JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Sharks (6-2) return to their home turf this weekend, hosting the San Jose SaberCats (5-2) on Saturday, May 18 on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for 7:00 p.m. ET.
As is often the case when a team from the South Division squares off against one from the West, these two squads do not have much recent history. In fact, Jacksonville has only played one game against the SaberCats in the team's three-and-a-half-year franchise history, dropping an 83-70 decision in San Jose during the 2011 season.
The 2013 Sharks will take the field on Saturday with the goal of snapping a two-game losing streak, as the team fell to the San Antonio Talons by a count of 34-30 last Saturday night. Despite the loss, the Sharks remain atop the South Division, one game ahead of the 5-3 Tampa Bay Storm as the season nears the halfway mark. Jacksonville also currently holds the No. 1 seed in the American Conference.
In what has become a recurring theme, the Sharks turned in a stellar defensive performance their last time out. Led by a pair of sacks by both Jerry Turner and Matt Marcorelle, the Sharks' front four brought down Talon quarterback Nick Hill a total of five times. The team also forced four turnovers, including interceptions by both Terrance Smith and Tracy Belton.
The Sharks take the field with the top-scoring defense in the league, allowing just 43.5 points per game. The team has held three of its last five opponents under 35 points, and the defensive line leads the league with 25 sacks in eight games. What makes the Jacksonville pass rush so difficult to neutralize is that pressure can come from any spot on the field. While Turner leads the league with seven sacks, Marcorelle, Mac linebacker Aaron Robbins and defensive lineman Rashaad Duncan all rank in the top 10.
This week, the Sharks will look to overpower a SaberCat offensive line that has allowed just nine sacks to this point in the year. Generating consistent pressure will be key in disrupting the rhythm of San Jose quarterback Russ Michna, who has tossed 15 touchdowns against just two interceptions since joining the SaberCats prior to Week 6. The southpaw quarterback has a talented group of receivers at his disposal, including a pair of former Sharks in Jason Willis and Jamarko Simmons. Willis leads the SaberCats in every major receiving category (52 receptions, 574 yards, 13 touchdowns), while the imposing Simmons has caught nine touchdown passes while adding six scores on the ground in goal-line situations.
On the other side, the Jacksonville offense is looking for improved production after scoring just four touchdowns against the Talons last week. Though the Sharks led 20-14 at halftime of that game, Jacksonville only mustered 10 points in the second half. The team was stopped on downs on their second possession of the game and turned the ball over three times, unable to capitalize on the dominant play of the Jacksonville defense.
In fact, the Sharks have topped the 50-point mark just once in the last four weeks after scoring 60 or more in each of the team's first four games of the season. The team's offensive stars have continued to produce, as Jeron Harvey has totaled 12 touchdowns in the last four games, and Jeff Hughley made nine grabs for 105 yards in his return to the team after attending Tampa Bay Buccaneers' mini-camp. But the Sharks must work to finish drives and eliminate mistakes going forward.
Doing so won't be easy on Saturday, as the SaberCats' defense has allowed 38, 36 and 34 points during San Jose's current three-game win streak. The Sharks will have to keep an eye on veteran defensive back Clevan Thomas, who leads the team with five interceptions in his first AFL season since 2008. Thomas has helped mentor a SaberCat secondary that also includes two-way starter Huey Whittaker, who has two interceptions at Jack linebacker to go along with his nine receiving touchdowns.
San Jose's pass rush is potent as well, as the SaberCats rank second to the Sharks with 17 sacks this season. The unit is led by defensive lineman Jason Stewart (five sacks) and reigning All-Arena Second Team Mac linebacker Francis Maka (four sacks).
In a game that has a good chance to feature a down-to-the-wire finish, special teams could play a pivotal role on Saturday. The Sharks' kick coverage unit will need to pay special attention to their assignments, as SaberCat returners Mervin Brookins and Fred Williams have combined to bring back three kickoffs for touchdowns this season.
Saturday is Military Appreciation Night on Sea Best Field, as all active and retired military members and their families are eligible for Buy One, Get One Free tickets with the presentation of a military ID at the arena box office.
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