Feature: Storm Focus on Final Playoff Push

Jul 17, 2015 Bryan Burns

Lawrence Samuels was steamed late Saturday night following a controversial loss to longtime rival Orlando.

The normally mild-mannered coach of the Tampa Bay Storm felt helpless as officials walked off the field, declaring an end to the 57th installment of the War on I-4, the Predators ahead 69-62.

Samuels felt at least two seconds should have remained on the Amalie Arena clock after Julius Gregory was tackled a yard short of the goal line on what would prove to be the final play of the game. The scoreboard showed six seconds when quarterback Jason Boltus took the snap from center, dropped three steps and quickly fired to Gregory running a slant, the Storm desperately trying to tie the game in the waning seconds.

Samuels raced to call timeout. When officials finally stopped the clock, no time was left.

Video replay would show Samuels was correct. When Gregory’s knee hit the turf to end the play, a couple seconds remained on the clock. In the background, Samuels is seen furiously signaling timeout.

Video replay, however, can’t be used to overrule clock issues in the AFL.

The Storm would have to live with the dubious decision.

The following Monday, having had time to review the film and digest the result, Samuels outlook was brighter. Jacksonville and Cleveland, two teams the Storm are battling for postseason berths, also lost over the weekend.

With four games remaining in the regular season, Tampa Bay still controls its playoff destiny despite the ill-timed loss. Two of the four come against American South opponents Orlando and Jacksonville. The other two, including the Storm’s next contest Saturday at New Orleans, are versus the two bottom feeders record-wise in the league.

“These guys are a joy to coach,” Samuels said Tuesday following Tampa Bay’s first on-field practice after the Orlando loss. “These guys, they don’t let anything really affect them. I think after the first time we played Philadelphia [a 71-27 loss] that was the only time I’ve really seen these guys actually respond at a low. And after that, they’ve been resilient and they’ve bounced back. These guys are fighters and we’re going to continue fighting.”

The Storm still have plenty to play for in the 2015 regular season. The same can’t be said for New Orleans, losers of eight-straight and owners of the worst record in the AFL at 2-12. The VooDoo have long been eliminated from the playoff chase.

The Storm have defeated New Orleans twice already this season, 42-13 (April 17) and 35-34 (May 30), both victories coming in Tampa.

“(The VooDoo) have nothing to lose,” offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick said. “They’re going to pull out all the trick plays. They’re going to give us everything. Anything they’ve been practicing all year, they can throw their whole playbook at us. They’re all about messing us up and making sure we don’t get the playoffs. So we have to dot our i’s and cross our t’s and make sure we go in there with the right mindset.”

Despite the heartbreaking loss to Orlando, the Storm can still draw positives in defeat. Entering the game against the Predators, the Storm had given up touchdowns on six straight possessions in the second half during a loss in Philadelphia. The scored-upon streak continued versus Orlando, which tallied a touchdown on its first six possessions before Predators quarterback Randy Hippeard was stripped and lost the football late in the first half.

The Storm defense improved after the break, stopping Orlando on two of the Predators’ five second-half drives. Tampa Bay hopes to carry over that momentum into the New Orleans game.

“I hadn’t been out there in four or five weeks and there had been some other DBs in there, so just getting back to playing together for the first time in five weeks and getting back on the same page, it took a half but we got it going,” said Storm defensive back James Harrell, who returned to action versus Orlando after missing the previous three games with a broken hand suffered on the final play of a Week 11 loss to Arizona. “I felt like I was a little rusty. I feel like I’ve got work to do to get back in better shape and back in mid-season form. I’ve just got to get back in my groove a little bit, but I feel pretty good.”

Samuels said the Storm will use the Orlando loss as motivation for these final four games. Tampa Bay can settle the score with the Predators in the regular season finale on August 8, a game that could have playoff and division championship implications.

There’s also the very real possibility Orlando and Tampa Bay face off in the first round of the AFL playoffs.

“Our guys have gone through a lot of adversity this year, ups and downs, everything,” Samuels said. “You’ve got to take it all in perspective. We’re just going to use that game to fuel us moving forward knowing that we can possibly play them two more times.”