According to one of his players, head coach Chris Siegfried, following an early-season loss, told his team behind closed doors, “Each of you is just a phone call away from being replaced.” Hopefully for the Power, the only call the 21 men in uniform receive prior to Saturday is a wake-up call. They certainly seemed to need one after an embarrassing loss in Utah last weekend that left them with a tenuous grip on the division lead, thanks to a subsequent upset loss by Cleveland, as they try to once again try to do the same home cooking to a struggling divisional opponent that got them into the lead several weeks ago. Fortunately, the Power, for once, may actually be a healthier and less depleted bunch than their counterparts, as they try to channel the good karma that has surrounded them recently on home turf into a much-needed victory. Here’s what’s at stake in Week 16:
KICKOFF: 7:30 P.M., 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 back-to-back road losses, most recently an 81-40 defeat by the Utah Blaze at EnergySolutions Arena last Saturday night. It dropped Pittsburgh to 3-3 away from home, and it represented single-game season highs in both points allowed by the Power, and points scored by Utah. The Mustangs are coming off a 62-47 loss to the host Jacksonville Sharks in further Week 15 action last Saturday, which dropped them to 1-5 on the road. Milwaukee has now lost three of its last four overall, and this game tied its season high for points allowed.
WHERE THEY STAND: Even after the ugliness of their trip out west, by the time the Power left Utah, the planets had realigned in their favor. With a win by the Kansas City Command at home last Sunday, coupled with a Week 13 victory over the visiting Gladiators, Pittsburgh enters this weekend holding the tiebreaker over Cleveland for first place in the East Division of the AFL’s American Conference.
Both teams are 2.5 games ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Soul (5-9), who host the West Division champion Arizona Rattlers Saturday evening at 7:00. Cleveland also has its work cut out Saturday, as the Gladiators host the San Jose SaberCats, who are trying to re-enter the playoff picture, at 7:00. The Mustangs, who are at the bottom of the East standings, entertain Cleveland at home next week.
If the playoffs started today, the Mustangs would not qualify, while the Power would grab the No. 2 seed in the American Conference and host the third-seeded Orlando Predators–their next opponent–in the Semifinals. With five games remaining, including Saturday’s, Milwaukee trails the Georgia Force by 3.5 games for the fourth and final spot in the conference.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Chris Wallace, Pittsburgh: Although his accuracy left something to be desired, the former Orlando Predators and New Orleans VooDoo signal-caller put forth a decent effort to make last week’s loss somewhat respectable. Making his Power debut in Week 15, Wallace completed 19 of 39 passes (48.7%) for 196 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions while scrambling twice for ten yards in three-plus quarters of play, good for a passer rating of 89.3. The Toledo grad is the fifth different player to throw a pass for Pittsburgh this season, and there is a good chance he will start Saturday despite word from Coach Siegfried that No. 1 QB Bernard Morris’ shoulder injury has healed significantly. Morris, a second-year man from Marshall, has thrown for 1,692 yards, 37 TD’s, and just seven INT’s, while running for three more scores and going 5-2 as starter. At any rate, Siegfried seems to like what he sees from the newcomer, telling us Thursday Wallace is getting more comfortable in his offense. Newly-signed AFL sophomore Tony Colston, who played his college ball at Tusculum (TN), will back up either or both. Colston, who just turned 30, made his Arena League debut with the Alabama Vipers (now known as the Georgia Force) in 2010, throwing for 817 yards, 14 TD’s, and four INT’s, and running for three TD’s and 63 yards on ten carries in limited action. Pine-Richland’s Kevin McCabe has been deactivated to make room for all.
R.J. Archer, Milwaukee: The last meeting between these teams was a 49-47 nail-biter at the Bradley Center Mar. 28 (Week 3) won by the Power, but it started out looking like a laugher until Archer made his AFL debut in relief of Eric Ward and got Milwaukee back in the game. In two-plus quarters that night, Archer went 12-of-21 (57.1%) for 113 yards and two touchdowns, and was picked off once. He also scrambled three times for 19 yards, but was stopped short on a potential game-tying two-point conversion on a QB keeper in the final seconds. Last week against Jacksonville, the rookie from William & Mary was 21-of-36 (58.3%) for 186 yards and two scores, but also threw two INT’s, including a pick-six, and was sacked once. In ten-plus games this year, Archer has thrown for 2,334 yards, 27 TD’s, and 14 INT’s–the fourth-most among starters–with an 80.8 passer rating, while running for 35 yards and five TD’s on 15 attempts. Meanwhile, there is speculation that recently-signed QB Gino Guidugli, a former Tennessee Titans draftee, might get some snaps as well. Guidugli had a solid Division I career at the University of Cincinnati 2001-04, where he started as a true freshman.
*It’s abundantly clear, and Siegfried has made it clear on multiple occasions, that injuries have been one of the biggest x-factors preventing the Power from seizing control of their own destiny. However, the Mustangs are dealing with roster turmoil of their own, and this week they too are scrambling to make up for key losses. The good news for Milwaukee is that rookie defensive back Andre Jones is slated to return after attending training camp for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL. Jones ranks third in the Arena Football League with 11 interceptions, and leads the league with 257 yards off those turnovers, and, with three INT returns for touchdowns, shares the league lead with rookie teammate Kelvin Rodgers (and Tulsa’s J.C. Neal) in that category. One of Jones’ pick-sixes came at the end of Milwaukee’s earlier loss to Pittsburgh, capping the Mustangs’ near-comeback. The bad news is that rookie fullback Mykel Benson, who ranks fourth in the AFL entering Week 16 with 14 rush TD’s, and has also caught three TD passes, has been placed on league suspension. Look for newcomers Jason Jones and James Economou to share the workload at his position. Offensive lineman Albert Stinson, who played briefly for the Power, has been added by the Mustangs to step in for regular Michael Diaz, who is joined on IR by veteran defensive back LeRoy Smith (41.0 tackles in 2011, 2.0 in Week 3). The Power, on the other hand, seem to have a little more health this week. Mac linebacker Gary Butler told us veteran defensive lineman Neil Purvis is finally healthy–again–and that defensive back LaRico Stevenson (27.0 tackles in 2011) will also be back in the lineup. Offensive lineman Chris Terrell has been re-added, and defensive lineman Dayon Benson, the former Mustang, has been let go to compensate.
*Losing defensive back Carlos Campbell, who made three tackles, one pass deflection, and one interception in Week 3, and leads the Power in tackles with 57.5, could be a tough adjustment for the secondary to make. Pittsburgh ranks 16th in the 18-team league in pass defense (282.4 yards allowed per game), and over the past several weeks it has lost its two best DB’s, Campbell and Royce Adams (Adams went to the UFL). To help adjust the team has brought in former Woodland Hills standout and Pitt starter William “Tutu” Ferguson, who played for the Panthers over a decade ago, and Siegfried is fairly confident Ferguson will be ready to make his Power debut Saturday. He’ll have to keep an eye on Damian Harrell, the AFL’s all-time leader with 1,164 career receptions, 15,134 yards, and 358 touchdown catches. The Power actually fared okay against Harrell last time, holding him to one touchdown and 70 yards on six grabs. But the revamped secondary might also have to worry about another veteran, Antoine Burns, who returned last week, and racked up 83 yards on six catches and two TD’s against the Power last time. What benefits the Power is that even before the season began, the writing was on the wall for this Milwaukee offense to struggle, and it has ever since quarterback Chris Greisen, the 2010 AFL Offensive Player of the Year, left for the Dallas Cowboys. The Mustangs enter Saturday dead last in passing offense (220.0 yards per game) and next-to-last in scoring offense (43.3 points per game).
*The Power tried to find more balance on offense in Utah last week by running more than they did in Tampa Bay, and Siegfried said they wanted to further integrate fullback and former Duquesne player Josh Rue into their playbook. Rue, who has carried 44 times for 101 yards and 11 touchdowns, tying him for fifth in the AFL in rush TD’s, has also caught 11 balls for 95 yards and two scores. In Week 3 he took the Mustangs’ defense for a ride, finding the end zone twice on six carries for 28 yards, one of four multi-touchdown games by Rue this season. Last week, however, he only ran once, a four-yard gain. The Power, who rank third in AFL in rushing offense (40.2 yards per game), need his leadership, though the proverbial three yards in a cloud of dust may be tough to come by against the Mustangs, who rank third in the league in rush defense (16.5 yards allowed per game) despite Rue’s big night a few months back. In addition, Milwaukee ranks second in the AFL in red zone defense (73.0% success rate), but the Power scored on all five red zone trips against the Mustangs in Week 3. Furthermore, Pittsburgh is 4-3 in games in which he runs for a touchdown, and the Power are 6-2 in games in which they, as a team, score multiple rush TD’s. So the more the Power put the ball in Rue’s hands, especially near the goal line, the better.
*Wide receiver/jack linebacker Lonnell DeWalt could play as integral a role in the rematch as he did in the first meeting, especially with the changes on defense, and especially if Mike Washington has trouble matching up with Milwaukee’s talented secondary. Washington, an Aliquippa native, leads the Power with 989 yards and 19 touchdown catches, but was held entirely off the stat sheet in Week 3. DeWalt caught a game-winning 27-yard touchdown pass that night to help lift the Power to their first-ever road win and divisional win, and has amassed 13 touchdown catches. On the other side of the ball he has a team-high three interceptions and a pick-six to his credit, as well as 32.0 tackles (24 solo). Jason Willis led the Power with eight catches in the first meeting, but he was iffy last week with just two catches for 27 yards and his 15th touchdown of the year in garbage time. Look for Jerome Mathis, who had 63 yards and a touchdown reception in Week 3 and had 67 yards and two scores in Utah, to continue to get a lot of balls thrown his way, and don’t be surprised to see the Power turn to Irving Campbell, who looked very good in his return last Saturday with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, to say nothing of his 12-yard TD run. The bottom line is, Pittsburgh’s offense needs to be much more opportunistic, regardless of personnel groupings. The Power average 48.2 points per game, which ranks a pedestrian 12th in the AFL, and rank 13th with a turnover margin of minus-7, a margin that has gotten worse during those back-to-back losses. Both these teams rank in the top ten in scoring defense–Milwaukee, in fact, ranks first in total defense (257.6 yards allowed per game)–and both teams, especially the Mustangs, who lead the league in time of possession, often like to move the ball methodically and shorten the game. Whichever one plays more patient and relatively mistake-free football has the edge.
By Matt Popchock