In two consecutive weeks, the Power stared down the proverbial barrel of two of the deadliest gunslingers in the AFL, Kyle Rowley and Mark Grieb, and lived to fight another day. Now, as the Power enter the second half of their inaugural 2011 season and begin fighting for their playoff lives, they fly south to stare down the barrel of a cannon. Their defense, which played some of its most inspired football of the year in a pair of sensational come-from-behind victories at CONSOL Energy Center, must withstand the charge of a team that, like the Power, takes after its head coach. With Bernard Morris and his receivers finally starting to fire on all cylinders, and the team finally getting healthier, they must brace themselves for a possible shootout Saturday evening if they wish to keep pace with Cleveland before next week's big showdown. Here's a look at the challenge that lies ahead in Week 12:
PITTSBURGH POWER (5-4) VS. DALLAS VIGILANTES (6-4)
KICKOFF: 8:30 P.M., American Airlines Center, Dallas
TV/RADIO: AFL Live at ArenaFootball.com; 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color)
LAST WEEK: The Power enjoyed what appears to have been a well-timed bye week in Week 11, their second and final respite of the regular season, which followed a 54-48 inter-conference win at CONSOL Energy Center over the San Jose SaberCats in Week 10. It was the Power's third victory in their last four games, and it evened their home record at 3-3. The Vigilantes are coming off a pivotal 69-57 loss in Week 11 to the Central Division rival Chicago Rush at Allstate Arena last Sunday afternoon. It was Dallas' second straight road loss to a National Conference foe, and that dropped its road record to 2-4.
WHERE THEY STAND: The Power remain in second place in the American Conference's East Division, a game behind the 6-3 Cleveland Gladiators, who defeated the division rival Philadelphia Soul at home last week, and visit the National Conference-leading Arizona Rattlers at 10:00 Eastern Saturday night before coming to Pittsburgh next week. Pittsburgh is ahead of Philadelphia (4-7), which hosted and beat New Orleans Friday night, and the last-place Milwaukee Mustangs (3-7), who lost to the visiting Orlando Predators Thursday night. If the playoffs started today, the Power would claim the No. 4 seed and travel to face the top-seeded Jacksonville Sharks in the American Conference Semifinals.
With their loss in Chicago six days ago, the Vigilantes gave up first place in the National Conference's Central Division to the Rush (7-3), who will play another divisional game Sunday afternoon against the visiting Tulsa Talons. Dallas sits in second place ahead of Tulsa (4-6), the 3-7 Kansas City Command (who host the Spokane Shock Saturday evening), and the 3-7 Iowa Barnstormers (who upset the visiting Utah Blaze Friday night). If the playoffs started today, the Vigilantes would enter them as a No. 3 seed and visit Chicago in the National Conference Semifinals.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: He's got his health back, he seems to have his rhythm back, and the Power have benefited from his leadership, as he has overcome sluggish mistakes to guide them to two important victories. In Week 10 he completed 24 of 39 passes (61.5%) for 264 yards and eight touchdowns, despite being intercepted twice, while scrambling for 29 yards on four carries. Over the course of three-plus games, the second-year man from Marshall is 3-1 as a starter, and is 80-of-130 (61.5%) for 867 yards, 20 TD's, and six INT's, good for a passer rating of 100.4. Morris has also run for 102 yards and two scores on 18 attempts.
Dan Raudabaugh, Dallas: A franchise that boasted one of the most prolific signal-callers in the history of the old AFL couldn't have picked a much better player to bear the torch of the new team. Even in defeat, Raudabaugh looked strong overall in Week 11, connecting on 29 of 39 attempts (74.4%) for 322 yards and five touchdowns, and was picked off twice. Through ten games, the Coppell, Texas native and second-year starter from Miami (OH) has gone 195-of-302, ranking tenth in the AFL in completions and eighth in completion percentage (64.6) entering Week 12. He is ninth overall with 2,532 passing yards and eighth overall with 47 TD's. His 13 INT's are tied for the second-most among starters, though his 111.8 passer rating ranks eighth in the AFL, and he ranks third in the league with 8.1 yards per play.
*Part of why the Dallas offense is so productive, in all probability, is because it has been groomed by quarterback-turned-head coach Clint Dolezel, who put the franchise on the map back when it was the Dallas Desperados from 2002 through 2008. In 13 years in the AFL, including three with the old Desperados, Dolezel ended up No. 2 in arena football all-time in pass yardage (44,564) and touchdowns (931). Meanwhile, his 2011 Vigilantes squad currently ranks sixth in the AFL with 570 points, and their 57.0 points-per-game average is fifth entering Saturday. They are consistent and efficient, so the Power's defense needs to fight them for every yard and pressure them to make big plays. Dallas ranks fourth in red zone offense (86.0% success rate) and tops in fourth-down conversions (85.0%). Though they sit at the bottom of the 18-team league in time of possession, the offensive line has given Raudabaugh all the time he needs, having allowed just eight sacks all year, the second-fewest in the AFL.
*The Power secondary must keep one eye on Anthony Keith "Tiger" Jones, the Vigilantes' top receiver. He has accounted for 20 of Raudabaugh's aforementioned 47 touchdown tosses, the seventh-most TD receptions in the Arena Football League entering Week 12. His 1,038 receiving yards rank fifth overall, and his 86 catches are sixth, which computes to an average of over 12 yards per catch. While the secondary keeps one collective eye on Jones, they must keep the other on the Vigilantes' ground attack, as Dallas is one of only two teams in the AFL that averages more rush yards per game (43.3) than Pittsburgh, thanks to fullback Derrick Ross. Ross leads the AFL entering Week 12 with 354 yards on 95 carries, and is tied with San Jose's Chad Cook, whom the Power faced two weeks ago, for the league lead in rush TD's with 23. Cook gave fits to the Power, who rank a meager 16th overall in rush yards allowed per game (36.1), and each team's ability to run could make a world of difference in the outcome.
*While the Power have bore a resemblance to a playoff team these past couple games, fortunately for their sake, they also now bear less resemblance to a MASH unit. Last week defensive back Josh Lay, the ex-Aliquippa/Pitt player, returned from post-concussion symptoms and made an immediate impact, picking off a Mark Grieb pass in the end zone for his second INT of the year, which led to an early Pittsburgh score. Lay tied for second on the team with five solo tackles in Week 10, and currently has 25.5 total tackles and three pass breakups to his credit. Earlier this week the Power released receiver Craig Fulton Jr. to make room for the return of receiver/kick returner Jerome Mathis, a boon to special teams. To keep up with an offense like Dallas', you need to make life easy for your own, and that starts with field position. The Power rank sixth in the AFL with an average of 17.9 yards per kick return thanks in large part to Mathis, who averaged 21 yards per return (technically putting him in the AFL's top three) prior to his lower-body injury. In addition, defensive lineman Abe Koroma has been released to make room for ironman Chris Terrell, who brought stability to both the offensive and defensive units before missing four games with a high ankle sprain. The Power have allowed 21 sacks, the third most in the league, and they must contain linebacker James "Dusty" Bear, who is currently tied for fifth in the AFL with 5.5, not to mention the now injury-free Steve Watson, a star at the position. Another thing that will help is a clean bill of health for starting center Sione Ohuafa, who will apparently play tonight after separating his shoulder in Week 10.
*Mark Cuban's NBA Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks aren't the only tenants of the American Airlines Center who can rack up a ton of points, so the Power need to put the ball in the hands of their playmakers early and often. They don't have a league leader within their receiving corps, but the way this offense is going, it's a good problem to have, and the addition of Mathis gives Morris another option. Meanwhile, Jason Willis leads the Power with 661 receiving yards and 840 all-purpose yards, and hauled in three of his 11 TD's, including the game-winner with 14 seconds left, in Week 10. Mike Washington is making it abundantly clear why he is called "The Joystick"; he leads the Power with 12 receiving touchdowns, including four versus San Jose, and has racked up 590 yards on 50 catches. But when we say "playmakers," we're also referring to fullback Joshua Rue, and it would behoove the Power to get him back on track. Rue has 10 total TD's and eight on the ground, having amassed 86 rush yards on 37 attempts, but he's only scored once in Pittsburgh's last four games. If Rue gets going, it would bode well for the Power's offense, which ranks 16th in red zone touchdowns with 32. Having said that, the Power have done a much better job finishing ballgames, outscoring their last two victims 58-28 in the second half, aided by a defense has held seven of its first nine opponents to 50 offensive points or less. One thing that makes the Vigilantes similar to Pittsburgh's last two opponents is that they give up points just as easily as they score them, and Dallas' 55.2 points allowed per game, which ranks just 13th, could play into the hands of an offense that has shown signs of improvement.
By Matt Popchock
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