Checking in With the Pittsburgh Power

I’ve yet to make it to my second Arena Football game (though I soon will) but have managed to catch bits and pieces of recent Pittsburgh Power games on TV. I’m still not sure how long Pittsburgh’s second run with the indoor game will last (the first experience lasted just one season in the late 80′s) but this group is off to a pretty solid, promising start.

The best way to win fans when you’re a new team — and this is true for any sport at any level — is to play an entertaining brand of football and, most importantly, win. Thanks to a 54-48 comeback win against San Jose on Saturday night, the Power improved their mark to 5-4 and pulled themselves to within a half game of first place in the division, trailing the Cleveland Gladiators who were blown out in Orlando 56-26. For the Power, that’s two consecutive wins at home, both of which have come against quality opponents (last week’s win was over the defending Champions from Spokane) and in come-from-behind fashion.

Are people taking notice?

After setting an Arena Football League attendance record in the opener (13,904) the crowds have predictably become smaller, dropping down to the 9,000 range for the next three dates, a low-point of 6,700 last week and back up over the 7,000 mark for their game against San Jose on Saturday. Through six home dates the average of 9,480 is about 2,000 above the league average, and good enough for fifth-best in the league. That’s better than I expected to this point, especially given how overpriced a majority of the seats are throughout the arena.

In two weeks Cleveland makes a visit to the Consel Energy Center for a game that could determine the top spot in the Division, which would certainly be a nice measuring stick for what sort of excitement this team can generate at the gate.

That said, let’s take a look at what this team is actually doing on the field.

When all of this started I suggested, half jokingly of course, that Pittsburgh fans wouldn’t respond because the arena game is the antithesis of what they typically like in their football teams: defense and running. Oddly enough, the Power have been one of the better defensive clubs in the league, and run the ball as often, and successfully, as any other team.

Let’s start with the defense. In a league that averages close to 100 points per game, defense obviously takes a back seat to offense, and to win a game you usually only have to make two or three stops. But just because the game is built on offense doesn’t mean defense loses all of its importance; teams are going to score, yes, but you can still limit the damage. Take basketball as an example: you know you’re going to give up 80 points per night, but you still have to focus on stopping the other team at some point.

Entering Saturday’s game against San Jose the Power were 6th in the AFL (out of 18 teams) in scoring defense, and allowing just 5.8 yards per play, the absolute best mark in the league. Only two other teams (Cleveland and Arizona) were allowing fewer than 6 yards per play. Of course, the Power have also been aided in their mark by playing some of the worst offenses in the AFL, including each of the bottom three scoring offenses (Tulsa, Milwaukee and New Orleans), as well as middle-of-the-road units in Iowa and Philadelphia. The good news, however, is that in each of the past three weeks Pittsburgh has faced off against upper level offenses managed to shut them down rather effectively, winning two of those contests.

Spokane entered this weekend as the No. 6 scoring offense in the AFL, averaging 56 points per game, and was held to just 41 points during their game in Pittsburgh a week ago (with one of those touchdowns coming on a kickoff return), while San Jose was averaging close to 60 points (59.2 to be exact) entering Saturday’s game, and was limited to just 48. Obviously, they’re not just feasting on poor offenses, they’ve also managed to shut down the good ones, too. And that’s a good thing because the offense, particularly the passing game, has been below average. The Power have used a trio of quarterbacks — Bernard Morris, Anthony Morelli and Kevin McCabe — with mixed results. Morris was the opening night starter but missed a few weeks due to an injury while Morelli and McCabe filled in. Through nine games the Power are near the bottom of the AFL in passing offense, averaging just 222 yards per game and 6.2 yards per attempt, ranking 17th and 16th (out of 18) respectively.

The one thing the Power have done well offensively is run the ball, which has, I’m guessing, limited benefits in a league where teams usually only run the ball between five and eight times per game. Pittsburgh is the No. 3 rushing team in the league, totaling 381 yards on 88 carries. A lot of that production has come from quarterbacks Morris and Morelli on scrambles during broken plays. Morris has been especially effective creating plays with his feet since returning to the lineup.

Halfway through the season this team has exceeded my expectations both on the field and with its ticket sales. Maybe it’s because there’s no other football news to pay attention to at this point, but I’m mildly interested to see how the second half of the season goes.

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