Just when you thought the Power couldn’t possibly top their two previous efforts, and just when you thought the will of this team would finally be broken, they found yet another way to make you sweat, but ultimately, make you smile as well. Pittsburgh happily wiped that sweat from its collective brow as all-time field goal kicking leader Remy Hamilton’s 32-yard attempt sailed wide right in the closing seconds of a Week 12 thriller, and the Power escaped Dallas with another amazing victory. But after a game in which the offense soared to new heights, while the swagger of the defense took a hit before a crucial two-point conversion denial in the closing seconds, the Power must reload, regroup, and re-energize for an equally tall test at CONSOL Energy Center Saturday night. A new dimension has been added to the gridiron rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and fittingly, both teams have a golden opportunity to take a significant step toward the Arena Football League’s postseason. Here’s what’s at stake in Week 13:
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 76-75 inter-conference win over the Dallas Vigilantes, the second-place team in the AFL’s Central Division, at the American Airlines Center last Saturday night. It was Pittsburgh’s third road victory in four tries, and it gave the Power a three-game winning streak. Furthermore, it represented season-highs for the team in both points for and points allowed. The Gladiators are coming a 63-42 loss to the National Conference’s top team, the Arizona Rattlers, in further Week 12 action last Saturday. It was Cleveland’s third consecutive road loss since opening the season with back-to-back wins at Spokane and Tampa Bay.
WHERE THEY STAND: With Pittsburgh’s pulse-pounding win in Dallas and Cleveland’s concurrent loss in Arizona, the Power and Gladiators enter Saturday’s contest, the first meeting in the history of these franchises, in a dead heat atop the American Conference’s East Division. Whoever wins not only will take sole possession of first place, but have a chance to hold onto it for a while, as these teams do not meet again until the Power’s penultimate regular season game at Quicken Loans Arena Fri., July 15.
They are both ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Soul (5-7), who edged the visiting Milwaukee Mustangs, the East Division’s fourth-place team at 3-8, on the last play of a 39-37 game Friday night. In being tied for the division lead, the two teams are also tied for the No. 2 seed in the American Conference playoffs, with Jacksonville (10-1) currently holding the top spot. If the playoffs started right now, the Power would visit the Sharks; Cleveland would hold the tiebreaker (superior record within the division) and host No. 3 seed Orlando (7-3).
After Saturday the Power play five of their remaining seven games away from CONSOL Energy Center, including that nationally-televised Week 19 rematch. The Gladiators are in a little different position; counting that game, they play four of their final seven at home, though prior to Week 19, they have two critical tests on the road against Milwaukee and Philadelphia in Weeks 17 and 18, respectively.
Cleveland fell from No. 5 to No. 6 in the AFL Coaches’ Poll after its Week 12 loss. The Power moved up a spot from No. 9 to No. 8 in the Week 13 poll.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: Against the Vigilantes the versatile signal-caller once again elevated his game in the second half, and in doing so, elevated his record as a starter this season to 4-1, and 3-0 since spending over a month on injured reserve with soreness in his throwing arm. In Week 12 Morris delivered his most productive performance of the 2011 campaign, connecting on 25 of 40 passes (62.5%) for 280 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions, while running for 41 yards, including a 27-yard score, on seven carries. Through four-plus games, the second-year man from Marshall has gone 105-of-170 (61.8%) for 1,147 yards, 27 TD’s (15 in the last two weeks), and six INT’s, good for a passer rating of 106.5. He ranks tenth in the AFL with 143 rush yards on 25 carries to go with his three rush TD’s, which is fifth-most among QB’s entering Saturday.
Kurt Rocco, Cleveland: Like Morris, his stead has been affected by injuries; when veteran John Dutton went down with an ankle injury late in Week 1, Rocco kept the team afloat, as the Gladiators went 5-4 while he battled for playing time with Dan Whalen. In Week 12 he struggled in their loss to the Rattlers, completing 27 of 42 passes (64.3%) for 328 yards, but only three touchdowns against two interceptions, though he did also run for two scores while gaining four net yards on three keepers. Through nine-plus games, the rookie from Mount Union (Ohio) has gone 156-of-246, good for a 63.4 completion percentage that ranks 11th in the league entering Saturday. His 12.8 yards per attempt is tied for third-best in the AFL. Rocco has thrown for 1,995 yards, 33 TD’s, and nine INT’s, while running 28 times for 73 yards and seven TD’s, ranking in the AFL’s top ten in that category.
*Don’t let the name throw you. The Gladiators are not the same team that left Pittsburgh after joining the Arena Football League as one of its original members, though it is one of several transplanted AFL squads. Before they were the Gladiators, they joined the old league as the New Jersey Red Dogs in 1997 until changing their nickname in 2001. Two years later they became the Las Vegas Gladiators and played in Sin City until relocating to Cleveland in 2008, the final season of operations for the old AFL. That season marked the Gladiators’ longest playoff run ever, as they reached the National Conference Championship, and one of the reasons second-year coach Steve Thonn has Cleveland knocking on the door of the postseason once again is his defense. It features three of the top 20 tacklers in the league, and third-year defensive back Levy Brown ranks third overall in that stat entering Saturday with 67.0 tackles, including 59 solo, along with six pass breakupts, two forced fumbles, and three picks. He’s always a presence, and re-activation of fellow DB Joe Phinisee should bolster the Gladiators’ secondary. Phinisee has an interception, three pass breakups, and 43 solo tackles (49.0 total). Cleveland’s pass defense allows the third-fewest yards per game in the AFL, and they’ll try to slow down a Power passing attack that is starting to come into its own, but still ranks last in the 18-team league in total yardage. Up front they are anchored by 2010 All-Arena lineman Anthony Hoke, who ranks sixth in the AFL in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (8.0). The Gladiators have allowed 450 points, the second-lowest ten-game total in the league.
*Robert Redd is the one Rocco might look for early and often, and he’s demonstrated multiple ways to give the Gladiators field position. The veteran receiver/kick returner leads the team with 765 yards on 57 catches and has 16 touchdowns, and he ranks ninth in the AFL with 13.4 yards per catch. Redd will test Pittsburgh’s special teams, which rank fifth in the AFL in kickoff yardage allowed, as he sits tenth in the league with a 17.7 yards-per-return average, and his 1,407 all-purpose yards rank fifth in the Arena League. Meanwhile, fellow wide-out Troy Bergeron, who spent some time with the Dallas Cowboys and won 2005 AFL Rookie of the Year honors with the Georgia Force, leads Cleveland with 19 TD catches, and has amassed 727 yards on 50 grabs. But an equally big part of what makes this offense tick is the running game. Dallas didn’t utilize that strength effectively against Pittsburgh last week, but this week the Gladiators might try to give some different looks to the Power defense, which ranks a mere 16th in the league with 34.3 rush yards allowed per game. Bergeron will run occasionally, and fullback Russ Monk has run for seven TD’s and 44 yards on 20 tries. Couple that with Rocco’s mobility, and you’ve got a rushing attack that ranks fifth in the AFL at 29.4 yards per game.
*As frustrating as it might have been to see the Power’s defense struggle last week, one has to admire the way the Power’s offense continues improving, and continued to counter-punch Dallas in Week 12. Pittsburgh improved its points-per-game average to 49.7, which might not sound impressive at 12th overall in the AFL, but it’s still a hair better than the Gladiators’ current pace (more on that momentarily). Most importantly, the Power found ways to integrate veteran fullback and former Duquesne star Joshua Rue back into the offense, ending a noticeable scoring drought that had set in after much early-season success. Rue only gained nine net yards on four attempts last week, but the number to focus on is his two touchdowns, including the final Pittsburgh TD of the game with 27 seconds left, which proved to be the difference-maker. He has racked up 95 yards on 41 carries, and his ten rush TD’s are the fifth-most in the AFL entering Saturday, and his 12 total touchdowns are tied for second on the team with Jason Willis. Morris would love to put the ball in the hands of Willis, who leads the receiving corps with 69 grabs, and put it in the hands of Rue near the goal line, where he can do the most damage. But even though the Power rank second in the AFL with 42.3 rush yards per game, it’s no easy feat finishing drives against the Gladiators, who have the third-best red zone defense in the AFL (74.5% success rate). That’s where the real breakout star of the Power offense, Aliquippa-born rookie receiver Mike Washington, comes in. “The Joystick” shredded Dallas’ “D” in Week 12 with a season-best 184 yards on 12 catches and five total TD’s, including a one-yard scoring run. Washington leads the Power with 16 receiving TD’s and 774 receiving yards, having displayed terrific chemistry with a healthy Bernard Morris.
*Head coach Chris Siegfried told 93-7 The Fan’s “Vinnie & Cook” Friday afternoon he feels his defense will have an easier time exploiting the inconsistency of the rookie QB Rocco than it did against veteran Dan Raudabaugh last Saturday. While some eyes will be on receiver/kick returner Jerome Mathis, the former Houston Texan, who finally returns from a lower-body injury that sidelined him for several weeks, it should also be interesting to see if newly-acquired two-way lineman Terrance Taylor, who came over in a trade with Tulsa for future considerations, sees any action for the Power this week as well. In the meantime, the Power’s gaudy points-allowed-per-game total took an obvious hit against Dallas, but they still rank eighth in the AFL in that category (51.4), and seventh in the AFL in pass defense efficiency. Furthermore, the Power sit fourth in the AFL, just ahead of Cleveland, in first downs allowed. After some of the high-octane attacks this defense has had to contain, facing the Gladiators, whose 46.8 points per game is fifth-lowest in the league, must seem like a breath of fresh air. Defensive back Carlos Campbell, the Power’s leading tackler with 48.0 overall and 45 solo, could be motivated to ramp up his own game against top receivers Redd and/or Bergeron; Campbell spent his 2010 rookie campaign in Cleveland. But will he see the field much, if at all, after taking a beating last week? If not, re-activated DB Tyrell Herbert will try to soften that blow after spending over a month on IR himself. Herbert made 23.5 tackles, 17 of them solo, in five appearances prior to his injury in Week 6. He will be aided by another ex-Aliquippa star, Josh Lay, and Royce Adams, whose 45.5 tackles rank second on the team. Adams’ seventh pass breakup of the season denied Dallas a two-point conversion last week that could have won the game. As far as the rest of his defense is concerned, don’t be surprised if Siegfried continues putting converted ironman Lonnell DeWalt at jack linebacker. Having a big body like DeWalt’s out there has frustrated much more seasoned QB’s, so it certainly could spell trouble for a Cleveland offense that ranks in the middle of the pack in several major categories.
By Matt Popchock