Tuomas Heikkinen: Who owns the Texas of Finland?


The Finland National Team head coach opens up the match ups of the Crocodiles – Royals rivalry

The game of the week in week 2 of Maple League is without a doubt the clash between the Vaasa Royals and the Seinäjoki Crocodiles. There is a lot at stake in this one. First, the Crocodiles have been a dominant force in football outside of the south coast of Finland for a long time. In fact, the Crocodiles are the most steady and succesfull organization  in Finland after the Roosters, always in the playoffs, often in the Maple Bowl, a strong contender year in year out. Often called the ’Foreign Legion’ the Crocodiles are known to bring in a bunch of players, both from Finland and abroad every year, and they’ve done that with success for a long time. Head Coach Henri Kotanen’s Crocodiles played a respectable Maple Bowl last year, and are without a doubt aiming at a rematch in September.

A new challenger has emerged in just a couple years with the Royals, and right around the corner, too. Head Coach Seppo Evwaraye has built a contender from the scratch in a short time with a plan and goal to get up to the League to compete.

Vaasa is close to Seinäjoki, in many ways, these two teams are now competing for the same players, the same status,  the game between these two teams also is about the bragging rights, the football ownership of Pohjanmaa, the ’Texas of Finland’.

The Crocodiles started their season with a very easy looking win over the other newcomer Tampere Saints who will be busy adjusting to the Maple League level for some time still. A crushing score of 62-0 just happened, the Crocs were not running up the score but just doing what they do.

The Royals gave a storm alert with their defense against TAFT, limiting the Vantaa team (now with a complete set of imports) to pretty much nothing but one drive in the 17-0 victory.

Two teams with a shutout in their first game, the other one scoring at will, the other doing just enough offensively to capitalize on their D’s dominant performance.

Comparing the offenses:

The Crocodiles offense is led by the returning QB Justin Sottilare. He has some other returning imports around him, WR  Timothy Thomas and WR Spencer Cutlan were in big roles last year, too. The offensive backfield is completed with shifty US RB Kevin Marshall Jr and tall German WR André Feuerherdt leaving one spot for a national player to compete for. The Crocodiles OL is a bit of a question mark in an otherwise very talented offensive unit. Based on the first game the Crocodiles Offense has been built to minimize the burden on the OL, Sottilare uses backfield actions to make the D step wrong to open easy passing lanes and also uses decoy movement from the interior WRs to soften the run support. Often lining up in a ‘Hybrid’ formation,  with a second ‘RB’ at the edge or wing, they also seem to like the modern idea of running a ‘smashmouth spread’ at times. They run some inside and outside zone, counter, split zone and zone read, but the Crocodiles do not look like a team that wants to or is able to really grind it.

The Saints were no match in last weekend’s game, missing tackles, responsibilities and losing leverage at all times, but the Crocodiles offense has the capability of keeping the field both wide and long to defend for better defenses, too.  Crocodiles can be called a pass first offense.

The Royals are different. Where Sottilare has a full season of experience in a household Maple League offense, his colleague Isaac Fisher has been in Finland only a couple of weeks and now leads an offense taking its first steps in the League.  In the first outing last weekend he looked calm and very capable of  expanding the play selection from what was seen. The Royals are very much relying on national players at the offensive backfield with RBs Järviö, Suoste and Jakobsson and WRs Doubitski, Nguyen and Häivälä. The offensive style is different, too. The task is very much on the Offensive Line to execute a run heavy offense. The Royals are not really looking for the ‘free meal’ of US QB passing quickly to US WR (nothing wrong with that), but have a Pro-style wide playbook with seemingly an attempt to be balanced.  Where the Crocodiles merely wall off the defenders with their OL, the Royals run blocking assignment football with the classic isolation, power g etc principles along with the obvious inside and outside zones. They also run the spread like everybody else, and that’s when one could expect Stacey Thomas to be fielded at WR, too.

Overall the Royals offense did not show the same firepower or ability to rack up points in the first game that the Crocodiles did, but their offense is a good match for their speedy and aggressive defense, Royals are a team that can easily dominate the time of possession in a game, and most likely would like to keep the scores low and controlled against the top teams in the League. To make a distinction, the Royals are run first and love to grind it.


Comparing the defenses:

The Crocodiles really weren’t measured yet in their first game. They appear to run a 43 defense with a single high safety as their bread and butter. This would put them in an 8-man box vs the Royals in their 2 back offense.

Young Filip Zakoc is one of the better DEs in the League, the allround LB Joonas Raatikainen will be at the ball, the import LB Robinson looks solid, the Koivumäki brothers and Tuomas Leinonen (his 2% odds of continuing a probable Hall of Fame career turned into 100% football, again)  the ‘new kid’ LB Jaska Värinen, along with the rest of the Crocodiles defense are a solid group talent-wise.

Even with a shutout, there were times when the Crocodiles D cracked in last weekend’s game, the Saints WRs left plays on the field with many drops. Vaasa will challenge the box hard, and the interior DL of the Crocs is in a big role in the game. Crocodiles look predictable and their DL might be the suspect overall in the game.

The Royals really caught the attention last weekend with their defense. Exceptionally, they have put their chips on ‘the dark side’ to be competitive. With the addition of American LBs Cameron Grad and Chris Young, one of the all time National players Efe Evwaraye, the two Swedish National Team level players and the national status safety Stacey Thomas the Royals have put together a defensive group that can compete with anyone.

The new-in-Finland DC William Miller has the Royals in a 34 defense. This suits their material well as their designated monster Chris Young is versatile and can be a force in both hand down rushing duties and at OLB. Not to mention that DE Efe Evwaraye has been an All League inside and outside LB for a decade. As with any odd front the pressure is on the NG to anchor the middle. Veteran Thomas Ceken and gigantic Lauri Hannula should be the first options for the job. An interesting feature in the Royals D is the two young athletic CBs, Khalifa and Amudeng, both young developing players but both also true rookies in the League. The speed to the ball that the Royals showed in the game against TAFT should have the opposing OC’s sweating bullets. Also, like always with and odd front, an extra mileage goes into figuring out the main schemes of attacking the line of scrimmage as opposed to the ‘good old’ 40 look.


What is to be expected?

This game is a treat. Basically, the Crocodiles could isolate the game to a 1-1 quick pass rally with their wideouts against the young CBs of Vaasa with both their basic passing and screen game. And perhaps they should, as  Sottilare will not have a lot of time and space for anything else.  An aggressive 34 can be turned against itself with a very alert OL play and  QB audibles,  PSL reads to detect the rush lanes and blitzes, but the Royals have an exceptionally athletic front 7 that can catch up even if stepping wrong. Any run yardage to the outside will be hard to earn. The Crocodiles should have the patience to try and run up the middle, too. They can make the field long and wide to defend, but will be harassed very hard if they don’t get the ball out fast.

The Crocodiles live on their short passing game, almost RPO looking slants and quick screens. The Royals might be well off limiting their rushers to 3 at times and covering the underneath areas. The previously mentioned young CBs will be challenged hard and should be supported by the safeties. If the Royals can force the Crocs into nothing but pass, like the Roosters did last year in the Maple Bowl, they might dominate the game.

Regardless, this game will be good entertainment with the Crocodiles Offense against the Royals Defense.

The Royals offense must establish some passing, too. Designated QB runs can force an extra lane to be defended and help the RBs to find room. Also, the Royals should keep the tempo and intensity up to tire the front 7 of the Crocodiles,  as they don’t have a lot of depth. Sustaining drives, moving the sticks and finishing with points requires a mistake-free game from the Royals offense. The Crocodiles defense is not likely to give up huge plays easily. The Royals can be expected to improve on a weekly basis as their QB settles in and the playbook can be opened to a complete package with reps.

Overall, this game is very hard to predict. If the Crocodiles manage to score + 24 points they should be close to a win. A Royals victory in this game would require another exceptional outing by their D, maybe sugared with  defensive scores, too. Also, as always, field position as a result of ST play or turnovers is huge, too.

Tuomas Heikkinen

The writer is the head coach of the  Finland National Team