What the crowd of 9,066 at CONSOL Energy Center saw last Saturday evening was a franchise first for the Power, and yet, it was nothing new to Pittsburghers. A football team from their city met one from Cleveland, and the one in black and gold prevailed, so in that respect, nothing has changed. But what did change as a result of the Power’s hard-fought victory was that, in an inaugural season not short on adversity, they can finally boast about being one of the Arena Football League’s four divisional front-runners as a result of unseating a motivated Gladiators squad. Now that the target has shifted to the Power’s collective back, we shall see how well they wear it as they prepare to play five of their final seven regular-season contests on the road, starting Saturday night. Could there be a more fitting way for one of the hottest teams in the league to maintain its lead and its swagger than to beat the only other AFL team that ever called Pittsburgh home? Here’s what you should know when past and present collide in Week 14:
KICKOFF: 7:30 PM, St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa
TV/RADIO: AFL Live on ArenaFootball.com; 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color)
LAST WEEK: The Power are coming off a 35-32 Week 13 win at home over the division rival Cleveland Gladiators last Saturday night, the first meeting in the history of the two franchises. It was Pittsburgh’s third straight win at CONSOL Energy Center, and their fourth straight victory overall, tying the Power with the Orlando Predators and Chicago Rush for the second-longest active winning streak in the AFL. Meanwhile, the Storm are coming off a 60-49 loss to one of their own division rivals, the Georgia Force, in further Week 13 action last Saturday. Tampa Bay had won back-to-back games prior to that contest, which dropped the team’s road record to 3-4.
WHERE THEY STAND: By defeating the Gladiators the Power seized sole possession of first place in the American Conference’s East Division for the first time in the history of the young franchise. Cleveland (6-5) will try to recover from back-to-back losses when it hosts the Georgia Force Saturday night at 7:00. The Power are three games ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Soul (5-8), who lost at Spokane Friday night, and four games ahead of the last-place Milwaukee Mustangs (3-8), who host the Kansas City Command Saturday night at 8:00.
With last week’s loss, the Storm remain in fourth place in the American Conference’s South Division, two-and-a-half games ahead of the last-place New Orleans VooDoo (2-10), who are off this week. They remain two-and-a-half games behind third-place Georgia (7-5), and four games behind second-place Orlando (8-3), which hosts the first-place Jacksonville Sharks (10-1)–winners of ten straight–Saturday night at 7:30.
If the playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would not qualify, whereas Pittsburgh would earn a No. 2 seed and host No. 3 seed Orlando in the Semifinals. Georgia leads the race for the fourth and final playoff berth in the American Conference entering Saturday.
In addition to their surge in the league standings, the Power achieved another high-water mark in the AFL Coaches’ Poll for Week 14. They moved up from No. 8 to an unprecedented No. 5 ranking following their win over Cleveland.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: His stock continues to rise, as does his record, which improved to 5-1 as a starter in Week 13, and 4-0 since coming off injured reserve with a slow-healing throwing arm injury. He didn’t deliver his most prolific performance by any means against Cleveland, but he certainly delivered one of his most efficient ones. Morris completed 17 of 23 passes (73.9%) for 210 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions; furthermore, he was never sacked. He also scrambled eight times for 64 yards, including a 44-yard scamper that essentially secured the win for the Power. Morris said before practice Thursday he believes his ability to run can serve his team well, and few QB’s in this league have done it better. Through his six appearances, the second-year man from Marshall ranks fourth in the AFL among quarterbacks and ninth overall with 207 yards on 33 carries to go with his three rush TDs. He has gone 122-of-193 (63.2%) for 1,357 yards, 30 TD’s, and six INT’s, good for a 110.0 passer rating that sits tenth in the league entering Saturday. The six picks are among the fewest of any starting QB. Last year with Jacksonville, Morris led the Sharks to a 49-47 win over Tampa Bay in Week 16 in relief of Aaron Garcia.
Brian Zbydniewski, Tampa Bay: He has stepped into the revolving door of quarterbacks for the Storm, having become the fourth different signal-caller to throw a pass for Tampa Bay, which held open tryouts for the position two months ago and recently gave one to former South Florida standout Matt Grothe. A veteran of ArenaFootball2, the AFL’s now-defunct developmental league, Zbydniewski has done his best to right the wrongs in Tampa, going 2-3 as starter. In Week 13 against Georgia he completed just 22 of 41 passes (53.7%), though he did amass 314 yards and six touchdowns in defeat, and did not allow an interception. Through five-plus games, the second-year man from Belhaven University in Mississippi has gone 119-of-192 (62.0%) for 1,495 yards and 29 TDs. He has also protected the ball well, throwing just seven INT’s, and his passer rating of 110.8 is right behind that of Morris on the league leaderboard.
*Although the team has fallen on tough times in 2011, native sons and daughters will know exactly what we mean when we say to think of the Tampa Bay Storm as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the Arena Football League. It’s an apropos analogy, especially considering they once resided in the heart of Steeler Nation. In 1987 the Storm began play at the Civic Arena as the Pittsburgh Gladiators, one of the AFL’s charter franchises. Wide receiver/defensive back Thomas Monroe, the 1990 AFL Ironman of the Year, was one of just seven men to play for the Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay franchise in both cities; however, the legacy of the old Pittsburgh team, though quickly left behind, will likely not be forgotten. The Gladiators made an immediate impression on the new league, winning the first-ever regular season AFL game and reaching the first-ever ArenaBowl, and later, ArenaBowl III. Unfortunately, they did not come out on top either time, but since moving south in 1991, the Tampa Bay Storm have won an unprecedented five ArenaBowl championships and appeared in seven title games, including last year’s ArenaBowl XXIII, in which they lost 69-57 to the host Spokane Shock after compiling an 11-5 regular-season mark and winning the American Conference title. Of the AFL’s four seminal franchises, the Storm are the only one that has survived to this day, and on Saturday they’ll try to add to their all-time win total of 202, the most in league history. Head coach Dave Ewart has had his work cut out trying to succeed Tim Marcum, a 23-year AFL veteran and the winningest bench boss in Arena League history, who resigned in the off-season after 15 years with the team. Ewart is trying to help Tampa Bay avoid missing the postseason for just the third time in franchise history. The good news for the Storm is that five of their last seven, including this one, are at home, and they still have four divisional games in hand, including next Friday’s nationally televised contest at St. Pete Times Forum against arch-rival Orlando (“The War on I-4”). The bad news is, the Storm have already dropped three of their first four home games, and five of those seven games are against teams that cracked the top ten in the Week 14 Coaches’ Poll. Tampa Bay is 0-6 against such teams.
*For the Power this really is going to be like looking in a mirror, even beyond the shared history of the two cities, and the similar numbers being put up by the quarterbacks. Tampa Bay owns one of the more formidable, reputable, and immovable defensive units they will face all season. Entering Week 14 the Storm ranked second in the Arena Football League in pass defense, allowing just 239.4 yards per game, seventh overall against the run, allowing just 25.8 rush yards per contest, and third in total defense. Power head coach Chris Siegfried hailed the nose guard-mac linebacker tandem of veterans Tim McGill and Cliff Dukes as possibly the best in the AFL, which doesn’t seem far from the truth. McGill, who rejoined the Storm after serving a season-opening four-game suspension for a contract violation, earned First Team All-Arena honors in 2010. Dukes, a Second Team All-Arena honoree last season, is second in the league with four forced fumbles, and leads the AFL comfortably with 14 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He is on pace to easily break the AFL’s single-season sack record of 15.5, set last year by Gabe Nyenhuis with the Tulsa Talons. As a team, the Storm have collected 25.0 sacks, second-most in the league. One thing that bodes well for the Power is that the offensive line is coming off a game in which no sacks, no tackles for loss, and no quarterback hurries were allowed–the first time all year they’ve pulled that off. Siegfried said before practice Thursday the ability of that front four to contain the one-two punch of McGill and Dukes could very well decide Saturday’s victor. The Power enter Week 14 having conceded 21.0 sacks, fourth-most in the 18-team league.
*For several weeks Aliquippa alumnus Mike Washington was the focal point of the Power’s offense, and with 68 catches for 819 yards and 16 touchdowns (and one rush TD), he has emerged as one of the premier under-the-radar playmakers in the Arena Football League. Last Saturday, Cleveland, to its credit, limited “The Joystick” to just 45 yards and no scores on six catches, but that also opened the door for fellow receivers Jason Willis and Lonnell DeWalt, a door they stepped through successfully. Willis led all receivers last week with 105 yards on five grabs, including two terrific touchdown receptions in the second quarter, while DeWalt made a game-winning 18-yard TD catch in the third and supplied a team-high 6.0 tackles and two pass breakups from his jack linebacker spot. Willis leads the Power with 1,030 all-purpose yards and enters Saturday with 14 TDs, while DeWalt comes in with 11 scores, averaging 11.6 yards per catch. Plus, let’s not forget about the return of Jerome Mathis, who racked up a game-high 134 all-purpose yards versus Cleveland, which begs the question, who will wear the cape this weekend? When we spoke to DeWalt and Morris earlier this week, they agreed the bottom line is, the team needs to score first (the Power are 4-2 when they do so), or, at the very least, not hang their heads too low if they fall behind early against a Storm squad that can play well with a lead. It would behoove the Power if fullback Josh Rue could be that hero; the Duquesne product scored his 11th rush TD of the year last week, tying him for sixth in the AFL entering Week 14. They’d certainly like to continue improving upon their 39 red-zone TDs, which rank among the AFL’s bottom five. Tampa Bay’s red zone defense ranks in the middle of the AFL and has allowed the same number of red zone TDs.
*There is every chance we might see the same defensive clinic put on by the East Division co-leaders last week in Tampa Saturday night. Granted, before there can be a battle of attrition, there is an equally important battle of field position to be won. While the Storm will have their hands full with Mathis, who looked promising in his typical kick returner role versus the Gladiators, the Power will have an equally tough time corralling Michael Lindsey, who walked onto the Storm this off-season and, in addition to returning three kicks for TD’s, has catapulted to fourth in the AFL with 977 return yards. Having said that, the Power haven’t panicked whether they’re defending a short field or a long one. They’ve held eight of their first 11 opponents to 50 or fewer offensive points, and three under 40, a recipe for success in the Arena Football League. They rank fifth in the AFL in total points allowed (546) entering Saturday, and sixth out of 18 teams in points allowed per game (49.3). Last week they did a fine job pressuring rookie QB Kurt Rocco, and they might have an opportunity to put that same kind of heat on Zbydniewski with offensive line regulars Tom Kaleita and Manny Akah nursing injuries. Furthermore, Tampa Bay doesn’t run nearly as much, nor nearly as effectively as Pittsburgh’s third-ranked ground attack. Recently acquired defensive lineman Terrance Taylor, who came over in a trade with Spokane, will make his Power debut on a unit supported nicely by mac linebacker Gary Butler, who played like a man possessed last week. Butler registered 4.5 tackles and a breakup against Rocco and the Gladiators, and sits third on the Power with 34.5 tackles (27 solo). Defensive back Tyrell Herbert also returns to the Power’s starting lineup, but the key matchup in the secondary could fall on whoever has to cover Huey Whittaker. Whittaker ranks third in the AFL with 103 receptions and tenth with 1,125 yards to go with his team-best 21 TDs. He’ll probably square off against Carlos Campbell, whose third INT of the season helped stave off the Gladiators in Week 13. Campbell leads Pittsburgh with ten pass breakups. Otherwise, Siegfried will match him up against Royce Adams, whose 51.5 tackles (47 solo), including a team-best six last week, sit fourth in the AFL.
By Matt Popchock