The Massachusetts Pirates enjoyed their best season in franchise history and now look to keep that winning feeling alive as they set sail toward the 2021 Indoor Football League Championship.
The Pirates 11-3 record was the best in team history and their current eight game winning streak is also a franchise record. Those lofty heights can be attributed in part to the amazingly low numbers that were attained by the Massachusetts defense. The Pirates led the IFL holding opponents to 33.1 points per game while giving up a league low 63 touchdowns.
In the 2018 season, Massachusetts had 11 wins over a 16-game schedule and gave up 42.9 points per game. This years’ team was almost 10 points better on defense.
Assistant Head Coach, Defensive Coordinator and Secondary Coach Rayshaun Kizer, who is in his first year on the Pirates staff, knew from early on that this team had a chance to accomplish great things.
“When I got here, I was looking at the talent that Jawad (Pirates President and General Manager Jawad Yatim) was bringing in and I said I’ll be able to do some special things with that group. All they had to do was to buy in and they all bought in when they got here and the sky was the limit. They all took off from there,” he said.
Opposing quarterbacks struggled against the Pirates defense completing a league low 49 percent of their passes. The 4.7 yards per reception and 120.8 passing yards per game were also the best of any defense in the IFL. Kizer said after a 49-18 win over Louisville that he had something special.
“When we held them to 18 points, I said it’s going to be a good year,” Kizer said. “I think that’s the lowest ever, be it playing or coaching, that I’ve ever held a team to. (The Pirates actually held Northern Arizona to just 16 points near the end of the season.) “We just dominated that game up front and the back end played great. I think we gave up three touchdowns so I knew it was going to be a good year, because we were going to get better from there,” he added.
Pirates’ defensive lineman Toby Johnson said the potential of the defense was evident from day one in training camp.
“Going up against our offense and knowing the type of firepower they had, I knew from the start. We started out hot, then had some bumps in the road, but we got back on pace the last couple of games. When our offense started picking it up, I feel like our defense got better too,” Johnson said.
When the regular season was over, Massachusetts had given up the fewest yards per play at 4.1.
Several players emerged as stars as Massachusetts had three of the top ten defensive backs in the IFL with Harlan Miller, Khalid Wooten and Aarion Maxey-Penton. All were in the top ten of passes defended. Miller and Maxey-Penton had five interceptions each. D-back Chucky Williams led the IFL with three fumble recoveries while Johnson topped the charts with three forced fumbles. Kizer was impressed with the accomplishments with their collective lack of experience regarding the indoor game.
“This is the first time that Miller, Maxey-Penton, Santos Ramirez and Ahmad Dixon have played indoors,” Kizer said. “My whole defensive backfield is kind of new to the game. Even Chucky Williams has only played one year indoors. Khalid Wooten is still kind of fresh to the game. I had to teach all the guys back there the game and the way I like things done to make it easier for them,” he said.
When asked which player surprised him the most in 2021, Kizer had no reservations.
“Definitely Ahmad Dixon,” was his answer. “I was trying to find a comfortable position for him to excel and once Martrell (Spaight) got hurt, he settled in at Mac linebacker. He had a couple of good games and was named player of the week at the Mac position. He’s definitely one player who stood out and just started making plays. He’s a baller. Ahmad is the type of guy who you don’t want to think too much; he’s going to play fast. Harlan Miller came a long way from the beginning of training camp. He had to learn a whole new way to play this game. He had a couple of struggles at the beginning of training camp but to see him now; I think he’s at the top of the league in interceptions along with Maxey-Penton. It’s good to see that progress over the weeks and to see him grow into this game,” Kizer said.
Dixon, who played his college ball at Baylor, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 and went on to play 11 NFL games with three teams in 2015. After stints in the CFL and XFL, he decided to try his hand moving indoors.
“It was just an opportunity to come in, play ball and learn,” he said. “I’ve never played indoor football. I didn’t know anything about it. I really didn’t have many expectations but once I got here and I saw how things operated, I just bought into immediately what coach Kizer had us doing. We have a great group of guys that make it easy to learn and easy to adjust. Coach Kizer, being as good a coach as he is; I just can’t take credit for all of it. He does a great job of making sure that we’re in a great position. The thing that he taught us when we first got here was the technique of how to play indoor football. That’s what has helped me; just sticking to the technique that he taught us and trusting in him,” he added.
It may sound simple, but Kizer say’s the success of the Pirates defense can be summed up in just one word.
“Communication,” he said. “I’ve been saying that since day one. Once all eight guys are on the same page out there, it’s so hard to complete passes and run the football on us and they do a great job of communicating. Martrell (Spaight) Toby (Johnson) Santos (Ramirez) all do a great job communicating with the rest of the defensive unit and they always keep everybody on task,” said Kizer.
“People think that communication is just about on the field, “Dixon said. “The communication level that we have in our secondary is bigger than just on the field or in the locker room. The majority of us are hanging out with each other on a daily basis, all day, every day. For the most part we’re always together. Our chemistry and communication are bigger than just when we’re on the field. We eat together, we shop together, we hang out together. The DB’s; we’re pretty much always together,” he added.
Johnson says that process is not exclusive to the secondary. “With me being a nose guard, I have to tell everybody what to look for as well certain runs and just being on the same page with the ends and the Mac. I feel its just as big up front as it is in the backfield. The D-line communication is a very big part of the success,” he said.
Holding themselves accountable has helped the Massachusetts defense to have the best third down conversion rate 30.9 percent.
“As our coaches like to say, everybody is doing their 1/8th,” said Dixon. “Just do your job. Don’t worry about anybody else. If the play doesn’t get made, we’ll know who didn’t make the play so just do your job and that’s it. Everybody has bought into that mindset. That’s been a part of our success along with our communication. When we communicate off the field that’s the one thing we’re always talking about, how to get better at doing our job,” Dixon added.
Johnson also has prior NFL experience and sees the versatility of his teammates.
“We’ve got guys who can play multiple positions. They aren’t one sided. We have a lot of guys who can play on the offensive side of the ball. I feel like we have the best defensive line indoors. If we were to go outdoors, I feel like with the guys we got now, they can all play at the next level as far as the NFL, XFL, or CFL. All our guys could play at any level. They can play multiple positions and get after the quarterback and stop the run,” Johnson said.
Coach Kizer likes everyone to share in the success.
“It’s my job to put them in the right position and they make all the plays, so they get more credit than me. I’m just the mastermind that puts them in position, that’s all. They just go out there and play fast, communicate and they make a lot of plays. We live with the results. I feel like as a unit we should not be giving up more than 30 points per game. I feel that we’re good enough to hold every team under 30 points. It was a longshot but we actually did a pretty good job. That was the goal, under 30 and we have to keep that same mentality going into the playoffs. If we can keep teams under 30 points, our offense is good enough to score over 30 points so we should be walking away with the championship. That’s the goal,” Kizer said.
Now, as the team begins its playoff run on Saturday against the Bismarck Bucks at Phoenix Field at the DCU Center, Kizer looks for perfection, which starts with more consistency.
“There were some plays even in our last game where we didn’t do a good job of communicating and that was when they were able to get big plays on us. As long as we communicate on every single play, we will be alright. It’s hard to score on us when we are all on the same page. That’s what I always tell the guys. We can’t assume the next person will know. We can always get better at communicating.”
The Massachusetts Pirates are members of the Indoor Football League (IFL). The Pirates play all home games at Phoenix Field at the DCU Center located at 50 Foster St. Worcester, MA, 01608. For more information on the Massachusetts Pirates please call (508)452-MASS (6277), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.masspiratesfootball.com. Single game tickets are available now at ticketmaster.com or the DCU Center Box Office. For 2022 season, half-season, luxury, or group ticket packages please call 508-452-MASS (6277). Follow the Pirates on Facebook via Facebook.com/MAPirates, Instagram @mass.pirates, and Twitter @mass_pirates. #GetHooked #AllAboard