By Matt Popchock
Speed is the greatest weapon of Jerome Mathis, though having an NFL pedigree doesn't hurt either.
In his second game off injured reserve, the wide receiver/kick returner for the Pittsburgh Power and former All-Pro for the Houston Texans recorded the first kickoff return touchdown in Power history last weekend in Tampa Bay. He ultimately caught 12 passes from Bernard Morris for 197 yards and three more scores, while amassing 138 more yards on five returns.
For his efforts Mathis was named the JLS Ironman of the Week for Week 14 by the Arena Football League, but the Power's four-game winning streak was halted by the host Storm with a 62-55 loss. Here's what Jerome had to say before Thursday's practice about receiving the award, and about Saturday night's road game against the Utah Blaze:
Q: Injuries have been a part of your career in the NFL and AFL, but how does it feel to finally be back and be able to contribute to the team?
A: It feels pretty good. What happened to me in the NFL is in the past. I'm in a new phase of my life, I'm a little older now, and a little more mature. I've been making better decisions on and off the field, so that's part of what's keeping me healthy now.
Q: The final result last week might not feel good, but the honor of being named the AFL's Ironman of the Week must feel good.
A: To tell you the truth, I honestly didn't know it until a couple of my teammates started joking around about it. But at the end of the day, it's nothing I can really sit down and enjoy, because I'll trade four touchdowns and however many yards for a win any day.
Q: What went wrong against Tampa Bay? Are there things the team has to clean up, or was last Saturday just one day where you have to give them credit?
A: We pretty much beat ourselves. We can't turn the ball over in crucial situations, and as an offense, we have to take more pride in scoring on every possession. We have to put points up on the board whether we're in an old-fashioned Western shootout or not. We have to score. It's our job, and we failed to do that as a unit.
Q: (Quarterback) Bernard Morris, in the bigger picture, seems to be getting better as he's gotten healthier. What's it been like working with him?
A: It's been pretty interesting. At first, I was kind of just trying to find my place on this team, and with the offense itself. But it's actually exciting now to have a quarterback like Bernard who can throw and run at the same time. His knowledge of the game is so good that sometimes you're not even ready for the ball to come your way, and it's about to, and by the time you look up, it's there.
Q: Do you embrace your role, and your ability to be a difference-maker on special teams? For all the differences between arena football and traditional football, field position is still a big key.
A: I'm a natural returner, so when I do get out there to return a kickoff, I take a lot of pride in it. But I also take a lot of pride in playing offense, and I get pretty pumped up for both of them. Returning is my thing, though; it's what I'm good at, and it's what got me to where I am. So I get pretty pumped up, and accept it as a challenge to either run somebody over, or score every time I get the ball, or at least make something exciting happen.
Q: Are you going to take another one to the house Saturday like you did against Tampa Bay? Do you feel like you've got another one in you?
A: (laughs) If their special teams slip up and have a couple miscues, nine times out of ten I can run one back, or have a big return.
Q: What's the biggest thing the team needs to work on as it gets ready for Saturday?
A: Playing together...if we're down one or two touchdowns, not beating ourselves up and thinking the game is over. It's four quarters, and in arena football, five or ten seconds is enough time for you to win the game.
Q: Utah is another one of those offenses that can seemingly score at will, but does this team feel a little better prepared for that kind of game, now that you've played that style and been able to win games like that?
A: We're definitely prepared for a shootout-style game, and we've proven that over the last couple of weeks. Our numbers don't really show what we're capable of doing; we're only averaging around 49 points a game. But with the firepower we have on this team, we're more than capable of playing [a high-scoring game].
Q: What do you think the key to victory is for Saturday?
A: Like I said, just playing as a unit. We have [Kevin] McCabe at quarterback, so it's going to be a little different out there. We have to go out there, and not beat ourselves up. In that case, we're the better team, and at the end of the day, it's going to show.
Meanwhile, defensive back Carlos Campbell is going to need some company in the Power's secondary with Royce Adams, one of the league leaders in tackles, moving on to the United Football League.
It's evident Adams was missed in the Power's loss to Tampa Bay, a game in which Campbell recorded one pass breakup and only 2.5 total tackles. Still, the former Cleveland Gladiator has had an extraordinary first season in Pittsburgh, leading the team with 53.5 total tackles, and sharing the team lead with three INT's, including a game-clinching interception in a big home game against his former team two weeks ago.
Here's what Carlos had to say before Thursday's practice about what went wrong in Tampa, what needs to improve in Utah, and the life of a defensive player in an offense-oriented league:
Q: I have to admit, I'm a bit of a sucker for social media, and one of the first things I happened to see after Saturday's game was your Twitter page. You said that Saturday's game was a lesson the team needed to learn. What lesson do you take from that game that can maybe help you this weekend?
A: Just taking advantage of situations, and being consistent, especially against a team we felt we were superior to, and executing the gameplan. We were on a four-game winning streak, acted like a team that had nothing to lose, and we went in there and didn't get the job done. So it was a learning experience from that end.
Q: Individually you've had a pretty successful season, especially in the tackles department. How hard is that to pull of in the AFL, where there are a lot of things in place that handcuff defensive players?
A: It's becoming easier; for example, the jack [linebacker] can leave the box (an area designated by the outside shoulders of the offensive line) now. But it's my job. It's not easy playing high motion when someone gets a 15- or 20-yard head start. But as for my production, I feel like my production could be better than what it is. There are opportunities I've had, and haven't taken advantage of, so I should be top eight [in the AFL in tackles]. The defense as a whole...we feel like we've left a lot of stops out there. At the same time, the plays that need to be made, we've made those. We just have to come in [to practice], work hard, and go from there.
Q: It seems like the Utah Blaze are similar to the other teams in the AFL's West Division. They can score almost at will, but at the same time, they can be scored against at will. Is the approach to this game similar to the way you've approached the other West Division teams you've played?
A: The approach is the same every week: being consistent, more so than last weekend, and not getting too high or too low. We have six games left, so there's still a lot of football to be played. It's really more about us and our mistakes that we've made than what we've done to put ourselves in the situation that we've been in. We'll look back at games we've lost and think that it's not so much what the other team did, but more mistakes on our end. It was a big game last week, but every game's a big game. This week is one of those games where, just because we've been riding high doesn't mean people fear us. Like people say, any given week...a team can show up and play its greatest game, so that's added motivation for a team [like Utah] that's holding onto the last [National Conference playoff] spot. They're going to go in like they have nothing to lose, and we have to go in the same way.
Q: What makes Tommy Grady such a great quarterback, and is there anybody in particular you and the rest of the secondary will be keeping your eye on this Saturday?
A: They're pretty beat up at receiver. I know Coach said they won't have their number one receiver (Aaron Boone), and here you don't have as many guys on the active roster or practice squad, so in arena football you do the best with what you have. I've seen Grady, when I was in Tulsa...great quarterback, and there's not too many in the league who are 6'7". He has a big arm, and can see the field pretty well, so we'll just try to give him a bunch of different looks, be aggressive, and hope the ball bounces our way.
Q: It seems that a lot of the growth that needs to take place, this being an expansion team, has taken place since the beginning of the year. Obviously last week was a bump in the road, but the fact that a brand new team with a lot of young players is in contention is a positive, and I'm sure it gives you guys confidence.
A: We don't think in terms of "new" or "expansion." It's just a term. We feel like we have enough guys who have played arena football long enough where we know what's going on, and we feel like we can get the job done. The sky's the limit. We have guys who have been to championship games and been through the rigors of a season. The way we look at ourselves, "expansion" is just a name. We have Coach Siegfried, Coach (Maurice) Blanding (defensive coordinator), Coach (John) Sikora (offensive line coach)...guys who have been around a long time. You have me, Bernard [Morris], Purv (Neal Purvis), [Terrance] Taylor, guys who have been in a game long enough to where this "expansion" stuff is actually motivation, because nobody expects us to be where we are...but we do. But that's great. That's a chip on our shoulder. So we don't give it too much thought.
Q: Above all, what does this team have to do to beat the Utah Blaze?
A: Focus. Take the gameplan to the field, and take advantage of mistakes. When those guys are down, we have to have a killer instinct, and take advantage of that. Usually when you don't...if you look at any boxing match, or the [NBA Finals]...that was the focal point of the [NBA Finals], guys not focusing and closing out games. That's the main thing, sticking to our gameplan, and finishing games.
Be sure to revisit 937thefan.com this weekend for more on the Pittsburgh Power's matchup with the Utah Blaze!
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