Panthers QB Cecil Lester, above, was 20-for-38 with 262 yards and four touchdowns in last Saturday’s win, but it was his cousin, Johnny Lester, who stole the show, catching seven balls from Cecil for 101 yards and two scores. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
WHO: Albany Panthers (4-3) at Lehigh Valley Steelhawks (4-4).
WHAT: Panthers looking for second straight win.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Bethlehem, Pa.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
ALBANY — The two-time defending league champs were finally able to get the bad taste of a three-game losing streak out of their mouths Saturday night when they beat the Louisiana Swashbucklers, 45-42.
With the 4-3 Panthers traveling to Bethlehem, Penn., to face the 4-4 Lehigh Valley Steelhawks on Saturday, the mood in practice was remarkably more upbeat than recently.
“It feels good to get the win to get the monkey off our back,” said receiver John Harris, who caught eight passes for 120 yards and a touchdown in the skid-snapping win. “Now we can just focus on doing what it takes to continue to win.
Harris’ effort on Saturday was impressive but not necessarily a surprise.
In more unexpected news, the Civic Center crowd got its first taste of what start quarterback Cecil Lester’s cousin Johnny Lester brings to the table. Lester’s emergence was no surprise to his teammates, but to the Panther faithful in Albany, his performance was unexpected. Prior to his breakout in Albany, Johnny Lester caught 21 passes for a total of 179 yards and three touchdowns in the two weeks before last Saturday’s game — but those two games were on the road.
On Saturday, he showed the Good Life City what he was all about, catching seven passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
“I feel good about it,” the younger Lester said of his performance this past weekend. “I just wanted to help the team as much as I can. I didn’t want it to be a big drop-off when the starters came out, so I had to keep the momentum going.”
Cecil said his cousin’s added energy helped spark the team.
“His role is as it’s always been: when your number is called, catch the ball. You have to step up to make more plays,” Cecil said. “I think he’s the type of guy who accepts that role.”
PRESSURE BUSTS PIPES: The Panthers’ defensive front played a huge role in their win on Saturday. Derrick Wimbush, Larry Edwards, and Tito Hannah combined for four sacks and seven tackles for loss against the Swashbucklers, and they’ll be expected to continue that trend when the champs get to Lehigh Valley. The Steelhawks boast the league’s most productive offense.
“They’re good at what they do,” said Panthers coach Lucious Davis. “They do a good job of executing, so we have to be disciplined this week. If we’re not disciplined, it’ll be a long week for us. We have to get after the quarterback, and we have to be sound in coverage. We have to make sure we’re in the right spots at the right times.”
ANOTHER AERIAL ATTACK: On paper, the Panthers’ secondary will face one of the toughest tests of the year Saturday. The Steelhawks lead the league in total offense and have the most proficient passing attack. Tyrone Collins and Tom Gilson, the Lehigh Valley starting receivers, rank first and second in receptions per game.
In addition to the staggering pass numbers, the Steelhawks lead the league in time of possession and turnover margin. The Panthers forced two turnovers and lost two of their own yet still managed to pull off the comeback win Saturday. Doing it two weeks in a row won’t be that easy.
Forcing turnovers, whether via sacks and forced fumbles or interceptions, will be of great importance to the Panthers if they want to pull out a win on the road. The Swashbucklers’ Jordan Rideaux was able to get behind the secondary for big plays time after time last weekend, and the Panthers can’t afford to let either of the Hawks’ wideouts duplicate Rideaux’s efforts.
“We just have to play a sound game,” Panthers defensive back Damian Daniels said Wednesday. “We’ve been having miscues in the secondary for the past few weeks, so we have to make sure we show up and have a solid game.”
The Panthers have their final bye after this week, then will play three of their final four games at home, beginning June 1 against the Richmond Raiders.