USFL Season Halfway Home
At the midway point of the USFL season. The 4-1 New Jersey Generals are firmly entrenched as one of the league’s premier teams. The Generals, winners of four straight, are coming off arguably their most impressive triumph, a 27-17 victory over the now 3-2 New Orleans Breakers.
A near one-hour lightning delay couldn’t slow down the Generals’ charge against the Breakers this past Saturday afternoon.
The Breakers came into week five with one of the league’s most explosive and productive offenses. But the Generals’ defense, while not perfect, slowed New Orleans down considerably.
Mike Riley’s troops seem like a sure-fire bet to make the USFL playoffs. They are not only 4-1 at the mid-season point. But New Jersey, based on tie-breakers, and their 3-0 division record, have a three-game lead over second-place Philadelphia at 2-3. The Stars fell to the still unbeaten 5-0 Birmingham Stallions. 30-17 on Sunday.
The Pittsburgh Maulers 1-4 and the 1-4 Michigan Panthers are attempting to get out of the Northern cellar and into the playoff picture. With the top two teams netting a playoff spot in each division. The Generals’ have a sizable lead at the midway point and are inching closer to clinching a playoff spot.
Early Look at Week Six For The New Jersey Generals
The Generals have only two regular-season games left against Southern divisional teams, and they play Houston in week six and then Tampa in week seven. Once New Jersey gets past this stretch, they won’t see the South again unless it’s in July’s league championship game. A rematch with the Stallions looks pretty possible at this point.
New Jersey’s next opponent is the 1-4 Houston Gamblers Sunday, May 22nd, at Protective Stadium. The Gamblers are coming off a last-second loss to the previously winless Pittsburgh Maulers. It feels like every game that Houston has played has been decided in the closing seconds. The Gamblers keep rolling snake eyes when the games are on the line.
Coming into Week 5, Houston was ranked next to last in the USFL in rush defense, allowing over 150 yards per game on the ground. So on paper, this matchup favors New Jersey, and the Generals have the USFL’s best rushing attack, netting over 180 yards per contest.
Before we look more in-depth toward the Gamblers as the week unfolds. Let’s look back at the Generals’ midseason performance and what areas, players, and coaches have stood out favorably.
USFL: New Jersey Generals Midseason Review
Mike Riley has a winning record in each non-NFL league he has ever coached. From the CFL to the WLAF to the AAF. So it’s no surprise that he is having success in the USFL with the New Jersey Generals. One of the most likable coaches around, Riley had endeared himself to his new team and has silenced his doubters.
The New Jersey Generals are clicking on and off the field.
Offensively, the tactical approach by the Generals’ has consistently put opposing defenses at a disadvantage, and New Jersey appears to have a numerical advantage on game day. Quite frankly, it’s because they do. It’s not groundbreaking or revolutionary; see the use of Lamar Jackson with the Baltimore Ravens. But utilizing your QB as a primary runner on designed runs gives your offense one extra blocker in the run game. Many teams attempt this approach but making it work is another story. That’s precisely what the Generals have done. And it’s an offensive strategy that is evolving.
Against New Jersey’s offensive attack, opposing defenses have been forced to put eight players in the box and play man coverage. As a result, it has opened up the team’s passing attack. Defenses are struggling to defend gaps properly and are over-committing, which is leading to easy completions and big plays, both through the air and on the ground.
The Generals have also added a new wrinkle in their RPO-based attack by incorporating the enigmatic KeVontae Turpin into the run and pass game. In recent weeks, he has acted as a gadget player but is coming off a hundred-yard receiving effort against the Breakers.
Credit goes to Mike Riley and OC/O-Line coach Steve Smith for devising a scheme playing towards the team’s strengths. The players execute it well, and they have bought into their roles.
Defensively, first-time defensive coordinator Chris Dishman has done a fantastic job leading New Jersey’s defense. The former multiple-time all-pro defensive back has his players playing sound fundamental football—no simple task on a new team where communication could be a defense’s kryptonite.
Outside of a fourth-quarter meltdown in the league’s opening game, the Generals’ defense has been strong on every level—upfront against the run and in the secondary against the pass. The latter isn’t shocking, considering the team’s proven talent in the secondary and their coordinator’s background.
Considering the fact that New Jersey doesn’t have a designated special teams coordinator on its staff. The team has been pretty sound overall on special teams, with one exception.
New Jersey’s kicking game has been the team’s weakest link in the first half of the season. The thorn in the team’s side was Nick Rose, who missed seven of ten field goal attempts. But the Generals hope that replacement Austin Jones will help turn that around. He was 5/5 on field goals and extra points in his USFL debut against New Orleans.
Assistants Bob Diaco (defensive line), James Rodgers (receivers), and other New Jersey staff members have all teamed up to assume specific responsibilities on special teams. Typically, that type of setup is a recipe for disaster. But New Jersey has made this bare-bones coaching element work. Rodgers, a dynamic returner himself in his heyday, has helped the Generals lead the league in kick return average (27.3).
It’s challenging to form a new team from scratch and establish a clear-cut identity in a short amount of time. But that’s precisely what Mike Riley and his staff have done. The Generals have crafted the perfect style to match the talent on their roster. The players have bought in and played selflessly. That’s a testament to Mike Riley’s ability as a leader.
Team/League MVP De’Andre Johnson?:
Quarterback De’Andre Johnson is emerging as a legitimate team and league MVP candidate. Johnson is New Jersey’s MVP at the midseason point. Quite frankly, the Generals would not be 4-1 without him.
While his passing numbers are certainly not gaudy, 548 yards passing and one touchdown in five games played, two technically as the starter.
De’Andre Johnson’s 4.3 speed, and production on the ground, 269 yards, 5.0 yards per run, and four touchdowns, have been the catalyst for the Generals’ success. The Last Chance, U star is making a name for himself and playing like a superstar in the USFL.
New Jersey’s success is not just because of De’Andre Johnson’s dynamic running ability. Johnson is completing 69 percent of his passes. With each passing week, He has improved his decision-making and execution of throwing the football. Johnson’s two-layered success is turning the team’s unconventional two QB system into a one-horse show. It’s become increasingly difficult for Mike Riley to take De’Andre out of the lineup.
Luis Perez has done a great job as a team leader and is a respected hand. The Generals are lucky to have him on the roster. But the team is at its strongest when Johnson is playing. He’s getting better every week. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the USFL teams.
To The Victor Goes The Spoils
Darius Victor is not only leading the USFL in rushing touchdowns with five. But he is also leading the team off the field. Victor’s teammates and coaches have raved about his infectious personality and character. The ‘thick thighs save lives’ FCS superstar out of Towson has a new lease on his pro football life after standing out in the XFL with the New York Guardians in 2020. And he is making the most of it with the New Jersey Generals in 2022.
As part of a three-person committee with the Generals, Victor is fourth in the league in rushing with 308 yards and is averaging 4.7 yards a carry. QB De’Andre Johnson is sixth in rushing, and veteran tailback Trey Williams is seventh. Each player has complemented each other’s style so well. Between Johnson’s speed, Williams’s shiftiness, and Victor’s bulldozing running style. The Generals have one of the more well-rounded rushing attacks in all of pro football.
Darius Victor, week in and week out has acted as New Jersey’s closer near the end zone and late in games. The Generals might be riding Victor’s abnormally large thighs to a championship if this keeps up.
Winning In The Trenches
The one area that has been consistently overlooked on the New Jersey Generals is their offensive line. While there is no doubt that the scheme and skill players are a big reason for the team’s success.
Players like Terry Poole, Garret McGhin, Jake Lacina, Calvin Ashley, Evan Heim, Robert Myers, Brandon Haskin, and Mike Brown have all done a phenomenal job upfront. There have been some early-season injuries, but each player has stepped up to the challenge when called into duty.
The Generals are leading the league offensively with 366 yards per game, and you can’t accomplish that without your offensive line playing at a high level. Against one of the better pass-rushing teams in the league, the New Orleans Breakers, they held Davin Bellamy and company sackless.
OT Terry Poole, the well-traveled former fourth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, has been outstanding. Poole, no stranger to playing Spring pro football, was also a standout player in the AAF and XFL. With the Houston Roughnecks in 2020, Poole was the third highest-graded offensive lineman in the league by Pro Football Focus. The two players graded ahead of him, Storm Norton and Michael Dunn, have been NFL players since the XFL season ended prematurely two years ago.
Due to his lighter size and quick feet, Due to his lighter size and quick feet, Terry Poole has always been a fantastic pass blocker. But what has stood out thus far is his run blocking ability, an area that Poole has been criticized for in the past. The Generals’ hashtag is #InTheTrenches, and the team’s offensive line gives that tag even more meaning.
#1 Defense In The USFL?
Despite having just five total sacks and only forcing only three turnovers all season. The New Jersey Generals are ranked second overall in the league defensively, allowing 249 total yards per game. Although, the Generals’ confidence has them believing that they are the league’s best defense.
A big reason for New Jersey’s success on defense is undoubtedly the complementary style of play from their offense. The Generals’ time-consuming rushing attack, averaging 35 minutes of possession each week, has kept New Jersey’s defense off the field and fresh. But New Jersey’s defense has stepped up in crucial situations, particularly late in games when the game has been on the line.
The Generals defense hasn’t made very many splashy plays on defense. But what has stood out is its efficiency. New Jersey is tops in the league against the run by a wide margin. They are allowing only 76 yards per game on the ground, and every other defense in the USFL is giving up 100 yards or more per contest. Veteran players like Toby Johnson have been stout on the defense’s interior. And it’s allowed linebackers Chris Orr and D’Juan Hines to run freely to the ball and make plays.
Birmingham’s Scooby Wright and DeMarquis Gates, two superstar linebackers with loads of spring league experience, have received deserving acclaim. But former Wisconsin standout Chris Orr has been as good as it gets at the position, particularly as a coach on the field. Despite being a terrific college player, the undersized Orr appeared on his way toward a coaching career before the Generals drafted him. He’s shown the instincts and smarts on the field with New Jersey that perfectly illustrate why he has always been touted for his leadership skills.
The Generals’ secondary was considered one of the team’s strengths heading into the season. They have two accomplished players in NFL veteran Devante Bausby and Dravon Askew-Henry, and both have lived up to their billing.
But New Jersey’s secondary got a significant boost this past weekend when safety Shalom Luani returned to the defensive lineup. Luani was outstanding early in the season and repeated that trend in his return this past week. The former NFL draft pick, Luani, had six tackles, four solos with two interceptions, and two passes defended against the Breakers. Luani’s interception of Kyle Sloter near the goal line with the Breakers looking to tie the score at 24 in the fourth quarter was a game-changing play.
New Jersey is putting it all together at the right time. On offense, defense, and special teams. Their team chemistry is terrific.
There are still five games left to play in the regular season. But at this point, the Generals certainly look capable of hoisting the USFL championship trophy when the smoke clears in Canton.
May 15, 2022 at 9:59 pm
Good review Mike. With Riley I always thought NJ was playoff bound. I liked the Perez pic, and he has played well. But DJ has too and with the dual threat running has been excellent.
The team is gelling and is well balanced – they need to stay consistent and its off to Canton.