Tampa Bay Bandits' defense stymies Pittsburgh Maulers

Tampa Bay Bandits' defense stymies Pittsburgh Maulers

Apr 18

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

The Tampa Bay Bandits topped off the weekend of USFL action with a Monday nightcap, defeating the Pittsburgh Maulers 17-3 at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama.

Bandits quarterback Jordan Ta’amu looked like one of just two QBs among the eight teams — the other being Philadelphia Stars quarterback Bryan Scott — who is well and truly his team’s starter. 

He was in control at the line of scrimmage, in sync with playcaller Bob Saunders and generally unfazed by the defenses the Maulers showed him. 

After Ta'amu started the night 5-for-5 on pass plays and led the Bandits to a score on their opening drive of the final game of the USFL's opening weekend, the Maulers' defense did a good job of catching up to him. 

The Bandits scored all 17 of their points in the first half. If the Maulers could’ve mounted a capable offense, perhaps we would’ve seen the fourth consecutive USFL game to finish as a one-score ball game. 

As it was, Ta'amu finished with 185 passing yards on 32 passes — just 5.8 yards per attempt — with two interceptions and a touchdown. He’s drift-compatible — that’s a "Pacific Rim" reference — with tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, though.

Eight of Ta’amu’s 20 completions and 86 of his passing yards were to O’Grady. Nearly one-third (11) of Ta’amu’s attempts went to the tight end out of Arkansas.

The Bandits' defense is seasoned with Pepper.

Maulers coach Kirby Wilson made no secret that he wanted his squad to be a ground-and-pound team with an offense that lines up, looks the defense in the eye and then tries to grind their bones to make their bread. But the former Steelers assistant was met by the Bandits' version of the steel curtain.

Using a front that deployed 6-foot-4, 271-pound Zac Dawe, 6-foot-3, 290-pound Reggie Howard and 6-foot-1, 340-pound Daylon Mack, Pepper Johnson’s defense looked like it was running downhill all night.

It’s not enough to say that the Bandits stopped a power-running team from running the ball. The Bandits spent enough time in the Maulers' backfield that I wouldn’t have been shocked if Pittsburgh started demanding rent.

Todd Haley’s Bandits needed just 59 tackles to stop the Maulers, who snapped the ball 61 times, because 12 of those Bandit tackles were for loss. That’s nearly a tackle for loss on every drive the Maulers' offense began, and nearly one-fifth of the Bandits’ tackles made were for loss.

That’s a deadly efficient defense and one that can pay dividends for an offense that likes to go fast. 

The Maulers did not help themselves.

In 60 minutes of football, the Maulers created nine negative plays and eight penalties — three of which were for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Maulers coach Kirby Wilson will not be happy with that, as he has said he wants to be the kind of football team that does not beat itself. 

Offensive coordinator John Tomlinson also must find more ways to allow quarterbacks Josh Love and Kyle Lauletta to distribute the ball.

Nineteen of 26 passes Monday went to just three players, with receivers Jeff Thomas and Bailey Gaither combining to catch seven passes for 85 yards on 15 targets. 

However, Pittsburgh played just three wide receivers, opting to activate more offensive linemen for a package that at times did not feature a single flanker. Offensively, the Maulers averaged just 3 yards per play and 2.8 yards per rush.

If it was a statement of purpose, the Bandits were ready with a response, as running backs Garrett Groshek and Madre London could do little to nothing behind their offensive line. The Maulers' first seven plays were runs that gained a total of just 6 yards. 

Defensive coordinator Jarren Horton might have a star on his defense, though. Inside linebacker Kyahva Tezino was outstanding defensively, with an interception and a forced fumble. 

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.