By JOHN C. COTEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001
TAMPA -- It happened again last week. It happened late in the game. It happened when it mattered most.
A big defensive play saved the day.
Without the big defensive plays, the Storm would not be 3-0 entering tonight's game at the Ice Palace against Toronto. Because of them, the Storm defense looks better than it actually has been.
Look at the numbers, and they tell you the Storm is doing its job. In the points-happy Arena Football League, no one has scored 50 on the Storm, and at 42.3 points allowed per contest, the unit ranks fifth in scoring defense.
But the Storm is near the bottom of most other defensive categories. Out of 19 teams, the Storm is 17th in total defense (292 yards allowed a game, which would break the worst of 265 allowed for a season), 17th in rushing defense and 16th in passing defense.
And yet the defense deserves a great portion of the credit for the Storm's start. When it comes to big plays, few defenses are making more than Tampa Bay's.
"It's a double-edged sword," Storm coach Tim Marcum said. The team gives up the yards through three quarters, then looks brilliant as it puts the finishing touches on a victory.
Against Florida in the season opener, the typically futile Bobcats were able to hang in until near the end by exchanging scores. Not until Harvey Middleton's interception in the third quarter and a fourth-quarter goal-line stand did the Storm defense show its mettle and sew up the victory.
Against winless Milwaukee last week, Rod Williams' fourth-quarter sack caused a fumble that Sir Mawn Wilson returned for a touchdown, and Clint Hart had an interception in the final minute that helped Tampa Bay pull away, though the Mustangs rang up season highs in points and yards.
"We can play a whole lot better," defensive lineman Pig Goff said. "We just don't seem as intense. But at halftime, we get our butts chewed out and it changes our demeanor."
That demeanor has clearly made for better second-half defense.
"We're making the plays in the fourth quarter," Marcum said. Goff caused a fumble with 38 seconds left against Nashville that clinched the Storm's second win, so "we've had to do it in all three games."
Defensive specialist Tommy Henry says this may be the nature of this year's team. When the Storm's defense was the best in the league in the mid-'90s, it performed similarly but more often in the third quarter and usually earlier against the lesser teams.
This year, the team is waiting longer.
"We take great pride in the fourth quarter," Henry said. "There's usually 4-5 plays that really determine the outcome of a game. We've been getting them in the fourth quarter. We take pride that when it's time to step up, we do. Those are the kinds of plays a championship team has to make."
Considering the Storm's success on offense this year -- just one turnover and quarterback John Kaleo has 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions -- defensive stops ultimately determine who wins. But waiting until late against teams like Florida and Milwaukee is tempting fate, Marcum says.
Henry, fellow defensive specialist Jamie Coleman and wide receiver/linebacker Bernard Edwards rank in the top 10 in tackles, a statistic that may be more telling of the passes being caught in front of the Storm defense.
"That is a tricky stat I suppose, but missed tackles will kill you," Henry said. "If you know the game you know that means we bend but don't break."
Or maybe Edwards put it more appropriately: "We've gotten some breaks."
The biggest of those -- the sacks leading to touchdowns -- have been turned in by the defensive line. From those players as a group, Marcum sees weekly improvement toward his goal of a ferocious pass rush. The Storm ranks second in sacks with five (but again, most have come late).
But until the pass rush and coverage excel more consistently and in unison, the Storm will have to hope Kaleo keeps throwing touchdowns and eventually the big defensive play materializes.
"I'd like them to make those plays earlier, if they don't mind," Marcum said. "But I saw an improved rush last week, and the secondary made a play or two. We just need to get it for a greater part of the game."
"And when we do," Goff added, "the league will know it."
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Ice Palace, Tampa.
RADIO/TV: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.
COACHES: Toronto -- Mark Stoute (2-2, first season). Tampa Bay -- Tim Marcum (129-37, 13th season).
SERIES: Storm leads 3-1; as New England, Phantoms won last meeting 41-26.
TICKETS: $12-$35 ($100 for front-row seats); (813) 301-6600.
NOTES: Canada's first Arena League team visits after playing as the New England Seawolves and New York City Hawks. This is the franchise that cut Storm stars John Kaleo and James Bowden last year and has employed kicker Mike Black and WR/DB Pierre Hixon. The Phantoms have a familiar face at QB, former Orlando Predator and Bucs draft choice Pat O'Hara, who throws to the league's leading receiver, Damian Harrell (34 receptions). The Storm is gunning for its fourth 4-0 start in franchise history; two of the other times the team went on to win the ArenaBowl. Tampa Bay is averaging 28 more points and has scored 12 more touchdowns in its 3-0 start than it did last year starting 0-3.