Tampa Bay and New Orleans will meet in a high-stakes USFL matchup this week as both South Division teams are still in playoff contention. The Breakers (5-3) can punch their ticket to Canton, Ohio, with a win over the Bandits (4-4). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay must win its final two games in order to make the playoffs. These two teams met back in Week 2, with New Orleans cruising to a comfortable 34-3 victory.
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At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the win and that’s what Tampa Bay did last Sunday, beating Houston 13-3. However, it was far from a clean performance, as the Bandits turned the football over three times and didn’t have answers for Gamblers defensive end Chris Odom, who racked up three sacks. Moving forward, Tampa Bay simply has to be sharper in all phases of the game in order to secure a spot in the playoffs over the next two weeks.
On the other side, New Orleans gave undefeated Birmingham all it could handle but came up short, falling 10-9 last Saturday. The inability to take care of the football and finish drives was the difference as the Breakers committed three turnovers and found the end zone just once. The defense did its part, shutting out the Stallions in the red zone, coming up with three takeaways, and collecting four sacks. Even with the offensive issues, New Orleans may have been able to pull out the win, but Taylor Bertolet made just one of his three field goal attempts, missing from 45 and 50 yards out.
Tampa Bay (4-4) at New Orleans (5-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, June 12 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Alabama)
Spread: Breakers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Tampa Bay’s offense step up?
It's pretty simple. Bandits quarterback Jordan Ta’amu must play his best game of the season this week for Tampa Bay to have a good shot at winning. Thirteen points, which is what the Bandits scored last week, are not going to cut it, and neither will a repeat of their offensive performance the first time they faced New Orleans. Back in Week 2, Tampa Bay totaled 194 yards, turned the ball over three times, and made just one trip to the red zone. The 34-3 rout remains the largest margin of victory in any game this season. To prevent a repeat, head coach Todd Haley has to find a way for his team to move the ball and put points on the board. It starts up front, as the Breakers sacked Ta'amu four times in the first meeting. He also will need to do his part by getting rid of the ball quickly, using his legs to pick up some needed yards if the pocket breaks down, or throwing it away so as to not risk an inopportune turnover.
2. Can New Orleans' offense respond after a tough loss?
The Breakers shouldn’t have issues moving the football. They gained 374 yards of total offense in their first go-around against the Bandits. But this side of the ball was not at its best last week, starting with quarterback Kyle Sloter, who completed 23 of 40 passes (57.5 percent) for 251 yards with three interceptions last week against Birmingham. Tampa Bay's defense hasn't fared as well statistically, but it still comes down to Sloter and the rest of the unit executing. But Sloter can't be expected to carry the load all by himself either. So not only do top targets Jonathan Adams, Johnnie Dixon, and Sal Canella need to make sure they secure any catchable passes thrown their way, the running game needs to step up after averaging just three yards per carry last week. Jordan Ellis, who is second in the USFL with 519 rushing yards, managed just 41 on 11 attempts against the Stallions. It also is critical that New Orleans finishes drives by getting the ball into the end zone, instead of settling for field goals. Especially if Bertolet continues to struggle with his kicking accuracy.
3. Will the Breakers' defense steal the show again?
The game plan is pretty straightforward for New Orleans' defense: don't let Ta'amu beat you. Not only is he second in the league in passing yards (1,502, Sloter leads with 1,750), he's second on his team and 13th overall in rushing (257 yds.). This unit got the job done in the first meeting, holding Ta'amu and Co. to just a field goal as he was limited to only 64 passing yards on 28 attempts, or 2.3 yards per. Again, the Breakers' defense did its job last week against Birmingham and has been tough to score on all season, giving up 16.8 points per game, which ranks third. New Orleans also is No. 1 against the pass (161.1 ypg), fourth in sacks sacks (17,), and tied for third in interceptions (eight). Davin Bellamy (5.5 sacks), Jerod Fernandez (76 tackles, 7 TFL), and Vontae Diggs (63 tackles, INT) will look to make their presence felt on Sunday afternoon.
It should be a competitive game early on, with both teams having plenty of motivation with a playoff spot up for grabs. New Orleans has been more consistent, for the most part, on offense, and that should continue this week. Tampa Bay’s offensive issues will continue to rear their ugly head as the game progresses. Sloter bounces back with a nice game as the Breakers punch their postseason ticket with a comfortable win on Sunday.
Prediction: Breakers 24, Bandits 13
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.