of the aforementioned pawns had certainly been knighted and some players were going to have to work extra hard to get their starting places back on the field. The Devils’ coaches had worked through their game plan and their efforts were reflected on the field when the players followed it to the letter. Weak spots in the Sabres Defence had been identified and exploited very effectively and the result had never really been in doubt throughout the game. Despite several avoidable penalties stunting the Offence, the Defence had stepped up once more shutting down the Sabres’ predominantly Run Offence, which was a change from the passing game they had faced two weeks prior, only conceding a single score.
To return to the chess analogy the Devils had been able to use the pieces at their disposal effectively to outwit and out score the Sabres and it certainly felt like checkmate when the final whistle blew.
As a team, we’re very good at preparing for our fixtures. We spend hours trawling through Hudl clips of games so we have an idea of what we’re likely to face. I think this dedication to preparation is the main reason we went home with that vital win on Sunday.
We were missing a number of starting level players but one big part of our ethos is, no one is bigger than the team. Backups stepped up to the challenge and performed excellently. Ridiculous penalties almost cost us again but overall I’m happy with how the team performed.
Thank you again to the Sabres for hosting us and giving us two cracking games. They’re a tough bunch and I’m looking forward to continuing what is becoming a gritty, yet sporting rivalry. To the Devils I say, amazing job, but we’re on to the Spartans…
Chris Mills, Devils Head Coach.
Next up for the Devils is the Essex Spartans on the 24th June. Having not played since week 6 the Spartans will be fresh and most likely injury free while the Devils have to recoup and repair quickly during the week. Its going to be a tough challenge the team hasn’t faced before both in the back to back game and the opponent. The Devils moved back into 2nd spot following their victory and will be looking to keep their win streak going to remain in playoff contention in their first season back in the national league. The Devils would love for their supporters to be on the sideline cheering them on in this crucial game. The weather forecast is for a beautiful day so why not come down and watch?
The Devils’ committee would like to thank their support staff, who’s unwavering support on the sideline enables the team to perform on the field. In particular Quilty Keohane who stepped in as Game Day Manager for the Day and performed the role perfectly. The committee would also like to thank Kelvin Read for allowing use of his photos of the game.
They would especially like to thank all our fans who attended the game and supported us via our social media sites. It was amazing to see you on the sidelines at an away game cheering us on and the words of support gave us a lift on our long journey to and from the game.
Finally they would like to thank the East Essex Sabres for a well played and hard fought game. We wish them every luck for the remainder of the season.
The Devils will be playing more league games in 2018.
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