07/09/2015 12:31 PM
JACKSONVILLE - The Jacksonville Sharks will venture out of the state of Florida for the final time in the regular season this week, as the team travels west to square off against the Portland Thunder on Saturday, June 11. Kickoff from Portland’s Moda Center is set for 10:00 p.m. ET, as the game will be streamed live via ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app.
After having two byes in the last three weeks, Jacksonville (7-6) now enters an uninterrupted stretch of five consecutive games to finish the regular season. With a game in hand, the Sharks sit just a half-game back of the Orlando Predators (8-6) in the South Division race. This is just the second all-time matchup between Jacksonville and Portland, as the Thunder beat the Sharks, 69-62, on Sea Best Field during the early portion of the 2014 season.
As they head to the Pacific Northwest, the Sharks aim to recapture the form they showed in a dominant 74-41 victory over the Cleveland Gladiators in Week 14. In that game, the Jacksonville offense scored on all but one possession, the defense forced six turnovers and the special teams unit returned two attempted onside kicks for touchdowns.
Turnover margin has been one major factor that has helped the Sharks rack up seven wins in their last nine games. Jacksonville currently ranks tied for second in the League with a plus-19 turnover margin, as the defense has already collected 34 takeaways – just three shy of their total from the entire 2014 season. On the other side, quarterback Tommy Grady has thrown just eight interceptions and the offense has lost just seven fumbles, ranking second-best in the League in both categories.
Last time out, the Jacksonville offense got a boost courtesy of the return of London Crawford to the starting lineup. Playing in his second game since rehabbing a knee injury suffered midway through the 2014 season, Crawford racked up nine receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown in his first start of the campaign. With Tiger Jones (30 touchdown receptions) and Joe Hills (29) firmly entrenched among the League’s top receivers, Crawford’s presence makes the Jacksonville offense that much more potent.
With that said, Portland’s defense could benefit from the addition of defensive back Varmah Sonie. A 2014 All-Arena selection who recently spent time with two National Football League franchises, Sonie totaled 25 pass breakups and nine interceptions as an AFL rookie. Playing much larger than his five-foot-seven frame, Sonie will look to elevate a Thunder defense that has totaled just eight picks this season – fewer than all but one team.
On the other side of the ball, the Thunder feature a pair of familiar faces under center. With Darron Thomas on injured reserve, both of Portland’s active quarterbacks are former Sharks. Kyle Rowley has served as the Thunder’s starter for most of the season, though Alex Carder did get the nod in Week 13.
Regardless of who is under center, Portland’s offense is no doubt wary of Joe Sykes, who added to his league-leading totals in the Sharks’ last game. With a fourth-quarter strip-sack against the Gladiators, Sykes has now racked up 19 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and nine forced fumbles this season and is the league leader in those categories by a sizable margin. With five regular-season games remaining, Sykes needs just one more sack to tie his own all-time single-season AFL record of 16, set with the San Jose SaberCats in 2012.
The work of Sykes and the Sharks’ pass rush is valuable beyond just bringing down the quarterback. In recent weeks, constant pressure has allowed Jacksonville’s secondary to make plays, as Alvin Ray Jackson and Greg Reid both have five interceptions over the course of the last seven games. This week, the Sharks face a Portland team that has turned the ball over 30 times in 13 games, and so Jacksonville will be looking to make a game-changing play early on.
As emphatic as the Sharks’ recent victory of the Gladiators was, Jacksonville did struggle in one area that could prove pivotal in this week’s game. Cleveland’s Amarri Jackson racked up 163 yards on just four kickoff returns – an average of better than 40 yards per runback. The Sharks have yielded four kickoff return touchdowns this season, including once in each of the last two weeks.
On Saturday night, the Sharks’ kick coverage unit will need to be on point from the opening whistle, as Portland’s Duane Brooks has turned into one of the AFL’s most dangerous playmakers. Brooks has racked up six kickoff return touchdowns this season, and currently ranks third in the League with an average of 22.6 yards per return. The Sharks will need to use a combination of touchbacks and solid coverage to neutralize Brooks’ playmaking ability.
After Saturday’s game, the Sharks will return home for a Week 17 matchup against the Philadelphia Soul on Saturday, July 18. Kickoff on Sea Best Field is set for 7:00 p.m. ET.
About the Jacksonville Sharks
The Jacksonville Sharks are members of the Arena Football League (AFL). The ArenaBowl XXIV and four-time South Division Champions are presented by Sea Best Seafood and play all home games on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Shark Nation Memberships for the 2016 season are now available, starting as low as $99. To reserve your membership or for more information, please call (904) 621-0700 and speak to a Membership Activation Specialist. Follow the Sharks on facebook at facebook.com/jaxsharks and on Twitter @jaxsharks, as well as the Attack Dance Team at facebook.com/sharkattackdance and Chum at facebook.com/chumsharks.
About the AFL
Since its inception in 1987, the Arena Football League has showcased a fast-paced and exciting game to millions of fans in a myriad of markets across the country. The ESPN family of networks and CBS Sports Network will nationally broadcast AFL games each week for the entire 2015 season. The AFL schedule culminates with ArenaBowl XXVIII Saturday, August 29, 2015 on ESPN.