San Diego Fleet (3-1) at Memphis Express (1-3)
Saturday, March 2, 2019- 1:00 PM PST
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium- Memphis, Tennessee
The San Diego Fleet played their best game, by far, last Sunday night against the San Antonio Commanders. After a slow start right out of the gates, the Fleet scored 28 unanswered points and held a scorching Commanders’ offense to only three points in the entire second half that would result in a 31-11 victory for Mike Martz and his squad.
That win on Sunday catapulted the Fleet into a tie for first place with the Arizona Hotshots. A win this Saturday against the Memphis Express and an Arizona loss would give the Fleet sole possession of first place in the AAF’s Western Division.
As mentioned earlier, San Diego will travel to Memphis this weekend to take on a struggling Express team. Memphis was blown out by the Birmingham Iron in Week One, but they have lost their last two games by a total of seven points. This team is hungry for their first win and the Fleet cannot take them lightly, by any means.
The biggest news out of San Diego this week is the health of arguably the two most important players on the Fleet’s defense.
Linebacker A.J. Tarpley, the captain of the Fleet’s defense, had a phenomenal performance in the dominant win against the Commanders. He picked off San Antonio quarterback Logan Woodside in the second quarter and took it all the way for a touchdown, giving momentum to the Fleet that they would ultimately never relinquish. Tarpley also earned the highest individual grade from Pro Football Focus this week, 91.4, and held receivers to negative yardage the three times he was targeted on Sunday night. Tarpley was, however, listed as a DNP (did not practice) on the Wednesday practice report with a back injury. This could just be a precautionary measure by Martz and his staff, but it is surely something to monitor.
Defensive end Damontre Moore was also listed as DNP on the practice report with a knee injury. The former New York Giant was injured in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s game as he appeared to tweak something in his leg. Moore is the most experienced player on the Fleet’s defensive line, which some people believe to be the best defensive line group in the league. Losing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for this Fleet defense. Just like Tarpley, this might just be a precautionary measure by the team so that he can play on Saturday, but this is still an important situation to monitor regardless.
Feed the Hot Hand
In their first ever win two weeks ago, the San Diego Fleet imposed their will on the ground against the Atlanta Legends. Last week, the Fleet showed a very solid balance between their aerial attack and running game. Philip Nelson, San Diego’s quarterback, threw the ball 25 times while the Fleet ran the ball 28 times. Nelson played his best game thus far, completing 17 of his 25 passes for 193 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
Running the ball effectively should still be a priority for the Fleet.
Ja’Quon Gardner and Terrell Watson ran for 195 yards on the day, including the longest run in AAF history, and completely dominated a stout San Antonio front seven. The success that the Fleet had on the ground opened up passing lanes for Nelson, which is partially why he had such a good game through the air.
If the Fleet want to continue to dominate games, they will have to continuously establish the running game early and often. The Express appear to be vulnerable up front, as they are giving up an average of 159 rushing yards per game on the year. With the success that San Diego is having on the ground, there is no reason that Garnder and Watson should not combine for 30+ carries this week. If they continue to impose their will on the ground, San Diego should walk out of Memphis with a record of 3-1.
Records Mean Absolutely Nothing in the AAF
The Memphis Express are one of the two teams in the Alliance of American Football league that has not tasted victory quite yet. After a blowout loss to the Iron in Week One, the Express played both the Arizona Hotshots and the Orlando Apollos extremely close and almost came out victorious in both of those games. This Express team is a few plays away from being 2-1 and establishing themselves as one of the better teams in the Eastern Division.
Just because they are winless, however, does not mean that the Fleet should take this team lightly, by any means.
Memphis head coach Mike Singletary announced on Saturday that former LSU Tiger Zach Mettenberger will be the team’s starting quarterback for the time being. A sixth-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2014, Mettenberger struggled to stay in the NFL and was beaten out by Christian Hackenberg for the starting job. Hackenberg struggled in his short time as the starter, however, and Mettenberger took over for him in the third quarter this past week against the Apollos. Mettenberger completed nine of his 12 passes for 120 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He gave the Express an opportunity to beat the best team in the league, the Orlando Apollos, and should improve this Express offense overall.
The running game has been a strong suit of Mike Singletary’s team in almost all of their games. Zac Stacy, formerly of the then St. Lous Rams, is the focal point of the Express running attack. Stacy is the league’s second-leading rusher as he has run for 188 yards on the season. Sherman Badie has seen an uptick in his usage lately, as the former Arizona Cardinal out-carried Stacy last week. Running the ball effectively will open the passing lanes for Mettenberger and the Express, so the Fleet have to clog the lanes up and limit the effectiveness of this Express run game.
Continue the Dominance Up Front
If you haven’t heard by now, the San Diego Fleet have arguably the best defensive line unit in the entire AAF. It is the strongest unit on their team by far and the Fleet defensive linemen have continuously wreaked havoc against opposing offensive lines all season.
At least seven defensive linemen for the Fleet have recorded a sack, and the four starting defensive linemen have combined for a total of eight sacks. In my preview last week, I wrote about how the Fleet had to get after Woodside early and often if they wanted to win that game. They did just that, sacking Woodside five times and putting pressure on him for the majority of the game. San Diego will have to do just that against Zach Mettenberger this week if they want to disrupt any offensive rhythm created by the Express. The Fleet’s defensive line will also be tasked with stopping the Express run game, as Memphis averages 136 rushing yards per game while the Fleet gives up 118 rushing yards per game.
Continuing the dominance up front does not only include their success on the defensive side of the ball, but also the monumental improvements that the Fleet offensive line made as a unit last week. After an awful performance against the Commanders in Week One, the Fleet offensive line has gradually improved its play over the last two weeks. Their ability to run block was never put into question, but it was the awful pass protection by the Fleet offensive lineman that created the gaping hole in the Fleet’s offense. Philip Nelson was sacked three times against the Legends and in the rematch against the Commanders, but he was given more time to throw and was not under pressure as much. This was obvious in this past week’s victory against the Commanders, as both Nelson and his offensive line played their best game of the season. If the Fleet offensive line continues to gradually improve, this offense is going to be fairly difficult to stop moving forward
Ride with the Momentum
After a pitiful week one performance, the Fleet are coming off of back-to-back wins and are now tied for first place in the AAF’s Western division. The defensive front continued its dominance while the offense showed signs of greatness this past weekend.
With that being said, the Fleet must continue this momentum and put the Express away early on in the game. There is no excuse to leave Memphis without a win, as the Fleet are a better team than the Express in most aspects. A lot of people around the AAF circles have said that this has the makings of a “trap” game for the Fleet, and it very could well be one. The Express are at home, which has been huge thus far in the league’s young history, and they are still hungry for their first ever victory. They are starting a new quarterback that showed a lot of positivity last week, and they played two of the league’s best teams extremely well. There is a great possibility that San Diego could leave Memphis disappointed and with a record of 2-2.
The Fleet cannot take their foot off the pedal in this game. Mike Martz and his crew must continue to do the things that have worked for them the last two weeks against the Express this week. Nothing should change, as the Fleet’s ship is slowly starting to gain traction and all hands are on deck. They must continue to build on their past two performances instead of settling for anything against the Express this week.
The key matchup in this week’s game will be the Fleet’s running backs against the Memphis Express defensive line. Ja’Quon Gardner and Terrell Watson give the Fleet a “thunder and lightning” duo in their backfield, which may just be the best rushing attack in the league right now. Gardner, who stands at around 5’7″, is one of the shiftier backs in the league. He gashed the Commanders for 122 yards last week and broke free for an 83-yard touchdown to essentially put the game away. Paired with Gardner in that backfield is Terrell Watson, who stands at a massive 6’4″ and weighs in at around 244 pounds. Watson punishes defensive fronts and wears them down so that Gardner can come in and truly finish them off. This combination of running backs led the Fleet to a victory against the Legends in week two and had a big part in their blowout win against the Commanders last week. As I mentioned earlier, the Express appear to be vulnerable up front, as they have given up 159 rushing yards per game on the year. With the success of their rushing attack, the Fleet must take advantage of this and ride their running backs to victory.
Despite the fact that this might be a trap game for the Fleet, I see them winning this one with no problem. San Diego is on fire right now, and the Express has a lot of question marks surrounding their entire team. While the Express should eventually win a game this year, it’s highly unlikely that it will be this week against the Fleet.
San Diego 24 Express 9
A Fleet victory in this game, partnered by a Hotshots loss, would put the Fleet into sole possession of first place in the Western Division. San Diego is done with the “easy” part of their schedule, as they still have to play the Hotshots twice and both the Apollos and Iron once. This is a game the Fleet must win, as their schedule is not getting any easier.