Tampa Bay takes the first step in the quest for its sixth Arena League championship tonight at Tulsa. The Storm lost to the Talons 69-58 in the opener April 3 in Tulsa. A lot has changed since that first week, however. After stumbling to a 2-3 start, the Storm won eight in a row to get into playoff position. Tampa Bay closed the regular season by losing two of its final three. One loss was 49-47 at Jacksonville in which a win would have given it the South Division title and homefield advantage for the first two playoff rounds. The other came to Orlando in the finale, which had no playoff implications. "All that really doesn't matter, though," said coach Tim Marcum, who has led the Storm to three of its league-record five AFL titles. "We're in a three-game season now, and we have to win them all." The five keys to winning tonight:
The Storm has had a poor first quarter the past two weeks and been forced to play catch-up. Down 10-0, Tampa Bay raced past a poor Alabama team. But a 28-7 hole against Orlando a week later proved too deep.
Score last in the first half
When the Storm wins the pregame coin flip, it almost always elects to kick off. It gets the ball first in the second half, and scoring to close out the first half — while managing the clock to leave little time for the opponent — is a huge leg up. "Games are won and lost right there," Marcum said. "That's usually a huge turning point."
Tampa Bay leads the league in penalties. Especially troubling to Marcum are the several times the Storm has been flagged for false starts or lining up incorrectly on defense. "Things like that shouldn't be happening this late in the season," he said. "How do you not know where to line up by now?"
It's a tried and true recipe for success in any football league but especially paramount in Arena ball. Defensive stops are rare, so forcing a turnover can swing a game's momentum. Tulsa has an opportunistic secondary that ranks third in the league with 24 interceptions. Defensive back Chris Royal's 11 are one off the league lead. Storm quarterback Brett Dietz is coming off of a three-interception game in the finale against Orlando and must protect the ball better.
Though the quarterback and receivers grab all of the headlines in the high-scoring Arena game, it all starts up front. If the quarterbacks have time, Arena ball can look like a simple game of pitch and catch. Teams rely on precision timing to make that happen, so the Storm's line must give Dietz time against a defense that recorded a league-high 36 sacks. He was sacked three times against Orlando and spent a lot of time on his back after hurried throws. Tampa Bay, tied for third with 22 sacks, must disrupt the timing of Talons quarterback Justin Allgood. "We got after (the quarterback) during our winning streak," Marcum said. "When we don't, we leave our (defensive backs) exposed, and that's trouble."