TAMPA — Defense is the last thing most people think about when Arena Football is the topic of conversation, but its importance isn't lost on Storm coach Dave Ewart.
"I know it's an old coaching cliché, but defense wins championships," Ewart said. "Even in this league."
The Storm defense came up big last week in a victory over Philadelphia and needs to again when Tampa Bay (2-3) hosts Dallas (3-2) at tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"We had a lot of cohesion, especially in the second half," defensive lineman Tim McGill said of the Philadelphia game, "and when we come together like that, we can be as good as any (defense) in the league."
Trailing 41-26 after three quarters, the Storm tied it in the fourth after getting the ball on downs. Then Erick McIntosh picked off Soul quarterback Ryan Vena to set up a Grant Gregory touchdown pass that gave the Storm its first lead with 2:43 to play.
Tampa Bay's defensive statistics don't paint a clear picture of how good the unit has been. The Storm is ranked 14th in average points allowed per game (56), yet it is first in the league in sacks (14), fourth in pass defense (238.8 yards per game) and fifth in total defense (268.8 yards).
The Storm's turnovers have left the defense protecting short fields often.
"They've played well of late," Ewart said of his defense. "I saw some spark up in Philly out of our defense."
A big spark came from McGill, who rejoined the team after serving a league-mandated four-game suspension for violating his contract. McGill, a 2010 All-Arena selection, had three sacks against the Soul. Linebacker Eric Ortiz, who had been out since dislocating an elbow in Week 1, also returned.
The league's best pass rush, led by linebacker Cliff Dukes' AFL-high seven sacks, may have become better this week when Jermaine Smith signed. Smith, fifth all time with 44 career sacks, tied for fifth in the AFL last year with seven while playing for the Storm.
As disruptive as Tampa Bay's pass rush has been, Dallas' protection has been almost impenetrable. The Vigilantes have surrendered one sack all season.
"We have to be able to get to their QB and disrupt his timing," Ewart said. "We do that and we're in good shape. We don't and it will be a long night."