The Tampa Bay Storm has now completed one-third of its 2015 season, and this bye week has presented the perfect opportunity for the team to reflect on both the things its done well and the things that need improvement. Taking a look at the things we've learned so far, it's clear that the Storm have set themselves up for success with a solid defense and a consistently-improving offense; however, the team will still have to prove themselves against the best in the league in order to become a strong playoff contender.
1. There’s no substitute for veteran leadership.
The AFL is often seen as the place where young talent is able to develop, with many of its players having spent just a few years playing professional football. However, Tampa Bay differs from every other team in that it possesses T.T. Toliver, a player with over 12 years of professional experience.
Much attention has been given to Toliver’s individual accomplishments as he continues to climb the record books, but a crucial element that has sometimes been overlooked is the presence he brings to this Storm team. With the exception of Jarvis Williams, every other member of the team’s receiving core is a rookie; Toliver’s leadership has allowed them to thrive as a unit, and they currently make up the fourth-best offense in the league.
2. This defense is the real deal.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this Storm defense is killing it right now. It is currently the top red-zone defense in the league, the second-best scoring defense, and the second-best pass defense. This success has prompted things that haven’t happened since the early 90s, when the Storm was stacking up championships; back in week four, the Storm held New Orleans to just 13 points, which they hadn’t done since July 13, 1993.
This unit is also being recognized around the league, as defensive back James Harrell was recently honored with three awards following his performance against Jacksonville: Riddell Defensive Player of the Week, J. Lewis Small Playmaker of the Week, and AFL MVP of the Week. This recognition will undoubtedly be noticed by future opponents, who will know that this defense is a force to be reckoned with.
3. The Storm must still prove themselves against top-tier opponents.
With a current record of 3-3, Tampa Bay finds themselves in a prime position heading into the most critical part of the season. Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the team’s wins have come against opponents with losing records. Jacksonville and New Orleans both sit at the bottom of their respective divisions, and Portland has lost their last three matches.
But even in their three losses, the Storm have shown a lot of heart. Cleveland and San Jose are two of the toughest teams in the league, with the former having reached the ArenaBowl last season and the latter currently holding a perfect 6-0 record. Tampa Bay will continue to get more opportunities to prove themselves against quality opponents as they take on the undefeated Philadelphia Soul and last season’s ArenaBowl champions, the Arizona Rattlers, in the next few weeks.
4. There’s an unlimited amount of firepower on offense.
There’s been a lot of talk about how potent the Storm defense is, but the offensive firepower on this team is impressive as well. QB Jason Boltus has a number of different options to throw to each game, from proven receiver T.T. Toliver who has pulled in 48 catches and 16 touchdowns, to rookie Kendrick Ings stepping up big in support with 36 receptions and nine touchdowns.
Combined, the Tampa Bay receiving core has totaled 142 receptions for 1,790 yards and 36 touchdowns. And with such a strong group to throw to, it’s hardly a surprise that Boltus is ranked top-5 in several offensive categories, including passing yards, pass completions, and passing touchdowns. Continuing this offensive growth will be key as the Storm continue through the rest of the season, and combined with a strong defense, could make Tampa Bay the team to beat.
5. The South Division is wide open.
Forget pre-season predictions: the South Division crown is anyone’s for the taking. It’s still too early to count Jacksonville out despite their struggles up to this point; however, it would appear that it’s shaping up to ultimately be a battle between the Storm (3-3) and their longtime foes, the Orlando Predators (3-4).
Following the conclusion of the Predators’ week seven contest against the Soul, which ultimately resulted in a 52-48 loss for Orlando, Tampa Bay now finds itself atop the division. In week eight, these two teams will face-off for the first time this season, and a close divisional race will fan the flames of an already heated rivalry. This team’s focus is no longer on simply making the playoffs; it’s now to be better than and beat both of their in-state rivals to the division finish line.