There’s always a first time for everything and the first playoff appearance for the Pittsburgh Power is just around the corner. The Pittsburgh (15-3) will travel south to take on the Southern Division champion Orlando Predators (11-7) Sunday afternoon at 2 PM. Pittsburgh won an earlier meeting this season 62-61 in Orlando.
Just one season removed from a 4-14 campaign, the Power turned things around on the arm of 2012 league MVP Tommy Grady. Grady finished a strong 2014 campaign with 4717 yards (2nd in the AFL), 115 touchdowns (2nd in the AFL) and 17 interceptions, good for a quarterback rating of 109.7 (8th in the AFL). He did not throw for less than six touchdowns in his last seven games and his consistency on offense has been a big catalyst for the third most potent offense in the league at 56.4 PPG.
Orlando’s quarterback is Bernard Morris, a former Power starter from their inaugural season. Morris has had a lot of success over his former employers in the past by winning three of his four starts against them. The lone blemish on that record came earlier this year. Morris is probably one of the biggest dual threat quarterbacks in the AFL as he ranks third in the league in rushing with 283 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns but his arm can beat you as well. Morris has posted the second best quarterback rating in the AFL with 123.1 and he has 2171 yards passing, 47 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in just nine games played this year.
Pittsburgh will use any and all receivers at their disposal to attack an Orlando secondary and keep them off guard all night. Prechae Rodriguez ranks tenth in the AFL with 32 touchdowns despite missing seven games with a high ankle sprain. His size is a mismatch for many defensive backs and one that the Power have exploited all year long. Shaun Kauleinamoku is a fearless receiver who has quietly positioned himself amongst the league leaders in receptions, ranking sixth with 124 catches and tenth with 1359 yards while adding 19 touchdowns. Tyrone Goard has been activated and may be available for this matchup but his status won’t be known until late in the week. If he is able to go he will provide another playmaker for Grady to focus on.
Orlando’s receivers may not have the experience of Pittsburgh’s but the talent is definitely there in the form of rookies Greg Carr and Khalil Paden. Carr’s size at 6’6” has been a mismatch for AFL defenses almost the entire season and he is one of the top contenders for AFL Rookie Of The Year after posting 114 yards and 1440 yards and 36 touchdowns. He notched multiple touchdowns in 11 of his 18 games this year and is a major playmaker. Paden may only have 81 catches but has maximized the production on those catches by putting up 1401 yards and 23 touchdowns. Seven-year AFL veteran Larry Brackins came over to the Predators midseason and is another tall receiver (6’4”) who will come in handy at the goal line.
Pittsburgh’s secondary is lethal, leading the league with 36 interceptions. No one is more prolific at turning the tables than Virgil Gray who leads the team with 11 interceptions despite missing almost a third of the season with a high ankle sprain. Gray did not play in the earlier Orlando meeting so his presence is something Bernard Morris will really have to account for this time around. Pittsburgh’s other defensive backs have all had solid years as well. Brandon Freeman is second on the team with eight interceptions, Sergio Gilliam has three picks and Al Phillips, who filled in at safety for Gray, leads the team in tackles with 87.5 and has 5 interceptions himself. Jack linebacker Arvell Nelson has also had a strong year with five interceptions.
The Power pass rush is also improving each week led by the emotion and talent of James Bryant with five sacks and defensive ends Jake Killeen (7.5 sacks) and Curtis Young (7 sacks). Nose guard Justin Lawrence has quietly controlled the middle of the line all season but he also has three sacks. Pittsburgh’s ability to stop the run will come in handy as they try to make Bernard Morris one dimensional.
Orlando’s defense features a trio of experienced defensive backs who can make you pay for errant throws. 9th year man Eddie Moten was acquired midseason and has 50 career picks, including six this year. 5th year veterans Tanner Varner and Tracy Belton both have five interceptions this year. Orlando’s pass rush has not been particularly strong this year as they rank dead last in the AFL with only 13 sacks. Rookie defensive end Earl Okine has 5.5 sacks himself though and will look to be a disruptive force in the Power backfield on Sunday.
Both kickers have had outstanding years and will try their best to be the difference for their teams. Earlier this year it was the two missed PAT’s by Mark Lewis that proved to be the difference. Lewis on the season has connected for a very healthy 93.1% on his PAT’s which ranks him third in the league amongst kickers with at least 25 attempts. Lewis has only connected on one of three field goal attempts. Julian Rauch of the Power has connected on 89% of his PAT attempts and is a perfect five of five on field goal attempts including multiple game-winners.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How well can the Power defense contain Bernard Morris on the ground?
Can Orlando find a way to generate a pass rush and force Tommy Grady to make early throws?
How rusty will Tyrone Goard be if he plays?
Who blinks first? In a game with everything on the line, which offense will make the first mistake?
Sunday’s game is available to watch on the ESPN3 service or TribLive radio at http://sportstalk.triblive.com.
Photo Credit Jeffrey Gamza/Pittsburgh Power Facebook