07/17/2014 8:22 AM
JACKSONVILLE – The Jacksonville Sharks will play their final road game of the 2014 season this week, as the team travels to face the Cleveland Gladiators on Saturday, July 19. Kickoff from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland is set for 7:00 p.m., as the game will air live online via ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app. In addition, the Sharks’ radio broadcast will air live on AM 600 WBOB.
Following Monday’s loss to the New Orleans VooDoo, Jacksonville (6-10) has been eliminated from playoff contention. With two games remaining, the Sharks will look to play more of a spoiler role, as Cleveland (15-1) currently holds a one-game lead over the Arizona Rattlers in the race for home-field advantage through ArenaBowl XXVII. The Sharks will attempt to hand the Gladiators their first home loss of the season, as Cleveland is a perfect 8-0 on its home turf in 2014.
The Sharks have never lost to the Gladiators, as Jacksonville holds a 6-0 record in the all-time series. But this year’s Cleveland team has established itself as the most improved squad in the Arena Football League, as the Gladiators have already notched 11 more wins than they did during the entire 2013 season.
What stands out about Cleveland’s improvement is that much of the team’s core is intact from last year’s 4-14 team. At receiver, Dominick Goodman (140 receptions, 1,476 yards, 31 touchdowns) and Thyron Lewis (86 receptions, 1,291 yards, 34 touchdowns) are each in their fourth season with the team. On the other side of the ball, defensive backs Marrio Norman (11 interceptions) and former Shark LaRoche Jackson (96 tackles) are each in the midst of their second campaign with Cleveland.
With that said, the Gladiators have benefited from several key additions, none greater than quarterback Shane Austin. After seeing part-time action with the Pittsburgh Power during his rookie 2013 season, Austin made the move to Cleveland prior to this year. Austin actually split time with Chris Dieker over the first few weeks of 2014 before seizing command of the full-time starting role. The quarterback has rewarded head coach Steve Thonn’s decision, as Austin currently ranks third in the League with 88 touchdown passes and fifth with a 115.9 pass efficiency rating.
One factor that has helped Austin’s emergence is consistency at wide receiver. Goodman, Lewis and Collin Taylor have each appeared in all 16 games, and have therefore unsurprisingly accounted for the lion’s share of Cleveland’s offensive production. The three players have combined to haul in 83 of the Gladiators’ 95 touchdown passes this season, and will certainly provide a formidable challenge for Jacksonville’s secondary.
Jacksonville has not enjoyed the same consistency at wide receiver this year. Due to injury and other circumstances, seven different Sharks have recorded an individual 100-yard receiving game in 2014. One of those players is veteran Jeff Hughley, who has topped 100 receiving yards and 200 all-purpose yards in each of his first two games since rejoining the team.
While Hughley has racked up the most yardage in recent weeks, fellow wideout Jomo Wilson has been the finisher in the red zone. Wilson has racked up eight total touchdowns – seven receiving, one rushing – over the last two games, and will likely finish the season as Jacksonville’s top scorer despite spending the first month of the season with the San Antonio Talons.
In addition to Hughley and Wilson, fellow veteran Jeron Harvey made his return to the lineup last week following a stint on injured reserve. Harvey made an instant impact with two first-half touchdown catches against New Orleans on Monday. Last week’s game was the first time that Harvey, Hughley and Wilson – Jacksonville’s leading wideouts during the team’s championship season in 2011 – played in a game together since that ArenaBowl XXIV victory nearly three years ago.
On defense, the Sharks’ pass rush will look to disrupt Austin’s rhythm with steady pressure. In recent weeks, the bulk of that pressure has come up the middle, as nose guard James McClinton continues to put together a remarkable season. With a sack against New Orleans, McClinton now has eight sacks in eight games since joining the Sharks, tying him with Justin Parrish for the team lead.
Finally, the Sharks will need to be wary of Cleveland’s ability in the kick return game. As a team, Cleveland averages 19.6 yards per kick return and has totaled four kickoff return touchdowns. In addition, defensive back Dominic Jones returned a missed field goal 52 yards for a score. The Sharks’ kickoff coverage has improved in recent weeks – holding New Orleans to just 55 yards on four runbacks – but will need to stay disciplined this week.
Following Saturday’s game, the Sharks will return home to take on the Los Angeles KISS in the 2014 season finale on Saturday, July 26. Kickoff on Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is set for 7:00 p.m.
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. Season Tickets for the 2015 season are now available, two tickets for as low as $99. To purchase your season tickets or for more information, please call (904) 621-0700. 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 season. The AFL schedule then culminates with the ArenaBowl Championship game live on ESPN.