Blaze Defense Gaining Momentum amidst Win Streak
SALT LAKE CITY – Seven weeks ago, Utah sat just one game above a .500 record in the midst of a three game slump. Today, the Blaze are riding high after a four-game winning streak has vaulted them into the third playoff spot in the National Conference.
Utah’s offense continues to light up the scoreboard, but the cause of the immaculate turnaround has been the stellar play of the Blaze defense. During its past four contests, Utah has surrendered just 41.5 points per game – second-best in the Arena Football League over that span.
“We didn’t change a lot of the personnel, we had to improve the performance of the personnel we had. A lot of that has to do with coaching and [defensive coordinator] Rob Keefe is a big reason for the improvement,” said President & Head Coach Ron James.
Keefe was hired as the new defensive coordinator of the Blaze on May 24th – days after Utah gave up a season-high 86 points in a loss to the Arizona Rattlers. “When you come in midseason as coach, you have to be observant,” said Keefe. “I wanted to see the talent we had and I wanted to see what kind of camaraderie we had. Is it one group, or is it eight individuals? I wanted to make sure we had a group of guys that want to play together.”
During its first 10 games, the Blaze defense surrendered an average of 312.4 yards in total offense. Since Keefe’s arrival, the unit has held opponents to just 272.4 yards per game while Utah has posted a 4-1 record. The on-field results have been phenomenal, and it’s reflected in the win column.
“The entire defense is playing together right now,” James said. “All the players are buying into the concept and it’s showing on the field.”
“The guys really understand what we expect of them and they believe in the changes we’ve made,” said Keefe. “The players want to work as a group. They don’t want to let the man next to them down, so they’re working hard every day on the field and in the film room.”
Perhaps the biggest test in seeing how far the unit has come will occur this Friday night, when the Blaze take to the road to face the top-ranked Rattlers (12-3) for the second time this season. Arizona owns the AFL’s third-best scoring offense (64.1 ppg) and employ the League’s reigning MVP at quarterback in Nick Davila. The matchup should provide a good indicator of just how effective the defense can be as Utah makes its final push towards the postseason.
“I have a lot of respect for Arizona,” said Keefe. “They’re a very well-coached team and they’re very physical. It will be a great test for us, but good teams that want to be winners want to play the best.”
“You have to be playing your best defense at the end of the season,” said James. “If you can do that, you have a real shot at winning a championship.”
ABOUT THE BLAZE
The Utah Blaze (10-5) holds possession of the third seed in the National Conference playoff race. The team returns to Tim Dahle Field at EnergySolutions Arena on Friday, July 13th to take on the Cleveland Gladiators in an NFL Network matchup. Tickets for the nationally-televised game are still available for purchase by calling 1-888-99BLAZE, or online at www.utblaze.com. Follow the Utah Blaze on Facebook (facebook.com/utahblaze) and Twitter (@utblaze) for all the latest news and updates.