Salt Lake Stallions (1-3) at San Diego Fleet (2-2)
Saturday, March 9/5:00 pm PST/NFL Network
SDCCU Stadium, San Diego California
Coming off a disastrous loss in Memphis you can imagine the emphasis in practice this week. While a special teams SNAFU most assuredly contributed to the loss there were other factors involved. Factors that unquestionably reshaped the Fleet’s season. Will it be for the better or for the worse?
When starting quarterback Philip Nelson went down with a fractured clavicle, it gave Alex Ross a chance to show what he was made of. It wasn’t much. Mike Bercovici was not active and therefore unable to help. He will be the starter going forward, for now. Martz did say Bercovici looked amazing in practice this week. That bodes well for the Fleet.
Another focus in practice this week was ball control. The four turnovers against Memphis were the biggest contributing factor to blowing a 14 point lead at the half. The ground and pound approach which helped to open up the passing game against San Antonio in week 3 will be something to expect in week 5 at SDCCU Stadium.
If the Fleet can win this game they will be tied atop the division with a 3-2 record. Meanwhile, over at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, the Arizona Hotshots will battle the San Antonio Commanders for a chance to do the same. Besides Salt Lake (1-3) each team in the West sits at an even 2-2 heading into week 5.
For Salt Lake the story is simple. Get another win. The Stallions enter the contest relatively healthy, hoping to have RB Branden Oliver (groin) and WR Jordan Leslie (rib) back to bolster a needy offense. Oliver is likely while Leslie could be a game-time decision. With Oliver coming off a 19 touch performance against Orlando, Salt Lake will try and ride this Stallion early and often to hang with a Fleet offense that has shown to be potent at home.
Other points of interest for Salt Lake is pass protection. They gave up four sacks last week in a snowy battle against the Apollos. They will be hard pressed to walk away with a victory if they cannot protect Josh Woodrum and keep him upright.
They bleed perfectly into what the Fleet are hoping for. They have had, what many observers have called, the best front seven in the AAF this season. Getting back two of their stud defensive linemen is definitely going to boost their defense. Damontre Moore has consistently caused problems for opposing teams offensive lines. He regains the front after missing last week with a leg injury. Joining him back this week is Tani Tupou. Together the two have been quite a disruptive force when on the field.
Unfortunately (similar to the weather) it won’t be all sunshine and palm trees for the Fleet this week. Linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who Fleet fans last saw returning an interception for a touchdown against San Antonio, will be out with a back injury. Offensive guard Damien Mama was a DNP in practice Friday and will likely miss the game as well.
Lastly AAF rushing leader Ja’Quan Gardner and the talented Terrell Watson have been joined by Bishop Sankey. While we are yet to see or know how big of a role Sankey will have in his first game, one thing is sure, the Fleet have an armada of running backs. It will be interesting to see how the carries get distributed. Gardner has earned his role with his electric play and Watson hasn’t been a slouch either.
So what can we look for from the San Diego Fleet this week? I mentioned Bishop Sankey. He was a name many people were excited to see on the Fleet roster before he went down with an injury in the pre-season. From college to the pros one thing that stands out about Sankey is his diversity. In three seasons as a Washington Husky (or UW to Pacific Northwesterners, pronounced “you-dub”) Sankey amassed over 4,000 yards from scrimmage. He was only a starter for two seasons which makes those numbers pretty darn impressive.
He had decent numbers in the NFL as well eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing and receiving combined for the Tennessee Titans. In a move that made room for (then) rookie RB Derrick Henry the Titans released Sankey before the start of the 2016 season. After brief stops with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs practice squads he would finally find a home with the Minnesota Vikings. He signed to their practice squad and would eventually sign a future contract for the 2017 season.
Things were headed in the right direction for Sankey until the first game of the 2017 NFL Preseason when he tore his ACL ending his brief NFL career.
Enter 2019, it is time for him to show the AAF what he can do. If he isn’t the poster child for what this league envisions, then I don’t know who would be. Sankey, along with Fleet fans, hope that together he and Gardner can run their way into the playoffs.
Finding Their Strides
There are a couple of elements to the Fleet’s game that will make or break the team. The obvious one being quarterback Mike Bercovici being back under center. Nelson had begun to find his groove starting with the game against the Commanders in Week 3. Bercovici has one added advantage he did not have in Week 1 when he got hit early and often. That is the strength of the offensive line.
Despite Damien Mama being absent the offensive line has really been executing well. They blow holes for the running backs up into the second level. This will be a luxury Bercovici did not have before. The combination of good line play and a strong running game will put him in position to be successful. If he can stay out of his own way (by not throwing careless interceptions) there will be plenty of optimism to how far he can carry the team. Especially with Nelson out at least a month.
The other group playing well is the secondary. Coming into this season they were the glaring weak spot of not just the defense but probably for the team. The secondary as a whole had four pass breakups last week and were really swarming to the ball to make tackles. If they can turn out a solid performance it should put the Fleet in position to win the game.
We all know the Fleet have a top running game going into this game. So that would be too easy to go with. We also know that quarterback play (for both teams) is going to be of the utmost importance. What will be the matchup to watch all game though?
I am going with the return of Damontre Moore. He has been a force to be reckoned with every time he’s been on the field. Despite missing last week Moore has 10 QB Hits already this season. He reminds me of the San Francisco 49ers’ Deforest Buckner. A big guy that is hard to keep from going wherever it is he wants to go.
Assuming Moore is healthy the Salt Lake Stallions will have their work cut out for them wherever he lines up. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he is a powerful guy with some quick moves. This makes it tough for any offensive lineman trying to slow him down.
Let’s face it, the Salt Lake Stallions aren’t exactly the best team in the league. Easy win right? Not so fast. Last week was a similar outlook against a winless Memphis Express team. There was the injury to Nelson, the fake punt and the four turnovers. I cannot believe the same fate awaits the San Diego Fleet this week. Not to mention they seem to be a much better team at home. With a loud home field advantage and new life from Sankey, Moore, and Bercovici I like the Fleet to get the win.
Salt Lake 17 San Diego 28
As I mentioned above the entire West is tied at 2-2 except for the 1-3 Stallions. In what looks like it will be a tight race over the second half of the season the Fleet can move into a tie for first. Unless somehow Arizona and San Antonio tie. Who is that lucky?! It sounds cliché but every win really could be the difference between sitting at home and a trip to Las Vegas for the playoffs. It’s an All Hands On Deck event for Fleet fans. It’s the usual. Show up. Get Loud. And come cheer on your team.