Breakers manhandle mistake-prone Bandits, earn playoff berth
The Breakers capitalized on several Bandits miscues to wrap up the final USFL postseason berth, Eric D. Williams writes.
By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Kaboom.
That’s the sound of the Tampa Bay Bandits imploding in 17-6 loss to the New Orleans Breakers.
The Bandits played a mistake-filled game, laying the groundwork for a convincing win by the Breakers for the second time this season. The Breakers defeated the Bandits, 34-3, in Week 2.
With the win, New Orleans improved to 6-3 overall, grabbing the last berth into the USFL postseason.
The playoffs two weeks from now in Canton are set. The New Jersey Generals (8-1) will face the Philadelphia Stars (5-3) to determine the North Division champion, while the Birmingham Stallions (8-1) take on the Breakers to decide the South Division.
Tampa Bay dropped to 4-5 on the season. A 30-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from Jordan Ta’amu to Rashard Davis saved the Bandits from joining the Pittsburgh Maulers as the only teams held scoreless this season.
The game was all but over after the first half, as the Breakers dominated on defense. New Orleans finished with four takeaways, three sacks and 14 tackles for loss.
Linebacker Jerod Fernandez led the charge, finishing with eight combined tackles (including two for a loss), a sack and two forced fumbles.
"It feels great (to be going to Canton)," Fernandez said. "It’s an opportunity to play more games, and an opportunity to go out and try and win a championship. And that’s what we’re going to do."
In all, the Bandits were called for 13 penalties for 109 yards, including an unsportsmanlike penalty on Todd Haley when he threw his call sheet on the field after a roughing-the-passer call on New Orleans defensive lineman Kamilo Tongamoa was reversed.
"We just did too many things to beat ourselves in this football game," Haley said. "That’s really what it comes down to."
Backup quarterback Zach Smith provided a spark for New Orleans, replacing an ineffective Kyle Sloter after two unproductive series.
Smith promptly orchestrated a 14-play, 91-yard drive, capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Sal Canella. However, Taylor Bertolet missed the extra point and the Breakers led 6-0 with 7:27 left in the first half.
New Orleans head coach Larry Fedora replaced Sloter after he threw an interception to Tampa Bay linebacker Anthony Butler on the opening drive and on the next drive, fumbled the ball after getting drilled by defensive end Jeff McCulloch on a four-yard sack. Fortunately, New Orleans offensive lineman Jared Thomas recovered the loose ball.
The Bandits could not take advantage of New Orleans’ mistakes and had trouble with their own head-scratching errors. That included a roughing the punter call on Vinny Papale that extended New Orleans’ first scoring drive and a Rashard Davis fumble after a long catch near midfield.
That turnover led to another score for the Breakers, a 26-yard field goal by Bertolet, extending the Breakers’ lead to 9-0.
Smith, however, suffered a left shoulder injury on an inside run and had to leave the game, leaving the door open for Sloter.
Ta’amu overthrew running back BJ Emmons in the flat on the ensuing possession. Derrick Jones caught the overthrown pass and almost returned it for a score. A play later, Jordan Ellis ran it in from three yards out, and a Sloter pass to tight end Sal Cannella gave the Breakers a commanding 17-0 lead.
Just before halftime, Tampa Bay had a promising drive stalled by back-to-back unsportsmanlike calls on offensive tackle Jarron Jones, who had to be restrained from going after one of the coaches on the sideline.
The Bandits finished with 352 total yards. But they turned the ball over on three consecutive drives, which led to 10 points for the Breakers, who staked out a 17-point lead they would never relinquish.
Breakers looking for clarity at QB
With two dinged-up quarterbacks, New Orleans head coach Larry Fedora will have a decision to make at starting quarterback next week.
Sloter finished 7-for-14 for 48 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. He was sacked twice. Although Sloter leads the USFL in passing yards, he also has struggled with taking care of the football as he's thrown a league-high 11 interceptions.
Sloter suffered a right foot injury in the third quarter and continued to play. He was replaced in the first quarter by Smith, who seemed to give the offense a spark. Fedora said he planned to play Smith in the game, and that after the backup left the game with a left shoulder injury in the second quarter, he was healthy enough to return.
Smith finished 5-of-6 for 51 yards and a touchdown.
"Kyle’s our starter," Fedora said. "We were going back with him. But Zach’s okay. He’s fine. He could have gone back in the game if we needed him to."
So, in a meaningless game next week against the Houston Gamblers with the playoffs looming, who’s going to start at quarterback for New Orleans?
"That’s a good question," Fedora said. "We’ll look at the film, talk about it and see who’s healthy. And who can help us win a game."
Haley, Bandits shooting for .500
After an up-and-down first season as head coach of the Bandits, Haley said his team still has something to play for next week when they face the Stallions.
"It will feel a lot better to win, beat Birmingham and not have a losing record, than having a losing record," Haley said. "That will be the message all week."
Haley’s Bandits had to deal with some emotion during the game, with former defensive players Reggie Howard Jr. and Christian Sam – they were released last week – now playing for the Breakers.
And with all the players staying in the same hotel, it led to some awkward moments during the week and some chirping on the field.
"It’s a different deal," Haley said. "You release a player, and then you’re standing on the elevator with him. It’s different. Then you’re out on the field. But the message all week was we can’t be the one to make a mental/emotional mistake."
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.