Storm looking for faster start against Cleveland

Apr 21, 2017 Bryan Burns

Tampa Bay Storm head coach Ron James joked after practice Thursday he would start using his first quarter offensive game plan during warmups from now on.

Through the first two games to start the 2017 season, the Storm have yet to score on their opening drive. Once they get the first possession out of the way, however, the Storm offense has been nearly unstoppable.

Maybe if they simulate the first quarter in warmups, James reasoned, the Storm will finally connect on its opening drive.

“Get the jitters out of our system before we hit the actual game,” he said. 

Tampa Bay (1-1) hosts the Cleveland Gladiators (0-2) at AMALIE Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. kickoff), a team the Storm defeated 46-40 on the road in the season opener.

The Storm went 4-and-out on their first drive two weeks ago against Cleveland. The second wasn’t much better, Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard throwing an interception in the end zone.

But after struggling to get started, the Storm rebounded to score on their next seven-consecutive possessions to hold off a late Cleveland rally and open the season with a much-needed victory.

“It’s a little bit of feeling out what we’re going to get defensively from teams, a little bit still trying to gel together as an offense, just trying to learn each other’s ins and outs,” Hippeard said of the offense’s early-game struggles. “I think it’s more just execution in practice too. We’ve got to focus more on the little things. If you focus on the little things and execute, the big things will take care of themselves.”

In last week’s 56-52 home loss to the defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul, the Soul were again victimized by an opening drive turnover when Hippeard was picked off in the end zone. The Storm would go on to score on eight of their next nine drives -- not counting a one-play drive at the end of the first half – but were undone by a handful of special teams errors and an inability to fully capitalize on a pair of second half turnovers from the Soul.

“Anytime you get stopped – you can ask any team in the league – it’s nothing the defense did, it’s something we did wrong,” Hippeard said. “Last week against Philly, we didn’t score there on two drives. We put ourselves in a bad position. I threw a bad pick down there in the end zone and we got in like fourth and 25 on the (other) drive we got stopped. It’s nothing they did. It’s mistakes we made by being offside or a bad read or things like that. If we can clear those things up, the big things will take care of themselves.”

Overall, the Storm have scored a touchdown on 15 of 19 drives through two weeks. Three of the four drives they haven’t scored on have come at the beginning of the game. Once the Storm shake off those early-game jitters, they’re been near-perfect offensively.

“I think once we get in the flow, the game comes relatively easy for us,” Storm wide receiver Joe Hills said. “You just try to start fast, and once we got on track, the train starts rolling and we’re tough to stop.”

The Storm have put special emphasis on getting off to a positive start this week against the Gladiators, spending large portions of practice throughout the week on being ready to go on the first play of the game.

“Start fast and finish strong, that’s our motto,” Hills said.

Hippeard, who is completing passes at a 65.6 percent rate, leads the AFL for passing yards (459) through the first two weeks and has nearly 150 more yards than second place Shane Carden (356) of Baltimore. Hippeard’s 12 touchdown tosses are also a league best.

The Storm have three of the league’s top six receivers yardage-wise in LaMark Brown (third in the AFL with 158 yards), Kendrick Ings (fourth with 147 yards) and Hills (sixth with 115 yards). Brown and Hills each have four receiving touchdowns and are tied for the league lead in that category. Ings is right behind with three.

Think how high those numbers could climb if the Storm offense was able to hit top gear from the jump.

“We’ve got a great group of guys around us,” Hippeard said of the offense. “The line does a great job of keeping me clean in the pocket. Whenever they do that, the athletes we have at the receiver position are going to have an opportunity to find holes down the field, and that’s what they did.

"Anytime you have a Joe Hills and a Kendrick Ings and a LaMark Brown, Justin (Hilton) and (Michael Lindsey), those guys, it makes the job for a quarterback pretty easy.”