To put it mildly, the 5-7 Jacksonville Sharks have not had the best of seasons. But, surprisingly, Saturday’s game against the Arizona Rattlers is not entirely a must-win. However, it’s pretty close.
The good news is the Sharks have a game in hand on the Cleveland Gladiators, who have a bye in Week 18. The bad news is those same Gladiators have the tiebreaker thanks to a season sweep. This means that if Cleveland loses out, Jacksonville must go at least 3-1 the rest of the season to leapfrog into the #4 seed. Basically, failure is almost no option if the Sharks want to host that quarterfinal game.
The better news is the hardest part is first: going into the Snake Pit. Arizona’s fairly vulnerable given their performance against the Los Angeles KISS before the bye, and despite winning four in a row, the Rattlers are just 5-3 after starting the season 5-0.
If you want a key matchup, it’s simply this: the Sharks offense against the Rattlers defense. Look back to Week 4. Jacksonville stayed toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league for 62 1/2 minutes, despite some crucial special teams mistakes. For the most part, the addition of Reggie Gray solved those. However, integrating Gray into the offense has been as problematic as juggling a host of new receivers has for the past two seasons.
Tommy Grady is still one of the best pivots in the league, but his one weakness has been those crucial, late-game moments. A missed pass here, an interception there, a fumble here, and the game is lost. Against a Rattlers defense that’s as opportunistic as anyone, one is all it takes to begin the dreaded snowball.
Grady needs to focus on his timing with those receivers, not just Gray, but Joe Hills, Roger Jackson who’s seen time, Tiger Jones (back after not playing against Cleveland), Andrew Robustelli, and recently acquired Jeremy Gallon. The problems are the same: there’s just one ball, every possession counts, and there’s usually no more than one guy open at a time. Grady has to find them and get rid of the ball as quickly as he can so he can avoid potential disaster against a strong Rattlers secondary.
On defense, the Sharks front three has to finish the job they couldn’t against the Gladiators: get to the quarterback. Arvell Nelson slipped through Jacksonville’s fingers a few times to attempt to make plays, and with 2015 league MVP Nick Davila under center, any extra second could be deadly. The Sharks can’t completely rely on Greg Reid and the rest of the secondary to make plays against Arizona’s receivers. At best, it’ll be another track meet. At worst, it’s a blowout on national television and the Sharks are staring 5-8 in the face.
Saturday’s game is the final of five straight Sharks games on national television, as the action will be on CBS Sports Network, with kickoff set for 9:30 p.m. ET.