Columbus will get a good idea of how good the Lions are for 2018 as Columbus takes on yet another playoff team the 2017 NAL champion Jacksonville Sharks Saturday night at the Columbus Civic Center.
But the Sharks are not the same team the Lions faced in that championship game, a 27-21 loss that saw Columbus five yards from the winning touchdown in the final stanza. For one thing, Jacksonville suffered a home loss for the first time since 2016 when they dropped a 63-56 game to the expansion Massachusetts Pirates on April 14th. That was after a 41-38 road victory over Carolina on April 8th.
Both teams feature new faces that will be important and also some familiar ones when the two teams face off for this first time this season.
On the defensive side, Columbus has new players that limited Lehigh Valley to 18 points in a 50-18 win and all three, Greg Hall, Darius Rosser and Robert Sands will be expected to face a solid Shark offense that has accumulated 97 points in their first two games. Those new players, along with Larry Edwards, leading tackler Robert Edwards, Chris Pickett and Kyle Griswold will be challenged to slow down the Sharks.
Lion coach Jason Gibson reported that only actual game play would tell how good his team was and so far the Lions have responded to the challenge.
Now they will face last year’s scoring and rushing leader for the Sharks, Derrick Ross. Ross ran for over 500 yards in 2017 and ran for 25 touchdowns and scored 27 total and has picked up where he left off. He scored a rushing and pass receiving touchdown for the Sharks against Carolina in the opener and had two more scores in the loss to the Pirates.
A new face for the Lions could be the key to their running game as Quayvon Hicks matched Ross in the Lions opener with 46 yards on the ground and also catching a TD pass in his two receptions.
At receiver for the Sharks two players had outstanding games and will be the focus of the Lion pass defense. In Jacksonville’s opener, Jamar Howard caught three touchdown passes and was the leading receiver for the first game. In home opener, Antonio Vaughn was the touchdown maker as he was the player with three touchdown pass receptions.
The Lions will counter with their experienced trio of Jarmon Fortson, who had four TD catches in the opener, Durron Neal, who had two and Tristan Purifoy. Purifoy did not have a scoring catch but did throw a TD to Fortson. Fortson was credited with nine catches and 85 yards to lead the team; Neal had six catches, Purifoy four and Hicks two.
Both teams have returning kickers, Lindsey Wolfe for the Lions and the 2017 special teams’ player of the year, Nick Belcher for the Sharks. But Belcher suffered a blocked field goal on the last play of the game against the Pirates that made a 57-56 lead a 63-56 win as Massachusetts picked up the block and ran it in for a clinching TD.
At quarterback, the Lions look to be in good hands with veteran Mason Espinosa who had a complete game versus the Steelhawks on April 13th. He passed for 225 yards and threw five TD passes. His backup, Jeremy Johnson also played well, passing for a touchdown and rushing for 11 yards to keep the Steelhawks offense off the field in the final minute of play.
Jacksonville started a new player at quarterback in 2018. Patrick McCain threw for three TD’s in the win against Carolina but had to come out of the game against the Pirates last week after an unknown injury. He threw for two TD’s prior to leaving. His replacement, Ryan Walker did throw one TD pass and have the Sharks a short-lived lead in the fourth.
The big difference in the Sharks team for 2017 to 2018 is the defense. So far Jacksonville’s defense has allowed 101 points in two games, a rate that will not lead to many wins in the NAL.
That means the Lion defense versus the Sharks high-scoring offense will be a key matchup for both teams. The Lion offense, with their 50-point output in the opener, will be a tough team to stop for the currently porous Shark defense.