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Pass protection holds key to Storm's future

New quarterback, same results.

Whether it's John Kaleo or Shane Stafford, the Storm proved Friday night that unless the team learns how to protect the passer in the next two weeks, winning its first championship since 1996 is farther out of reach than everyone thought about a month ago.

Stafford, starting his first Arena League game, completed 22 of 44 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns, but he was sacked four times by the Nashville Kats' imposing defensive line.

That's the same number of sacks the Storm (9-4) had given up all season, although Kaleo was frequently pressured. And Friday night's total could have been higher: Stafford was flushed out of the pocket a dozen or so times and got some passes off under extreme duress, including at least two with Kats clinging to his legs.

While Stafford was able to carve up Houston's defense the week before in a relief outing, he found the going tougher against a better team. That seems to be a trend _ since a 7-0 start the Storm is 0-4 against teams with winning records and 2-0 against teams below .500.

HOME AGAIN?: Nashville (10-4) clinched the division and a first-round playoff bye with the win, while the Storm dropped to No. 5 in the league and looks like it will be playing the first playoff weekend July 27-29.

Unless either San Jose (9-4), Indiana (9-4) or Grand Rapids (10-3) lose this weekend, the Storm will enter the playoffs at No. 5 (if it beats New Jersey on Saturday) or No. 6 (if it loses and Orlando wins). It still means a home game against the No. 11 or No. 12 seed, which is far from determined since nine teams remain in the playoff hunt at either 6-7 or 7-6.

HELP?: If the Storm is to get a first-round bye (and give injuries to Kaleo, Pig Goff and Sir Mawn Wilson time to heal), it will need help from Houston (plays San Jose), Detroit (Indiana) and Buffalo (Grand Rapids).

Yikes.

HAPPY RETURNS: Offensive specialist James Bowden made his return after missing the past 2{ games with a rib injury, catching six passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Bowden also returned a kickoff 52 yards for a touchdown.

OUCH: Shortly after getting a sack, his first of the season, that forced Nashville to settle for a field goal in the third quarter and sparked the Storm's second-half rally from a 35-14 deficit, Tampa Bay lineman Willie Wyatt was ejected for punching Kats center Pat Downey.

WHERE'S GEORGE?: Former Storm great and second all-time leading receiver George La-France has not played this season but recently was named receivers coach and consultant for the Rochester Brigade of arenafootball2.

NO VACANCY: If San Jose wins Sunday and manages to make it to the ArenaBowl as the highest remaining seed, it will not be able to play host at the Compaq Center. A World Wrestling Federation pay-per-view event is scheduled there that weekend.

NEXT UP: The Storm closes its season with New Jersey (2-11) on Saturday, but could have its biggest crowd of the year thanks to a convention that day that may push attendance into the 20,000 range.

Receiver Lawrence Samuels, who won two championships with the Storm, and Connell Maynor, who won two with Tampa Bay and two more with Orlando, left for bigger bucks offered by New Jersey before the start of the season.

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