Russia’s Defending Champions Retake their Lead as Regular Season Heads to the Finish

As the Russian season marches towards the playoffs, let’s take a look at the key match ups of the past week.

St. Petersburg Griffins 24 – Moscow Patriots 35

The most anticipated matchup of the second half of the regular season didn’t disappoint, as the two leaders of the Russian Superleague, the defending Russian champion Moscow Patriots and the St. Petersburg Griffins, fought another battle to be remembered.

Russia - Griffins-Patriots

Having lost their first game in years to the Griffins in week 1, the Patriots wanted to prove their status as the top club in Russia as never before, but the hosts were not about to give in easily. The Moscow team has revamped their playbook and gone away from the spread offense that the Griffins have successfully defended earlier, opting instead for a classical pro formation run-game as a foundation for their offensive production.

That was not something that the St. Petersburg team was ready for, having prepared a dime-package (extra defensive backs) for this game defensively, so they were unable to keep the guest in check like they did before. Nevertheless, the two teams went toe-to-toe for most of the game, each scoring a TD in the first three quarter, until the Griffins finally went up by three with a successful field goal at the start of the fourth.

But after the Patriots regained their lead on the ensuing drive with a long scramble by QB Igor Chernolutsky, the hosts immediately threw an interception to last season’s league MVP CB Victor But, which allowed the Moscow team to keep the ball on the ground and mount a perfect drive to reach the endzone again and kill the clock for a crucial win.

St. Petersburg North Legion 50 – Yaroslavl Rebels 6

Russia - North Legion v Rebels

The bottom two teams of the Superleague have fought a game for elimination, as the North Legion kept at least mathematical chances for a postseason berth, while the Rebels are officially out of contention.

Just like their first meeting, the St. Petersburg club dominated the young Rebels in all phases of the game, which was based on their complete domination in the trenches. While the Yaroslavl defense has significantly improved during the season, especially among their linebackers and defensive backfield, their lack of strength in the defensive line keeps hindering their further progress, as they still allow their opponents to both run and pass the football seemingly at will.

On the other side of the ball, they keep getting better at executing their playbook, but their own mistakes and turnovers still keep them from scoring consistently.

Moscow Spartans 9 – Nizhny Novgorod Raiders-52 13

Russia - Spartans v Raiders

While both teams have already clinched their wildcard round berth where they will face each other in two weeks, the game was still an important matchup for the Spartans and the Raiders-52 as it decided home field advantage for the playoff game.

Missing their leading rusher Denis Pronkin, the Spartans running game was only able to produce consistent yardage through the scrambles of QB Ivan Goloveshkin. That lack of consistency hurt them when it mattered most, as they only came up with 9 points in their 5 red zone trips, including a fumble in the 4th quarter with the game on the line.

The Raiders-52, on the other hand, displayed a perfect example of “bend but not break attitude”, consistently making plays when it mattered most, both to extend their offensive possessions and to make stops on the other side of the ball. They will now host the Spartans for a wildcard round game in Nizhny Novgorod.

Team Samara 12 – Chelyabinsk Tanks 6

Russia - Samara v Tanks

Team Samara visited Chelyabinsk for their last game of the regular season which had no postseason implications for either team, as the Urals division had already been clinched by Ekaterinburg Lightning. Nevertheless, the motivation to avoid finishing last in their division proved to be a motivation enough for both teams to show some hard-nosed football on both sides of the ball.

Having greatly improved their pass coverage, which was Samara’s biggest problem earlier this season, they were able to force the Tanks to keep the ball on the ground more than they probably intended with the run blocking issues that they had. And those issues continued this time as well, preventing their offense to establish any kind of momentum. Team Samara, in the meantime, weren’t able to mount a lot of offense either, but they did just enough to earn themselves the first win of the season.

Moscow Black Storm 12 – Moscow Dragons 13

Russia - Black Storm v Dragons

The match-up between these win-less teams had more at stake than one would expect, as the winner of the game would earn the right for a wildcard spot. And although the young Dragons had shown a tremendous amount of progress this season, they were considered underdogs coming into the game against the vastly more experienced Black Storm.

The passing offense and defensive coverage of the Dragons finally “clicked” early in the game, as they scored through the air and off an interception in the first quarter, before sticking to a more conservative game plan later on. While the Black Storm would score twice in the remaining time themselves, the Dragons held on for the win and the playoff spot (where they will face this season’s surprise the Podolsk Knights), while the lack Storm – the 2013 Russian champions – finished the season win-less.

Ilya Kravtsov
After being involved in bringing American football to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, Ilya would go on to play in the Japanese X-League, helping his side Tokyo Bullseyes advance all the way to the top tier of the league and become the only non-corporate team in X-1. He's currently the defensive coordinator of St. Petersburg Griffins, as well as the head coach of St. Petersburg Valkyries.
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