Arena Football Preview: Power vs. SaberCats
Maybe it was the sideline presence of Make-A-Wish member Mick Walsh. Maybe it was the inspirational example set by defensive lineman Terrance Carter, playing in the wake of his grandmother’s death, or maybe the one set by two-way lineman Neal Purvis, who suited up despite some reports that said he may need knee surgery. Whatever it was, something clicked for the Power last week, as they showed mettle in the second half of an impressive comeback victory over the ArenaBowl champs, probably their most important win of the season. It kept the Power from falling too far out of the playoff picture, and it provided a definite ego boost as they trudge through a difficult stretch of their inaugural schedule. That stretch continues Saturday against one of the Arena League’s model franchises, and against one of its poster children, who should be very pumped up to line up at quarterback in front of his father, a West Mifflin native. Here’s hoping, for the Power’s sake, that their own QB’s apparent rebirth last weekend after coming off injured reserve was an omen, but in the meantime, here’s what they have to look forward to in Week 10:
KICKOFF: 7:30 PM, CONSOL Energy Center
TV/RADIO: WPCW-TV/The CW (Bob Pompeani on play-by-play, Craig Wolfley on color); 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color, Megan Wolfley reporting)
LAST WEEK: The Power are coming off a 51-41 win over the ArenaBowl champion Spokane Shock, the fourth-place team in the National Conference’s West Division, in Week 9. It was their first victory at home since Mar. 19 against Iowa (another National Conference team) which was also the first victory of any kind in franchise history. It was also the third time the Power have won immediately following a loss. The SaberCats are coming off a 65-43 loss at home to the West Division front-runners, the Arizona Rattlers, in Week 9. The loss snapped a three-game winning streak, and was only San Jose’s second home loss in six outings.
WHERE THEY STAND: With last week’s come-from-behind triumph, the Power kept pace with the first-place Cleveland Gladiators (5-2), who visit the Orlando Predators Saturday night, in the American Conference’s East Division. Furthermore, they moved into the No. 10 spot in the Week 10 AFL Coaches’ Poll. The Power sit ahead of the 3-6 Philadelphia Soul (who defeated the Georgia Force Friday night) and the 2-6 Milwaukee Mustangs (who visit the Utah Blaze Saturday night at 9:00 Eastern). Meanwhile, the SaberCats’ Week 9 setback dropped them to the No. 5 spot in the AFL Coaches’ Poll. It also left them just a half-game ahead of Utah (4-3) for second place in the West Division, two games ahead of the 3-5 Spokane Shock (who host the Dallas Vigilantes Saturday night), and two games behind 7-1 Arizona (which hosts the Chicago Rush Saturday night).
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: The rust was evident in the first half of Morris’ first game in well over a month, but once he and his receivers got on the same page in the second half, the rust disappeared and he gradually took the game over. In Week 9 he connected on 18 of 33 passes (54.5%) for 226 yards and five touchdowns, hitting Jason Willis for the game-winning TD with 50 seconds left in regulation, and was intercepted once in the first quarter. He also ran eight times for 66 yards and a pair of scores. Through two-plus games the second-year man from Marshall has gone 56-of-91 (61.5%) for 604 yards, 12 TD’s, and four INT’s, good for a 95.7 passer rating. Morris has run 14 times for 73 yards to go with the two aforementioned touchdowns.
Mark Grieb, San Jose: To achieve long-term success in the AFL the way the SaberCats have, one needs a franchise quarterback, though Grieb, who might be as ideal a face as this franchise will ever have, didn’t exactly play like one in last week’s loss. In Week 9 he struggled through a 20-of-38 (52.6%) outing, racking up 264 yards and four touchdowns, and was intercepted four times. He also ran twice for 11 yards and another score. Through eight games Grieb has completed 197 passes (fifth in the AFL entering Saturday) for 2,298 yards (also fifth), 40 TD’s (seventh), and 11 INT. That’s good for a passer rating of 111.1, which ranks ninth in the AFL entering Saturday, and a completion percentage of 68.4, which ranks third. The San Jose native and 12th-year man from Cal-Davis is fifth all-time in career pass yardage (39,140) and TD’s (756), second only to Aaron Garcia of Jacksonville among active QB’s.
*Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise the Power fell behind early in Week 9, because they proved, at last, they could finish a game strong, and against this San Jose squad, you have to take advantage of opportunities that may arise late. The SaberCats have amassed 474 points, second-most in the West Division and National Conference, and third-most in the league entering Week 10, and have outscored opponents by 35 points in the first half. But there are liabilities on that defense, as San Jose has allowed 449 points, which ranked 11th in the AFL entering Week 10, and its second-half point differential is minus-8, including a glaring 166 points given up in the fourth quarter. Statistically, the Power have played it pretty close to the vest in the first half of games in 2011, but the second half could be the difference. Pittsburgh outscored Spokane 37-14 in the second half last week for the win, and has scored a majority of their 367 points in the fourth quarter (114), so certainly the Power hope their second-half point differential of minus-19 makes another big improvement this week.
*Needless to say, head coach Chris Siegfried and defensive coordinator Mo Blanding will make sure Grieb is the focal point when the Power’s defense takes the field, but the SaberCats’ versatility should not go unnoticed. Second-year fullback Chad Cook has run for 17 touchdowns, the second-most in the Arena League entering Saturday, he leads San Jose in individual scoring with 18 total TD’s, and his 110 yards on 38 carries ranks ninth in the AFL. The Power can’t take their eyes off him, because one of the few weaknesses of their defense has been their trouble containing the run. They’ve allowed 32.8 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 16th in the 18-team AFL entering Saturday. Meanwhile, Grieb will probably target Nichirin Flowers, who leads San Jose’s depleted receiving corps with 14 TD’s, or Rodney Wright, who has averaged 138 receiving yards per game in just three appearances, with leading receiver Samora Goodson still on IR. Even special teams have gotten into the offensive act for the SaberCats, as kicker Juan Gamboa is tied with Tulsa’s Juan Bongarra with a league-best 66 points.
*One of the best decisions Siegfried seems to have made was putting wide receiver Lonnell DeWalt at jack linebacker against Spokane. DeWalt had a pass breakup, one of two interceptions by the Power, tied LaRico Stevenson with a game-high 5.5 tackles (five solo) and earned Defensive Player of the Game honors. Most importantly, the Power, for the sixth time this season, held an opposing offense under 50 points, and their 391 total points allowed are the fifth-fewest in the AFL entering Saturday. DeWalt may play ironman again tonight, considering the Power are facing another elite quarterback, and considering this week’s round of roster moves. Defensive back Antonio Smith has accepted the offer to play in the UFL we mentioned last week, and offensive specialist Xavier Lee has signed on with that league as well. Meanwhile, Stevenson, who also had a big kick return to open the third quarter last week, has bolstered the defense with 18.5 tackles, sixth most on the Power, and they will surely be aided by the return of defensive back Josh Lay. Lay has completed a brief suspension for breaking a team rule, and he has been declared free of post-concussion symptoms after taking a brutal hit in Week 4. In just three games he racked up 20.5 tackles, three pass breakups, and an INT.
*While Bernard Morris was earning Offensive Player of the Game honors with his stellar second-half effort in Week 9, Mike Washington was showing everybody why he is nicknamed “The Joystick.” Washington caught two critical second-half touchdown passes, one in which he broke wide open over the middle, and a sensational one-handed grab that accounted for 34 of his 85 receiving yards, which came on five catches, and helped him earn awards for Catch of the Game, Highlight of the Game, and Playmaker of the Game. With Lee gone, newcomer D.J. Hall nursing a leg injury, and DeWalt possibly pulling double duty, Washington’s playmaking skills may be counted on heavily once again. He has hauled in eight TD’s and racked up 470 yards on 38 catches, but fortunately Jason Willis has shown the same reliability, also catching eight TD’s and leading the Power with 573 receiving yards on 57 catches. One thing the Power would probably like to do, given the chance, is let Morris scramble, and also get fullback Joshua Rue more involved in the offense. The ever-popular Duquesne grad was relatively quiet last week, gaining 11 yards on just five carries, though he did come up with some key first downs. Rue has 160 all-purpose yards, and his ten total touchdowns lead the Power; plus he ranks in the AFL’s top ten with 85 rush yards and eight rushing TD’s. San Jose has allowed 143 rush yards, which ranks 14th in the AFL entering Saturday, while Pittsburgh’s 340 rush yards gained is third-most in the league.
By Matt Popchock