JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After two consecutive home wins, the Sharks are back on the road his week, heading to Philadelphia for a matchup against the Soul on Saturday, April 27. Kickoff from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia is set for 7:05 p.m., and the game will air live on WJXT.
Sitting alone atop the South Division and the American Conference, Jacksonville (5-0) enters this week with a chance to finish the first third of the regular season with a perfect record. The Sharks are already in the midst of the best start and franchise history, and currently hold at least a two-game lead over every other team in the conference. To keep the streak going, though, Jacksonville will need to solve a Philadelphia (2-2) team that owned the head-to-head matchup in 2012.
Last year, the Sharks fell to the Soul twice in the regular season, dropping one contest on each team's home turf. After a dramatic playoff win over the Georgia Force, the team headed back to Philadelphia with a berth in ArenaBowl XXV on the line, but several Shark turnovers led to defeat and the end of the team's title defense.
To be sure, 2013 is a new season and each team features a roster with plenty of new faces. But the Sharks must contend with a returning offensive core that made Philadelphia one of the most dangerous teams in the league last season. Now in his third AFL campaign, Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh has developed chemistry with top receiver Tiger Jones, who currently ranks second in the League with 123 receiving yards per game and is tied for third with 12 touchdown catches.
Philadelphia's offense also emphasizes the run more that most teams across the League, thanks in large part to the presence of fullback Derrick Ross, who has led the AFL in rushing in each of the past two seasons. Though Ross is currently just fourth in the league in rushing, he has found the end zone nine times in Philadelphia's four games, ranking only behind Tampa Bay Storm quarterback Adrian McPherson in that category.
Jacksonville, of course, is no stranger to running the football either, as the team currently boasts the league's top rushing offense. Fullback Rendrick Taylor is outrushing Ross to this point in the year, ranking third among all AFL players with 127 yards on the ground, while quarterback Bernard Morris has chipped in with 93 rushing yards and four scores. With a total of 275 rushing yards through five games, the Sharks are on pace to gain 990 yards on the ground, a total that would shatter the league record of 860 set by the Tulsa Talons in 2010.
With all of that said, Arena Football remains a pass-oriented game, and much of the Sharks' early-season success can be attributed to the play of quarterback Bernard Morris. Ranking third among starting quarterbacks in pass efficiency, Morris has tossed 25 touchdown passes against just one interception. The Jacksonville signal caller will look to continue spreading the ball among his receivers, as Jeff Hughley, Jeron Harvey and Markee White all have at least eight touchdown catches in 2013.
Morris did find himself under more pressure than usual in the Sharks' most recent game against Iowa, as the Barnstormer defense produced three sacks and forced Morris' first two turnovers on the season. The Jacksonville offensive line will aim to have more consistency in pass protection as it tries to counter a Soul pass rush that has generated eight sacks this season.
When the Sharks take the field on defense, the team's front four will find itself in a matchup of strength versus strength. Jacksonville's pass rush has two or more sacks in each of its last four games, leading the league with 18 quarterback takedowns overall. Three of the team's starters have recorded at least two sacks in a single game, while reigning All-Arena Mac linebacker Aaron Robbins leads the league in tackles for loss and has a sack in four straight contests. This week, though, the Sharks go up against a Soul pass-protection unit that has yielded just a single sack through four games.
In emerging the league's top scoring defense (40.7), the Sharks have also benefited from outstanding work by the secondary. Despite missing last week's game, Micheaux Robinson continues to lead the league in pass breakups (11), while Tracy Belton put together a dominant performance against Iowa that included a season-high 10.5 total tackles and four pass breakups in one game. The tallest member of the defensive backfield is Terrance Smith, who has intercepted a pass in two straight games and is tied for second in the league with four picks this season. Add in longtime Shark Bill Alford and NFL veteran newcomer Jamaal Fudge, and it's clear that Raudabaugh and the Soul offense will not have much margin for error.
One final key heading into this week's matchup is a disparity in turnover margin. The Sharks have committed fewer turnovers (4) than all but two teams in the league, and thanks to its playmaking defense, the team stands fourth in the AFL with a +6 turnover margin. On the other side, Philadelphia has a -6 turnover differential that ranks them 12th out of the league's 14 squads.
This week marks the first of a two-game stretch in which the Sharks will face each of last year's ArenaBowl participants. Ultimately, the team must approach this portion of the schedule one game at a time as it hopes to remain undefeated heading into next week's showdown with the Arizona Rattlers. The Sharks and Soul will get underway just after 7:00 on Saturday night.
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