Tempered by defeat in AFL opener, team heads on road trip

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Portland Steel wide receiver Colt Lyerla, former Oregon Ducks tight end from Hillsboro, is introduced at Moda Center last week before his first Arena Football League game.As first impressions of football teams go, this one had to rank, well, somewhat lower than first.

The overall presentation and fan entertainment experience at Moda Center deserved passing marks — especially given a free ticket promotion — but on the field, the Portland Steel had less to enjoy last Friday. The Steel lost their Arena Football League 2016 opener 80-28 to the highly efficient and well-established Arizona Rattlers.

“We didn’t show ourselves to be anything but a below-average team,” said Ron James, Steel coach and general manager.

It was a perfect storm of turnovers and injuries and running into a really good, well-prepared opponent. And while it was only 1/16th of the regular season — and all eight AFL teams are guaranteed to make the playoffs this year — the loss left the Steel going back to the drawing board as they prepare for the first of three straight road games the rest of April.

“Obviously, they’re not getting the message right now,” James said of his players, an almost entirely new group from the Portland team that went 5-13 in 2015 under former coach Mike Hohensee.

Next up for the Steel is a game at 4:30 p.m. PT Saturday at Orlando. The Predators pounded the Tampa Bay Storm 76-25 in their opener last Friday. Orlando, like Arizona, has been around the AFL for a quarter-century. The Portland game will be the Predators’ home opener. Orlando was near the top of the league in attendance a year ago with 11,459 fans per home game.

After Orlando, the Steel will play on the road April 17 against the Philadelphia Soul, also one of the AFL’s better-oiled franchises and a 69-41 winner on opening night over the Cleveland Gladiators. Then comes a Portland visit to Arizona on April 30, followed by the Steel’s next home game, May 7 versus a seemingly improved L.A. KISS team that beat the Jacksonville Sharks 64-39.

If that’s not a Murderer’s Row, it’s at least a dangerous path for a young Steel team to be going down unless it can cut way back on its first-game errors, which included four turnovers that gave Arizona four easy touchdowns.

“It was a first-game situation, and we didn’t handle the pressure well,” James said of his offense’s response to the defensive pressure applied by the Rattlers before the announced crowd of 6,782.

Steel quarterback Danny Southwick threw two pick-sixes and lost two costly fumbles while looking to pass.

“Sometimes in this game, things start piling up, and they piled up on us,” Southwick said. “They (the Rattlers) can do that to a lot of teams, and we were a victim of that (on Friday).”

Southwick went to the bench after completing 19 of 37 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns. His replacement, Kasey Peters, was 4 of 15 for 52 yards and one TD in his first real AFL action.

Southwick said it was just one game.

“It’s easy to think, boy, we just don’t have a chance, but if we lined up and played them again in a week, things could be different,” he said. “I’ve been on (arena) teams where we got killed and came back and beat a team. It’s never 25 plays that decide a game, it’s like 10 plays. You need to get the majority of them, and all 10 went Arizona’s way."

“We’re not an 80-28 team, I promise you. That’s not reflective of us.

“Yes, it will take us getting better, but we have the players if we play cohesively.”

And get healthy. Nick Truesdell, considered the Steel’s top receiver, rolled an ankle in the end zone after hauling in a Southwick touchdown pass — for a 7-0 lead — on Portland’s third play. A handful of other Steel players were hobbling as the game went on, too.

Bright spots for Portland included wide receiver Tom Gilson’s 12 receptions for 128 yards and one TD, and returning receiver Jared Perry getting eight catches for 117 yards and a score.

And Colt Lyerla, the former Oregon Ducks tight end from Hillsboro, made his AFL debut in satisfactory fashion. He caught two passes, one of them a 6-yard TD slant pass from Southwick, and said it felt great to be back on a football field after nearly two years away from the game due to injuries.

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