Two teams on nearly opposite sides of the league’s standings are meeting on Saturday. Both are trending up after their past performances during week three.
Memphis might have a passing attack. It’s weird to say that after two and a half games of Hackenberg limiting the Express’s supposed Air Raid attack, but with Mettenberger at the helm, they actually have a chance to stretch the field. He averaged 10 yards per attempt in minimal action against the Apollos this past weekend, a definite improvement over Hackenberg’s 6.3 average yards per attempt. This, in turn, opened up their rushing game as Sherman Badie had 59 total yards late in the game after Mettenberg was inserted into the lineup. The Memphis defense also held the Apollos to only 21 points, Orlando’s lowest point total all year.
And traveling to Memphis, we have the San Diego Fleet, who have the most potent rushing attack in the league.
They average 137.7 yards rushing yards per game and are coming off a week against the Commanders where Ja’Quon Garnder and Terrell Watson ran for 202 yards. Gardner has been playing at another level these past two weeks, running for 226 yards and three touchdowns against the Commanders and Legends. Gardner and Watson have been the driving force of the offense while their defense has allowed an average of 12.6 points per game, which is good for second in the league.
In what looks to be an intriguing matchup between the two teams, here is what the Fleet need to do to continue their two-game winning streak and hold onto first place in the Western division.
- Stop the run
With a new, albeit better, quarterback in the game for Memphis, I expect the Express to run the ball early and often. They have had success running the ball as Zac Stacy is second in the league with 188 yards rushing and the team is averaging 4.6 yards a carry, which is 4th in the league. At first, it was all Zac Stacy,as the other Memphis running backs had failed to produce, but after being with the team for one week Sherman Badie played well with his limited touches, gaining 75 yards on only nine touches (eight carries for 59 yards). He creates a dangerous one-two punch for Memphis as they get ready for the San Diego Fleet.
The Fleet’s interior defensive lineman will have to play great. Shakir Soto, Tani Tupou, Andrew Stelter, and Gelen Robinson have to stand firm on the inside and get consistent penetration to stop Memphis’s strong running game. This group, along with the defensive ends, are a part of probably the best group of defensive lineman in the AAF. They have allowed 4.2 yards a carry over the season, but they allowed 5.9 yards a carry last week. Forcing Memphis to pass and allowing their talented defensive ends to pressure Mettenberger will be huge in this game.
- Get the intermediate passing game working
Last week, the Fleet was finally able to move the ball through the air. After two weeks of struggling to move the football, Philip Nelson played extremely well, throwing for 193 yards and two touchdowns at a 68% clip. He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, good for second in the league last week. A lot of the Fleet’s passing game was spent in the intermediate range and they will need that again.
One part of this is that the San Diego Fleet receivers need to get open consistently. Nelson Spruce and Gavin Escobar have done good jobs of doing this, and I expect Dontez Ford’s role to expand as the game goes on. He is a good route runner from the slot and should be open in the intermediate range. If San Diego can move the ball through the air, they should control this game.
- Get Ahead Early
This one is simple. San Diego cannot have what happened last week happen again. Three plays in and the Fleet were down 8-0. While I expect the Express to run early and often, their first play is going to be a deep ball meant to taste our safeties. If San Diego gets down early, Memphis’s defense is built to hold leads and the Fleet haven’t really shown the ability to push the ball downfield effectively. San Diego’s running game is elite, but no running game is built to come from behind. The Fleet needs to come out and get ahead quickly so they can cement this lead.