Empire vs. Valor: Keys to the Game
The Albany Empire will play a familiar opponent this Friday night as they face the Washington Valor for the second consecutive week, this time at the Capital One Center (7pm, Facebook AFL Watch, NBC Sports Washington, Monumental Sports Network, AFLNow). This is the game that was rescheduled from April 21 to accommodate the NHL and NBA Playoffs.
The Valor will finally play their home opener after spending their first three games on the road, all resulting in losses. Head coach Dean Cokinos was forced to start Warren Smith under center in Albany last week after losing Nick Davila to a season-ending neck injury.
Smith started the game strong throwing two TD passes to favorite target WR Rod Windsor. However, the Empire’s pass rush caused all sorts of trouble, forcing Smith to make hasty decisions. The pass rush’s pressure would lead to three sacks, two fumble recoveries, and two interceptions by DB Marrio Norman (who was given league honors for Defensive Player of the Week).
The Empire’s offense, meanwhile, was efficient, scoring touchdowns on all but two possessions in the game. QB Tommy Grady was named Offensive Player of the Week after throwing five TDs and no interceptions against the Valor. The offense limited turnovers of their own with one fumble lost and an inconsequential interception thrown by backup QB Mike Fafaul toward the end of the game.
What does the Empire need to do to win their second game in a row?
Spread the Wealth: Grady has arguably the best receiving corps in Arena football with Joe Hills, Malachi Jones, and Collin Taylor at his disposal. Jones, in particular, is becoming one of Grady’s favorite targets, leading the team with 226 yards. Hills has a great chance of continuing his record TD catch streak; he is currently at 83 and has seven TDs in two games this season. Taylor is primarily a possession receiver with big play ability.
Protect the Ball: The thorn in the Empire’s side this season has been turnovers: the offense committed five of them in their first two games. It looked like the turnover bug would continue early in last week’s game when Taylor was stripped of the ball on a catch-and-run. But that would be the one significant turnover the Empire would have all game as the Empire would protect the ball for the remainder of the game.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure: Which version of Warren Smith will we see this week? Since he’s had a week to get comfortable under center and a stout home crowd behind him, the Empire could see a different version. But if the Empire are going to win the second of a home-and-home series, the defensive line will again have to force the issue on Smith. That means their pass rush will need to be as effective as it was last Saturday.
Prediction: The Empire are starting to establish stability on both sides of the ball after a handful of weeks together. The offense is starting to click and the defense is buying into head coach Rob Keefe’s system. They’ll be playing a Valor team hungry for their first win in front of a lively home crowd. The Valor will put up a fight, but the Empire are too good on both sides of the ball and will take their second victory in a row.
Score Prediction: Empire 56, Valor 48.