The ArenaBowl XXIV Champion Jacksonville Sharks will take their second-to-last road trip of the 2012 season this weekend, as the team will square off against the New Orleans VooDoo at 8:00 on Saturday night at the New Orleans Arena.
One needs to only look at the South Division standings to see that this game carries enormous playoff implications. With just three weeks left in the regular season, Jacksonville and New Orleans are tied atop the division with matching 7-7 records. Entering this weekend’s action, the Sharks sit as the No. 2 seed in the American Conference, while the VooDoo rest in the No. 3 position.
Jacksonville does have one factor currently in their favor – the Sharks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against New Orleans thanks to their 41-37 comeback victory over the VooDoo in Week 9. Should the Sharks win Saturday’s game or lose the contest by three points or less, they would clinch the tiebreaker. With that said, both the Georgia Force (7-8) and Tampa Bay Storm (6-8) remain very much alive in the division race with plenty of football to be played. After Saturday, either the Sharks or the VooDoo will have the inside track to a division title, but nothing is guaranteed.
The Sharks will aim to build on their most recent performance, in which they snapped a two-game losing streak with a 56-42 win over the Cleveland Gladiators on Sea Best Field last Saturday night. In that Week 16 contest, Jacksonville put together an efficient offensive performance against the league’s top scoring defense, and the Shark secondary changed the game with three fourth-quarter interceptions.
Against the Gladiators, quarterback Bernard Morris played nearly mistake-free football. He completely nearly as many touchdown passes (seven) as he threw incompletions (eight) and did not through an interception. Morris hit Terrance Smith and Jeron Harvey for three touchdown passes each. It was Smith’s biggest receiving game in several weeks, as he finished with a team-high 11 receptions for 122 yards and those three scores. Taking his kick returns into account, Smith has now racked up 200 or more all-purpose yards in back-to-back games.
On defense, the star of the show was LaRoche Jackson, who aims to build on a performance that saw him honored as the Week 16 Riddell Defensive Player of the Week. Against Cleveland, Jackson led the Sharks with 10.5 total tackles, was one of three players with three pass breakups and hauled in a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to help seal the victory. Jackson now has totaled four interceptions in the team’s last four games.
The Shark pass rush enjoyed great success in the team’s first matchup against the VooDoo. In that game, Jacksonville sacked New Orleans quarterback Kurt Rocco three times, and defensive lineman Scooter Berry recovered a fumble in the end zone for a momentum-shifting touchdown. Jacksonville’s front four heads into this week with the goal of repeating that performance against a VooDoo team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in sacks allowed.
Know Your Foe
The VooDoo take the field this weekend having stormed back into the division race with three wins in their last four games. Last time out, New Orleans defeated the Orlando Predators by a 48-41 count in a nationally televised road contest. In particular, the VooDoo have excelled against divisional foes this season, as the team’s Week 9 loss in Jacksonville stands as the only blemish on a 4-1 divisional record.
Quarterback Kurt Rocco has been a steady hand at the helm for the entire season, throwing all but one of the team’s pass attempts this season. Rocco has fired 82 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions through 14 games, a combination that has him tied for seventh in the league with a 116.6 pass efficiency rating.
Unlike those of many teams throughout the league, the VooDoo offense does not feature one dominant receiver. Instead, L.J. Castile, Josh Bush and Quorey Payne have all totaled at least 80 receptions for 1,050 yards or more this season. The touchdown distribution among the three is fairly even as well, as Bush leads the way with 27 scores while Castile has 22 and Payne has 19. New Orleans is not a team that emphasizes the run to a great extent, though fullback Joe Alajajian does have 10 rushing touchdowns this season.
When the Sharks have the football, quarterback Bernard Morris will have to be careful when going over the middle, as Jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson leads all VooDoo defenders with 12 interceptions this season. In all, New Orleans leads the league with 31 interceptions this season. The VooDoo have not had nearly as much success in pressuring the quarterback, as the team has just 12 sacks this season.
Next Home Game
The Sharks will head back to Sea Best Field on Friday, July 6 as the team hosts the Milwaukee Mustangs for “Shark-A-Ritaville.” Next Friday’s game will kick off at approximately 8:00 p.m. and will air live on NFL Network as part of the league’s “Net10 Arena Football Friday” series.