ALBANY — Riding a five-game winning streak, the unbeaten Albany Empire owes a great deal of its success to the magic number “4.”
That’s not only the jersey number of veteran quarterback Tommy Grady, who is once again leading a high-powered, extremely efficient offense, but it’s also the amount of defensive possession stops the Empire strives for in every game.
If Grady and the opportunistic Empire defense continue to click, the Empire has an excellent chance to continue its winning streak against the defending Arena Football League-champion Washington Valor Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Times Union Center.
“We believe strongly in our goals,” said Empire jack linebacker Terence Moore, who tops the team with two interceptions. “Our goal every week is to get four [possession] stops. If we get those four stops, we know we can win. We live by that and fight hard to get them every game.”
Moore’s primary responsibility Saturday will be to shadow mobile Washington quarterback Arvell Nelson, a dynamic two-way threat who paces the AFL in passing yards (1,335), rushing yards (115) and rushing touchdowns (eight). Despite his personal success this season, Nelson has thrown a league-high five interceptions. In an earlier matchup with the Empire, Nelson completed only 20 of 40 passes and was intercepted by Moore.
“Arvell will be a difficult guy to prepare for,” said Moore, the defending AFL Defensive Player of the Year. “He can throw the ball, and he can make plays with his feet. He’s definitely a load to bring down. He’s a great athlete. He has the mentality of a running back, and he won’t go down easy. He won’t slide. I’ll try my best to contain him.”
The Empire boasts the AFL’s top defense, mostly because of head coach Rob Keefe’s aggressive game plan.
“The theme of four stops is important for us,” Keefe said. “For us, a stop is an interception, a fumble recovery, stopping an onside kick, getting the bar ball off the net or stopping them on four downs. Normally, that correlates to a decisive victory if you can get four stops in a game.”
But unlike last year, when league rules allowed for more clock stoppages, scoring is down in the AFL this year, and the point differentials are closer.
“All the teams are starting to notice a difference because the timing rules have changed,” Keefe explained. “The clock is different now at the end of the half and the end of the game. You can’t win by 28 or 35 points like you were able to do last year. Now, it seems a two-possession game is max, unless the other team is really struggling. The games are always close.”
Keefe is extremely proud of his team’s ball-hawking defense, but there is no doubt that Empire’s offense is also exceptionally productive.
“We really wanted to build a team that is cohesive, and I think we have accomplished that,” Keefe said. “All of the new receivers, like DJ Stephens and Quentin Sims, have learned the system just like our veterans Malachi Jones and Collin Taylor. Tommy feels comfortable with our wide receivers and our offensive line. It gives him a tremendous amount of confidence. Plus, our meeting room is unbelievable. The guys are very unselfish. For example, our wideouts know how to take two defensive guys with them on routes to free someone else up. Tommy is flourishing in that environment.”
Grady has completed 104 of 145 passes for 1,280 yards, 28 TDs and just three interceptions so far. He spreads the wealth every game, with Jones (45 catches, 365 yards, 11 TDs), Stephens (21 catches, 273 yards, four TDs) and Sims (20 catches, 229 yards, eight TDs) leading the way.
“When you get in a rhythm in arena football, it’s hard to stop you,” Grady said. “My wide receivers put me in position to make good throws, and we’re all feeling good right now. We hope to keep on going.”
Although he was virtually untouched by opposing defenders in the first three games, Grady has been pushed around and out of the pocket recently. He doesn’t mind.
“It’s not fun to get hit, but in some games, I get hit more than others,” he said. “I don’t like getting hit too much, but sometimes I get more into the game when I get hit a little. That’s just part of the game.
“We always want to get better. It’s too early to look ahead. Every team in this league is good, and you have to show up and play every week.”
Keefe said his team relishes its position in the standings.
“Pressure means opportunity,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the pressure of being 5-0, we wouldn’t be doing that well,” he said. “It’s good to have that pressure, but it’s still too early to be talking about anything except our next game. Even during our three-game road trip, we didn’t talk about it being three games. We take it one game at a time, and now it’s Washington. We do understand that at 5-0, we’ll get everybody’s best, and we’re up to the challenge.”
Jones was named the AFL’s Offensive Player of the Week after hauling in 12 receptions for 106 yards and three TDs in the Empire’s 54-35 win over the Atlantic City Blackjacks.
Washington’s offense features two wideouts with at least 30 catches so far, Dezmon Epps and Jared Dangerfield. They are both among the league’s top five in receptions.
The Valor has won three straight after an 0-2 start.
The Empire will partner with Hannaford Supermarkets to host a food drive Saturday. All donations toward the food drive will benefit the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Any fan who brings three or more non-perishable food items to the Hannaford table on the concourse at this week’s game will be granted two ticket vouchers good for any of the Empire’s remaining regular-season home games. The Hannaford table will be located outside of sections 104-105 on the main concourse of Times Union Center and will be available immediately after the doors open. Limit is two ticket vouchers per fan.