As he sat in the bowels of CONSOL Energy Center addressing the media after the Pittsburgh Power’s dramatic 54-48 come-from-behind victory over the San Jose SaberCats, head coach Chris Siegfried tried to keep the significant achievement in perspective.
“They’re a first-class organization,” he said. “But so are we.”
With a pair of equally thrilling home-field victories in Weeks 9 and 10, the rest of the Arena Football League certainly found out what the expansionists are made of, in case it didn’t already know.
Still, one could argue we’ll learn even more these next nine weeks as the Power surge toward a possible berth in the American Conference playoffs, and a shot at ArenaBowl XXIV. But when we look back at the revolving door of talent who have suited up, and the the litany of injuries that could have ruined their maiden voyage at various points, the East Division’s second-place team seems to be in a good place as it gears up for the second half of the season.
While the Power get ready to hit the road and put their 5-4 record on the line against the Dallas Vigilantes this Saturday, let’s take a look back at some of the highlights and lowlights from the first half of the season…
TOP FIVE HIGHLIGHTS:
5. The first game (58-52 OT loss to Philadelphia) – On Mar. 11 a crowd of 13,904, the biggest since the rebirth of the league, saw the AFL return to Pittsburgh for the first time in over 20 years. First impressions being what they are, the new kids on the block made a good one, and those who stayed till the bitter end definitely got into it. A 37-yard bomb from Bernard Morris to a wide-open Jason Willis 1:13 into the game gave the Power their first points in franchise history, the defense forced three turnovers, and Paul Edinger forced overtime with a field goal from just shy of midfield as time expired.
4. Morelli wins National Guard MVP honors – This season the league introduced a new weekly award partially decided by the fans, and the man who once delighted crowds at Penn Hills and Penn State earned it with his performance in a Week 7 victory at New Orleans Apr. 21. Injuries to Morris and fellow WPIAL alum Kevin McCabe had thrust Anthony Morelli into the spotlight, and Morelli completed 23 of 35 passes for 232 yards, six TD’s, and no picks in a 56-49 decision over the VooDoo. Morelli also scored on a QB sneak early in the fourth quarter, as he and the Power scored on four straight possessions in that period to nail down the win.
3. Week 2: 58-28 win over Iowa – Happily for Pitt basketball fans, there was something positive happening elsewhere in the world of sports to distract them from their woes the night of Mar. 19. Over 9,000 fans at CONSOL Energy Center saw two different QB’s help the Power whip the Barnstormers and give Chris Siegfried a much-awaited Gatorade bath in celebration of the first win in franchise history. Morris injured his throwing arm while tossing two TD’s and racking up 114 yards in the air, then McCabe threw for 110 yards and three scores in the second half, and the defense intercepted Brad Banks three times, including a pick-six by Lonnell DeWalt, to make it stand up.
2. Week 9: 51-41 win over Spokane – In order for the Power to get serious about making the playoffs, they were going to have to win at least one game they probably weren’t expected to win, and that happened at home May 7 against the ArenaBowl XXIII champions. Turnovers and missed opportunities dogged the Power and Morris in his first game back from injured reserve in the first half, but in the second half Morris and his receivers found their rhythm, and the defense slammed the door. He threw for four second-half TD’s, including one on a sensational one-handed grab by Mike Washington, and ran for another, while the Power scored on five drives in a row and produced 24 points off three Spokane turnovers, and the Shock were held to 14 second-half points.
1. Week 10: 54-48 win over San Jose – It stands to reason the top two highlights of the first half of the season would be arguably the two best games the Power have played to this point, and if Week 9 against Spokane wasn’t a statement game for the new team, their heart-stopping comeback against the SaberCats on May 14 had to be. With a healthy arm and a new lease on life, Morris out-classed AFL superstar Mark Grieb by throwing for 263 yards and all eight Power touchdowns, as he and Grieb counter-punched throughout the first half. In the second half, the Power defense forced three consecutive turnovers on downs, including a clutch goal-line stand in the final minutes, and Morris’ eighth TD toss went to a wide-open Jason Willis for the winning points with 15 seconds left.
TOP FIVE LOWLIGHTS:
5. The first game (58-52 OT loss to Philadelphia) – By all accounts, the return of the AFL to Pittsburgh couldn’t have gone much better…except for the final score. The Power were ahead 21-7 after the first quarter and 27-24 at the half, but Morris threw three interceptions, including a walk-off defensive touchdown by Mike Brown that brought an abrupt end to the overtime period, and he just barely overthrew Jason Willis on a deep ball that would’ve given the Power the lead in the final minute of regulation. Considering the Soul lost five in a row after this one, you’d have to file this one under games that got away that maybe shouldn’t have, and in a tight playoff race, you’d hate to see any divisional loss come back to haunt the Power.
4. Josh Lay’s injury, off-the-field issues – His concussion while making a big hit late in a Week 4 loss to the Tulsa Talons Apr. 2 (more on that one below) is very thematic for the first half of the Power’s season, as injuries constantly seem to have disrupted team chemistry and kept them from realizing their full potential till now. A drug bust involving Lay, followed some time later by a two-game suspension for a rule violation, didn’t help the Aliquippa/Pitt grad’s cause either, nor did it help PR for the new franchise. In games against Jacksonville and Georgia where the Power’s pass defense got schooled, they certainly could have used his leadership in the secondary, and his performance against San Jose demonstrates what a difference his injury–and team health in general–can make.
3. Week 6: 65-40 loss to Jacksonville – April 16 had to be something of an emotional night for Chris Siegfried, who squared off against his former team at CONSOL Energy Center with the Sharks in the early stages of an ongoing win streak. The Power hung in there early on, but despite multiple opportunities to stop Jacksonville on third and fourth down, the visitors showed the Power didn’t have the horses to keep up with Aaron Garcia, the AFL’s all-time passing leader. Garcia threw for 297 yards and five TD’s, as the Power allowed their most points all season, and missed opportunities dropped the team below .500.
2. Week 8: 58-39 loss to Georgia – The first road loss in franchise history on Apr. 30 was something of an embarrassing one, as the Power were outscored 21-0 in the third quarter and never recovered. The Force’s ball-hawk defense forced three interceptions by Anthony Morelli, fresh off his Week 7 MVP performance in the Big Easy, and Georgia QB Brett Elliot capitalized by throwing eight touchdown passes, four of them to Maurice Purify. It was another game of missed opportunities for the Power, as Morelli’s accuracy left much to be desired…so much, in fact, he was replaced by Xavier Lee in the final minute of the game.
1. Week 4: 45-22 loss to Tulsa – Coming off back-to-back wins, the stage appeared to be set for the Power to make it three in a row when this struggling National Conference team came to town Apr. 2, so giving the winless Talons their first victory of 2011 had to be a pretty tough pill to swallow. The 22 points were a season-low, and the game began ominously when backup quarterback Kevin McCabe drove the Power deep into Tulsa territory, but was intercepted in the back of the end zone on fourth and goal. McCabe completed only eight passes, was intercepted twice, and was pulled due to injury, setting the stage for Morelli’s AFL debut.
Like the AFL does after every game, let’s give out our unofficial first-half awards…
Best Offensive Player: Bernard Morris (80-of-130, 867 yds, 20 TD, 6 INT, 100.4 passer rating, 61.5 comp. pct.; 16 rush, 109 yds, 2 TD)
Best Defensive Player: Gary Butler (3.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 27.5 total tackles, 5 pass breakups, 3 QB hurries, 3 fumble recoveries)
Best Ironman: Lonnell DeWalt (9 rec. TD, 2 2-pt. conv., avg. 12.1 yds/rec.; 15.5 total tackles, 2 INT)
Best Playmaker: Mike Washington (12 rec. TD leads team, avg. 11.8 yds/rec.)
Catch of the Year: Mike Washington’s one-handed 31-yard TD reception from Bernard Morris in the second half of the Power’s Week 9 win over Spokane
Highlight of the Year: (TIE) First win in franchise history Mar. 19 vs. Iowa/Jason Willis’ game-winning TD reception from Bernard Morris with 15 seconds left in regulation in the Power’s Week 10 win over San Jose
First Half MVP (tough decision here…): Jason Willis (11 rec. TD, leads team with 661 rec. yds, leads team with 840 all-purpose yds)
Each of the players mentioned have played an integral role in keeping the Power in the playoff chase. You’d hate to think the team has peaked yet, but chemistry and confidence, seemingly, have never been better, to say nothing of the team’s consistency on both sides of the field.
Chemistry, confidence, consistency…those three C’s are essential if the Power wish to catch Cleveland–another very important “C”–in the East Division. Here are a few more keys to success for the Pittsburgh Power in the second half of their 2011 season:
1. “Rue” the day. Is it just me, or has fullback Josh Rue become more invisible as the season has progressed? Maybe it’s just that opponents are gunning for him now that they’ve seen what a bruising back he is, and how dangerous he can be in goal-line situations. Rue has racked up 87 yards and eight touchdowns, seventh-most rush TD’s in the league, on 36 carries, but he’s only scored once in his last four games.
He can still be as effective as he was at the beginning of the season, and the sooner the Power can get him involved in the offense again, the better. If he doesn’t have room to run, it would be nice at least to see them try to throw to him out of the backfield. At any rate, when you have a good athlete like Rue on your team, you need to create space for him and give him a chance to show what kind of damage he can do.
2. Keep Morris upright. Another reason the Power have had an effective ground attack, and still can have an effective ground attack, is that Bernard Morris has proven he can make plays with his feet. But if this offensive line doesn’t do a better job protecting its QB, he’ll have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide (I won’t break into song, I promise).
Generally the play in the trenches has improved lately, but the O-line has been inconsistent at times, having allowed 20 sacks, the third-most in the AFL entering Week 12. An upper-body injury to starting center Sione Ohuafi might only make matters worse if it turns out the bye week wasn’t enough time for him to heal. In his first two games since returning from IR, Morris has thrown for 13 TD’s and run for two more, and the Power have the third-most rushing yards in the AFL largely because of his scrambling. The way you cool off a hot quarterback is to hit him, and the line can’t let that happen.
3. Special teams consistency. Standard AFL goal posts are nine feet apart (half the separation of NFL goal posts), and they’re 15 feet off the ground (several feet higher than NFL goal posts). Translation: no extra point or field goal attempt in arena football is a gimme, and hopefully novice fans will bear that in mind when they see that Paul Edinger has slipped in the league leaderboard for scoring by kickers recently. Having said that, it wouldn’t hurt for him to pick it up a bit (46-of-55 on P.A.T.’s), though two of the three field goals he’s booted have led to wins.
By and large his kickoffs have been strong and special teams as a whole, win or lose, has been a strong point of this team. Despite the loss of return specialists Jerome Mathis and Eddie Robinson, that group has not missed a beat, and the Power, who average over 18 yards per kick return, are still among the AFL’s top five in that category. Football isn’t just about attrition, it’s about field position, and as long as guys like Willis and Craig Fulton Jr. continue to help the Power win the battle of field position, they’ll be in position to win games.
4. A clean bill of health. Far be it from me to be a hyperbolic homer, but one of the reasons I have a lot of respect for Siegfried and his staff to this point is the rash of injuries his team has had to endure. Fans sometimes take for granted how tough it is to get eight players on the same page, especially when, number one, many of them are rookies, and number two, it’s hardly ever the same eight guys playing together week to week. Chemistry, particularly on offense, has been a problem for this team, and it’s just beginning to improve now, because injuries have exacerbated that problem.
Not having a seasoned No. 1 QB will kill you in the Arena League, so hopefully the pain Bernard Morris experienced in his throwing arm for a month has subsided. Two-way lineman Neal Purvis, an important piece up front, has played hurt, as has mac linebacker Gary Butler. Josh Lay has just gotten over post-concussion symptoms. Wide receivers have come and gone over the past nine games. As the Power finally start to get healthy, you’ve seen the result. The more time these guys stay healthy and get to play together, the more games you’ll see like the last two, where the Power get sharper as the game goes on, instead of the opposite.
5. Team defense. It’s awfully convenient they play in a city that appreciates good defense, because in that phase of the game, the Power have been good from the get-go. They rank seventh entering Week 12 in pass yardage allowed and only 15th in rush yards allowed, but the bottom line is, they’ve made their share of big plays, especially in these last two home games, and the Power have allowed 439 points (48.8 per game), the third-fewest in the AFL. In seven of their first nine games, the Power have held the opposing offense to 50 points or less, and in the modern era of arena football, that number is a recipe for success.
A group like this one, which, by the way, has also allowed the second-fewest first downs in the league, doesn’t have a clear-cut MVP, but in this instance it’s a good problem to have. Josh Lay has been a difference-maker in the secondary, as have Carlos Campbell and Royce Adams. Gary Butler and Terrance Carter have done a nice job putting pressure on opposing QB’s. Newcomer Davon Benson is contributing up front, and Siegfried’s recent decision to play Lonnell DeWalt at jack linebacker has helped throw two darn good quarterbacks off their game. The fact that the Power’s offense is finally starting to click should take some of the pressure off the defense, which should lead to more big plays from this group.
As the Pittsburgh Power get ready for the second half of the season, there definitely is reason for excitement based on the way the first half ended. The injury bug is slowly flying away, and the team now has a more consistent offense to complement its already consistent defense, so dreams of an East Division title and playoff berth are still very much alive. Here’s hoping Pittsburgh will take notice.
By Matt Popchock