Sharks Defense Takes Step Back, Earns Split against Killer P’s
By Erik Watkins
Over the last two games, the Jacksonville Sharks (8-7) have been outscored 139-122. In that time, they lost a game they had no business losing, only to win a game they had no business winning just one week later. Nevertheless, they find themselves with a good chance to win the division and still earn a home playoff game.
Against the Portland (4-11), Jacksonville was expected to fly out west and at the very least come out with a win, if not blow the Thunder out of their own arena. Portland, however, had other ideas with former Shark Kyle Rowley leading the charge. The two teams spent the first half going toe to toe, with Portland opening and closing the first half scoring. Special teams was the biggest factor of the first half, with both teams managing a long kick return and recovering their opponents’ onside kick. Finally, both defenses got into the game in the second quarter, starting with Thunder DB Varmah Sonie intercepting Tommy Grady in the end zone, followed by Joe Sykes netting his 14th sack of the season, forcing a fumble that Alvin Ray Jackson recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Following the trade of stops, both kickers missed field goal attempts in an effort to get one last score before halftime (Julian Rauch wide right from 64 yards out for Jacksonville, Zach Ramirez missed from 27 yards out for Portland). At the half, the Thunder looked prime for an upset thanks to a 33-28 lead.
Jacksonville reverted to their early season form in the second half, and that’s what spelled their doom. First, a Joe Hills fumble set up the first Portland score of the third quarter. The Sharks still held on, thanks to Derrick Ross’ second touchdown of the night and a 54-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Going into the fourth quarter, Jacksonville was still down, but only four points at 46-42.
With the game still in reach, the Sharks fell apart. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, Jacksonville committed back-to-back penalties to set up 3rd and 25. Following a Marqui Jackson sack of Tommy Grady, the Sharks couldn’t gain field position on 4th and 32, giving the Thunder a short field and an easy score. On the ensuing kickoff, Greg Reid fumbled, and Portland DB Andre Martin returned it for another score. Jacksonville did manage one last touchdown of their own, but it was too late. Portland scored a franchise record 72 points in the win, and it was the fourth time this season that Jacksonville has allowed at least 63 points on the road.
Just seven days later, Jacksonville returned to the friendly confines to take on a 13-2 Philadelphia Soul team who just locked up the #1 seed in the American Conference, meaning that if these two teams met for a fourth time this season, it would be in Philly.
It was a sense of deja vu for the Sharks, as a solid first drive ended in a Tommy Grady fumble on a quarterback sneak attempt. Soul QB Dan Raudabaugh immediately went to work, finding Ryan McDaniel on an early strike. Consecutive defensive pass interference penalties by Jacksonville set up FB Tommy Taggart’s first score of the night and an early Philadelphia lead.
After the first onside kick attempt of the night hit the wall, Grady shook off the early mistake and found Tiger Jones in the end zone from 17 yards out to tie the game. This would be the theme of the first quarter, as despite a big hit by Terrance Smith and a near interception by Greg Reid, they could only slow down the Soul offense. On the other side, Jacksonville’s offense was firing on all cylinders, as has been the pattern in recent home games.
Both teams held serve, and Dan Raudabaugh became only the 11th man in AFL history to throw 500 touchdown passes, with the milestone going to Ryan McDaniel. This started another trend of the second frame: missed extra points. Tommy Frevert had his first of three consecutive misses, and the lead was only six. The Soul caught a break after Greg Reid fumbled his second kickoff return in as many weeks, and Tommy Taggart punched it in to give Philadelphia a 33-21 lead.
Jacksonville continued to respond, with Joe Hills scoring his third touchdown of the night to trim the lead back to six after a Julian Rauch extra point hit the Christmas in July lights on the upright. The Sharks appeared to get the possession back by recovering the onside kick, but they were offsides, and Raudabaugh scrambled into the end zone two plays later to regain the two score lead.
After London Crawford scored his lone touchdown of the night, the Sharks looked to contain the Soul going into halftime. Despite holding Philadelphia to a field goal attempt that missed wide right, Jacksonville couldn’t capitalize on their untimed down given after the Soul were called for kick catch interference, as a miscommunication between Tommy Grady and Tiger Jones meant a pass went into the wall and both teams went into the locker room with the Soul nursing a slim 39-33 lead.
Both teams continued to trade scores and dramatic moments. First, Philly had a near interception on 1st and 10, only to set up Derrick Ross’ first score of the night. He needed two tries thanks to a failed challenge on 3rd and goal, but he got into the end zone to cut the lead to 46-40. After a failed onside kick led to a quick Soul touchdown by TE Adam Smith, LB Joe Goosby dropped what would’ve been a pick six after Tommy Grady threw it in his chest. Jacksonville would make him pay, as Grady found Tiger Jones for 39 yards on the very next play, the last of the third quarter.
Neither team let up going into the final 15 minutes. Raudabaugh kept adding to his career TD total, finding Ryan McDaniel for the third time of the night, only to be answered by another 39-yard pass from Grady to Jones. With that pass, Tiger Jones broke the franchise single-season record for receiving yards, totalling 1,757 with three games to go. That record-breaking pass started to turn the tide towards Jacksonville. Greg Reid, who wanted to bounce back from his performance both last week and earlier in the game, finally avenged the early stop. He intercepted Dan Raudabaugh and took it 49 yards into the end zone to tie the game. The very next play, he nearly did it again, although this time an illegal block in the back made the celebration a bit premature.
Neither that penalty nor another penalty could stop the Sharks, and Derrick Ross scored again, this time from three yards out, to give Jacksonville their first lead of the game, 67-60, with 3:51 left in the game.
Philadelphia had one last bit of fight, as Dan Raudabaugh found Alex Smith yet again, and with 46 seconds left, the game was tied at 67. The Soul tried one last onside kick to potentially steal the game, but Jacksonville recovered. In an attempt to bleed out the clock, the Sharks turned to the league’s all-time leading rusher, who wanted to get a second bite of the cherry of beating his former team. The man they call Crockpot did a sidestep to the side boards, but he did it a split second too late, as he crossed the goalline. He gave his current team a 74-67 lead, but he also gave his former team 34 seconds, a timeout to work with, and one last chance to claim supremacy.
Jacksonville’s defense, which hadn’t been effective until Greg Reid’s interceptions, went back to their winning form. Terrance Smith laid another hit on Soul WR Marco Thomas, forcing him out of the game for a play. Then Reid broke up a pass intended for Harvey Binford, who earlier in the game collapsed on the team sideline, but was quickly attended to and did not miss any time. Binford came back to convert a crucial 4th and 1 after their last timeout, but the clock kept ticking…ticking…ticking. With no timeouts, Raudabaugh had to scramble to get his team ready for one last play. The referees stood over the ball…and that play never came. Jacksonville got back over .500 with arguably the biggest regular-season win in franchise history.
Tiger Jones was the first to echo a team sentiment after the game. “That was the ultimate team win, fighting through adversity down two scores. We felt like we hurt ourselves last week, and we wanted to come out and concentrate on not doing that.” He noted cutting down the penalties as the major factor of the turnaround.
Joe Hills, who became the second receiver in league history to catch a pass in 50 straight games, also acknowledged the team’s fight after a slow start. “I don’t know where we stand in the playoffs right now, but we figure it one game at a time. It’s always the playoffs for us. We flat out played bad in Portland, but we don’t reflect on it.”
Greg Reid, who attributed his time in the film room in preparation, put both his performance an the team performance in perspective. “We never lost faith in our game plan. It was a great night. I fumbled the ball and gave up a couple of touchdowns, but that’s in the past, and now we focus on Tampa.”
Tommy Grady showed respect for his Soul counterpart after the game, knowing that both he and Raudabaugh have spent more than five years in the league, and when you play against him and Philadelphia, you expect to need to score.
In the two games, Grady needed only four receivers (yes, Moqut Ruffins counts) to complete 48 of 60 passes for 516 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. Tiger Jones, who had a game-high 148 yards against the Soul, had 206 in the two-game stretch. He was beat only by Joe Hills, who had back-to-back 100 yard games, and totaled 227 yards to go along with his five scores (Tiger only managed three).
On defense, there were sacks (Joe Sykes), interceptions (Greg Reid), and a lot of tackles. Terrance Smith continued his All-Star caliber level of performance, leading the team with 12.5 tackles and and 5 pass breakups.
Next week, the Sharks will be back at Sea Best Field for their third and final matchup against the Tampa Bay Storm. With Orlando on their bye week, a win could mean they travel to the Predators in two weeks’ time with a chance to wrestle the division lead back and clinch a playoff spot. For a team that started 0-4, no one wants to face them if they get a home game in the playoffs.