Breakers shift focus to ground game, and it pays off vs. Maulers

Breakers shift focus to ground game, and it pays off vs. Maulers

May 22

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The New Orleans Breakers found a way to get back on track. For the Pittsburgh Maulers, meanwhile, it's back to the drawing board.

Running backs Anthony Jones and Jordan Ellis each scored touchdowns as the Breakers ground their way to a 26-16 victory on Sunday, a gritty performance following a lackluster loss to New Jersey in Week 5.

The victory lifted the Breakers to 4-2 on the season, keeping them within two games of the Birmingham Stallions, who lead the South Division at 6-0.

On the flip side, the Maulers (1-5) were brought back down to Earth after earning their first win of the season last week in dramatic fashion — a 21-20 triumph over Houston.

Ground and pound

After signing with the Breakers following an injury to former North Carolina running back T.J. Logan earlier this month, former Florida International running back Jones made his presence known against the Maulers' defense. He punctuated an 18-play, 94-yard march downfield with his first USFL TD.

That drive took more than nine minutes off the clock in the first quarter and gave New Orleans a lead it would not relinquish. 

Jones was responsible for 44 rushing yards on the first scoring drive of the game. His ability to pick up the ground game behind Breakers' leading rusher Ellis was pivotal with QB Kyle Sloter's groin injury limiting his ability to run and cut at full speed. 

New Orleans' ability to go fast — snapping the ball as quickly as possible — is predicated by its ability to run the ball effectively. Jones allowed them to operate at Breaker speed in the first quarter.

The ground game came up big again in the third quarter. The Breakers were nursing a 10-3 lead as they took over at midfield with 6:42 to go in the period.

The ensuing 10-play drive took more than five minutes off the clock and included zero pass attempts. Jones carried the ball six times for 30 yards on the drive, while Ellis had four rushes for 20 yards, including a 5-yard dash into the end zone to make it 17-3.

Ellis finished with 47 yards on 13 carries, while Jones churned out 102 yards on 22 rushes. The Breakers' shifting of emphasis to the running game was something that was planned.

"We talked about it in practice," Ellis said. "We prepared for this moment. We're just showing what we prepared for all week. … We feed off each other." 

Growing pains

Pittsburgh quarterback Vad Lee was the toast of the league in Week 5 after leading Pittsburgh to a last-second victory over Houston. Sunday was a different story.

The Breakers made life difficult for Lee, especially in the first half, when they held him to 3-for-9 passing for 28 yards. 

Lee started to turn things around in the second half, but things were still spotty, and communication was an issue for he and his receivers in just his second game with the team. 

With about 12:30 to go, Lee just missed a wide-open Bailey Gaither for what would have been a touchdown. The Maulers still threatened to score but were thwarted when Lee threw a pick-six to Ike Brown. It was Brown's second interception of the game.

On the play, it appeared that Lee expected Gaither to stop on his route, but Gaither never turned his head and the pass went right into Brown's hands, who dashed 97 yards for a touchdown to make it 23-3.

A few minutes later, Lee did connect with Gaither on a 22-yard TD. He added a rushing touchdown to bring the Maulers within a score, 23-16, with 5:14 remaining. But a New Orleans field goal iced the game.

Lee's second half was much more productive than his first, and he finished by completing 14 of his 31 passes for 173 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. But there is clearly still much work to be done.

What can Brown do for you?

Brown was Lee's primary tormentor on Sunday. The 24-year-old out of FIU picked off two passes, including the 97-yard pick-six. 

That score was the flashy one, of course, but his first interception might have been even more impressive, especially the way he broke on the out pattern and simply took it away from Gaither.

What really was remarkable about the second interception — despite the fact that Brown took it to the house — is that teammate Jarey Elder saw it coming.

In fact, Elder called it moments before it happened, saying: "That's your pick Dawg!" Check it out.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.