Football: San Diego Travels to Phoenix to Take on the Hotshots Sunday

The Fleet is 3-3 and in Second Place in the Western Conference  

By Jose Romero and Jeff Goldberg

The weeks go by and the games get bigger and mean more, which is the situation the San Diego Fleet and Arizona Hotshots find themselves in as they face each other on Sunday.

It’s a key Alliance Western Conference matchup between two teams with the same record, 3-3, and trying to improve their playoff position.

The Fleet are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Birmingham last Sunday, in which former Chargers kicker Nick Novak returning to SDCCU Stadium to deliver the knockout blow as time expired.

The Fleet also lost receiver Dontez Ford to an ankle injury after racking up 182 yards on three catches, leaving a potentially huge hole in the offense. They enter this matchup having allowed 83 points over the past three games after allowing an average of 13.3 over their first three.

The Hotshots broke out of a three-game losing streak in a major way, shocking the previously undefeated Orlando Apollos 22-17 on the road last week. Arizona got receiver Richard Mullaney and linebacker Steven Johnson back from injuries, and both were major factors in the win.

Arizona gets defensive lineman Will Sutton back this week, and he and potentially three teammates face an old friend in former Arizona State teammate Mike Bercovici, the Fleet quarterback.

When the Fleet have the ball:

This is a homecoming game for Bercovici, who had a number of memorable moments at Arizona State before signing as an undrafted free agent by the Chargers in 2016. Bercovici has been up and down since returning to the starting lineup two weeks ago, throwing for over 300 yards in each game, but has completed just 50 percent of his passes and has thrown three interceptions to go with four touchdowns.

With Ford likely unavailable, Bercovici will have to find a new go-to receiver.

Tight ends Gavin Esocbar and Marcus Baugh could fill that void, while Brian Brown, who has quietly produced all season, might be asked to take on a more featured role.

The Fleet running game has gone silent since Ja’Quan Gardner’s record 83-yard touchdown run in Week 3. Coach Mike Martz blamed some of the struggles on his play-calling last week, so we could see a run-heavy approach in this game.

When the Hotshots have the ball:

Quarterback John Wolford is at his best when the Hotshots are clicking with a balanced offense and moving fast. He made no mistakes at Orlando last week, on the heels of a three-interception game in Week 5, and the protection from the offensive line had plenty to do with that.

The Hotshots shared the load with three running backs splitting carries almost evenly, a plan devised by running backs coach Andrew Weidinger that worked against Orlando. That’s something fans can expect again this week.

In the passing game, Mullaney will help take some attention off Rashad Ross, who leads the Alliance with six touchdown catches.

Fleet players to watch:

WR Nelson Spruce: Since Bercovici has returned to the lineup, his favorite target has been Spruce, who had eight targets in each of the past two games. As the nickel in Martz’s passing offense, Spruce plays the most vital role, and he should see at least as many targets with Ford likely sidelined.

CB Kameron Kelly: The Fleet cornerback was not a happy camper after Sunday’s loss — mad at himself for the way he played as the Iron passed the ball all over the field in the 32-29 victory. Kelly playing with a chip on his shoulder is not good news for the Hotshots passing game.

Hotshots players to watch:

CB Shaquille Richardson: Only two weeks removed from coming off injured reserve, Richardson could be in line to start at cornerback with Robert Nelson out for perhaps the rest of the season with a knee injury. Those are big shoes to fill — Nelson had his best game of the season limiting Orlando star Charles Johnson last week. But Richardson filled in well.

RB Jhurell Pressley: The Alliance’s leading rusher (343 yards) scored twice last week via a run and a catch, and is the Hotshots’ most complete back at present.

By the numbers: Fleet DE Damontre Moore, despite missing Week 4 with a knee injury, leads The Alliance with 20 quarterback hits and ranks third with five sacks. … After totaling 226 yards in Weeks 2 and 3, Gardner has posted just 28 rushing yards on 26 carries over the last three games. … The Hotshots are No. 1 in the Alliance in two-point conversion rate, 10 of 14. … K Nick Folk has three field goals of 50-plus yards, which leads the league. … S Erick Dragon’s 37 solo tackles lead the Hotshots.

Press Release Provided By the San Diego Fleet