Atlanta Legends (0-1) at San Diego Fleet (0-1)
Sunday, February 17, 2019, 5:00 PM-NFL Network
SDCCU Stadium (70,516) San Diego, California
The San Diego Fleet have their first opportunity to make an impression on the city’s football fans on Sunday when they host the Atlanta Legends in week two of the Alliance of American Football season.
After stumbling last weekend in a 15-6 loss to San Antonio, it will be critical that the organization has something to show San Diegans who have been stuck in a professional sports lull.
From the departure of the San Diego Chargers two years ago to the San Diego Padres coming off a 96 loss season, the door is wide open for the Fleet to gain a bevy of fans hungry for something to support.
San Diego’s (0-1) top headline of the week is the change at quarterback; from week one starter Mike Bercovici to Phillip Nelson. The former completed 15 of 25 passes for 176 yards but was pulled from the game after being sacked six times and throwing two interceptions. Nelson entered with just four minutes left in the game and showed head coach Mike Martz enough to be named the starter of Sunday’s home opener.
“We made a change at quarterback and we’ll stay with that change,” Martz said after the loss.
Nelson will look to spark an offense that had 295 yards of total offense and failed to score a single touchdown. To learn more about the Fleet’s new starting quarterback, check out Diego Solares’ piece (https://eastvillagetimes.com/2019/02/taking-a-look-at-fleets-new-starting-quarterback-philip-nelson/) from earlier this week.
Nelson’s top targets
Fleet tight end Gavin Escobar will look to make an impact in week two after hauling in four catches for 66 yards last week against San Antonio. With four years of NFL experience under his belt, Escobar will also be tasked with keeping his quarterback level-headed in his first professional start. I think it will be the former Dallas Cowboy that scores the first Fleet touchdown.
Another target Nelson needs to be aware of is Dontez Ford. Ford had a 32-yard reception from Bercovici in the first quarter last week that turned out to be the longest play of the day for the Fleet. Once Nelson warms up and settles in, Ford will be a strong candidate for a deep ball if Nelson is ready to let one fly. Listed as the heaviest receiver on the Fleet roster at 210 lbs, Ford can catch passes over the middle of the field ready take a hit from the secondary while also being a big play threat down the sideline.
Finally, look for Francis Owusu to play his part in improving the San Diego passing game. He was targeted seven times last week, leading all receivers and will certainly continue to be a reliable option for Nelson.
Get the monkey off your back
The best thing that could happen to either team in week two would be a long-awaited touchdown on the first possession. Not scoring in a new league’s first game on primetime network T.V. should have made everyone from fans to league executive’s cringe. Martz will be looking forward to the sigh of relief when his offense first graces the endzone. In a home game environment that first score should go a long way as far as momentum throughout the game. What should aid in scoring more than anything will be playing field conditions? San Diego received heavy rainfall Wednesday afternoon into Thursday and forecasts point toward steady showers Sunday afternoon as well. Check out Jason Mobbs’ article (https://eastvillagetimes.com/2019/02/full-speed-ahead-look-for-martz-to-open-up-fleet-offense-week-2/) on how the weather could affect the game’s scoring.
Ground and pound
It would be nice to see a San Diego running back take full control of the ground game and in turn, open up some aerial attacks for Nelson. While it certainly isn’t Mike Martz’s cup of tea to set up the pass by running the ball, he may be better served to do so until he gains a better understanding of what he has under center in a game situation.
Ja’Quan Gardner had a decent performance in week one, carrying the ball eight times for 55 yards. He doesn’t exactly possess blazing speed or power as a runner but looked quirky enough to evade initial tacklers and pick up extra yards on most touches. Gardner is also an effective receiver out of the backfield and could be a big factor in the flat should Nelson have trouble settling into the game and working through his progressions.
Azusa Pacific alum Terrell Watson should serve as an alternate look in the backfield, one that has two years of NFL experience and should be utilized appropriately.
Much of Gardner’s and Watson’s success will rely on the ability of the offensive line to make the necessary adjustments this week in practice and put a bad game behind them. The Fleet had 35 pass attempts and only 16 rushes, a sign that Martz may not yet be very confident in his big men when it comes to opening running lanes.
Tale of two defenses
Atlanta’s (0-1) defense that allowed three scores through the air in their 40-6 week one loss to Orlando. That defense will also be on the road for a second consecutive week and could be vulnerable to another offensive onslaught. The Legends had only one sack last week which bodes well for Fleet quarterback Philip Nelson who will play behind an offensive line that allowed six sacks last week. The amount of pressure Nelson will face should from the Atlanta pass rush will have an important impact on how quickly he settles into the game.
As for the Fleet defense, surrendering only 15 points in a road game with little preparation for the opposing offense (lack of game film) could be viewed as an early success. While they did allow 364 yards of offense, they were on the field a full 10 minutes more than the Commanders. They could have been a bit stingier on third down plays, allowing nine conversions on 18 attempts, but had two interceptions and a turnover on downs to show for.
The Legends are led by Kevin Coyle, the Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator from 2012-’15. Like Martz and the Fleet, Coyle saw his squad struggle to get any offense going at all last week against Orlando. They recorded only 244 yards from scrimmage most coming from former New York Jet Matt Simms (15-28, 126 yards). Simms top target last week was 6-foot-4 Seantavius Jones. He was targeted eight times and had three catches for 43 yards. In the backfield, the Legends implore former Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston, who had 12 carries for 32 yards last week. Atlanta still has yet to see a real playmaker emerge into a true scoring threat, but offensive coordinator Michael Vick will be hoping to see that change in week two.
The biggest battle on the field will be between the Fleets receivers and Legends secondary. The bottom line is that San Diego needs to further expose a defense that gave up 40 points last week and will be on the road for a second consecutive game. There’s no hiding that Martz will try to accomplish this through the air, but with a quarterback who will be making his first professional start under center, the receivers will need to help carry the load. Safety Ed Reynolds has the most NFL experience out of the Atlanta secondary, playing 16 games for Cleveland and Philadelphia and snatching one career interception. Reynolds will be tasked in keeping the trio of Fleet targets listed above at bay in the game.
The Fleet are 9.5 point favorites in their inaugural home game on Sunday at SDCCU Stadium. A double-digit win over the road-weary Legends would not be far-fetched as I anticipate Mike Martz and the Fleet offense put on a show against Atlanta’s Vulnerable defense. While Nelson is untested in professional football, I believe he will have an adequate debut because of the system he is being put in and the weapon at his disposal. As for the game total, the over/under is 43 points for what will be sloppy field conditions and even rain forecasted during the game. I’m hammering the over as both offenses will look to make up for unexciting performances last week with the field conditions playing as an advantage for scoring.
Fleet 36, Legends 20
Beyond play on the field, San Diego’s new football team will need to fill a void that old Chargers’ fans have felt for the last two years. While Martz and company will be interested in the numbers listed in the box score after the game, the organization’s primary concern should be on the number of people in the seats and if they are satisfied and will be coming back for more.