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Maka, Stewart biggest nightmare Sharks in ArenaBowl XXVIII

Adam Markowitz
Friday August 28, 2015

STOCKTON -- The San Jose SaberCats are on the verge of league history, as they can complete professional football's first 20-win season and capture their fourth ArenaBowl championship in the process. The big part of the reason they did so well this year is because of their defense, one which had the second most sacks in league history. Francis Maka and Jason Stewart might be the best one-two punch this league has ever seen at mack linebacker and defensive tackle, and they are going to be the keys for the Jacksonville Sharks to stop if they want any chance to pull off the upset in ArenaBowl XXVIII.

When you go back and look at the history of this league, there aren't that many forces of nature in the middle of the defensive line. Go ahead. Think of the best nose tackles in league history. It's really tough to say that there was any better nose tackle in the ironman days than James Baron, which brings us forward to 2011. Tim McGill was so darn good that they effectively made a rule for him about jumping offsides multiple times in a half turning into a first down. Anttaj Hawthorne has been one of the best noses in the league the last few seasons for the Arizona Rattlers.

Having a dominant nose tackle isn't a pre-requisite for winning a championship, but it certainly helps build a great defense. Baron led the Nashville Kats to the ArenaBowl twice. McGill was a force in getting the Tampa Bay Storm to the ArenaBowl in 2010. The Rattlers won the last three ArenaBowls with Hawthorne up the middle.

But none of those men ever had a double-digit sack season like Stewart has gotten used to having year after year. Ever since coming to San Jose for his first full season in 2013, Stewart has had posted nothing but double-digit sack seasons. Since 2013, there have been a total of 17 double-digit sack seasons. Three of them belong to Stewart. No other true nose tackle in AFL history has ever had double-digits of sacks in a single season.

By himself, Stewart is a true force of nature. When combined with arguably the best mack linebacker in the league in Francis Maka, the SaberCats have a borderline unstoppable one-two punch coming right up the middle to punish offensive linemen and fullbacks.

The Sharks might have allowed just eight sacks this regular season, best in the league, but this is a really tough matchup for sure. Derrick Ross isn't a great blocking fullback, and that is probably going to cause the Jacksonville offensive line to shift around its blocking schemes. Ross will almost certainly have to match up with either Donte Paige-Moss or Rodney Fritz off of the edge instead of picking up Maka, because a matchup between he and Maka might cause Tommy Grady to have to check to make sure his life insurance policy is paid up.

Remember, it's not like Paige-Moss and Fritz are slackers either. Moss has 15.5 sacks in two seasons in this league, while Fritz had 4.5 sacks in just eight games.

In other words, this might be extremely not fun for the Jacksonville offensive line.

It wouldn't be the first time that Maka and Stewart wreaked havoc for offensive lines, though. In 15 of the team's 20 games played this year including the playoffs, at least one of these two men have come up with a sack. In five of the 20, each had at least a half of a sack.

The biggest contributions Maka and Stewart have though, has nothing to do with the stat sheet. The AFL doesn't officially keep track of QB pressures and knockdowns, but these two have their fair share. It isn't an accident that San Jose led the known world this year in scoring defense, rushing defense, opposing quarterback rating, interceptions, turnovers forced, turnover margin, opposing first downs, opposing third down percentage, opposing fourth down percentage, sacks, red zone defense and reds zone touchdown percentage allowed. In many of those stat categories, this San Jose defense was better historically than any other in recent history, if not in all-time.

Maka and Stewart were relatively quiet last week against Arizona, and it was the first game all season long in which the SaberCats both didn't have a sack and didn't force a single turnover.

Jacksonville's only way to win this game is doing the same thing and neutralizing Maka and Stewart, which is much easier said than done. If not, this offense isn't going to be able to work on its deep game, which is going to severely neutralize the ability to take advantage of having the best receiving corps in the AFL against a San Jose secondary which is probably a bit overrated based on its defensive line.

If the Sharks find a way to replicate what the Arizona offensive line was able to do, this could end up being a wide open game with 120 points or more hitting the scoreboard. If not, San Jose will probably end up running wild.

Adam Markowitz is an accountant and a freelance sports writer living in Orlando. As a Florida State graduate with degrees in music and history, the garnet and gold will forever be a part of him, but he bleeds the black and red of the Orlando Predators like none other. Adam has been following the AFL since 1991 and has been at well over 200 games, including 16 ArenaBowls. You can follow Adam on Twitter @AFLGuru.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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