By Rob Rang
FOX Sports Draft Analyst
The buildup to a Week 9 clash between the Tampa Bay Bandits and the New Orleans Breakers focused on star quarterbacks Jordan Ta’amu and Kyle Sloter, but it was signal-callers on defense who stole the spotlight in the Breakers' 17-6 victory Sunday.
New Orleans middle linebacker Jerod Fernandez forced two fumbles in the first half, abruptly ending promising drives led by the Bandits’ Ta’amu, who entered the game leading the USFL in passing touchdowns.
Fernandez’s forced fumbles offset an impressive juggling interception in the first half (and a forced fumble of his own in the second) by Anthony Butler, Tampa Bay’s middle linebacker.
With the victory, New Orleans (6-3) clinched the league's final playoff berth and eliminated Tampa Bay (4-5) one week before the end of the regular season. Larry Fedora's Breakers still have not lost a game this season in which they led at the break.
Here's who stood out in the Breakers' victory:
Fernandez's two forced fumbles in the first half – plus an interception by cornerback Derrick Jones – gave short fields to Sloter, helping the Breakers jump out to a 17-0 halftime lead.
The double-digit victory was deceptive, as the Bandits actually outplayed New Orleans on the offensive side of the ball throughout the game, dominating in total yardage (352-215).
Every time Tampa Bay developed momentum on offense, however, Fernandez and the rest of a resourceful New Orleans defense turned the Bandits away, living up to their pre-game ranking as the USFL’s stoutest red-zone defense.
Fernandez ruined Tampa Bay’s first foray into scoring position with a timely and physical hit on Bandits running back BJ Emmons, popping the ball loose.
Emmons was initially ruled down by contact, but replay clearly demonstrated that the ball was out before his knee hit the ground. It was an especially unfortunate turn of events for Emmons, who did well just to escape harassment in the backfield.
As if to prove that his first forced fumble of the game was no fluke, Fernandez took an even stronger swipe at the ball in the second quarter, punching it free after Ta’amu had hit Rashard Davis for a pretty completion over the middle on one of the few explosive plays generated on offense in this game.
Fernandez was appropriately named the game’s defensive MVP. He finished with eight tackles, including a sack, to go along with his two turnovers.
It was the interception by Jones, however, that was the real backbreaker for the Tampa Bay. A former teammate of Ta’amu’s at Ole Miss, Jones was the beneficiary of a rare inaccurate pass from the Bandits quarterback and he nearly outran him to the end zone, paving the way for Jordan Ellis’ short run to give the Breakers an insurmountable lead.
Ta’amu hit 10-of-15 passes for 117 yards and contributing another 41 yards (on four attempts) on the ground in the first half alone. He made several impressive throws, showing off the accuracy and arm strength that helped him star for Ole Miss in the mighty SEC.
Ta'amu ultimately completed 22-of-39 passes for 288 yards and a pretty 31-yard touchdown toss in a losing effort. He also led all rushers with 86 yards on nine attempts.
Ta’amu started the game hot, hitting his first five passes and scampering for multiple first downs via the running game.
On the other hand, the only completion Sloter had over the first 30 minutes was an ugly interception snared by Butler. Sloter threw for just 48 yards Sunday and was held out of the end zone. His backup, Zach Smith, was actually much more effective, hitting 5-of-6 attempts for 51 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sal Cannela before suffering a left shoulder injury. The QB duo combined for 99 yards … for the game.
New Orleans’ three scoring drives, in fact, took a total of just six minutes and nine seconds, with Jordan Ellis punching in a three-yard touchdown on the first play after Jones’ interception to give the Breakers their commanding 17-0 halftime lead.
Three turnovers and 14 penalties (for 124 yards, compared to six for 63 yards for New Orleans) doomed the Bandits – just as they did when the Breakers thumped Tampa Bay, 34-3, when these two clubs faced off in Week Two.
The Breakers won the game by generating the biggest plays, but the first game-changer came courtesy of the Bandits’ middle linebacker, Butler, who attempted to serve up an early scoring opportunity for Ta’amu and Tampa Bay with an impressive interception of his own.
Butler had dropped into coverage, following New Orleans wideout Johnnie Dixon on a shallow cross over the short middle. With pressure in his face, Sloter lofted the ball towards Dixon but the receiver wasn’t expecting it so quickly and had not yet turned his head toward his quarterback. The ball dropped right into Butler’s hands and he didn’t allow the opportunity to slip through his fingers.
The linebacker showed great awareness of the football and receiver-like concentration to secure a juggling interception in the first quarter that seemingly put the Bandits in position to steal some early points.
Butler’s interception was one of the better grabs of the day. Davis led all receivers with six grabs for 112 yards, with his over-the-shoulder grab for a 31-yard touchdown certainly the prettiest play on offense for either club all game long.
The most impressive pass-catcher, however, was Tampa's O’Grady, who also showed the ability to track the ball over his shoulder and demonstrated both balance and power through contact to generate yards after the catch, finishing with three catches for 46 yards.
Given what a defensive battle this game turned out to be, it was appropriate that the Breakers emerged victorious despite not scoring any points after halftime. Further, New Orleans extinguished Tampa Bay’s last gasp at a comeback with an interception (their second of Ta’amu) at the 1-yard line by Adonis Alexander with approximately two minutes remaining.
It wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that this contest lacked big plays from the "skill positions," however, only that it was the defenders turning in the ones that delivered the most impact. No doubt aiding the stellar performances from their middle linebackers, the defensive line of both clubs generated multiple tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage and combined for six sacks – a couple of which were truly ferocious collisions.
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.