SALT LAKE CITY -- After a record-breaking start, the Utah Blaze have dropped two pivotal division games and are in desperate need of a defensive turnaround to stay relevant in the Arena Football League's National Conference West Division.
"We've had two sub-standard performances in a row against the upper-echelon teams in this league," coach Ron James said. "That says it all, because right now we are not playing at that level. We have to be on top of our game to beat these teams."
Utah's first-half apex came during an 84-63 win over the Spokane Shock on May 4 when the team set a franchise record for points scored and Blaze quarterback Tommy Grady became the third player in AFL history to throw 11 touchdown passes in a game.
The win also marked the best start in franchise history at 6-2.
Utah's tops the league in passing offense with 3,219 yards (322 per game) and ranks second in total offense (3343). Grady leads the league in passing (329 per game average), total offense at 3,332 yards and touchdowns (80).
The former University of Utah shot-caller can be inconsistent when pressured, though, as Saturday's four interceptions against the Rattlers attests. Utah's offensive line didn't give Grady the time he needed forcing him into poor throws, turnovers, and eventually points as the Blaze defense was helpless to stop Arizona QB Nick Davila (who threw 11 touchdowns himself in the game).
Grady's favorite target, Aaron Lesue, is also sitting atop the league leaderboards in scoring with 226 points (22.6 per game) and touchdowns (37). And despite his 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame "is truly a gifted athlete," James said after a big outing for Lesue earlier this season.
But as the adage goes, defense wins championships, and right now the Blaze are aching for guys to offer some kind of consistency, especially in the secondary.
"Look at this game," James said after Arizona's 86-70 drubbing on Saturday. "We didn't play a lick of defense."
The Blaze sit dead last in scoring defense, allowing 64 points-per-game and a league-high 93 touchdowns. Utah is also second-to-last in red zone defense with the opposition scoring 88.6 percent of the time.
Utah is allowing opponents to convert on fourth down a whopping 68 percent of the time (second worst in the league) and not a single Utah DB made the passes defended list, a key stat in arena football.
The one defensive bright spot -- although it's waned over the last few games -- is on the line, under the tutelage of James.
Once leading the league in sacks, the Blaze are now third in the league with 21 for a total of 108 yards.
After a terrible defensive showing and a host of mental mistakes on Saturday, James shared what he and the coaching staff told their guys.
"The message is simple: we're going to play our smartest players, all the way through," he said. "And if you're not one of those players, you're not going to see the field because at the end of the day we have to play together and we have to be intelligent about what we do."
On the cusp of the midway point, Utah's next test comes this Saturday at EnergySolutions Arena against a surging San Antonio team. James acknowledged his team's ability to win games has put them in a decent position at the halfway point, but if they plan on making the playoffs, the defense needs to start making plays.
"We're fortunate to be in this position," he said. "But for us to rebound against San Antonio we have to play a strong game and we have to find some answers on the defensive side of the ball."