Arena Football League: At Last, the Pittsburgh Power Have Staying Power

Matt PopchockContributor IIJune 28, 2014

Pittsburgh Power receiver Rodney Wright hauls in one of his four touchdowns against the Iowa Barnstormers June 20.
Pittsburgh Power receiver Rodney Wright hauls in one of his four touchdowns against the Iowa Barnstormers June 20.Jeffrey Gamza/Pittsburgh Power Football

For whatever loyalists remain, the Arena Football League truly returned to Pittsburgh three years ago, when the Power pounded Iowa in Week 2 for their historic first win.

However, for those among the 6,657 at CONSOL Energy Center June 20 who have just begun to embrace the Steel City's other professional football team, the Power arrived with a marginally more laborious 57-27 beatdown of the Barnstormers that night. The result earned the resurgent franchise its first postseason berth.

The Power (11-3), winners of a club-record eight games in a row, owe the Barnstormers a visit that will be sandwiched between games at Jacksonville Saturday and New Orleans July 7, and the regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Soul July 26, back in Pittsburgh.

They sit one-and-a-half games behind the East Division-leading Cleveland Gladiators.

Their remaining opponents hold a combined record of 19-35 (.352 win percentage) entering Week 16, while the win percentage of the Gladiators' remaining foes computed to a slightly less pedestrian .459.

So, while the East title is not yet out of play, the more likely scenario has both teams holding serve and the Power settling for a trip to wherever the South Division champion resides—either Orlando or Tampa Bay, probably—for the American Conference semifinal.

But because head coach Ron James and his team have refused to settle for anything, don't expect his fabulous first season on the job to end quietly.

"A lot of teams would look at these last few weeks as a chance to iron the sails, but for us, it's just about getting better. We still don't feel like we're playing our best football," James said after practice at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. "We want to play cleanly for all four quarters, and that's going to be our focus this week."

To a man, the Power have refused to become self-satisfied, and they've refused to waste opportunities, including the ones that always go hand-in-hand with adversity. That became clear even before they had rid themselves of the stigma of never finishing with a winning record, let alone a playoff spot.

With 19 solo tackles, a career-high four sacks and a trademark Hannibal Lecter mask, Miami product James Bryant has been Ray Lewis without the rap sheet. Having emerged as perhaps the team's most feared—if not most colorful—leader, the Power's "mac" (pass-rushing) linebacker burst into the postgame press conference to hold court following a gritty 48-34 triumph over Cleveland May 31.

"The first game of the season, we blew it, period. In the second meeting, we wet the bed. Here, we went out there, we took their hearts, we played together, and we dominated, period," Bryant said, mask and all, after the Power's defense had finally out-toughed that of the Gladiators with four turnovers. "We go out there together and take care of each other. That's what makes our defense the number one defense."

The Barnstormers were in no position to challenge that boast after leaving town with a third straight loss. The Power struggled to a one-point lead at halftime but outscored them 36-7 in the second half, with the lone enemy score coming on a penalty-aided drive in the middle of the third quarter.

"We know that teams are going to come in here and nickel-and-dime us. They're going to cut me, cut the ends, and you know why? Because they can't frigging stop us," Bryant barked afterward, comparing the penalties called on said drive to others that were allegedly ignored.

"I want somebody to play us heads-up. That's a message to the league. All this cutting crap...come get us. This is ironman football. You play heads-up football with us the whole game, you're going to get blown the hell out of the water."

The Power's secondary, in particular, has made plenty of splash plays. They lead the league with 30 interceptions, including one by defensive back Brandon Freeman on the first play from scrimmage against Iowa. Pittsburgh ranks first in the AFL in both pass defense and total defense despite missing key players for much of the season.

Their most accomplished one, All-Arena cornerback Virgil Gray, was a full participant in practice Thursday, and he seems ready to return from a high ankle sprain. Fellow DB Latarrius Thomas may also see the field for the first time in a while, having just been taken off injured reserve.

Gray, like Freeman, ranks third in the AFL with eight picks, and he epitomizes the difference between this Power team and past ones: He's a great player who's made those around him great. Newcomer Al Phillips and 2013 returnee Sergio Gilliam have stepped up in his absence, and Arvell Nelson has shown the kind of traditional AFL tenacity and versatility to which Bryant referred.

"Virgil pulls it out of me," Freeman said of his own recent excellence. "I wish I had met that guy earlier in my career."

Player personnel director Brad Wittke, whom James credits for helping build his 2014 squad, could probably say the same for second-year kicker Julian Rauch.

When the Power's defense has been making those impact plays—and even when they haven't—their special teams have made them count.

Once upon a time, watching the Power search for stability on special teams was like watching Spinal Tap search for a drummer. Rauch, who ranks second among AFL kickers in total points, has enjoyed a sensational sophomore campaign.

He delivered the winning extra point in a last-second 62-61 victory at Orlando May 24, followed by a walk-off 23-yard field goal at Philadelphia June 14 to end a 57-56 contest and clinch a winning season for the Power. In both games Pittsburgh had to overcome offensive mistakes, early and late, that could have swung those results.

The Power have not let those mistakes on the field doom them, because their front office redeemed itself for erstwhile mistakes off the field by selecting former Utah quarterback Tommy Grady in the Blaze's dispersal draft. It doubly redeemed itself by firing woefully in-over-his-head Derek Stingley and reuniting the 2012 league MVP with former boss James.

Grady ranked second overall in yards (3,622) and touchdowns (86) entering Saturday. The Power are averaging 55.7 points per game, which ranks third (another franchise record) in the AFL.

Like his coach, he's still seeking that "perfect" game, but he wasn't far off against Iowa, completing 77 percent of his attempts for 334 yards and seven TDs. Grady has undoubtedly delivered on his preseason hype, and, apropos of the gentle giant's (6'7", 245 lbs.) unselfish disposition, he's had plenty of help.

The points haven't always come easily, given a long-term injury to Prechae Rodriguez and a season-ending ACL tear by Aaron Lesue. In the meantime, receiver Shaun Kauleinamoku has led the Power with 1,096 yards and 15 TDs. Rodney Wright and Tyrone Goard have come up big at various times. Plus, Grady and Rodriguez have still hooked up for 18 scores despite limited action for the latter.

"He's real calm, and he's clear about what he wants," Goard said after the win over Cleveland. "He demands perfection out of his receivers, because he knows he has talented ones. We just have to go out there and do what we've got to do."

No team in this league prospers without the right quarterback, or without an offensive line that boasts veterans like Antonio Narcisse and Tommy Taggart. Together, they have proved they are the right men to lead the Power to unprecedented glory.

James, with his simple, newcomer-friendly approach to the game, has put them in fine position to achieve that glory, regardless of who's on the field with his quarterback.

"Our goal wasn't just to make the playoffs, our goal was to win in the playoffs," Grady said, echoing James' sentiments. "We've got a lot of veteran guys in here who are hungry for a championships, so we've got to keep getting better each week."

Tougher opponents await them in August, and every ArenaBowl champion has needed a little bit of luck at some point, which is something that seemed to elude this franchise until James came along.

But we've seen the Pittsburgh Power come together in all three phases of the game. So who's to say, with this clever coach and his clever mix of old and new talent, that the Pittsburgh Power don't have the power to win it all?

"They've been resilient, and their work ethic has been outstanding," he crowed after walking off his home turf in triumph, hopefully not for the last time this season.

Respect: earned. Support: deserved.

Statistics courtesy of and Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.