In 2016, the Tampa Bay Storm registered just eight sacks on the season, ranking dead last in the Arena Football League.
The Storm are already halfway to that total through just one game of the 2017 season.
Tampa Bay sacked Gladiators quarterback Shane Boyd four times in the Storm’s 46-40 season-opening victory in Cleveland.
Powered by an improved defensive line that harassed Boyd into errant throws, early throws and one crucial intercepted throw, the Storm were able to get halfway to their win total from last season too, starting the year off 1-0 for the first time since 2014.
“From day one, coach told us this team is going to thrive off the D-line,” said Antron Dillon, who finished with one sack against Cleveland. “I feel like we set the table for everybody. We made some plays, got our hands up, batted some balls down.
“I think we were unstoppable.”
Tampa Bay’s defensive line, comprised of Dillon, Caesar Rayford and nose guard Jordan Miller, recorded three quarterback hurries against Boyd (Storm QB Randy Hippeard, by contrast, was only hurried once). And the line produced perhaps the game’s most important play when Cleveland wide receiver Larry Brackins popped the ball up high with Alvin Ray Jackson about to lay a big hit on him on a screen pass, and Rayford swooped in to pluck the ball out of the air and walk into the end zone for an early 7-0 Storm advantage.
The pick-six allowed the Storm to play with the lead for nearly the entire game, save for a brief stretch when the Gladiators went up 14-13 because of a missed extra point on the Storm’s second touchdown.
“When it comes to the D-line, pressure busts pipes,” the 6-foot-7 Rayford said. “When you’re bringing pressure on the opposition quarterback, it puts strain on the offense. It can dictate the game. I’ve seen it a lot. Defensive line can turn the whole game around. We took it as a chip on our shoulder to go in there and make things happen and go out there and play with great effort.”
In addition to the pick-six, Rayford finished with one-and-a-half sacks, a forced fumble, four tackles and two tackles for a loss. The University of Washington product and former Dallas Cowboy earned AFL Defensive Player of the Week honors on Monday for his impact in the Storm win.
Another award, however, is more coveted by Rayford.
The Storm defenders have a “gentleman’s bet” amongst themselves to see who can register the most sacks each game. The winner gets bragging rights for the following week.
Rayford and mac linebacker Dexter Jackson each finished with one-and-a-half sacks, meaning the Storm defense will have to wait until this Saturday’s home opener against the defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul to crown a sack champion.
“That’s the competitiveness we’re bringing amongst our front,” Rayford said. “Yes, we’re competing against the offensive line, but we’re competing amongst ourselves because we’re trying to bring the best out of one another.”
“It’s a good motivational tool for us,” Dillon added. “Everybody’s got a big ego. Everybody wants to be the best.”
The Storm defensive line will have to be at its best when it goes up against the Soul on Saturday. Philadelphia quarterback Dan Raudabaugh is the best in the league at getting the ball out of his hands quickly. It will be up to the Storm d-line to get as much pressure as it can on Raudabaugh in a limited amount of time.
“We have to find a way to make a factor on the game, get our hands up, try to get some pressure, fall around his knees, whatever we can do to get them off rhythm because they’re a rhythm team,” Dillon said. “They try to get the ball out fast. They try to eliminate us as a D-line, so we’ve got to be out there and we’ve got to be a factor.”
Rayford said Raudabaugh averages 1. 5 seconds from snap until the time he gets rid of the ball.
The league average is around 2.5.
The challenge this week will be unlike any other the Storm face all season.
“There are going to be times he’s going to hold the ball, so we’ve got to keep rushing because when they hold the ball, we’ve got to get home,” Rayford said. “When that door opens, we’ve got to take the opportunity. What happens is it kind of distracts the D-line, slows the D-line because they get the ball out so quick. When you slow up and then they five step, that’s how they burn you.
"Even if we’re not getting sacks or hits, just get in his face, just having a body around him is going to make him feel uncomfortable. Even though statistically it might not be a good game, we’ve just got to make him feel uncomfortable and our boys in the back, the DBs, they’re going to do their job.”