San Antonio Commanders (1-1) at San Diego Fleet (1-1)
Sunday, February 24, 5:00 PM PST- NFL Network
SDCCU Stadium- San Diego, California
Last week was a huge step in the right direction for the San Diego Fleet football team.
The Fleet were victorious in their first ever home game, defeating the Atlanta Legends by a score of 24-12. Head coach Mike Martz’s defense continued to impress and the Fleet running game showed signs of life as the Fleet outscored the Legends 18-3 in the second half. Although last Sunday’s victory was a step in the right direction, the Fleet has a long way to go if the team wants to reach the level of success that they envisioned before the season started.
A victory against the division-rival San Antonio Commanders would put them on the right track to doing so.
The Commanders defeated the Fleet in a hard-fought defensive battle just two weeks ago. With both teams entering this game at 1-1 and a potential season series on the line, a victory in this game will mean a tremendous amount to both teams as one of the AAF’s first ever rivalries continues.
The Fleet’s biggest headline this is easily the transition of Kameron Kelly back to the defensive side of the football. Head coach Mike Martz decided a few days into training camp that he would be transitioning arguably his best defensive back Kameron Kelly to the offensive side of the football. Martz believed that the former San Diego State Aztec had the tools necessary to have a significant impact on the offensive side of the football. In two games with the Fleet, Kelly only caught three passes for 22 yards and was not targeted much by both Mike Bercovici and Philip Nelson.
On Wednesday afternoon, Martz announced that injuries to the secondary forced his hand to transition Kelly back to the defensive side of the football. Kelly, a standout player for the Aztecs while he was there, has experience playing both cornerback and safety. The Fleet’s defense has been successful through their first two games, but there appears to be a serious question mark in the secondary. Injuries to both Curtis Mikell and Jude Adjei-Barimah paired with poor play from the rest of the defensive backs makes Kelly almost a necessity at this point. His impact should be felt in this game against the Commanders.
Pound the Ground
Going into halftime of Saturday’s game, the Fleet were trailing the Legends 9-6 and had still not recorded the first touchdown in franchise history. That all changed in the second half when the Fleet scored two touchdowns and dominated the Legends for the majority of the half.
How did they do that? By running the football.
Ja’Quon Gardner and Terrell Watson touched the ball a combined 29 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns. The dynamic duo dominated the Legends front seven and took pressure off of inexperienced starter Philip Nelson. In their week one matchup with the Commanders, Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici was sacked six times and hit 10 total times. The best way to neutralize a pass rush, other than executing blocks, is to keep the ball on the ground. With an offensive line that struggles in pass protection and an inexperienced quarterback under center, it will be crucial for the Fleet to establish the run early and continue it throughout the game if they want to leave Sunday with a victory.
Secure the Football
Keeping the football safe is going to have to be a priority for the Fleet this Sunday night if they want to come out victorious. In their week one matchup the Commanders forced three turnovers and should have honestly had more. Last weekend against the Legends, quarterback Philip Nelson threw an interception on his first pass and should have been intercepted two more times. Wide receiver Nelson Spruce also contributed to this re-occurring issue as he fumbled the ball after catching a pass and making a move towards the first-down marker.
For an offense that has struggled up to this point at finding the end-zone, San Diego simply can not afford to turn the ball over. Giving opponents extra opportunities to score points when your offense can’t is a recipe for disaster. This all starts at the quarterback position, as Philip Nelson is not necessarily a reliable piece under center. Despite a Fleet victory, Nelson struggled mightily against the Legends and did not look comfortable in the Mike Martz vertical offense. This makes sense as Nelson is not a gunslinger by any means and is not the ideal quarterback for this system. Martz is going to have to make this adjustment and keep the majority of the passes in the short-to-medium range so that Nelson has a smaller chance of turning the ball over.
If the Fleet’s turnover woes continue this week, they simply will not come out on top. The Commanders are one of the best offenses in the league and will take advantage of any extra opportunities given to them. The outcome of the turnover battle will likely decide who wins this game on Sunday night.
Dominate the Trenches
Arguably the brightest spot on this entire Fleet team is their front seven. Damontre Moore is slowly becoming one of the best pass-rushers in the league. Shakir Soto and Alex Barrett reak havoc in the backfield, while middle linebacker A.J. Tarpley continues to make plays and lead this defense. This group has a real knack of getting after the quarterback and putting pressure on the other team. They will have to do so against the Commanders this weekend if they want to win.
In their week one matchup, Commanders coach Mike Riley committed to Logan Woodside for the entirety of the game. Woodside played well in the first half but the pressure put on by the Fleet front seven held him in check for the majority of the second half. Making almost any quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket is always a good thing, but Woodside did not look confident in himself at all while he was under pressure.
In their week two loss to the Apollos, Riley gave some playing time to backup quarterback Marquise Williams. Although Williams only attempted four passes on the night, his value comes almost entirely on the ground. The former North Carolina Tar Heel ran the ball three times for a total of 37 yards and adds another dimension to the Commanders offense with his legs. It’s unknown how much playing time Williams will get in this week three matchup, but the Fleet will have to force him to beat them with his arm and not his legs.
On the other side of the football, San Diego’s offensive will have to do a much better job protecting Philip Nelson than they did with Mike Bercovici. It seemed like Bercovici was under pressure on almost every snap in that game and he seemingly had no time to go through his progressions. While Nelson might be an upgrade over Bercovici right now, he’s certainly not anything special. The offensive line looked much improved as a unit against the Legends, but the Commanders have one of the better pass rushes in the entire league and are adept at putting pressure on the quarterback. San Diego has no chance of winning this game if they do not protect Nelson and allow plays to develop.
Riding the Momentum
Like I mentioned earlier in the article, last week’s victory against the Legends was a step in the right direction for what the Fleet hope to accomplish come April. Getting the first victory is sometimes what teams need to go on a run and the Fleet have to ride this momentum that they have into this game against the Commanders.
Home field advantage will certainly be a factor in this game, as the Fleet should have a turnout crowd for Sunday night’s game. Approximately 20,000 people attended SDCCU stadium last weekend despite the poor weather conditions and I would expect that number to jump somewhere close to 30,000 for this weeks game.
The Fleet was a turnover or two away from winning that week one game against the Commanders in the first place. They played what could go down as their worst game of the season when it is all said and done and still had a chance to win the game with three minutes left on the clock. While San Antonio is a very good team, they are certainly beatable.
What started as a twitter rivalry transformed itself into an on-the-field rivalry as these two teams do not like each other. The Fleet are eager to avenge their week one less to the Commanders, while San Antonio is looking to bury the Fleet in the western division standings. If the Arizona Hotshots win this weekend and improve to 3-0, the loser of this game might see their division championship hopes go out the door. The Fleet is coming off a much-needed victory while the Commanders are still feeling the effects of a game they should have won. Mike Martz and his squad need to take advantage of the momentum that is on their side.
The key matchup in this game will be between the Fleet’s secondary and the Commanders receivers. Mekale McKay, Greg Ward Jr., and Demarcus Ayers make up arguably the best receiving core in the league and they will look to take every advantage of the Fleet’s struggling secondary. Expect Kameron Kelly to have an immediate impact for the Fleet, but the rest of the secondary will have to improve their play in order to neutralize the offensive impact of the Commanders wide receivers. Greg Ducre has been picked on in both games thus far and veteran Ron Brooks struggled last week against the Legends. The Fleet secondary will have to force Logan Woodside to throw into tight windows and make life difficult for the Commanders receivers.
The Fleet enter this week two matchup as 2.5 point favorites against the Commanders. Vegas obviously expects this to be a close game and I do as well, as these two divisional rivals will not make life easy for the other. I would be shocked if this game did not go down to the wire and was a defensive battle like their week one matchup was. Nelson did not perform well against the Legends and I honestly don’t think he will do the same against the Commanders. It’s really hard for me to envision the Fleet winning this game solely because of their offensive line woes and the Commanders pass rush.
Commanders 18, Fleet 15
A Fleet victory would put the finishing touches on one of the best weeks in San Diego sports history. With the Padres signing Manny Machado and the Aztecs earning their first ever victory over an AP top-six opponent, a Fleet victory would be amazing for a city that desperately needs success at the professional level.
Diego works at Prep Baseball Report as an Area Scout in Illinois and Missouri. He graduated this spring with a Bachelor Degree in Communications and played four years of college baseball, logging nearly 50 innings of work in a relief role. Diego hopes to work in an MLB front office one day and has been a Padres fan since he was six years old.