On Friday football fans in two cities that have been going at each other’s throats for over half a century will be treated to an event that has become a rare occurrence: a game between teams in those cities that means something. The expansion Power can throw the proverbial abacus out the bus window on the way down the turnpike, because now only one pertinent postseason scenario remains: win or you’re done. In what has been a tumultuous first year in the Arena Football League, the Power have fought hard, and now they’re fighting to remain relevant. If they can enter some of the most unfriendly territory imaginable and replicate what they did against this team over a month ago, those playoff hopes will live on one more week. If their arch-rivals are victorious, they will take the playoff spot, and with it, something the franchise hasn’t captured in nine years. Here’s what to look for in this critical Week 19 contest:
KICKOFF: 8:00 P.M., Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland
TV RADIO: NFL Network; 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color)
LAST WEEK: The Power are coming off a 68-34 loss to the league-leading Arizona Rattlers at CONSOL Energy Center last Sunday, their fourth loss in five games. It left the Power with a regular season home record of 5-4, and it marked the most points they’ve allowed at home this year, not to mention the third straight home contest in which they’ve scored under 40. The Gladiators are coming off a 49-21 upset loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Soul at the Wells Fargo Center in further Week 18 action last Friday. It dropped Cleveland’s record against divisional foes to 3-2, and left its regular season road mark at 3-6. In addition, it was the Gladiators’ fewest points in a game since moving to Cleveland in 2008.
WHERE THEY STAND: Normally at this time we would tell you about what’s on tap for the rest of the American Conference’s East Division this week, but since the 6-11 Soul (who host the Power in next week’s regular season finale) and fourth-place Milwaukee Mustangs (5-11) have been out of playoff contention for some time, we shall focus specifically on what the Power must do to extend their 2011 campaign.
You can throw out all the scenarios, because, as previously mentioned, a loss here eliminates them from playoff contention. If the Power do win, a subsequent win in Philadelphia next Friday would guarantee them the East Division title and No. 2 seed in the conference, regardless of what the Gladiators do against the visiting Utah Blaze that night; Pittsburgh would own the head-to-head tiebreaker. A win this week and a loss in Philadelphia the next would mean the Power have to rely on Utah to win in order to make the playoffs; Cleveland would have a superior record, and the Orlando Predators and Georgia Force, the two teams battling for the remaining spots, have both beaten the Power.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: He and the offense struggled mightily against the Rattlers, but he’s hoping he can channel some of the efficiency that got the Power a key win over the Gladiators at CONSOL Energy Center in Week 13. Morris connected on 19 of 35 passes (54.3%) versus Arizona for 181 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception; in addition, he fumbled twice and was sacked four times while carrying once for six yards. In the Power’s 35-32 triumph over Cleveland June 4, Morris completed 17 of 23 (73.9%) for 210 yards and three TD’s; in addition, he scrambled eight times for 64 yards, did not throw any picks, and was never sacked. Through nine appearances, the second-year man from Marshall has completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,110 yards, 48 TD’s, and just nine INT’s, good for a passer efficiency rating of 109.3 that ranks tenth in the AFL entering this week. Morris has also run 41 times for three scores and 279 yards, which ranks fifth overall and second in the league among quarterbacks.
Kurt Rocco, Cleveland: The Soul certainly made this rookie look like a rookie last week, and ultimately, so did the Power in Week 13, so he’ll be all the more eager to prove himself with one of the biggest opportunities this franchise has had since leaving Las Vegas on the line. Against Philadelphia last Friday he completed 19 of 33 passes (57.6%) for 201 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions; in addition, he ran five times for 11 net yards and another score. In Pittsburgh, back in Week 13, Rocco connected on 28 of 43 attempts (65.1%) for 261 yards, four TD’s, and an INT that preserved the final margin; he also scored once amidst five runs for 12 net yards. In 16 appearances, the newcomer from Mount Union (Ohio) ranks ninth overall in completions (284) and eighth in completion percentage (63.8%), having thrown for 3,419 yards, 60 TD’s, and 14 INT’s, good for a 107.9 passer efficiency rating. He ranks sixth in the AFL with 13 rush TD’s, which have come on 47 carries totaling 128 yards.
THREE KEY MATCHUPS:
*Mike Washington vs. Cleveland secondary: The Power haven’t had a clear-cut number one receiver for most of the year, but Mike “The Joystick” Washington really seemed to step into that role last Sunday, even when the verdict had long since been rendered. The Aliquippa native has caught 98 balls for a team-leading 1,158 yards, and 25 touchdowns, and earned JLS Ironman of the Week honors from the AFL for Week 18 after racking up 305 all-purpose yards, including 63 on six catches, three of which went for scores, not to mention the first kickoff return touchdown by the Power in CONSOL Energy Center history. As was the case last week, he’ll be going up against a talented secondary; Cleveland ranks third in the AFL in pass defense (247 yards allowed per game), and the Gladiators limited him to 45 yards and zero scores last time. When Washington is on, the Power is on, pun fully intended, so it’s important he is an impact player again Friday night.
*Pittsburgh defensive front vs. Rocco: The stats do not necessarily do justice to how well the Power’s defense played against the rookie quarterback in Week 13. Rocco hung tough that night, delivering those aforementioned five total scores, but the front five put constant pressure on him, and really made him fight for his yardage. The Power, en route to that earlier victory, recorded two sacks, three quarterback hurries, three tackles for loss, and four pass breakups, to say nothing of Carlos Campbell’s game-changing interception and a forced fumble by Gary Butler that, in all reality, probably should have stood. Against veteran quarterbacks who have shown themselves to be a little more decisive and unflappable, the Power have struggled, but this is a different story. The Power have only made 17 sacks this year, while Cleveland has allowed 26, and statistically, the Gladiators’ pass offense (244 yards per game) is only marginally more productive than Pittsburgh’s. Furthermore, the Glads are penalty-prone, and the Power have jack linebacker Lonnell DeWalt, an under-the-radar candidate for Ironman of the Year, to back up the defensive line. DeWalt had six tackles and two pass breakups in the first meeting to go with his game-winning touchdown grab in the third quarter, so if they can push around that offensive line, that opens the door for Pittsburgh.
*Tyrell Herbert/Josh Lay vs. Troy Bergeron: Bergeron, the AFL’s 2005 Rookie of the Year, will be joining the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp soon, though the Power certainly wish it were even sooner. He did not appear the last time these two teams squared off, but expect him to be a focal point on the Gladiators’ offense on Friday. Bergeron leads the team with 28 touchdown receptions and has caught 71 passes for 1,043 yards. Over the course of this season the Power have faced Damian Harrell and Chris Jackson, two of the most successful still-active wide-outs in league history, along with Bobby Sippio, James Roe, and other all-time arena football greats, with varying degrees of success. The Power’s secondary has taken a step backward with the absences of Carlos Campbell and Royce Adams (who is currently in the UFL), but Tyrell Herbert will return from IR, and Aliquippa’s own Josh Lay, over the past few weeks, has been perhaps the Power’s most active DB, having totaled 39 solo tackles, four breakups, and four forced turnovers to this point. The Power have held ten previous opponents to 50 offensive points or less, including the Gladiators, but they’ve also allowed 96 TD passes, the fourth-most in the league, so they need to make sure Rocco and Bergeron are not on the same page.
It’s easy to say whichever team is the first to blink will be in trouble Friday night at “The Q,” but judging by the way these teams handled each other at CONSOL Energy Center, this critical East Division game will more likely be a matter of which team can best minimize those mistakes. The Gladiators are one of the strongest defensive squads in the AFL, and they’re a team that has handled their business on home turf, but the Power have already demonstrated against them, among others, that, on their best day, their own defense is quite formidable. Whichever quarterback is better protected, as head coach Chris Siegfried pointed out earlier this week, is likely the team that will prevail, and if Bernard Morris does have room to maneuver, especially between the tackles, the Power will be in position to control both the ball and the game.
By Matt Popchock
Be sure to check out a special edition of our in-game blog live from Cleveland before, during, and/or after tonight’s game on 937thefan.com!