Picking up defensive back Paul Stephens 11 days ago is proving to be an extremely valuable mid-season acquisition for the Tampa Bay Storm.
Stephens had two fumble recoveries in the Storm’s victory over Baltimore last week, returning one for a touchdown in a key moment in that win.
On Saturday in the Storm’s first-ever meeting with the Washington Valor, Stephens came up with another monumental recovery, outfighting a pile on a fumbled center-quarterback exchange near the Storm goal line with less than a minute to go to preserve a 41-33 Tampa Bay victory at Washington’s Verizon Center.
The Storm have now won three in a row and are 4-1 on the season, their best start since winning seven-straight to start the 2001 campaign.
“It means a lot,” Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard told CBS Sports Network following the game of the impressive record. “One of the few things (head coach Ron James) told us coming in, a couple of us vet guys, was we have to change the atmosphere around here. The last couple of years, it’s been this and it’s been that and it’s one of those things where we have to be the ones to go out and hit people in the mouth. It’s one of those things where we try to change the atmosphere and keep the ball moving.”
With Philadelphia coming from behind to defeat Baltimore on Saturday, Tampa Bay remains a game behind the defending ArenaBowl champion for first place in the Arena Football League.
The Storm took an eight-point lead with less than four minutes remaining when Hippeard lobbed a pass into the back corner of the end zone for Joe Hills to hop up and snag for a six-yard touchdown reception and a 41-33 advantage.
Washington (1-3) got the ball at the Storm 12-yard line on the ensuing possession after Tampa Bay’s onside kick attempt was knocked out of play by the Valor’s Greg Carr. Washington converted a fourth and 10 from the 12-yard line at the one-minute warning after a pass interference call on the Storm’s Anthony Shutt in the end zone to keep the last-gasp drive alive.
Facing second and goal from the one and 44.5 seconds to go, Valor quarterback Erik Meyer popped the ball up and away from his grasp on the snap under center. Stephens raced back and beat a couple Valor players to the ball to make his third significant fumble recovering in two games for the Storm.
This one proved to be the game clincher.
Hippeard ran up the middle three-straight times to run out the clock.
“They gutted it out,” James said. “They played really hard. I’m really proud of my players.”
After an even start to the game in which both teams were able to convert on their first two drives, Tampa Bay took control on a series of plays at the end of the opening half. The Storm went in front 19-14 on Hippeard’s lofted throw to Hills along the back wall of the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown catch.
Tampa Bay then was able to steal a possession after converting a well-executed onside kick, Mark Lewis lining up the kick to the right side but sending the ball left at the last moment, allowing Kendrick Ings to run onto the bouncing ball in stride and advance it all the way to Washington 20-yard line.
The Storm milked the clock and forced Washington to burn its timeouts, setting up a third and goal at the 3 with 8.1 seconds left.
Hippeard couldn’t find anyone on third down and took the ball to the one with 2.2 seconds to go. A pass interference on Hills in the end zone on fourth down gave the Storm another try. After an untimed down was called back, Hippeard ran off the left side behind the bulldozing block of Dave Lefotu to find the end zone as the half expired.
On the subsequent two-point conversion, Hippeard and Hills connected again, Hippeard throwing behind Hills as the receiver ran through the back of the end zone and Hills stopping on a dime to shake Terrance Smith and reach back to snag the ball and a 27-14 lead for Tampa Bay at halftime.
Hippeard finished 20-of-31 for 205 yards and five touchdowns passes plus another on the ground. Hills was Hippeard’s main target, catching nine passes for 85 yards and three touchdowns. With his second quarter 13-yard touchdown reception, Hills extended his consecutive game streak with at least one touchdown grab to 73 games.
“It was just trying to be efficient and taking what they gave us,” Hippeard said of his connection with his wide receivers. “We missed a couple shots and did a little bit of things uncharacteristic of us there but anytime you can come into a hostile environment like it is out here in Washington and come out with a win, it’s good to come home with.”
Washington cut the Storm lead to 27-20 on its opening drive of the second half then stopped the Storm for the first time on Tampa Bay’s first drive after halftime. The Valor tied the game 27-27 on Charles McClain’s three-yard reception.
The Storm answered when Hippeard found LaMark Brown in an open pocket in the Valor’s zone down the left sideline for a 16-yard catch and run into the end zone. Carr bullied his way into the end zone for the Valor on their next drive to close the gap, but T.C. Stevens’ missed extra point kept the Storm in front 34-33.
And for the third-straight week, the Storm made enough plays down the stretch to come away victorious.
Tampa Bay improves to 3-0 on the road to start 2017.
The Storm will play Washington again on Saturday when the Valor travel to Tampa to complete the home-and-home series at AMALIE Arena.
“It means a lot to our fans and our organization,” James said of the win and starting 4-1. “We’re very pleased about that but we’re only as good as our next game. We’ll regroup and we’ll have to play these guys again, so we kept it vanilla, got the win and we’re coming home to Tampa with a W.”