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Arena Football Friday Preview: Tampa Bay Storm at New Orleans VooDoo
Week Five's edition of NET10 Arena Football Friday in the Arena Football League features a battle between two up-and-coming teams who have shown tremendous progress in 2012 after last year's disappointing seasons: the Tampa Bay Storm and the New Orleans VooDoo. The game will be broadcast on the NFL Network at 8 p.m. ET.
Last season, these two teams finished at the bottom of the South Division: Tampa Bay at 7-11 and New Orleans at 3-15. They were the two lowest-scoring teams in the league. They had two of the worst defenses. They tied for the worst turnover margin (minus-20). It was a train wreck.
The Storm blew into the Graveyard to open the 2011 season with a 46-40 victory over the VooDoo, while a trip to Tampa in July was one of the few bright spots in New Orleans' year as the VooDoo hexed the Storm, 64-33, in a rare win. But more often than not, both teams were on the business end of the beat-down stick.
The beauty of the Arena Football League's one-year player contracts, though, is that hope springs eternal. Both of these teams did some serious reconstruction in the off-season, and both are much better squads than in 2011. Tampa Bay (2-1) is in a first place tie in the division, while New Orleans (1-2) hovers just a game behind after an impressive road win in Utah last week.
With no clear front-runner in the South, this game holds a lot of implications for the division and the post-season, so expect a hard-fought battle.
Who to Watch - New Orleans
New Orleans head coach Pat O'Hara—who played quarterback for the Storm in 2003, 2004, and 2006, winning an ArenaBowl with the team in 2003—has already done a marvelous job rejuvenating a downtrodden VooDoo team this season. One enormous monkey sits on the backs of O'Hara, the players, and the fans, however: the VooDoo's inability to win at home.
New Orleans has lost 12 straight games in its home arena, dating back to 2008, and would love nothing more than to bury that curse on national television against Tampa Bay. The VooDoo come into this game with a head of steam after beating a very good Blaze team on the road, so keep an eye on how O'Hara keeps his troops' minds focused on the game and off of the bad home juju.
Watch VooDoo QB Kurt Rocco, too. After having no passing offense to speak of in 2011, New Orleans is suddenly No. 2 in the Arena Football League in passing offense and No. 1 in total offense. The VooDoo average about 333 passing yards per game this year—a marked improvement over last year's 238 ypg.
A lot of that improvement is a result of Rocco, who leads the league in passing yards and total offense per game, and who ranks No. 4 in pass efficiency. Last week in Utah, Rocco threw for 373 yards and nine touchdowns, committing no turnovers.
That kind of efficiency has resulted in the VooDoo giving the ball away only three times this year, tied for best in the league. Their current plus-7 turnover margin is a whole lot better than last year's minus-20.
Who to Watch - Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay's roster isn't full of a bunch of flunkies, though. The Storm boast the league's No. 6 passing offense, averaging just a hair under 300 passing yards per game—about a 40-yard-per-game improvement over last season. Considering that the field is 50 yards long, that's quite an improvement.
Stephen Wasil has been enjoying his gig as the Storm's new quarterback this season, ranking fifth in the league in passing offense and total offense per game. Not only will Wasil kill you with his arm, having thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the first three games, he'll kill you with his legs, too. He has scored five touchdowns on the ground—including at least one in each game—which leads the AFL.
Wasil wouldn't have those gaudy numbers without WR Prechae Rodriguez, though, who is tearing it up in the AFL in his rookie season. Rodriguez already has 34 receptions for 451 yards and nine touchdowns in just three games. He is second in the league in receptions per game (11.33) and leads the AFL by a long shot in receiving yards per game (150.3).
While Rocco is enjoying a very successful season so far, he's not going to find the sledding very easy against the Storm's No. 4 pass defense. Tampa Bay only allows 244.3 passing yards per game, and DB Erick McIntosh is among the league leaders in tackles, putting 7.5 opponents on the ground each week. (I'm speaking in terms of average here. He doesn't literally rip guys in half to get 7.5 tackles. Just so we're clear.)
Defensive back Riley Swanson is a thief. He has already stolen two passes intended for other teams, and he's picked a football up off the turf that belonged to someone else, single-handedly accounting for half of the team's six takeaways this year.
It will be an intriguing evening, watching how difficult McIntosh and Swanson are able to make Rocco's life.
Tampa Bay holds a 4-2 series advantage over New Orleans after last season's split. Can the Storm prevail in the Graveyard again this year, or will the VooDoo finally get a home victory for their fans? Tune in to the NFL Network on Friday at 8 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. New Orleans time, and find out.
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