The Tampa Bay Storm face a formidable challenge this weekend against the Arizona Rattlers on the road.
Arizona was one of the top teams in the Arena Football League last season, going 14-4 in the regular season and advancing to the National Conference championship game before falling to the eventual ArenaBowl champion San Jose SaberCats in a 70-67 league classic.
That loss prevented Arizona from winning a fourth-straight ArenaBowl.
The Rattlers haven’t missed a beat to start the 2016 AFL season either.
Arizona is one of two teams (Orlando the other) to win both of its first two games in 2016. And the Rattlers aren’t just beating teams, they’re bludgeoning them. They’re averaging 75 points a game. They’re giving up 28 an outing. The Rattlers’ plus-93 point differential is by far the best in the AFL (Orlando’s plus-54 is far behind in second).
Meanwhile, the Storm (0-2) have limped out of the gate in 2016, dropping their season opener to the in-state rival Predators and losing in the final seconds last weekend in Cleveland.
But while most view the Storm as prohibitive underdogs going against Arizona, Tampa Bay sees the game as an opportunity to show the improvement the team has made week to week.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” Storm defensive lineman Everett Dawkins said. “I think our defense got a lot better over the second week, and we can go in and give them a good fight, give them a challenge, give them a run for their money. I definitely think we can win this game.”
Dawkins’ charges up front on the defensive line will play a key role in this week’s outcome. Arizona quarterback Nick Davila has completed 30 of his 42 passes and leads the AFL for completion percentage at 71.4 percent. He has tossed 10 touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Getting pressure on Davila will help the Storm slow down the potent Rattlers’ offense.
“He doesn’t like to get hit,” Dawkins said. “He rarely gets hit. That’s going to be one of the things that we want to do: get pressure on him, mess him up and help out our DBs a lot. One of the things we’re keying on is getting pressure this week.”
Tampa Bay will also have to continue to improve its own pass protection to have a chance against Arizona. The Rattlers’ Luis Vasquez leads the AFL with four sacks, and Damien Borel and Dimetrio Tyson have two each. The Rattlers have a league-best nine sacks on the season.
The Storm were much better along the offensive line last Saturday in Cleveland following a subpar performance in the season opener. Keeping quarterbacks Adam Kennedy, Jonathan Bane and former starting QB Jason Boltus, who returned to the Storm this week, upright will be of upmost importance to the Storm’s chances of pulling off the upset.
The Storm acquired Anthony Parker, a four-year veteran of the AFL, this week in an attempt to bolster their offensive line.
“I think (Parker’s) addition is going to help us out,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “He’s a vet in this league, and he’s another big guy up front that we can use. Plus, I think our coaches, coach Benji McDowell is doing a great job with those guys week to week. They’re understanding how to execute better and become a more cohesive unit.
The Storm have a bye week following the Arizona game. They don’t want to still be without a win when they come out of the off week on May 1 at home versus Jacksonville.
“Beating Arizona would be big for us to get a win going into the bye week, especially going against Arizona, one of the top teams in the league,” Storm offensive lineman R.J. Bibbs said. “They’re beatable. We can beat them. If we can beat them, it would be great momentum going into the bye week.”
Samuels said this week is all about performing in all three phases of the game. If the Storm accomplish that, they can leave Arizona with a much-needed victory.
“We just have to execute: offense, defense and special teams,” he said. “I think execution is the key for us right now. We made great strides from Week 1 to Week 2. Our thing is execution to keep improving. I know Arizona is a great team, but I think if our guys compete, we can play with those guys.”