Programming note: SaberCats-Barnstormers coverage starts tonight at 5 p.m. Comcast SportsNet Plus (Channel locations)
San Jose heads to America’s heartland this week to face the Iowa Barnstomers (6-11) to conclude the 2014 regular season. Coming off a disappointing road performance in Philadelphia that halted a five-game winning streak, the SaberCats (12-5) are hungry for a positive result heading into the Arena Bowl playoffs that start next week at home against the division-rival Spokane Shock.
Here is what to watch for this week.
Get right before the tournament begins
Winners of 10 of their last 11 games and five consecutive, the SaberCats were trying to keep the competitive edge and stay healthy going into last week’s game in Philadelphia. The result was a lackluster performance against a Soul team that was desperately trying to keep its playoff hopes alive. This week finds San Jose in a similar position with an Iowa team looking to build with a statement win against one of the elite teams in the AFL. Iowa started the season 6-5 and has not won since, dropping its last six games.
Stop the run
Last week, Philadelphia’s Derrick Ross had 109 all-purpose yards (63 rushing, 46 receiving) and three rushing touchdowns on his way to Offensive Player of the Game honors. Iowa boasts its own rushing attack led by Derik Steiner, who in 14 games this season has 69 touches for 208 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 3.0-yard-per-rush average is sixth best in the league to go along with Top 10 rankings in carries, yards and touchdowns. For the most part, the SaberCats defense -- which ranks No. 1 in total defense -- has done well in stopping the ground attack. San Jose’s 313 rushing yards allowed are sixth fewest in the AFL and its 22 rushing touchdowns allowed are tied for fourth fewest. The SaberCats have proved they are able to stop the run, but last week showed there is still room for improvement.
The road has been a lot kinder to the SaberCats this year than in years past. San Jose boasts a 5-3 road record and has won four of its past six games away from SAP Center. Iowa has only beaten San Jose twice at home in 10 chances. The most recent win for the Barnstormers in the series came last season in Des Moines. In a back-and-forth game that saw the SaberCats rally from a 20-point deficit to cut the Barnstormers lead down to five, San Jose was not able to come any closer as the offense sputtered in the final drive and Iowa escaped with 73-68 win despite nine throwing touchdowns from Russ Michna.
Iowa is the third-worst team at protecting its quarterback, allowing their signal callers to be sacked 38 times this season. San Jose is second in the AFL with 36.0 sacks. Six players have sacks this season with Jason Stewart leading the team with 12.5 (second in AFL).
Marco ... Thomas ... Marco ... Thomas
The one bright spot for the Barnstormers this season has been the play of wide receiver Marco Thomas. Thomas is second in the AFL with 142 catches, first in the AFL with 1,839 yards and second in the AFL with 38 touchdowns. San Jose's pass defense ranks No. 1, allowing 229.8 passing yards per game and a league-low 68 touchdowns.
The Return of Big Ben
This week marks the return of one of San Jose’s most beloved players in Ben Nelson. Nelson, the 2006 AFL Rookie of the Year, has caught 606 passes for 7,773 yards and 170 touchdowns in seven AFL seasons. His career was put on hold after a suffering a knee injury on May 5, 2012 against the Arizona Rattlers. Putting on a SaberCats jersey again will be Nelson's reward for all the hard work and dedication he has put in to get back on the field. Nelson replaces Rod Harper who was placed on injured reserve. Harper is San Jose’s leading receiver with 100 catches for 1,027 yards and 18 touchdowns.