In seven of their past nine games, the Utah Blaze have kept their opponent out of the end zone on at least one drive. Perhaps not so coincidently, they're 7-2 over that stretch.
Defensive coordinator Rob Keefe cites that as his favorite statistic the team has kept since he joined the staff nine games ago. In what is considered an offense-driven Arena Football League, making the first stop means quite a lot.
"I think we set the tone early," Keefe says. "I think out of the gate, we're not slow. We understand that every play does count and does matter."
Something has certainly changed for the better in the Blaze defense. In the first 10 games, opponents averaged 64 points against Utah. Now they're averaging less than 50.
Although Utah earned only one spot on the All-Arena defensive team Mike Lewis on defensive line the Blaze defense has learned to be more than the sum of its parts. It was as evident as ever in the franchise's first playoff win last week in San Antonio, as the unit held quarterback Aaron Garcia, recently named the No. 3 greatest AFL player ever, to only five touchdowns.
"We don't panic when the offense doesn't score," cornerback Will Mulder says. "We say, 'We've got y'all, we're gonna make a stop.' "
The improvement can be explained by a confluence of factors. The arrival of Keefe who led Spokane to an Arena Bowl championship two years ago and a fortunate run of staying healthy have helped. But perhaps most importantly, in the middle of a three-game losing streak, the players got tired of being scapegoats.
"We're not offense and defense we're a team," defensive end Caesar Rayford says. "We got each other's back. And everybody recognizes that now. Everybody has got to make plays. We're playing for a championship."
Schematically, Keefe started to run coverages that he ran in Spokane. It helped that the Blaze start three players Mulder, Antwan Marsh and Al Phillips who played under him in Spokane. He's also made a point to repeat himself over and over, even texting players in the night to make sure his coaching stays in their brains.
Keenan Mace's unique penetration up the middle has helped his fellow linemen get to the quarterback. During a seven-game stretch when he didn't play, the team had only four sacks. When he has seen time in the past eight games, the Blaze have 13 sacks.
The strongest component, players and coaches say, has been unity. One of the first things Keefe noticed upon his arrival was how the Blaze defenders celebrated one another's successes. Hopefully, he says, they'll be able to celebrate a championship in the same way.
"I think coach [Ron] James has done a good job of getting guys here who like each other and are friendly," Keefe says. "We know when we line up, someone's going to have a good game. Hopefully, everybody. But whoever makes the plays, we don't care who does it as long as we make them."
Utah Blaze (13-6) at Arizona Rattlers (14-5)
P At US Airways Center (Phoenix)
Kickoff • 8 p.m.
Radio • 97.5 FM
Live stream • ustream.tv/utahblaze
Previous meetings • Arizona beat Utah 86-70 at EnergySolutions Arena on May 19. … Utah beat Arizona 62-49 in Phoenix on July 6.
Summary • The Blaze try to win their second straight road playoff game for a berth to Arena Bowl XXV in New Orleans.