Offenders tackle error-prone Bandits, earn playoff spots

By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala — Kaboom.

That was the sound of the Tampa Bay Bandits exploding in a 17-6 loss to the New Orleans Breakers.

The Bandits played a game full of mistakes, laying the groundwork for a convincing win by the Breakers for the second time this season. The Breakers beat the Bandits, 34-3, in Week 2.

With the win, New Orleans improved to 6-3 overall, clinching the final spot 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 Northern Division champions, while the Birmingham Stallions (8-1) will face the Breakers to determine the Southern Division.

Tampa Bay dropped to 4-5 that season. A touchdown over 30 yards in the fourth quarter from Jordan Ta’amu to Rashard Davis saved Bandit from joining the Pittsburgh Maulers as the only team to remain goalless this season.

The match ended after the first half, as the Breakers dominated the defence. New Orleans finished with four takeaways, three sacks and 14 dealing losses.

Linebacker Jerod Fernandez took the lead, finishing with a combined eight tackles (including two for the loss), one sack and two forced tackles.

“It feels great (going to Canton),” said Fernandez. “It’s a chance to play more games, and a chance to go out and try and win the championship. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

In all, Bandit was called up for 13 penalties over 109 yards, including an unsportsmanlike penalty on Todd Haley when he threw his call sheet on to the pitch after a rough call on New Orleans defensive midfielder Kamilo Tongamoa was called off.

“We just did too much to beat ourselves in this game of football,” Haley said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

Substitute quarterback Zach Smith provided the spark for New Orleans, replacing ineffective Kyle Sloter after two unproductive draws.

Smith immediately set up a 14-play, 91-yard drive, capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Sal Canella. However, Taylor Bertolet dropped an extra point and the Breakers led 6-0 with 7:27 remaining at half-time.

New Orleans head coach Larry Fedora replaced Sloter after he intercepted Tampa Bay midfielder Anthony Butler on the opening drive and on the next, failed to get the ball after being drilled by defensive end Jeff McCulloch with a four-yard sack. Fortunately, New Orleans offensive midfielder Jared Thomas recovered the loose ball.

The bandits couldn’t take advantage of New Orleans’ blunder and ran into trouble with the error scratching their own head. That included a rough call on Vinny Papale that extended New Orleans’ first scoring drive and Rashard Davis fumbling after a long catch near midfield.

The substitution resulted in 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 while running inside and had to leave the game, leaving the door open for Sloter.

Ta’amu rolled back BJ Emmons running flat on the next possession. Derrick Jones caught the overturned pass and almost returned it for the score. A game later, Jordan Ellis ran it from three yards, and Sloter’s pass into Sal Cannella’s tight end gave the Breakers a 17-0 lead.

Just before half-time, Tampa Bay had a promising drive stalled by an unsportsmanlike back-to-back call on an offensive tackle by Jarron Jones, who had to hold his own against one of the coaches on the sideline.

Bandits finished with a total of 352 yards. But they turned the ball on three straight drives, which earned the Breakers 10 points, who lurk a 17-point lead they will never let go.

Breaker seeks clarity in QB

With two quarterbacks out of order, New Orleans head coach Larry Fedora will make the decision to start the quarterback next week.

Sloter completed 7-for-14 for 48 yards, with no touchdowns and interceptions. He was fired twice. Even though Sloter led the USFL in passing yards, he also struggled to keep the ball in as he made 11 league-highest interceptions.

Sloter injured his right foot in the third quarter and continued to play. He was replaced in the first quarter by Smith, who appeared to provide a splash attack. Fedora said he planned to play Smith in the game, and that after the reserve left the game with a left shoulder injury in the second quarter, he was well enough to return.

Smith finished 5-of-6 for 51 yards and a goal.

“Kyle was our starter,” Fedora said. “We’ll be back with him. But Zach is fine. He’s fine. He could have come back if we needed him.”

So, in next week’s meaningless game against the Houston Gamblers with the playoffs looming, who will start as quarterback for New Orleans?

“That’s a good question,” Fedora said. “We will see the film, talk about it and see who is healthy. And who can help us win the game.”

Haley, Bandit shoots for .500

After a first season of ups and downs as Bandit head coach, Haley says his team still have something to play for next week when they take on the Stallions.

“It would feel so much better to win, beat Birmingham and not have a losing record, than to have a losing record,” Haley said. “That will be the message all week.”

Bandit Haley had to deal with several emotions during the game, with former defender Reggie Howard Jr. and Christian Sam – they were released last week – now play 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 pitch.

“It’s a different deal,” Haley said. “You let go of a player, and then you stand in the elevator with him. This is different. Then you’re out on the field. But the message throughout the week is we can’t be the ones to make mental/emotional mistakes. .”

Eric D. Williams has reported in the NFL for more than a decade, including 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.

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Offenders tackle error-prone Bandits, earn playoff spots

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