ALBANY — Head coach Rob Keefe was somewhere in the middle of the mass of football players after practice at Times Union Center early Wednesday afternoon.
His entire speech wasn’t audible to outsiders, but snippets referring to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets escaped the sound barrier.
Later that night, the Warriors lost leading scorer Kevin Durant to injury in the third quarter of a close game against the Rockets, but scraped together a five-point victory to take a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Western Conference semifinals.
Keefe’s message was for the Empire to look for examples of intense, motivated play outside the box of their chosen sport as inspiration, and his timing was not a coincidence, since his players will square off against their toughest challenge of the young Arena Football League season so far, against the Philadelphia Soul at Wells Fargo Center at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Both teams are 2-0, and Philadelphia is in position to start 3-0 for the third straight season.
It may be early in the season, but Keefe wants his team to exhibit the same fire as a team duking it out with a fierce rival in an NBA conference semifinal.
“Anytime there’s a competitive sport on TV we have an opportunity to watch, we want to make sure you watch that,” he said. “It shows the fire and desire these guys have at the professional level, just like us, and it motivates you.
“If it’s the Wimbledon championship, Daytona 500, whatever it might be, if you’re not privy to the sport, watch how next-level and intense those games can be. That’s probably exactly what this game’s going to be for us.”
In Albany’s first AFL season, the series between the two teams was tied 2-2, including a wild 75-74 Soul victory at the TU Center that featured 22 touchdowns.
The scoring could be more subdued this time, based on the fact that the Empire has been stingy in allowing points in two games and features the AFL’s all-time sack leader, Joe Sykes.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, has not allowed a sack in two games.
Keefe said he appreciates the job the defense has done while quarterback Tommy Grady gets to know a receiving corps with Malachi Jones and some new faces. Jones led the AFL in receiving yards (1,156) last year, while his Philadelphia counterpart, Darius Prince, led in receptions (89).
“It’s big that we know we have each other’s backs,” Keefe said. “If the offense is struggling, the defense is going to be there to support them. If the defense is struggling, the offense is going to make sure they’re putting up points and they’re playing well off each other.
“There was a series [in a Week 2 win over Washington] where they threw an interception to us, then the very next drive, we threw an interception to them, and the very next drive, we did stop them. So it didn’t hurt us. When you have those series back and forth like that, it takes some of the pressure off the offense. Nobody’s going to panic, that’s what I love about it. It goes both ways.”
That said, Grady is eager for he and his receivers to move past the “getting-to-know-you” phase.
“A few more games, and we’ll be right on track,” he said. “But I think we’re moving along good, and we’re winning, which is all that matters.”
Like his coach, Grady is expecting an intense battle at Wells Fargo Center against a physical team with a defensive line that consistently brings pressure and a group of defensive backs who form a cohesive unit because they’ve been playing together for a long time.
“You’ve just got to fight through some stuff, and Philadelphia’s not an easy place to play, either,” he said. “You just have to battle through the ups and downs of the game.”
Jones was named AFL Offensive Player of the Week after catching six passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns against the Valor.
Even if isn’t the primary target on any given play, he’s always a terrific fallback option for Grady.
“I don’t always look for him, but he seems to always find a way to get open,” Grady said. “The biggest thing is, when I put the ball in his hands, he makes people miss. He’s one of the only guys in this league who take a hitch and score a touchdown.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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