Jacksonville Sports Day

AFL PREVIEW: Jacksonville Sharks Meet Storm in Tampa

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sharks will play the first of two consecutive road games this weekend, as the team takes on the Tampa Bay Storm in a South Division matchup on Saturday, May 2. Kickoff from Amalie Arena in Tampa is set for 7:30 p.m. ET, and the game will be streamed live via ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app for mobile devices.

This is the first of three matchups between these divisional foes this season, as Jacksonville (1-4) returns to Tampa on June 12, while Tampa Bay (2-3) will make the trip up to Sea Best Field on July 18. The Sharks hold an 8-2 edge in the all-time regular season series, though the Storm did win the teams’ most recent matchup in Week 11 of the 2014 season.

The Sharks enter this week’s action in search of their second consecutive win after handling the Las Vegas Outlaws to the tune of a 60-28 victory last Friday night. In that game, the Sharks avoided a number of pitfalls that had hurt the team during the first four weeks of the season, as the team scored on every offensive possession in the first half and consistently got off the field on defense.

This week, the Jacksonville offense will look to replicate a performance that saw the team score touchdowns on its first six offensive possessions, as the Sharks came away with some kind of score on each of their first nine drives. Quarterback Tommy Grady has consistently been able to get the ball to receivers Tiger Jones and Joe Hills, each of whom has gone over the 100-yard mark in both of the last two games. Already leading the Arena Football League with 51 receptions and tied for the League lead with 13 touchdowns, Hills may have even more motivation this week as he faces the team with which he spent the last three seasons.

On defense, the Sharks enter this game fresh off what was easily their best performance of the young season. Jacksonville held Las Vegas to just three offensive touchdowns last Friday, thanks in large part to a consistently effective pass rush. Joe Sykes applied much of that pressure, as he turned in a dominant performance that included three tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a safety. Sykes now leads all AFL players in tackles for loss (8.0) and sacks (5.0), and has forced a fumble in each of the last three games.

Sykes and the rest of the Sharks’ front four will look to take advantage of a Storm offensive line that has allowed 11 sacks in five games, the third-highest total among AFL teams. Despite facing plenty of pressure, however, Storm quarterback Jason Boltus is off to a productive start in his first season with Tampa Bay.

Boltus joined the Storm via free agency this past offseason, and through five weeks leads all AFL quarterbacks in passing yards (1,527) and ranks third with 29 touchdown tosses. Longtime veteran T.T. Toliver is the Storm’s top downfield target, as he leads the team with 12 touchdowns while averaging better than 15 yards per reception. The Storm have also benefited from the emergence of rookie Kendrick Ings, who is Tampa Bay’s second-leading receiver and top kickoff returner. Ings currently ranks third in the League with an average of 172.2 all-purpose yards per game.

Defensively, the Storm feature a balanced group that has held opponents to just 43.8 points per game, a total that ranks Tampa Bay second out of the League’s 12 teams. While returning Storm players Richard Clebert (3.0 sacks) and James Harrell (three interceptions) have led the way, Tampa Bay has also benefited from the additions of veteran defensive back Al Phillips (team-high 33.5 tackles) and pass rusher Brandon Sesay (2.0 sacks).

When the Sharks have the ball, winning the third-down battle could prove critical, as this is a matchup of strength versus strength. The Jacksonville offense has been strong in third-down situations this season, converting 17 of 29 opportunities, a rate of 58.6 percent that ranks second best in the AFL. However, Tampa Bay’s defense ranks third in the League, as the Storm have allowed opponents to convert just 36.1 percent of their third-down chances.

Finally, special teams could play a pivotal role in this week’s game. In the second quarter of Friday’s game, the Sharks gained an extra possession with a successful onside kick in the final minute of the first half, a play that played a key role in the Sharks breaking the game open to a 35-14 halftime margin. However, the Sharks allowed a kickoff return touchdown for the second time in as many weeks. While Las Vegas’ return touchdown came with the Sharks in front by 28 points, the team will look to shore up its kick coverage in order to contain Ings on Saturday night.

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