Playoff spot in Thunder's reach
In a game that is based on offense, the Portland Thunder are close to making the Arena Football League playoffs primarily on the strength of their defense.
The Thunder (5-11) are two games ahead of their fellow AFL expansion team, the Los Angeles KISS (3-13), in the race to be one of the top four National Conference teams a finish that would earn a trip to the postseason.
With two regular-season games remaining, the KISS still have hope, but Portland would have to lose its last two games and Los Angeles would have to close with two victories (the KISS have the tiebreaker).
Here are the key games to go: July 19 San Antonio (1-15) at Los Angeles; July 20 Portland at Arizona (14-2); July 26, the final day of the regular season L.A. at Jacksonville (6-9), and Spokane (9-7) at Portland.
The Thunder have allowed just 53.4 points per game, a good stat by Arena standards. The Portland team also has intercepted 29 passes and recovered 18 fumbles.
Were really flying around looking to make things happen, says defensive back Bryce Peila, a 5-11, 205-pounder from Western Oregon University.
Peila and his defensive teammates were strong out of the gate this season, and they havent let up, although he says they arent satisfied.
We continue to work every day as a defense, Peila says. We know what were capable of. We still need to work on the little things. Being a new team and being young, it kind of gets into our heads and knocks us off what were here to do and thats to play football.
Thunder linebacker Donte Paige-Moss, 6-3, 270 and from North Carolina, says that Portlands success on defense comes from the way the Thunder practice.
Game day is the easy part, Paige-Moss says. We try to always work and hold ourselves accountable during practice. Were hard on each other on film. Its second nature now. Weve stayed consistent throughout the whole season.
For the first time in his life, Paige-Moss believes he is not the person on a team who wants it more than anyone else.
This is the first time where I couldnt say that I wanted to win and destroy somebody the most on the team, Paige-Moss says. We have a lot of guys on defense and offense who really want this. Everyone on this team has faced true adversity, and at one point, they thought it was over. But they kept going.
Thats one thing I appreciate about this team.
Thunder coach Matthew Sauk says he does not lay out specific goals about what he wants Portlands defense to achieve each game in terms of yardage and points allowed. However, in the AFL, he believes that four defensive stops usually should be enough to win a game.
Its really just getting stops, Sauk says. As a defense, you want to get about four stops a game. The goal is to stop them, and the more stops we get, the better well be able to score on offense.
Says Paige-Moss: One stop can be deadly. When you get two and three stops, thats when youre a championship-caliber defense in any league. You cant always expect the offense to score 60 or 70 points a game. Weve got to motivate the offense. If we have to win a game, thats what were going to do. As a whole defense, thats what we have to do.
Portland quarterback Kyle Rowley says the Thunder defense often gives the offense which is averaging 45.1 points per game an additional boost.
Weve got a good chemistry on our team, so were always feeding off guys who are making big plays, Rowley says. It helps us be excited.