By Rob Rang
FOX Sports Draft Analyst
It is the nature of football — regardless of the league — to focus on the quarterbacks.
But the difference in Sunday’s 26-16 victory by the New Orleans Breakers over the Pittsburgh Maulers was much more than just the statistical superiority of the USFL’s leading passer Kyle Sloter over his counterpart Vad Lee.
That isn’t to suggest that the quarterback play was even. Relegated to mostly passing from the pocket due to a badly injured groin that limited his mobility, Sloter was nevertheless efficient. He sliced up the Maulers' defense in the first half and rode a stable of running backs in the second half to push the Breakers to a 4-2 record on the season.
Sloter was far from dominant, finishing with just 92 passing yards on 13-for-21 passing, but the Breakers did not turn the ball over, which had been a season-long issue for the club.
Showing the resiliency that attracted Pittsburgh to him in the first place — and earned the Maulers their first win of the season a week ago — Vad Lee shook off an ugly first half (3-for-9 for 28 yards and an interception) to make the game entertaining. He finished 19 of 32 for 170 yards and two touchdowns (one as a runner).
Lee couldn't overcome his two interceptions, however, and in the end it was the defenses that stole the show on Sunday.
Here's who stood out the most in New Orleans' victory Sunday.
Ike Brown, CB, Breakers
Both of Lee's interceptions went to New Orleans cornerback Brown — and both came at critical moments in the game, the latter of which Brown returned 97 yards for a back-breaking touchdown just as Lee and the Maulers were starting to show some signs of life.
The 97-yard interception for a score was the longest in the USFL this season.
It served as the perfect capper for Brown, who locked down Maulers’ wideout Bailey Gaither throughout most of the game.
Gaither entered the contest leading the USFL with an average of 89 receiving yards per game, and made eight catches for two TDs, including the game-winner, a week ago. He was held to two catches for 29 yards on Sunday, though he did exact some revenge in the fourth quarter, showing impressive body control, awareness and sticky hands to haul in a 22-yard touchdown toss from Lee with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game.
Notably, though, the Maulers had moved Gaither inside to the slot on this touchdown reception, where he was matched up against New Orleans’ nickel cornerback Manny Patterson, rather than Brown.
At six-foot, 190 pounds, Brown shows impressive downhill explosiveness. On both of his interceptions, he read Gaither’s route (and Lee’s eyes) and broke towards the line of scrimmage, snatching the ball out of the air.
Though the 97-yard return for a touchdown certainly was the "Play of the Game," this was a relatively simple play. The still-developing timing between Gaither and Lee (signed to the team less than two weeks ago) was apparent, with the receiver failing to get his head around quickly enough to collect a quick slant from his new quarterback.
While the fault certainly lies with Gaither for this mistake, Lee didn’t help his receiver much, tossing the ball early and behind his intended target, giving Brown an easy route to the ball — and the opposite end zone.
The more impressive interception from Brown was actually his first one, where he beautifully anticipated a quick out from Gaither as the Maulers’ attempted to pick up a third down. Sitting at the yard-to-gain marker with little concern about Gaither running deeper, Brown showed textbook "click and close" ability, dropping a few yards before exploding back towards the line of scrimmage and making a nice diving interception.
Ethan Westbrooks, DL, Maulers
While Brown certainly delivered in the Breakers’ victory, the best player on the field was Westbrooks, who NFL fans may well remember, as he spent five years with the Rams, amid several other stops since leaving Los Angeles in 2018.
Westbrooks was "only" credited with two sacks in this contest, but Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2022 USFL Draft was much more impactful than this would suggest.
Lining up inside and out, the 6-foot-4, 287-pounder showed power, agility and the clean technique one might expect of a player with 68 games of NFL experience under his belt. Westbrook’s frequent pressures helped fellow Pittsburgh defensive linemen like Jeremiah Pharms and Carlo Kemp feast, with each racking up eye-popping stat lines.
The 6-foot-3, 301-pound Pharms was actually Pittsburgh’s most productive defensive lineman in this contest, collecting nine tackles and combining with the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Kemp (six tackles) to notch a second sack for the Maulers.
While one need only check out the box score to recognize that his teammates were more productive, no one on the field Sunday was more destructive and impactful than Westbrooks.
Initially lining up inside at defensive tackle, Westbrooks frequently collapsed the interior of the Breakers’ offensive line, delivering heavy blows to Sloter.
His first sack, however, came after lining up at right defensive end (over the left tackle), where he showed excellent snap anticipation to get an early jump, as well as impressive flexibility to dip under the reach of New Orleans’ 6-foot-4, 335-pound left tackle Kai Absheer, turn the corner and close on Sloter.
Needing a quick stop on defense with his team trailing by double-digit points in the fourth quarter, Westbrooks showed that his underrated agility and speed were made only more effective with unrelenting effort. After initially rushing upfield to push Sloter out of the pocket, Westbrooks chased down the athletic dual-threat quarterback for a second sack, forcing a New Orleans punt.
Jordan Ellis and Anthony Jones, RBs, Breakers
While defenders certainly stole the spotlight in this contest, the Thunder and Lightning attack shown by the New Orleans’ running game played a key role.
The Breakers have mostly leaned on Ellis thus far this season. The 5-foot-10, 220-pounder entered the game ranked third in the USFL with 389 rushing yards through five games, and he added to those numbers Sunday with a solid 47 more, including his third rushing touchdown of the season.
The real offensive star of this contest (for either side, frankly) was Jones, who scampered for a season-high 102 yards, including a first-quarter touchdown run of his own. That score culminated an 18-play, 94-yard drive to give the Breakers a 7-0 lead they would never relinquish.
Showing fresh legs, impressive stop-start quickness, lateral agility and terrific vision, Jones provided the Breakers with more juice than any of the other backs on the field Sunday. He was quick to and through the hole, setting up would-be tacklers with subtle shoulder fakes and altered gaits to get them leaning, before zipping by them to generate yardage in chunks, helping the Breakers maintain their position at second place (behind only undefeated Birmingham) atop the South division.
Mostly due to a dominant defensive front and the never-quit mentality from Lee, the Maulers made things interesting late in the game, closing to within a single score after starting the fourth quarter down 23-3.
A late field goal by Taylor Bertolet pushed New Orleans to a 10-point lead with less than a minute remaining, however, sinking the Pittsburgh to 1-5 on the season.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.