JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Sharks head to the Big Easy this weekend, squaring off against the New Orleans VooDoo in a Week 18 matchup on Saturday, July 20. Kickoff is set for 6:00 p.m. ET.
The Sharks head into the season's final two weeks in an unfamiliar spot – as the No. 2 seed in the American Conference. As a result of Jacksonville's loss to Spokane last Saturday night and the Philadelphia Soul's victory over Utah the previous day, the Sharks are now a game behind the Soul in the race for home-field advantage. With that said, Jacksonville does still hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, so another Soul loss would give the Sharks an opportunity to jump in front.
While Philadelphia plays at San Jose this week and at San Antonio in its regular-season finale, the Sharks must focus on the task at hand – finishing up the regular-season road schedule with a win over the VooDoo. These teams met in the Shark Tank back on April 12, as the Sharks jumped out to a 35-0 lead, took a 55-12 advantage into the locker room at halftime and cruised to a 76-30 victory in the team's home opener. The first quarter of that game featured Jeff Hughley's 52-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown, the first score of its kind in team history.
But the New Orleans squad that will take the field this week is a much-improved squad. After starting 1-8, the VooDoo have won four of their last seven games to jump back into playoff contention. New Orleans sits a game behind the Orlando Predators for the fourth and final playoff spot in the conference.
A part of the VooDoo's resurgence can be attributed to the spark provided by quarterback Chris Dixon, who was a midseason addition to the team after beginning the year with the Predators. After seeing action in five games with New Orleans, Dixon logged his first start as the VooDoo signal-caller in Week 16, leading his team to a 63-49 road win over the Utah Blaze. Dixon brings athleticism to the table as well, as he is the VooDoo's leading rusher by more than 100 yards and has eight of the team's 22 rushing touchdowns.
The VooDoo has used several quarterbacks this season, as Kurt Rocco, Dixon and Bill Stull have all seen significant action. In addition to inconsistency at quarterback, what has hurt New Orleans' offense is turnover at receiver. Second-year pro Courtney Smith (15 games played) is the only VooDoo wideout to appear in more than 11 contests. While longtime AFL veteran Donovan Morgan has racked up 1,152 yards, 24 touchdowns and an impressive average of 15.4 yards per reception, he did not play in either of the VooDoo's last two games. If Morgan is unavailable this week, the VooDoo attack could struggle against a Shark secondary that has Terrance Smith and his 12 interceptions along with two other players – Micheaux Robinson and Tracy Belton – who average at least one pass breakup per game.
On the other side, the Jacksonville offense boasts one of the most talented groups of receivers in the league. Jeron Harvey recently set a new franchise record for receptions in a single season, and sits second in the AFL with 137 grabs this season. Markee White has started each of the Sharks' last 14 games and is three catches away from 100, while Jeff Hughley returned to the lineup last week and racked up 177 all-purpose yards. But over the last two games, perhaps no Jacksonville receiver has impressed more than London Crawford.
One game after catching three touchdown passes against Cleveland, Crawford did one better against Spokane last Saturday, reaching paydirt four times. What stands out about Crawford is his versatility. After hammering home a pair of short rushing touchdowns, Crawford then got open with a perfect double-move and exploded for a 49-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter. He scored on each of his four of his touches last week, all while playing Jack linebacker throughout the first half as Terrance Smith was unable to get loose. There is no doubt that the VooDoo secondary will turn plenty of attention Crawford's way this weekend.
Another story worth watching is the play of the Sharks' defensive line. With a pair of sacks against the Shock, Jacksonville extended its league-leading total of quarterback sacks to 38 – just four shy of the all-time league record. This week, the Sharks face a VooDoo team that has yielded 35 sacks in 2013, including three in the teams' first meeting.
In addition to constant pressure off the edge from Jerry Turner and Matt Marcorelle, along with Aaron Robbins' strong follow-up to last year's All-Arena performance, the Sharks also benefit from a playmaking nose guard in Rashaad Duncan. Duncan broke out with three sacks in Week 3 against Cleveland, and has emerged as a consistent pass-rushing threat in the last few weeks, notching at least a partial sack in each of the Sharks' last three games. For the season, Duncan's total of 6.5 sacks ties him with Marcorelle for third on the team.
Ultimately, the Sharks embark on this road trip looking to extend their run of dominance in conference play. Jacksonville has swept nine games against American Conference foes this season, including a perfect 4-0 mark against fellow South Division squads. After wrapping the regular season with a pair of divisional games, the Sharks are guaranteed to host the VooDoo, Predators or Tampa Bay Storm in the first round of the playoffs. The Sharks must continue to excel against these familiar foes in order to make a trip to ArenaBowl XXVI a reality.
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