The Atlantic City Blackjacks are for real. And now they have a chance to be real good.
Boardwalk Hall is the stage for an important Arena Football League battle between the 2-2 Blackjacks and the 4-0, first-place Albany Empire 7 p.m. Saturday, May 25. Albany comes off a 56-40 win in Columbus, while the Blackjacks notched a convincing 48-41 triumph over the Baltimore Brigade last weekend at the Hall. The victory looked larger than the final score, because Baltimore secured a touchdown on the final play and notched a two-point conversion.
The Blackjacks are one of four teams deadlocked at 2-2 behind Albany, the early class of the league. Atlantic City took a prominent step last week, leading wire-to-wire and applying the type of defensive pressure capable of notching victories against the league’s best teams. The Blackjacks have won both their home games and become one of the better teams in the AFL circuit.
Atlantic City is not a typical expansion team. The Blackjacks have a nucleus of proven players and are led by Ron James, the league’s Coach of the Year in 2017.
One of his principles for building a team is having a short memory.
“I am happy with the overall development of our team,” James says. “We have fought hard in every game and have shown the ability to make each game its own animal, so to speak. The rule is you have 24 hours after the game to celebrate or 24 hours to commiserate and then you have to get ready for the next game. We know an excellent team is coming in here next.”
Albany averages 44 points a game and yields just under 34, both league bests. The Empire play their third consecutive road game while Atlantic City enjoys the middle rung of a three-game homestand. The Blackjacks complete the important home stretch against Baltimore June 1 before playing its next four games on the road.
After the Baltimore victory, James awarded the game to defensive coordinator Sergio Gilliam, a rare move in an offensive-minded league. Gilliam organized a structure of disguised coverages and defensive back Kiante Northington made two early interceptions, including one in the end zone, helping the Blackjacks preserve their early advantage. A fumble recovery by Donte Rumph opened the second half, leading to a score that extended Atlantic City’s edge to 27-13. For the Blackjacks, the evening became a collection of big plays.
“We had some good pressure from the defensive line and all the DB’s were where we were supposed to be,” Northington indicates. “That was a great team performance.”
It was a prelude to the type of matchup Saturday could be. Atlantic City defenders had an excellent read on Baltimore’s receivers and will need the same effort against Albany, which struck on a number of deep passes in defeating Columbus.
Empire quarterback Tommy Grady threw for seven touchdowns, several in the 20-30-yard range that illustrate the advantage offenses have in sending a receiver in motion before the snap to enable quick downfield passes.
Grady’s ability to hit the mid to deep throwing plays, matched against Atlantic City’s coverage, is a story line for this week.
Another angle will feature Atlantic City’s offense, which James thought could have scored 60 against Baltimore without a couple turnovers. Quarterback Randy Hippeard set the tone with a first-possession scoring drive and tossed to a receiving corps including LaMark Brown and Kendrick Ings. While Brown has been Hippeard’s favorite target, Ings made a crucial fumble recovery in the end zone, extending a second-quarter lead to 20-7. A turnover at that point would have changed the momentum.
“We were methodical,” James says. “The offense played well and the defense gave the ball back to us. It’s been great to be part of Atlantic City. We love the home cooking here.”
If the team cooks up a win Saturday, it will make a major statement.