The Tampa Bay Storm have won four-consecutive games for the first time since 2014.
To make it five in a row, they’ll have to shake off the rust from a weeklong layoff following their second bye of the season when they host the Baltimore Brigade at AMALIE Arena on Saturday.
The Storm have defeated Baltimore once already this season, holding on for a 62-55 victory in Charm City four weeks ago.
“We’re not going to change anything,” Tampa Bay jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing since day one and that’s working hard at practice every week and executing the plan that was put in.”
Baltimore is coming off its second win of the season and first home victory after a late defensive goal line stand propelled the Brigade to a 63-60 victory over Cleveland. The Brigade gave the Storm a severe test in the teams’ first meeting at Royal Farms Arena. Tampa Bay opened up a 34-20 halftime lead, but Baltimore tied the game in the third quarter. The teams went back and forth in the fourth trading scores before Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard hit LaMark Brown on a three-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end one with five seconds remaining to pull out another last-second win for the Storm.
“(Baltimore) is a great team defensively and offensively, especially with the way (Brigade quarterback Shane) Carden’s been playing lately,” Hippeard said. “That offense is coming together, and, defensively, their line is one of the best in the game which allows their secondary to try to play games and confuse offenses. It’s going to be a big test for our guys up front, and I think we’re up for it.”
The Storm have been up for nearly every task thrown their way so far this season. In jumping out to a 5-1 record, second best in the Arena Football League behind league-leading Philadelphia (7-0), the Storm have shown they can win high-scoring shootouts like the aforementioned victory over Baltimore. They’ve proven they can come out victorious in a defensive battle like their 41-33 win at Washington a week following the Baltimore win.
The Storm have rallied from large deficits. They’ve broken out to big leads and held on. They’ve perfected the one-minute drill, earning three of their five victories on game-winning touchdowns with less than eight seconds to go. And they’ve made critical defensive stops when they’ve needed too, exemplified by Paul Stephens’ final minute fumble recovery at Washington with the Storm holding on to an eight-point lead.
“We haven’t put together a full game yet,” Jackson said. “We haven’t put together a perfect game yet. I don’t know if a perfect game can be put together, for anyone. But we’re going to continue to strive for it.”
The reason, they say, for the resolve the Storm have demonstrated through the first half of the regular season is camaraderie. Storm players genuinely enjoy coming to practice and being with their teammates and coaches. Guys push each other in the film room and on the practice field to perfect their craft.
And they have fun doing it.
“It’s one of those things where we know we’re in it together,” Hippeard said. “At the end of the day, we’re all we’ve got. It’s one of those things where when you do have that camaraderie, that friendship and that bond that this team has, it’s easy to go to battle for your brother versus a stranger. I feel like we’re all brothers on this team.”
Togetherness can be difficult to achieve in the AFL. Players routinely bounce from one team to another. Turnover is high from one year to the next. Even during the season, players shuttle in and out, lineups changing from week to week as a result.
But from the opening day of training camp, Storm players bought into the system new head coach Ron James established. And they bought in to the team being more important than the individual.
The result has been a revival of sorts for the Storm franchise. After a disastrous 2-14 regular season in 2016, the Storm have been near-perfect in 2017, save for a Week 2, four-point loss to unbeaten Philadelphia.
“This team was put together well as far as personalities, and sometimes personality means way more than talent,” Jackson said. “If you can get a good mix of talent with personality, you’re going to get a good team like we have. When you like to come to work, you’ve never worked a day in your life. Everyone enjoys coming to work. Everyone likes each other.
"If you don’t like somebody, how can you trust them? We all trust each other to do our jobs. That means a lot.”