This week, the Jacksonville Sharks (6-3) will head south for a divisional matchup with the in-state rival Orlando Predators (2-6) on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., and the game will air live throughout the Jacksonville area on Channel 4.
The Sharks head into this week’s meeting with an impressive 5-1 record against the Predators during the regular season. In fact, Jacksonville has won each of the past four regular-season meetings, as the team swept Orlando in both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Add in a first-round playoff victory over the Predators in 2011, and the Sharks have won five consecutive games in this series.
With that said, the 2013 edition of the Sharks heads into this week’s game with the goal of stopping a three-game losing streak. After beginning the season 6-0, the Sharks came up empty against Arizona in Week 7 and at San Antonio in Week 8 before dropping a 57-36 decision to the San Jose SaberCats last Saturday night. At one point, the Sharks were the last remaining unbeaten team in the League. But at the regular season’s halfway mark, the team finds itself in a battle with the Tampa Bay Storm for South Division supremacy, as the team’s sport matching 6-3 records through nine games.
Adding to the importance of this week’s matchup is that the Predators are a much different team from the one that started the season 0-5, with one major reason why that is the case. Unsatisfied with his team’s quarterback play through the campaign’s first third, Orlando head coach Doug Plank pulled the trigger on a trade that sent former Shark quarterback Aaron Garcia to Orlando. Though Garcia had a rough beginning of the season with San Jose, throwing 13 interceptions in four games, he has been on point since joining the Predators. In his three games with Orlando, the AFL legend has thrown 23 touchdowns against just three picks, including an 11-touchdown, no-interception performance in the Predators’ remarkable 83-82 comeback win at Spokane in Week 7.
Garcia has the luxury of throwing to a veteran receiving corps, which is led by longtime Predator T.T. Toliver, who pulled in 18 receptions for 251 yards and six touchdowns in that win over the Shock. Toliver, Prechae Rodriguez and Jason Geathers form a potent mix that the Sharks will need to shut down.
Another factor that has helped Garcia is the protection of his offensive line. The Predators have yielded just one sack in the three games since Garcia stepped into the starting role, and none in either of the last two. With that said, Orlando’s pass-protection unit will have its hands full with a Jacksonville front four that continues to impress.
The Sharks have led the league in sacks for virtually the entire season, and enter Week 10 with a league-high total of 27. The team is on pace to shatter the AFL record of 42, set by the SaberCats just last year. Each of the Sharks’ four projected starting pass-rushers has at least four sacks in 2013. Veteran defensive lineman Jerry Turner was leading the league with seven sacks, only to be passed by Mac linebacker Aaron Robbins who now has 7.5. Turner and Matt Marcorelle have each already set new individual career highs, while Robbins is just one sack shy of the total that earned him a spot on the All-Arena First Team last year. The Sharks have proven that they can get to the quarterback against any opponent, as the team has at least one sack in every game and multiple sacks in all but three contests.
While the defense continues to excel, the Shark offense is still looking to re-establish the rhythm that it had through the season’s first four weeks. Jacksonville has failed to score 50 points four times in the last five games, and will need to rack up the points to contend with a Predator team that has broken 50 in every game since Garcia took the reins.
After totaling 41 touchdowns against just two interceptions through the first seven weeks, Shark quarterbacks Bernard Morris and R.J. Archer have combined to throw just six touchdown passes in the last two while giving up four picks in those two contests.
One major key to an offensive turnaround is avoiding slow starts. Isolating the first two possessions of each game, the Sharks have scored just twice in six tries over the past three weeks. In addition, the team turned the ball over on each of its first two drives of the third quarter last Saturday night. With the back-and-forth nature of the indoor game, the Sharks can ill afford to come up empty on consecutive possessions this week.
A final factor to consider heading into this week is that Orlando employs the onside kick more often than any other team, having gone onside a league-high 17 times this season. The Sharks’ special teams unit will need to be alert at any point in the game, whether or not the team has the lead. Thwarting any onside kick attempts by the Predators could play a significant role in a Jacksonville victory on Saturday night.