The Chicago Rush limp into their June 3 Arena Football League game on a 2-4 slide over the past six games and a two-game losing streak that has put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. It doesn't get any easier with the Spokane Shock coming to town.
The Rush (6-4) were judged by the AFL coaches to be the No. 1 team in the league two weeks in a row earlier this season but a steep upgrade in quality of opponents since the first four games of the year has exposed the team's weaknesses. Now Chicago finds itself a game and a half out of first place in the Central Division behind the white hot San Antonio Talons (8-3), winners of five in a row, including a one-point victory over the Rush in Texas.
Chicago is also fighting for its postseason life. The incredibly strong West Division appears likely to be sending three teams to the AFL playoffs, making it crucial that the Rush find a way to take the Central Division crown in order to make a run at ArenaBowl XXV. They trail the West Division Arizona Rattlers (8-3) and San Jose SaberCats (8-3) by a game and a half, with each team holding the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Rush. Chicago gets another crack at San Jose on June 30 but won't see Arizona again during the regular season.
The next two weeks, then, are critical for the Rush as they face two more West Division opponents--Spokane (6-4) and the Utah Blaze (6-5). In what is likely to develop into a white-knuckle race to the finish of the regular season, Chicago must win these two games to gain some breathing room and to hold the head-to-head tie-breakers over both playoff contenders.
Spokane, meanwhile, is headed in the opposite direction of Chicago. After a frustrating 1-3 start to the season, the Shock have embraced the return of QB Kyle Rowley and gone on a 5-1 tear over their past six games, currently riding a three-game winning streak. In that 5-1 stretch, Spokane has manhandled the Philadelphia Soul, crushed the Milwaukee Mustangs, and knocked off the New Orleans VooDoo.
The Shock are likely feeling the same pressure as Chicago, though. They've gone 0-3 against division opponents so far this season with a vital three-week stretch of rematches with those teams later in June. They absolutely must keep winning in order to keep pace.
Spokane and Chicago enter this game as two closely matched teams. Not only do they share a 6-4 record, the Rush have the No. 5 scoring offense in the AFL (59.9 points per game) while the Shock come in at No. 6 (59.1 ppg).
Interestingly, Spokane also shares the defensive woes experienced by the Rush of late. Chicago allows 59.6 ppg, second-worst in the league. The Shock aren't much better, coughing up 58.4 ppg, ranked No. 13 in the league. Much like the Rush, it's the Shock defensive backfield that's getting lit up, averaging a league-worst 319.8 passing yards per game and a league-worst 340.5 yards of total offense per game.
This game has all the markings of a track meet, with the winner being determined by whoever scores last.
Sadly, both teams share another commonality. Both lost a former team member when Johnie Kirton shockingly passed away earlier this week. Kirton was a member of the 2009 Shock when they won the af2's ArenaCup, and he was a member of the 2011 Rush team that advanced to the National Conference championship game. Kirton set four franchise rushing records during his season in Chicago.
Without doubt, the loss of the Iron Kirton will be weighing heavily on the minds of both teams and their fans.
Hi, My Name Is...
Whoever is providing the name patches for the backs of the Rush jerseys this year is making a killing off this team. With the trade of Rush sack leader DL Xavier Brown to the VooDoo earlier this week, only four defensive players remain on the Chicago roster who were there in Week 1: JLB Kelvin Morris, DB Vic Hall, DB Semaj Moody, and DL Derek Walker. At this very moment in time, Walker is inactive as he recovers from an injury.
Jason Peters, Cedric McKinley, Darrell Campbell, and Jeffrey Fitzgerald are the most likely candidates to rotate through the defensive line against the Shock. Fitzgerald is the only one that Rush fans will recognize, as he joined the team in Week 4. Peters, McKinley, and Campbell will all be suiting up for the Rush for only the second time on Sunday.
The defensive backfield isn't much more settled. Hall and Moody are still back there, but Chicago fans have yet to see Brian Lainhart play, as both of his games as a member of the Rush have been on the road. Brandon Brinkley started his first game for Chicago last week, registered 8 tackles, earned Defensive Player of the Game, and was then placed on recallable reassignment on May 29, followed by league suspension on May 30, according to the league's transactions list.
Jack Williams was with the team for three weeks but rarely played and never suited up at Allstate Arena, and he was placed on recallable reassignment on May 30. It's unclear if Leslie Majors--acquired this week in exchange for Xavier Brown--is in town yet or will take the field on Sunday.
Rush fans will, however, recognize Kelvyn Hemphill, a veteran of the 2011 team who has returned from working on his masters degree at Illinois State to try to slow down the hemorrhaging in the pass defense.
At least Morris and Nekos Brown are still there at linebacker.
Is this the crew that can stop Rowley and Company? We'll have to wait and see.
The Rush tackle the Shock on Sunday, June 3, at 4 p.m. ET, 3 p.m. Chicago time, and 1 p.m. Spokane time. With luck, the third time is a charm for the Rush, as the Shock hold a 2-0 series advantage. This will be Spokane's first trip to Allstate Arena.
The Rush will unveil a new mascot, Bruiser the Bulldog, just prior to kickoff and will be passing out miniature stuffed bulldogs to the first 1,000 children aged 14 and under who enter Allstate Arena. Additionally, it is Fellowship Night, plus there's a great deal available through the Daily Herald. Click here for more details.
Don't forget that the Family Four Pack offer is still out there, too! Let's welcome our boys back from a long and grueling road trip with a packed house on Sunday!
The author is a Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and holds media credentials with the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedZoneWriting and on Facebook.
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