By Matt Popchock
The Arena Football League postseason doesn’t officially begin for two more weeks, but for the Pittsburgh Power, it began at around quarter after 10 Sunday evening.
That’s when they walked off the field at CONSOL Energy Center after the league-leading Arizona Rattlers took a bite out of their playoff chances with an uninspiring 68-34 blowout of their hosts.
It left the expansion Power (8-8) in need of wins in back-to-back road games, the first of which kicks off Friday night at 8:00 against the Cleveland Gladiators (9-7) at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Power need to take care of business at “The Q,” then win the regular season finale in Philadelphia next Friday to finish atop the American Conference’s East Division and assure themselves of a playoff berth. But if the Gladiators beat them, their inaugural campaign is effectively over.
“We knew going into that Arizona game that we were going to have to play a great football game to beat them, and we didn’t. We didn’t play a great game. We didn’t play a good game. As a unit, we’ve just kind of moved past it, and moved right into this game,” head coach Chris Siegfried said before practice on the South Side Wednesday.
Fortunately, the Power’s cross-state rivals did them a great favor last Friday. The Philadelphia Soul, who have been eliminated from the race for some time, delivered a resounding 49-21 upset of the visiting Gladiators before a national TV audience in Week 18. That gives Pittsburgh the opportunity to keep its own season alive.
“It’s really just a matter of looking ourselves in the mirror, as players, coaches, and as a whole, and deciding, do we want to fight for this division?” Siegfried said. “If you watched Cleveland on Friday, and if you watched us on Sunday, it looks like neither team wants this division.
“I look at Cleveland as similar to us to the effect that both of us have under-performed at times this year,” he added. “They’ve also lost some games they probably feel they should have won, which is the same as us.”
Indeed, both teams stepped through a revolving door of quarterbacks early in the season. When veteran John Dutton went down in Week 1, Cleveland turned to Dan Whalen, and eventually, rookie Kurt Rocco, who has thrown for 60 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards. Bernard Morris, in Week 2, suffered an injury to his throwing arm that kept him out for a month. Morris is one of four different QB’s to win a game for the Power this year, and has thrown for 48 TD’s and over 2,000 yards in limited action.
As Siegfried noted, though, the similarities don’t end there. Since winning four in a row to take the East Division lead, the Power have dropped four of five, including two very winnable road contests in the Sunshine State against the Tampa Bay Storm and Orlando Predators. The Gladiators, in addition to last week’s loss, were also knocked off by the struggling Kansas City Command in Week 15 to keep the Power within hailing distance of first place.
“We expect this to be a great football game. It’s a very tough place to play,” Siegfried said of the Glads’ home venue, where they have won in six of their first seven tries.
Mac linebacker Gary Butler, who registered 4.5 tackles, one pass deflection, and was denied a fumble on a controversial call in the first meeting with the Gladiators in Week 13, certainly isn’t fooled by either team’s performance this past weekend.
“I watched that game Friday, and that’s not them. They haven’t really been protecting their quarterback well, and I’m sure they’re going to emphasize that this week,” said Butler, who has racked up 46 tackles (38 solo), seven pass breakups, three sacks, and three fumble recoveries this season. “We have to take it upon ourselves to take the game, and not leave anything to chance.”
“The key for Cleveland is going to be, can they protect Kurt Rocco, and for us, if we can get to Kurt Rocco,” Siegfried agreed. “We’ve got to get hits on him, and we can’t allow him any time to give to Troy Bergeron to get open.”
In that last meeting, in which the Power toughed out a 35-32 decision over the Gladiators June 4, their defense did a fine job making Rocco sweat, and making the rookie work for his yardage. Pittsburgh’s defense recorded two sacks, three tackles for loss, three QB hurries, and four pass breakups, not to mention a huge Carlos Campbell interception that preserved the final margin.
“Guys like (Jacksonville quarterback Aaron) Garcia and (Arizona quarterback Nick) Davila…their eyes are downfield the whole time,” Butler said regarding how well his mates have fared against less experienced starters like Rocco. “But if you get in Rocco’s face, he tends not to take it as well. That’s our job. That’s the most important thing, to get him out of a rhythm. If his eyes aren’t downfield, we’re doing our job.”
Bergeron did not appear in that game, but he is, in addition to one of Rocco’s primary targets, a receiver with NFL experience and a gaudy AFL resume…something that, at times, has given the Power’s secondary fits. The former AFL Rookie of the Year (2005) will join the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp following the lockout, and has amassed over 1,000 yards while grabbing a team-best 28 TD’s.
“He’s a phenomenal receiver, a first-class person…and a great promoter of the league. I root for him every game of the year…except for a couple occasions when I don’t,” Siegfried said with a laugh. “It’s a thrill to go up against such guys, and it’s a bigger thrill to beat them. Hopefully we get the bigger thrill this weekend. We’re prepared for anything.”
That includes preparing for a Cleveland defense that leads the league with just 44.4 points allowed per game, a unit that held Pittsburgh to its second-lowest point total of the season.
“We’re not going to give it to them, and I’m pretty sure they’re not going to give it to us either. It’s going to be a hard-fought game,” Morris said.
Still, Morris was efficient enough that night to steer the Power to one of his five victories as the starter, going 17-of-23 for 210 yards and three scores without any sacks or interceptions. His mobility has been a weapon all year long–his 43-yard QB keeper clinched that win–and the offense has been most cohesive when he’s been healthy.
“We put ourselves in this mess, but if we can play more mistake-free football, we should be all right,” Morris said. “The stats usually show that whichever quarterback is the most efficient and protects the ball is going to be victorious.”
“The difference between Bernard and the rest of [our quarterbacks] is that Bernard comes into the huddle with that confidence that everybody can feed off,” said center Sione Ohuafi, who is expected to return after missing the last couple games with an upper-body injury.
The return of Ohuafi to the trenches could make a difference for the Power, whose offensive line got pushed around throughout Sunday’s game with backup Jamar Foulks in his spot. At any rate, whether or not that line as a group, which has allowed the third-most sacks in the league (34), can keep Morris comfortable will be quite important Friday night.
“We’ve been shuffling people, trying to figure out the best lineup. We changed schemes a little bit on Sunday, which kind of threw some people off, but people are starting to look more comfortable,” said fellow offensive lineman/fullback Mike Lucian.
Lucian, the former Penn State product, is one of those people adjusting to a new role on the fly. He is expect to start at fullback once again in lieu of fan favorite Josh Rue, who was reportedly dismissed before Sunday’s game for reasons of general fatigue. Ironically, his only rush attempt this season was a one-yard TD against Cleveland.
“If you look around this league, many of the fullbacks you’ll see are converted linemen,” he said. “In high school I was a tight end, so at least I have a little bit of [ball-handling] experience.
“We’ve got a different lineup than [the first meeting], with better people at certain positions. You just look for consistency.”
It’s a pass-happy league, but the Power’s ground attack, which ranks third in the AFL at over 39 yards per game and out-gained and outscored the Gladiators’ running game last time, can still be an x-factor depending on how they use Lucian, and how much time and space they give Morris. In five of the Power’s eight wins they’ve scored via the run at least once, and Morris ranks second among QB’s with 279 rush yards.
When asked after the regular season home finale how the Power can improve the support their quarterback has been getting, Siegfried said bluntly he would “find people who want to block.”
When asked how his team as a whole would respond to Sunday’s butt-kicking, he said he asked his captains to find the 21 guys who could best keep the team’s postseason hopes alive.
It’s up to his team to find both those things in time to cancel any playoff party the Gladiators might be planning.
“What better could you ask for than Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the second-to-last game of the year, battling for the division title?” Siegfried asked Wednesday. “There’s some excitement, and there’s a different buzz this week. I think the guys finally realize our backs are against the wall.
“If there’s one thing that’s good about the ups and downs of this season, it’s that I think we’re prepared for any type of battle we get into. The vibe this week is good, and hopefully that carries over Friday night.”
Keep it logged onto 937thefan.com during or after the Power’s game against the Gladiators for a special edition of our live blog, featuring our game notes and thoughts as your Pittsburgh Power make one last push for the playoffs!