Business is going to continue to pick up in the USFL South Division as the first-place and undefeated Birmingham Stallions will battle the Tampa Bay Bandits on Saturday at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. This game presents a great opportunity for both teams, as they are in a three-horse race for two playoff spots at this juncture of the season.
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Birmingham (3-0) took control of the South Division last week by outlasting the New Orleans Breakers 22-13 and did so in come-from-behind fashion. DeMarquis Gates led an excellent defensive effort for the Stallions with 10 tackles and an interception. Scooby Wright (17 tackles) and Dondrea Tillman (11) were all around the ball all day as well. This swarming defense kept New Orleans' offense in check most of game, especially during the fourth quarter when the Stallions outscored the Breakers 12-0 to secure the victory.
Tampa Bay (2-1) got off the mat and responded with a 27-26 victory over the Houston Gamblers last Friday night. The win showed great resilience by the Bandits along with their ability to buy into what head coach Todd Haley and his staff are communicating daily. The game itself was arguably the best display of consistent offensive football between two USFL teams this season. Tampa Bay's offense had plenty of balance, finishing with 365 total yards, but the defense gave up 400 yards to a Houston offense that had struggled to move the ball in each of its previous two games.
Tampa Bay (2-1) at Birmingham (3-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, May 7 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stallions -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Birmingham offense find its rhythm?
Getting off to a faster start is a must this week for the Stallions as they look to maximize their possessions. Even though they won last week, scoring 22 points may not be enough against Tampa Bay. Head coach Skip Holtz needs to dial up some easy throws for quarterback J'Mar Smith after he was just 15-for-38 for 196 yards with two touchdowns and an interception his last time out. The Stallions also need to finish what they start after scoring just one touchdown in four trips inside the red zone against New Orleans. The running game also needs to improve after averaging 3.9 yards per carry last week, and that number drops even further if you take out a 31-yard scamper by Smith. Tampa Bay has been more susceptible through the air (201 ypg, seventh in the USFL) than on the ground (119 ypg, fourth) in the early going, which is where Smith's accuracy and ability to find his receivers downfield could come into play.
2. How aggressive will Tampa Bay be on offense?
The Bandits' offense ranks in the bottom half in all four major categories, including sixth in points (15.7 per game) and seventh in total yards (268 per game). But their defense probably isn't capable of shutting down the USFL's top-scoring team to this point, so Haley may have to take some risks to try and come up with the big plays. That could mean quarterback Jordan Ta'amu taking more shots downfield through the air. He's fourth in the league with 502 passing yards but has completed just 57 percent of his attempts and has twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two) thus far. Ta'amu can't be expected to do it all, however, so a running game that's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry needs to be effective, even if it's in spurts, to keep Birmingham's defense off-balance. The other big thing to keep an eye on is penalties. Tampa Bay enters this game as the second-most penalized team in the league (172 yards). The offense certainly can't afford any pre-snap infractions or self-inflicted mistakes that will put it behind the chains or in long-yardage situations.
3. Home-field advantage?
Even though all of the USFL's games are being played in Birmingham, it's become pretty clear that the Stallions have been embraced by the locals as the de facto home team. While the games haven't drawn capacity crowds, the Stallions have enjoyed the support from those in attendance at Protective Stadium. This support appears to manifest itself the most on defense, as Birmingham is leading the league in turnover margin (+3), is tied for the top spot in both total takeaways (seven) and interceptions (four), and is second in sacks (nine). The Stallions' four sacks last week were a big key in their win over New Orleans. These types of plays are even more important when you consider that Birmingham is giving up more than 336 yards per game and has surrendered a total of 65 points through its first three contests. Ta'amu has had some trouble with turning the ball over in the early going, a trend he certainly doesn't want to continue on Sunday night if Tampa Bay is going to be first to knock off the "home" team.
Look for this game to have a couple of momentum swings back and forth as both teams realize the opportunity they have with a win this week. Smith will improve on his accuracy in the passing game and get the ball out quickly to wide receiver Victor Bolden Jr. and others to produce a handful of explosive plays. Birmingham's defense will bend at times but come up with the key stops in the red zone as the Stallions pull out another one-score victory to improve to 4-0.
Prediction: Stallions 24, Bandits 20
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.