TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland Steel defensive end Reggie Wilson comes up with an early Tampa Bay Storm fumble, as linebacker Bryce Peila helps him get up and going on the return Friday night at Moda Center.A prideful Portland defense was a handful for Tampa Bay on Friday. Way too much of a handful.

The Steel used its defensive swarm — with help from the special teams and offense — to blow out the Storm 68-35 at Moda Center and end two months of frustration.

The Steel came into the game with an 0-8 Arena Football League — and after seven straight games on the road. Their first home appearance since April 1 was their best outing of the season, especially for a defense that had come under a lot of criticism.

Portland converted six turnovers into 40 points and led all the way against a Storm team that fell to 1-8.

The Steel, hit hard by injuries all season, were a little healthier than they have been, a little more rested and a little to a lot more motivated because of the chance to get a win in front of their home fans.

“The players played with great energy and great effort,” coach Ron James said. “We finally looked like an Arena Football League team instead of a patchwork organization.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Reggie Wilson of the Portland Steel takes off down the sideline with a fumble recovery and scores from 31 yards against the Tampa Bay Storm, giving Portland a 7-0 lead.From the start, Portland’s defense took control.

Defensive lineman Reggie Wilson recovered a botched Tampa Bay snap from center and returned the ball 31 yards for the game’s first touchdown (also his first TD in AFL action).

"A little fire to get the guys going,” Wilson said.

Linebacker Bryce Peila, back from an injury, recovered a fumble moments later, which led to another Portland TD, on a 4-yard pass from QB Shane Austin to receiver Jared Perry (back from an injury). That gave the Steel a 14-0 lead through one quarter.

“Coach James emphasized starting fast,” Peila said. “We were very eager to get the monkey off our back. The whole D-line played tremendous, and that helped me and our defensive backs.”

The lead continued to grow, with Portland DB Sergio Gilliam intercepting two passes and making nice returns and six tackles on his way to earning defensive player of the game honors.

“We certainly had the confidence,” Gilliam said. “We just needed to put together a whole game. The coaches challenged us to make plays. We wanted to set a tone early, jump on them and let the offense feed off of us.”

Steel defensive players didn’t like how they were characterized as “atrocious” in one article in another market during the week.

“They don’t see what kind of work we put in every day and what it takes to be a professional athlete,” Peila said, of the critics.

“We just worked at cleaning up the little things,” Wilson said of the Steel practices this week. “We’ve always believed in each other.

“Guys have pride. We came out and made the hits, made sure on our tackling.”

James gave credit across the board, from assistant coach Will Mulder on down.

“Coach Mulder had a great scheme on defense, and a much-maligned group took things to heart,” James said. “We got great contributions from everybody.

“The communication on defensive was excellent,” James said.

He noted that new arrival Shaine Boyle helped solidy the secondary, Gilliam was in the right spots at the right times, “and the pass rush made the quarterback hurry some throws.”

Peila, a third-year Portland player from Western Oregon University, had missed four games with a bruised heel/stress fracture. He returned to practice this week, still relying on bags of ice to make it through. He could hardly wait till Friday night’s kickoff.

“I could barely sleep last night — it felt like today was my first day of school, I was so excited,” Peila said.

“It helped the energy of our defense, having him back,” James said, “and he was able to be a catalyst on special teams, too.”

James had called out the special teams after the previous week’s tough loss on the road against the Los Angeles KISS. Portland was leading in the fourth quarter when the KISS tallied two quick touchdowns off botched kickoff returns by the Steel, and both the return game and kickoff coverage by Portland had been spotty, at best, most of the season.

“Special teams have been a big focus,” said Tyrone Goard, a 6-4 wide receiver who caught two touchdown passes on Friday and ran for another TD, but also made an impact with his help on the kickoff team.

“I love kickoffs,” Goard said. “I’d be on kickoffs any day.”

The Steel looked very comfortable and happy playing at home for the first time since April 1.

“My entire career, I’ve never been on the road for as long as we were ,” Wilson said. “It’s no excuse, but it was so great to be back at home and to be able to get our bodies ready for this one.”

The crowd was announced as 5,136, the lowest in a long time — and the figure may have been generous — but Steel players said the noise level sounded like a more people than that.

“It felt like a huge crowd,” Gilliam said. “Just being at home made a big difference.”

“The crowd was sparse, but they came with a lot of energy, and the players fed off that,” James said.

“We do it for them, but that’s not the whole reason we do it,” Peila said. “We love the game, and we make sure we compete. We take pride in our jobs.”

sbr[email protected]