PLAYOFF PREVIEW: SHARKS’ PATH TO ARENABOWL GOES THROUGH PHILLY
For the second consecutive season, the ArenaBowl XXIV Champion Jacksonville Sharks have advanced to the American Conference Championship game. On Friday night, the Sharks will aim to punch their ticket to AVITAE ArenaBowl XXV, taking on the Philadelphia Soul at Wells Fargo Center. The game will air live in front of a national audience on NFL Network and is set to kick off at 8:00 p.m.
Jacksonville (11-8) advanced to this point on the left foot of placekicker Marco Capozzoli, who blasted a game-winning 51-yard field goal as time expired in the Sharks’ 58-56 win over the Georgia Force in last weekend’s AFL Quarterfinal action. Capozzoli’s kick became the longest field goal in the Arena Football League this season and established a new franchise record, topping the 37-yarder that he kicked against the Orlando Predators during the regular season.
The win over the Force was the Sharks’ first in three tries against Georgia this season. Jacksonville’s season series against Georgia shares some similarities to the team’s body of work against Philadelphia (16-3). Against both the Force and Soul, the Sharks kept one of the two meetings close into the fourth quarter but fell well behind early in the other thanks to costly first-half turnovers. The Sharks dropped a 56-38 decision in Philadelphia in Week 10, a game that was 35-31 early in the fourth quarter, but in Week 15, seven Jacksonville turnovers led to a 62-27 Soul victory on Sea Best Field.
This week, the Sharks must contend with a Soul team that set a new single-season record by scoring 1,228 points this season, breaking the mark of 1,158 established by the Sharks during the team’s championship campaign in 2011. In addition to its prolific offense, Philadelphia piled up a league-best plus-23 turnover margin during the regular season.
To be sure, this is not the same Shark team that dropped those two games against the Soul. One major difference is the presence of nose guard Jeff Littlejohn, who missed the second regular-season matchup with Philadelphia due to injury. Littlejohn’s biggest contribution does not show up on the stat sheet, as he is able to occupy the attention of the opposing offensive line and allow the rest of the Jacksonville front four – including All-Arena performers Aaron Robbins and Scooter Berry, veteran Jason Holman and newcomer Andre Caroll – to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
The Sharks finished the regular season fifth in the league with 33 quarterback sacks. With that said, the team’s pass rushers face a stiff challenge this week as they go up against a Soul offensive line that yielded just five sacks throughout the entire regular season.
Getting consistent pressure on Philadelphia signal caller Dan Raudabaugh will make life easier for the Jacksonville secondary – a group that has been led in recent weeks by Terrance Smith. Switching over from offense after Micheaux Robinson’s Week 18 injury, Smith has grabbed an interception in each of the last three games.
Moving over to offense, quarterback Bernard Morris and the rest of the Shark attack will need to put together a consistent 60 minutes in order to put Jacksonville in a good position to win Friday’s game. Against Georgia, the Sharks raced to a 48-21 lead but stalled offensively in the second half, ultimately allowing the Force to charge from behind and take a 56-55 lead before Capozzoli’s game-winner.
All told, Morris has thrown just two interceptions during the Sharks’ current four-game winning streak and has found a consistent target in veteran receiver Jeron Harvey. Harvey found the end zone three times against Georgia and has now scored multiple touchdowns in each of the team’s last five games. In addition, Harvey is a consistent playoff performer, racking up a total of 12 touchdowns in his five career postseason contests.
Overall, the Sharks boast one of the most versatile offensive attacks in the league. Jacksonville can attack opposing defenses with a varied receiving corps that ranges from 6-foot-1, 180-pound speedster Josh Philpart to the physical presence of 6-foot-3, 250-pound Jamarko Simmons. The Sharks also feature one of the top rushing tandems in the league, as fullback Rendrick Taylor finished third in the league in rushing yards per game while Morris is perhaps the most dangerous quarterback in the league when scrambling out of the pocket.
Friday’s game will feature the top three rushers in the normally pass-happy AFL. As alluded to above, Morris finished the season second in the league in rushing with Taylor right behind him. However, both players trail Philadelphia fullback Derrick Ross, who set a new single-season record for rushing yards for a second consecutive season and found the end zone a league-leading 32 times this year.
About the Jacksonville Sharks
The Jacksonville Sharks are members of the Arena Football League (AFL). The ArenaBowl XXIV and back-back-to-back South Division Champions are presented by Sea Best Seafood and play all home games on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Season Tickets for the 2013 season are now available, two tickets as low as $185. To reserve your season tickets or for more information, please call (904) 621-0700. Follow the Sharks on facebook at facebook.com/jaxsharks and on Twitter @jaxsharks, as well as the Attack Dance Team at facebook.com/sharkattackdance.