By Matt Popchock

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — The Talons flock to CONSOL Energy Center for Week 6 Arena Football League action Sunday afternoon, but these birds of prey had better be prepared to survive a dogfight if they wish to keep their 2013 season airborne.

San Antonio (1-3), despite bringing up the rear in the Central Division, ranks third overall in passing defense and total defense. It has allowed only 28 touchdowns, a number that ballooned after an 83-40 schooling at Arizona last Saturday.

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It has been just as difficult for head coach Derek Stingley to switch on his Pittsburgh Power (1-3), but his team is coming off its best defensive effort of the year in his homecoming game, a 46-43 triumph over the host New Orleans VooDoo last Friday. Coming off a campaign in which his team underachieved in every phase of the game except that one, that unit has again given the forlorn franchise hope.

The Power allowed New Orleans just 107 net yards, and they lead the league in passing defense and total defense entering the 2:00 P.M. contest Sunday. Their 27 touchdowns allowed are the second-fewest, and, with losses by East Division rivals Philadelphia and Cleveland Saturday, that single, solid team effort, supplemented by great individual ones, has slipped them into the American Conference playoff picture.

Mac linebacker Gary Butler, who registered a season-high 4.5 tackles against the VooDoo. Butler, who is on pace to exceed his tackle total as a 2011 rookie, collected nine, along with one sack, the only other time he faced the then-Tulsa Talons, a 45-22 loss in Pittsburgh.

His return has been welcome, but so has that of defensive back Chris LeFlore, who has provided stifling man-to-man coverage. It hasn’t taken long for one of the stars of the defunct Dallas Vigilantes franchise to become the Power’s career interception leader, and last week forced a fumble crucial to a second-quarter rally by the Power.

Fellow DB Sergio Gilliam started his new team on the comeback trail in that quarter with an 18-yard pick-six, his second INT of the season, and lineman Dominie Pittman delivered a game-sealing hit from backup QB Zack Eskridge’s blind side late in the fourth quarter.

Pittman is quickly among the AFL sack leaders in his second year as a Power regular, and Gilliam’s 5.2 tackles per game put him in the top 20 league-wide.

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Another newcomer, longtime Stingley protege Alvin Ray Jackson, occupying the jack linebacker spot, is a veteran ball-hawk currently with 19.5 tackles on the season who has proven capable of a big play at any moment.

Indeed, fortunes can change as rapidly as the rosters in the highly cyclical AFL, as evidenced by the fact the same team that dominated the Power in their last meeting at the Alamodome less than a year ago has managed a National Conference-worst 175 points. With the Power having scored a league-worst 128, it’s clear that whichever team most values possessions holds the key to victory.

Jordan Jefferson has to be feeling a bit more confident after his own commendable performance in Week 5, finally getting the offense on track with five touchdowns and no turnovers to complement his 223 yards on 19-of-30 passing. He also ran for 30 yards on eight attempts.

Having said that, he hasn’t gotten much help up front, and San Antonio will be in no mood to give him any. Third-year lineman Joe Sykes, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-Arena pick, has entered the top five in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (3.5) since coming over from San Jose in the off-season. Fred Shaw, with three pass breakups and three interceptions, is a capable shutdown corner.

With snake-bitten veteran John Dutton again running into health problems, the Talons will turn to former Orlando Predators (next week’s visitors) quarterback Nick Hill to jump-start their offense. Hill has thrown for 480 yards, eight scores, and three picks, posting an efficiency rating just over 86.0.

For the Power, the magic number is fifty. In the AFL, if you hold your opponent in the immediate neighborhood of that many points, you usually stand the best chance to win. The Power are 12-3 all-time, including last week’s decision, in games in which they’ve allowed under 50 points.

But the more prudent number is one. In this type of matchup, every single stop is important, and every single step into the end zone is important, and one more solid defensive performance by the Power, who seek their first home win, could help them reverse their fortunes considerably.

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(Follow me on Twitter for in-game commentary on select Pittsburgh Power games @mpopchock.)