Arizona Hotshots (4-3) at San Antonio Commanders (5-2)
The Alamodome, Sunday, March 31, 8 p.m ET, 7 p.m. local, 5 p.m. Arizona. Get tickets here.
NFL Network: Matt “Money” Smith, Marvin Lewis
Welcome to scenario football time. With both the San Antonio Commanders and Arizona Hotshots coming off quality wins in Week 7, both will have a chance to make their mark for future games on Sunday night.
The last time the pair met, Commanders quarterback Logan Woodside went 21 of 27 for 290 yards and a pair of touchdowns on his way to a Player of the Week nod. San Antonio also scored 26 first-half points, setting an Alliance record, while the defense created five turnovers.
But Week 5 is long gone and the Commanders will have a chance at home to sweep Arizona. After struggling on offense against the Stallions last week, San Antonio will have a chance to bounce back with a strong run game, which is currently averaging 118 yards per game.
On defense, the Commanders have been dominant in forcing turnovers, collecting 13 total interceptions and two pick-sixes. When it comes to pressuring the quarterback, Jayrone Elliott and Shaan Washington lead the way, helping the team collect 21 sacks on the season.
The Hotshots’ Week 5 loss might have served as some kind of wakeup call. Since then, Arizona has defeated the Alliance’s top team, Orlando, on the road and a solid San Diego team at home.
On March 10, quarterback John Wolford threw three interceptions in the first half against the Commanders. The Hotshots could have folded; instead their offense found a rhythm and Wolford rallied the team to a 25-3 second half. It was a third straight loss, but there was something positive with which to move forward.
Arizona currently boasts the AAF’s leading rusher, Jhurrell Presley, and the league leader among receivers in touchdowns with Rashad Ross. Their defense is creating turnovers, and they have special teams weapons in punter Jeff Locke and kicker Nick Folk.
While San Antonio will have a chance to clinch a playoff spot, the Hotshots could spoil the night in front of the home crowd and put the duo in a tie for first place. Let’s take a look at the potential game of the week in the Alamo City.
Wolford’s ability to make plays outside the pocket must be accounted for, and don’t expect him to try to force something down the field that might result in a turnover. He has a running game and pass protection that are at their best at the moment, and will find a number of targets.
If Wolford is smart with the ball and takes what the Commanders defense gives him, the Hotshots should be able to stay close on the scoreboard. This game seems likely to come down to which defense plays better.
Of course, Ross is the top target and will get opportunities downfield. And San Antonio native Trevor Knight could also figure into the game plan, as the backup quarterback did against San Diego.
Head coach Mike Riley has always been big into being balanced. While the Commanders’ passing game set a high in Week 5, Riley would love to get back to the basics and start running the ball. In Week 5, the Hotshots’ run defense only allowed 78 yards on the ground and a 1-yard touchdown run to Kenneth Farrow II. Establishing a sound run game will help the Commanders control the clock.
If San Antonio is forced to pass, they’re in good hands. Woodside went 13 of 19 for 164 yards and a touchdown in Week 7 and found success across the middle of the field. If the Hotshots come out in a zone scheme, it will all be about winning the matchups at hand and finding the proper target who can turn it into positive yards
But perhaps the biggest area of improvement the team will need to correct is their pass protection. Although the Stallions are currently the top-ranked pass rushing unit, the Commanders’ offensive line allowed six sacks, including one that injured Woodside’s non-throwing shoulder.
“I think the offensive line did all that they could do,” Woodside said. “They had a great front that rush the passer and that’s what this league is full of.”
Luckily for the Commanders’ line, the Hotshots pass rush hasn’t been their strong suit. Through seven games, Arizona has only tallied 12 sacks, second lowest in The Alliance.
LB Steven Johnson: Two interceptions in two games, and without question the leader of Arizona’s defense. Johnson is a solid tackler against the run and can be effective in pass coverage. He’s back from a hamstring injury and playing very well.
S Erick Dargan: The leading tackler for the Hotshots this season with 42.
RB Justin Stockton: Stockton returns home to the San Antonio area, hoping to make a big play or two on offense. He’s a good receiver out of the backfield with great speed.
WR Richard Mullaney: The Hotshots didn’t have Mullaney the last time they played San Antonio, and he will be someone Wolford will target on Sunday because of his excellent hands.
WR DeMarcus Ayers: Ayers has been one of the more productive slot receivers in The Alliance and does a fantastic job separating from defenders in the open field to average 12.9 yards per catch. He should be a factor in the short game, helping the team run the clock.
OLB Jayrone Elliott: Elliott is an elite pass rusher who consistently puts pressure on a quarterback. Just half a sack behind Karter Schult for the league lead, the former Packer will likely bring the hammer against Arizona.
TE Evan Rodriguez: Woodside has relied on his tight ends the past two games across the middle of the field. In Week 5, he found tight end Stehly Reden for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Commanders a solid lead. Expect Rodriguez to be a go-to option.
The home crowd: Believe it or not, the crowd will be a major factor if San Antonio claims victory Sunday night. Last week against Salt Lake, the 30,000-plus fans helped cause two false starts due to noise. Sunday night should be just as packed and as noisy.
Hotshots K Nick Folk has four field goals of 50-plus yards, which leads the league. … The Hotshots average 148 rushing yards per game, 30 more on average than they’re allowing. … The Commanders’ run defense has stepped up to become the team’s strong point. Allowing just 96.8 yards on the ground per contest to rank second in The Alliance, they’ll be sure to try to limit Jhurell Pressley’s yards. … Wolford might be wary throwing in the direction of De’Vante Bausby. Bausby is currently leading the Alliance in pass deflections (13) and is tied for the the lead in interceptions (4).
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Jose Romero covers the Arizona Hotshots for The Alliance of American Football. You can follow him on Twitter @RomeroJoseM.
Cole Thompson covers the San Antonio Commanders for The Alliance of American Football. Follow him on Twitter @MrColeThompson