It’s usually about the aerial attack and the glamour position of quarterback in arena football.
The running game receives about as much attention as the third-string left guard in the outdoor game. Doesn’t mean it’s not important, as the Spokane Shock demonstrated the last two weeks.
Spokane has 39 rushing attempts in the last two contests, nearly as many as it had in the previous six games. The Shock picked up 69 ground yards and four touchdowns – both season highs – in last Saturday’s win over Portland.
Some of that is a byproduct of Arvell Nelson taking over at starting quarterback. The athletic, 6-foot-5 Nelson can be a handful with his size and speed on designed runs, when receivers are covered or the protection breaks down.
Some of it is utilizing Bryson Kelly, a former Central Washington University tailback who has made more of an impact on the defensive front than in the backfield in his two seasons with the Shock.
Kelly (24 carries, 70 yards, 2.9 per attempt, 6 touchdowns) and Nelson (26-68, 2.6, 6) have nearly identical numbers. The majority of their stats have been accumulated against Arizona and Portland in the last two weeks.
“I think we control the game completely when we can consistently control the ball,” said the 270-pound Kelly, who weighed 235-250 pounds at CWU and was listed at 250 during a 2011 training-camp stint with Oakland. “It makes people in the mid level and back level (of the defense) have to worry about what’s going on in the trenches. Normally they don’t have to worry about that stuff. The running game helps the passing game out and the passing game helps the running game out.”
It’s been effective of late. Spokane has picked up 13 rushing first downs and seven touchdowns in its last two games while opponents have gained just seven rushing yards, one first down and one touchdown. The Shock rank third in the AFL with 41 rushing first downs.
Rushing stats don’t necessarily equate to team success. San Jose, Arizona and Philadelphia, the top three teams by record, rank in the middle of the AFL in rushing yards. However, the top three ground teams (Jacksonville, Orlando and Spokane) are all playoff bound.
“It’s definitely helped out,” coach Andy Olson said. “We have a long way to go when it comes to the blocking schemes. Kelly does a good job but he’s not there yet. We have a lot of things we can work on and build off it, and my play calling can become a little better with that stuff.
“Bryson played running back so he definitely knows how to run the ball. Outdoor blocking and indoor blocking is totally different. We’re repping it out and he’s going to get better every week.”
Seeding at stake
Spokane (6-10) has secured a playoff berth with two weeks remaining in the regular season but it wants the best possible seed. San Jose and Arizona will be the National Conference’s top two seeds, but Nos. 3 and 4 are still to be determined.
The third seed will likely visit No. 2 Arizona in the first round. Spokane is 1-2 against Arizona and was competitive in the two losses. The Shock went 0-3 against probable No. 1 seed San Jose, losing by an average score of 66.7-27.
“I want to be the third seed and have a chance to go to Arizona, that’s the matchup we want,” Olson said. “We want to finish as high as we can, as strong as we can.”
It’s a big week for Arvell Nelson, who returns to his hometown of Cleveland for Saturday’s game against the Gladiators. Nelson was a standout at Cleveland’s Glenville High, passing for 4,203 yards and earning second-team all-state honors as a senior.
Nelson lost his job at a Cleveland salt mine about seven weeks ago, prompting his return to arena football. He played for Spokane in 2013 and Pittsburgh in 2014.
“A couple of those guys hit me up on Facebook,” said Nelson, who is 2-0 as the starter. “I’ll have my salt mine family in the building.”
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