The Jacksonville Sharks (9-5) have a surprisingly tough task in front of them as they host the Orlando Predators (5-8) at Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday night.
This game is tough for the Sharks for three reasons. One, there is major uncertainty as to who will be the starting quarterback. Two, they face a familiar foe in Aaron Garcia, who almost came away with a victory earlier this season. Three, their defense hasn’t been up to par over the last three weeks.
Kyle Rowley, who started this season in Orlando, has had what could be described as one of the worst seasons of his career. After an 0-5 start, Orlando released him in favor of Garcia. In his short stint as a Shark, he’s thrown just eight touchdowns against five interceptions leading a team to a 1-1 record as a starter. However, completing only 63.4% of his passes and with a QB rating of 82.3, there’s very little confidence in him going forward.
R.J. Archer, who stepped in relief of Rowley last week, also had a start against San Jose. While he threw five touchdowns, he was sacked three times and intercepted twice in the 57-36 Week 9 loss. He has performed well as a backup, but he hasn’t shown the same level of success as a starter as he did in Georgia.
On the other hand; Garcia, despite a shaky start to his season in San Jose (24 TD, 13 INT in 4 starts), has been revitalized in Orlando. He’s thrown 51 touchdowns against only eight interceptions, leading the Predators to a 5-3 record and back into the playoff hunt. This not only potentially will be the first time that Rowley faces his old team, but this will be Garcia’s return to the Shark Tank since guiding the team to a win in ArenaBowl XXIV two years ago.
Jacksonville will also be at a disadvantage at receiver, as Jeff Hughley asked to be suspended by the team for personal reasons, and will not be in action on Saturday. This means there will be even more attention paid to Jeron Harvey, which means Markee White and London Crawford will need to make more of an impact if they want to take a step closer to clinching their fourth straight division title.
Orlando’s receivers, primarily Prechae Rodriguez and T.T. Toliver, have been on display in the Arena Football League’s top passing offense (292.5 YPG); and they’ve found the end zone a lot in recent weeks, as in Garcia’s eight starts, the Predators have scored 50 points seven times (compared to once in five times before his arrival). The only time they didn’t reach the plateau was in a 44-41 loss to Jacksonville in Week 10.
Jacksonville, not only with the edge in the season and overall series, still has the big edge on defense. Third in passing, fifth overall, second in scoring. The front four has stayed aggressive, and the Sharks continue to lead the Arena Football League with 34 total sacks.
If Garcia’s comfortable in the pocket, he’ll have to deal with a suddenly much more vaunted secondary. Micheaux Robinson leads the league with 26 passes defended, and his pick six sealed last week’s win over Cleveland. On the other side, Terrance Smith leads the league with nine interceptions.
Although their defense has maintained, they’ve played what are considered some very weak teams, and these games would have been blowouts earlier in the season. To a man, the defense knows it has to step up, especially in putting pressure on the quarterback (four total sacks in the last four games).
This could be yet another tough battle, and if Jacksonville prevails, they can certainly claim the moniker “battle tested” as they head down the stretch to the playoffs. If Orlando leaves victorious, both the South division and playoff races will be shaken up going into next week. The scoreboard may not get lit up, but this will certainly prove to be a red-letter game in what’s developing as a storied rivalry.
Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m., and to add to the excitement, this week’s game will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network as part of their NET10 Wireless Arena Football Saturday package, in addition to being broadcast locally on WBOB AM 600. For more information on the Sharks, including the latest news and transactions, log on to www.jaxsharks.com. For more on the rest of the Arena Football League, including the latest news, polls, and standings, log on to www.arenafootball.com.