JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Sharks (6-0) will put an undefeated record on the line this weekend, as the team welcomes the Arizona Rattlers (5-1) Saturday, May 4 for a rematch of ArenaBowl XXIV. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m.
The Sharks and Rattlers have not squared off since the memorable night of August 12, 2011, when Jacksonville captured its first ArenaBowl title on a last-second touchdown pass to Jeron Harvey. The team has never actually beaten Arizona during the regular season, as the Rattlers took the teams' first matchup in 2010 and defeated Jacksonville in the 2011 season opener.
Both teams bring a winning tradition to this weekend's matchup, as the defending champion Rattlers stand as the only team with more playoff wins (five) than Jacksonville's four postseason victories since the Sharks entered the league in 2010. This year, these teams have emerged as two of the league's best.
A third of the way through the campaign, Jacksonville (6-0) has passed every test to this point in the year, winning each of its four road games to go along with a pair of home wins in Weeks 4 and 5. But this week, the Sharks face their toughest test yet against an Arizona (5-1) team that is firing on all cylinders. Arizona leads the league with an almost unheard-of average of 71.7 points per game and has crossed the 80-point threshold in each of the last two games.
Veteran Arizona quarterback Nick Davila is on the way to perhaps his best season yet, totaling 40 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. The defining characteristic of the Rattler offense is its efficiency. With Davila at the helm, Arizona has run 88 fewer plays than its opponents through six games. Incredibly, the Rattlers do not have a single receiver who ranks among the league's top 10 players in total receptions. Rather, Arizona brings a balanced attack that features three players – Jared Perry, Rod Windsor and Kerry Reed – with at least 10 touchdown receptions.
Tasked with stopping that prolific offense is a Jacksonville defensive unit that has been the league's best, allowing just 42.7 points per game, an average that is nearly a touchdown better than the second-place squad – that just happens to be the Rattlers. Over the first five weeks of the season, the Shark pass rush emerged as the defining characteristic of the team's defense, as Jacksonville continues to lead the league with 19 sacks. But against Philadelphia this past week, a member of the secondary made the difference.
Against the Soul, Tracy Belton forced a pair of fumbles – recovering one himself – and in doing so generated two pivotal turnovers in what was a 55-53 Jacksonville win. Belton totaled seven tackles and two pass breakups to go along with those fumbles, a performance that earned him a not as the Riddell Defensive Player of the Week. In his first season in Jacksonville, Belton has stepped in to become a key part of a lethal secondary that features Micheaux Robinson – who is tied with Belton for the League lead with 11 pass breakups – and Terrance Smith, whose four interceptions put him one shy of the league lead in that category.
On offense, the biggest key to the Sharks' early-season success is the improvement of quarterback Bernard Morris. Last year, Morris threw 59 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, a TD-to-INT ratio of 4.2. Through six games, Morris is protecting the football and delivering it to his talented group of receivers. He matched a career high with eight touchdown passes in Week 6 and has racked up 33 touchdowns against just two picks this season.
This week, Morris will doubtlessly look to Jeron Harvey, the fourth-year Shark who set a personal career best with five touchdown grabs against Philadelphia. But the Jacksonville passing attack faces a tall task, as Arizona's defensive backfield has amassed a whopping 15 interceptions through six games.
What makes the Rattler secondary particularly dangerous is that every player is a threat to come down with a pick. Virgil Gray and Marquis Floyd lead the way with four interceptions in 2013, while Arkeith Brown and former New Orleans VooDoo standout Jeremy Kellem have two apiece. Protecting the ball is always paramount in the AFL, but it is especially key for Morris and the Sharks this week, as the Rattler secondary has a penchant for big plays. Arizona has returned six of those 15 interceptions for touchdowns.
At the end of the day, Saturday's tilt features two teams with plenty of strengths and a whole lot of weaknesses. While the losing team will have plenty of time to rebound from a loss, a win on Saturday night would give the Sharks that much more confidence as the team nears the season's halfway mark.
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