JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The 2012 South Division Champion Jacksonville Sharks (8-5) will play the first of three consecutive home games this week, as the team hosts the Cleveland Gladiators (2-10) on Saturday, June 22. Kickoff from Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is set for 7:00 p.m.
Despite suffering back-to-back losses against the Spokane Shock and Utah Blaze in the last two weeks, the Sharks remain in sole possession of first place in both the South Division and American Conference. However, the top of the conference has become crowded in recent weeks, as the East Division's Philadelphia Soul (7-5) sit just a half-game behind the Sharks for the No. 1 seed, and the Tampa Bay Storm are one game back at 7-6. With that said, Jacksonville does currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over each team, though the Sharks and Storm will meet again in the final week of the regular season.
Jacksonville has put together a spotless 7-0 record against conference opponents this season, a total that includes a 66-49 Week 3 victory over the Gladiators in Cleveland. Though the Gladiators enter this week having lost five consecutive games, Cleveland is just two games of the final playoff spot currently occupied by the Orlando Predators (4-8). There is no doubt that the Sharks will face a Cleveland team that is desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Last week marked the Shark debut of quarterback Kyle Rowley, who joined the team in the middle of the road trip after starting quarterback Bernard Morris was injured against Spokane. After just one week of practice, Rowley Took the reins and nearly led the Sharks to a come-from-behind victory over the Blaze. Ultimately, a slow start proved costly last week, as the Shark offense scored just 20 points in the first half as Rowley adjusted to his first game action with a new team. Rowley and the rest of the Shark offense will look to carry the momentum from a 35-point second half into this week's game.
Rowley found early chemistry with Jeron Harvey, who caught each of Rowley's three first-half touchdown passes last week and totaled 172 yards on 12 receptions. The Cleveland defense will have to contend with one of the league's hottest receivers, as Harvey has caught a touchdown pass in nine straight games and has racked up at least 100 yards in each of the Sharks' last five contests. While Harvey's performance against the Blaze stood out, also worth noting was the AFL debut of London Crawford, who returned to action after spending the first 12 weeks of the season on injured reserve. Crawford caught four passes for 51 yards and a touchdown against Utah, and his role in the offense should only increase as he gets more game experience.
This week, the Sharks will face a defense that has struggled at times in 2013. The Gladiators are allowing 58.3 points per game, a total that ranks Cleveland tied for 12th out of the League's 14 teams in that category. Cleveland has totaled just nine quarterback sacks and nine interceptions this season.
Still, the Gladiator defense is not without its talent, and a familiar face is one of the leading playmakers in the Cleveland secondary. Defensive back LaRoche Jackson, who led the Sharks in tackles in both 2011 and 2012, has excelled since joining the Gladiators prior to Week 3. Jackson leads Cleveland with three fumble recoveries and is also tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) and pass breakups (seven). There is no doubt that Rowley will have to be cognizant of where Jackson lines up throughout this week's game.
On the flip side, the Shark secondary is coming off of a three-interception performance against Utah. Two of those picks were collected by Terrance Smith, who is now tied for the league lead with nine interceptions this season. In addition, Micheaux Robinson notched three pass breakups to add to his league-leading total of 19. With Tracy Belton (team-high 66.5 total tackles, four forced fumbles, 3.5 tackles for loss) a major factor as well, the Jacksonville secondary is a unit without a weak link.
What is already one of the team's strengths got even better this week, as defensive back Bill Alford has been activated from inactive reserve and could see his first action since the team's Week 7 loss to the Arizona Rattlers. The Jacksonville secondary will need to pay special attention to Cleveland wideout Dominick Goodman, who has performed exceptionally well in recent matchups against the Sharks. Dating back to the start of the 2012 season, Goodman has put together three straight 100-yard games against Jacksonville, catching eight touchdown passes in that span.
In the trenches, the Sharks' league-leading pass rush has slowed its pace in recent weeks, totaling just two sacks over the last three games. Some of that drop in production can be attributed to opposing offenses using quicker passes to neutralize Jacksonville's front four. Either way, the Sharks still boast three of the league's top 10 sackers in Jerry Turner, Aaron Robbins and Matt Marcorelle. This week, the Sharks will match up against a team that has struggled at times in pass protection, as Cleveland has yielded 29 quarterback sacks this season.
This week, the Sharks' front four will be attacking a new face at quarterback, as Chris Dieker recently took over the starting role after Brian Zbydniewski was placed on injured reserve. Dieker is completing 65% of his passes this season and has thrown 17 touchdown passes against five interceptions. Despite his large frame (6-5, 235), Dieker is a threat to run, as he leads the Gladiators with 155 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The Sharks will have to neutralize the rushing threat of both Dieker and fullback Derik Steiner, who averages 6.3 yards per carry.
Saturday's game is "Halloween in June," as fans are encouraged to come in costume to celebrate the holiday a few months early. Tickets to this game and all Sharks home games may be purchased by calling the Sharks Ticket Office at (904) 621-0700.
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