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Arena Football Preview: Power vs. Blaze

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Jerome Mathis

Power WR/KR Jerome Mathis hauled in 12 passes, including this one, against the Storm for 197 yards and three TD’s. He also scored the first kickoff return TD in team history, leading the Power with 335 all-purpose yards. (Photo credit: Scott Audette/Pittsburgh Power)

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Power vs. Tampa Bay

The Power's offensive line, led by center Sione Ohuafi, will once again have to neutralize one of the premier pass rushers in the AFL. (Photo credit: Scott Audette/Pittsburgh Power)

Nothing worth winning ever comes easily, and the Power received a stark reminder of that last Saturday night in Tampa Bay, as their ex-Pittsburgh brethren battled them tough from start to finish. In order to win their division and reach the postseason in their inaugural AFL campaign, the Power will have to execute at a higher level and clean up the late-game miscues that left the earmarks of an expansion team all over their Week 14 loss to the veteran Storm. Furthermore, this team, which has already been through a revolving hospital door, will have to rediscover its chemistry as they hit the road again, this time with a different quarterback likely under center, and in the meantime, they’ll have to rely on their reputable defense to bounce back and contain another young QB who has already demonstrated a short learning curve. Here’s what to look for in Week 15:

Pittsburgh PowerUtah BlazePITTSBURGH POWER (7-5) VS. UTAH BLAZE (5-7)

KICKOFF: 9:00 P.M., EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City

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 62-55 loss to the Tampa Bay Storm at St. Pete Times Forum last Saturday night. It was their first defeat since Sat., Apr. 30, which also came on the road, against the Georgia Force, and it snapped Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak, which was tied with multiple teams for the second-longest active winning streak in the AFL. The Power’s road record now stands at 3-2. Meanwhile, the Blaze are coming off an 81-51 loss to the Tulsa Talons at the BOK Center in further Week 14 action last Saturday. It was Utah’s third loss in a row, and represented a season-high in points allowed. The Blaze are now just 1-5 on the road.

WHERE THEY STAND: Last Saturday’s loss in Tampa was a blow to the Power, but even with Cleveland (7-5) defeating Georgia in Week 14, it was a cushioned blow, as the Power, who are now dead even with the Gladiators for first place in the American Conference’s East Division, hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their Week 13 win over Cleveland at CONSOL Energy Center. Both teams enter Saturday three games ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Soul (5-9), who lost to Tulsa Friday night, and three ahead of the last-place Milwaukee Mustangs (4-8), who visit Pittsburgh next week, but first visit the conference-leading Jacksonville Sharks Saturday night at 7:00. By the way, the Glads will be in action against the host Kansas City Command Sunday at 2:00.

The Blaze find themselves in a three-way tie for second place in the National Conference’s West Division, five-and-a-half games behind the conference-leading Arizona Rattlers (11-2). Utah is tied with the San Jose Sabercats, who take on the Rattlers in Arizona Saturday night at 10:00, and the defending league champion Spokane Shock, who host the Chicago Rush Saturday at that time.

If the playoffs started today, the Blaze, who ended 2010 a league-worst 2-14, would miss them for a second straight season. The Power, on the other hand, would grab the No. 2 seed in the American Conference and host the No. 3 seed Orlando Predators (8-5) in the Semifinals.

MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:

Kevin McCabe, Pittsburgh: Due to the re-aggravation of Bernard Morris’ throwing arm injury, the Pine-Richland and California (PA) product will be, in all probability, back in action. He is actually not a rookie–he spent last year doing mop-up duty with the division rival Cleveland Gladiators–though it’ll be interesting to see if rust is a factor for McCabe, who hasn’t started since a nightmarish outing versus Tulsa at home in Week 4. In two-plus games for the Power, McCabe has completed 34 of 61 passes (55.7%) for 369 yards, nine TD’s, and five INT’s, good for a 76.5 passer rating. He has also scrambled three times for 14 yards.

Tommy Grady, Utah: Although the Blaze are struggling, they certainly have an inherent advantage with their stability at the most important position in arena football. In Week 14 Grady connected on 26 of 36 passes (72.2%) in defeat, amassing 344 yards and seven touchdowns, and getting picked off twice. Statistically, he has avoided a sophomore slump, to say the least, after a fantastic rookie season with the now-defunct Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the AFL. Grady, who also played his college ball at Utah, enters Week 15 as the league leader in completions (322) and TD’s (85). He also boasts a 64.7 completion percentage (9th in the AFL) and has thrown for 3,625 yards (3rd), and just ten INT’s (tied for second fewest), good for a 117.5 passer rating (4th).

FAST FACTS:

*We saw McCabe working with the offense in practice Thursday, and we also got our first look at the Power’s new backup QB, which becomes a necessity with Morris iffy and Anthony Morelli having moved on to the UFL. Three-year Arena Football League veteran Chris Wallace, a 6’0″, 240-pound quarterback, is also a MAC guy like Bernard Morris, having played at Toledo. This season, in limited time with the New Orleans VooDoo, Wallace threw for 418 yards, five TD’s, and four INT’s, his first taste of AFL action since the years 2001 and 2003, when he had a cup of coffee with Orlando. If McCabe struggles, don’t be surprised if head coach Chris Siegfried goes to him, especially when you consider he also has documented scrambling ability, like Morris. He has 22 rushes all-time for 107 yards and one touchdown. At any rate, as Siegfried pointed out this week, the Power have to do a top-notch job protecting whomever is under center. They have allowed 23 sacks in 2011, the fifth-most in the AFL, and with Albert Stinson exiting and Mike Byrne re-entering the retooled offensive line, they’ll have to bear down against a familiar face, and another of the best pass rushers in the league. Defensive lineman Khreem Smith recorded a game-high 6.0 tackles with 1.5 sacks and a blocked extra point in Spokane’s Week 9 loss at Pittsburgh before being traded to Utah. Smith, who was First-Team All-Arena in Milwaukee in 2010, is fourth in the AFL in sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (9.5). He has forced three fumbles, and the Power, as a team, has given up 14, tied for third-most in the AFL entering Week 15. Fellow linemen Mike Lewis and Caesar Rayford are also among the league leaders with six sacks apiece.

*Another reason the offensive line needs to be on its game is because the Power probably didn’t run as effectively as they needed to against Tampa Bay. Bernard Morris and fullback Joshua Rue combined for just seven net yards and no touchdowns on three attempts last week. Rue, a Duquesne alumnus and “old AFL” veteran, is tied for fifth in the AFL with 11 rush TD’s, and he may become an even greater focal point of the Power’s offense with Morris not looking likely to go. Rue is tied for third on the team with 13 total TD’s and has racked up 101 yards on 43 carries, while catching 11 balls out of the backfield for 95 yards, making him one of six Power players with at least ten receptions this season. Pittsburgh already ranks third in the AFL entering Week 15 with 41.2 rush yards per game, though Rue could also be a key to improving a red-zone offense that sits 13th in the AFL (77.4% success rate).

*The roster turnover continues for the Power on the defensive side of the ball as well. Defensive back Royce Adams, who was one of the AFL’s top five tacklers, prior to leaving the team for the UFL, was clearly missed last week, as was mac linebacker Gary Butler, a California (PA) alum and highly-regarded team leader. Butler, who has three fumble recoveries, is expected to return this week, and like defensive lineman Tyrell Herbert, who should also start, ranks third on the Power with 34.5 tackles (Butler’s 28 solo are one more than Herbert has). Meanwhile, with Neal Purvis nursing a lower-body injury, Chris Terrell will replace him on the line. Terrell made a team-best 11 tackles (10 solo) in Tampa. He will be joined by Mike Lucian, who will shift over from the O-line after scoring his first Power touchdown two weeks ago at tight end, and in a bit of a surprise move, fan favorite Terrance Carter, the team leader in sacks with four, is not expected to start up front. Defensive back Carlos Campbell, who leads the Power with 53.5 tackles (49 solo) and 11 pass breakups, will not have to face Utah’s Aaron Boone, the team’s all-time leader in catches and touchdown catches, as Boone is out with a probable season-ending knee injury, and has pondered retirement. Instead, Campbell and jack linebacker Lonnell DeWalt, each of whom has three INT’s, will have to keep an eye on rookie Ernest Pierce, who had 124 yards and three TD’s against Tulsa, and sits second on the Blaze with 886 yards and 17 touchdowns. Utah ranks third overall with 59.8 points per game, while Pittsburgh ranks seventh with 50.7 points allowed per game. The Power have held eight opponents to 50 offensive points or less.

*There will be another Campbell in black and gold who might draw some attention Saturday night as well. Wide receiver Irving Campbell, who also played for Chris Siegfried in Jacksonville last year, caught six passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in the first win in Power history, a Week 2 triumph over Iowa. That was his only other appearance in 2011…until tonight, when he is expected to be in the starting lineup. He’ll be joined in the receiving corps by former NFL All-Pro Jerome Mathis, who won JLS Ironman of the Week honors for Week 14 of the AFL season after leading the Power with 335 all-purpose yards and 197 receiving yards on 12 catches, three of them touchdowns, last Saturday. In addition, Mathis’ 57-yard kick return TD was the first such touchdown in the Power’s brief history, and his special teams play could be a huge factor in a game that might boil down largely to field position. Thanks to special teams studs Alvance Robinson and Chris Bocage, the Blaze are number one in the AFL in return yardage, and tops with six kickoff return TD’s, while Mathis and the Power rank fifth in return yardage. Mathis has 559 all-purpose yards and six total TD’s in limited time while battling a leg injury. Speaking of studs–and the receiving corps–Mike Washington, the former Aliquippa product, has become one for the Power, and look for McCabe to get him involved early. “The Joystick” leads that group with 924 receiving yards and 19 TD’s, and the rookie seems to be back on track after posting 105 yards and three scores on 11 catches last week. Offensive consistency has been a bugaboo for the Power, but fortunately for their sake Utah is last in the 18-team league with 62.9 points allowed per game. It’s not in the Power’s nature to play shootout-style games, though they might have to against the Blaze and have at least proven they can outplay teams with high-octane attacks.

By Matt Popchock

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