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Playoff Game Two Preview - Empire vs Valor

Friday July 20, 2018

After a narrow 57-56 overtime victory in the Nation’s Capital, the Albany Empire (9-4) take a one-point aggregate lead in the home-and-home playoff series over the Washington Valor (2-11) with game two set to be played on Saturday, July 21st, at 7:30 pm at the Times Union Center in Albany. Should the Empire continue their hot streak and defeat the Valor at home, it would secure the inaugural franchise’s spot in ArenaBowl XXXI. If Washington wins by two or more points, the fourth-seeded Valor would advance to the championship game. In the event that the Valor win by one point, and overtime period would be played to determine the winner of the playoff series based on aggregate scoring.

Despite the close victory over the Valor, Albany’s stars rose to the occasion. Empire quarterback Tommy Grady earned game MVP honors with 25 completions for 340 yards, seven touchdown passes and one interception. Rookie receiver Malachi Jones shined in his AFL playoff debut with 11 catches for 167 yards and four touchdown receptions. Receiver Joe Hills added another nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns included the deciding score in the overtime period. Riding a four-game winning streak, the Empire will bring their momentum back home to face Washington to close out the home-and-home playoff series.

The first matchup to look out for is between Washington’s quarterback, Arvell Nelson, and Empire jack linebacker Terence Moore. Nelson played one of his best games all season in the opening game of the playoff series at home against Albany. Earning offensive player of the game honors, the 6’5” quarterback racked up 256 passing yards and six touchdowns while adding another two scores on the ground. Coming on midway through the season, Nelson helped lead the Valor to their only two wins on the regular season and gave Washington momentum heading into the playoffs. Nelson has proven to be a threat not only through the air, but by using his legs as well.

The key to victory in this matchup is for Moore to contain Nelson by always keeping an eye on the mobile quarterback. Moore made his case for defensive player of the year with his ability to be seemingly everywhere on the field. Though his main responsibilities will be covering short routes and guarding the middle of the field, Nelson is perfectly content to tuck and run should he not be able to find an open receiver. Moore will have the tall task of locating Nelson when he scrambles and use his speed to limit just how many yards the quarterback can pick up on his own. Moore has done it all this season for the Empire, leading the league in interceptions with six, and tying for second in total tackles with 68.5. If Nelson does decide to leave the pocket, expect Moore to hunt him down and lay a big hit, potentially forcing the ball to come loose.

Another matchup to look out for is between the Washington kickoff unit and the Empire return team. Given Albany’s offense proving to be virtually unstoppable all season long, expect the Valor to mix in a surprise onside kick or two to try a steal a possession away from the Empire. If Washington is able to score and then come out and recover an onside kick, it could serve as a two-score swing for the Valor and put pressure on the Albany offense. It’s fair to assume the usual onside kick scenarios inside of one minute of each half, but don’t be surprised to see the Valor attempt an onside kick early in this one to stifle any momentum the Empire might have.

For the Empire, the key to victory in this matchup is simple: recover any and all Valor kickoffs. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but Albany has to either pounce on any loose balls or punch them out of play to allow Grady and company to take a short field on offense. Look for Moore to be joined on the hands team with receivers Collin Taylor, Greg Carr, and Jones. Any short onside kicks will be jumped on by Moore and Taylor while Jones and Carr will hang behind and wait for any high bouncing balls to reach the back line. If Albany is able to recover all onside kick attempts from the Valor, then Washington will be unable to go punch for punch with the Empire offense which will ultimately favor the league’s newest franchise.

The third and final matchup to watch out for is between Washington receiver Reggie Gray and the Empire defensive backfield. Gray has torched Albany this season including the first playoff matchup at home where he compiled 103 receiving yards on 14 catches for four touchdowns. Gray had 10 more receptions than the next closest receiver on the Valor offense last weekend, proving to be the top target for Nelson. Over the course of the regular season, Gray finished fifth overall in receptions (71), receiving yards (769) and receiving touchdowns (17). Though the Valor have other capable receivers on their offense, if the Empire can limit Gray, it will make life miserable for Nelson as he looks for other options.

The key to victory in this matchup lies on the stout Empire defensive front. Despite only recording one sack in the previous matchup against Washington, Albany was able to apply pressure to Nelson all night long. If the Empire defensive line is able to get to Nelson quickly, it will limit his time in the pocket and force him to decide to either scramble or find a secondary option on a short route. Look for Joe Sykes, Brandon Sesay, Darryl Cato-Bishop, and Nick Seither on the Albany defensive line to be in the face of Nelson all game forcing errant throws from the quarterback. This unit was able to hit home for sacks four times in a late season Week 12 meeting against Nelson. Despite only playing half the season, Nelson led the league in interceptions thrown with seven. If Albany can get pressure on Nelson, he won’t be able to locate Gray and has proven to be prone to turn the ball over. Expect the ball-hawking defensive backfield of Albany to come up with at least one turnover in this matchup as Nelson makes a bad decision and throws one up for grabs.

The 2018 Empire Playoffs are presented by SEFCU. Albany Empire 2018 Inaugural Season Presented By CDPHP.