By Spencer Lee
CLEVELAND — Week 1 did not go as planned for the Cleveland Gladiators (0-1) in their home opener against Tampa Bay. It is common to see offenses in the Arena Football League struggle to find their chemistry in the first couple games, but the game was a seesaw in the second half and winnable for the Glads.
However, when the team needed a defensive stop the most, Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard did not obey. Instead, he led five straight touchdown drives in the second half to lead his team to a 46-40 win over Cleveland. Gladiators head coach Ron Selesky was not pleased.
“When we needed a stop there at the end, we couldn’t get it,” Selesky said after the game.
This is a common storyline in every Arena Football game. The entire architecture of the sport was designed in 1981 by AFL founder Jim Foster and implemented in 1987 by Foster and Run ‘n’ Shoot godfather Darrel “Mouse” Davis to put the defense at a disadvantage, forcing shootouts and exciting fans with touchdown after touchdown. Whoever got that elusive defensive stop or stops in the fourth quarter would win the game.
So what does it take to get that defensive stop in a game where the defense is in an uphill battle every play?
“Personally, I don’t like giving up one point,” said second-year defensive end Nick Seither, who managed a sack on Hippeard in the opener. “But when the game is on the line and you need to make a stop, everyone just has to dig deep and take care of their one-eighth. What I mean by that is everyone has a job to do on every play. If all eight dudes do their job correctly, we will be successful.”
Gladiator fans don’t need to look too far back in history to understand this. In 2014, with Selesky as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Dominic Jones in the secondary, Cleveland got those stops in the clutch moments multiple times to pave the way for a 17-1 regular season record, which is still tied for the best regular season in AFL history, and an ArenaBowl appearance.
“In 2014, we were not the most talented secondary in the league, but we were the most together secondary in the league,” Jones said. “When you develop chemistry in the back end and as an entire defense, that’s when the key stops will come… and when it does, we will be scary good.”
Unfortunately for the Glads, the defense has had some early injuries. In the opener, defensive backs Fred Obi and Kent Richardson did not finish the game, but afterward, the team found out future AFL Hall of Famer Rayshaun Kizer will miss some time with an injury. There is no update on how long he will be out, but Kizer made his presence known on the second defensive drive of the game by robbing Hippeard of another touchdown pass in the end zone.
The team brought in two more defensive backs in third-year vet Kenny Veal and rookie C.J. Chatman to add depth if needed, but they will need the touted defensive line, which totaled two sacks and a forced fumble against Tampa Bay, to continue to grow to take the pressure off the secondary. Getting wins early in the season is paramount for the team to return to the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
“Injuries will occur, and when they do, others have to step up and do their part,” Jones added. “No one has to single-handedly win a game. That’s the beauty of it. Adversity will do one of two things, tear you apart or bring everyone closer together.”
The Gladiators will host the expansion Baltimore Brigade at The Q Sunday afternoon at 3 pm.