USFL Week 3 Preview: Breakers and Stallions Battle for First
USFL - The USFL knows that exciting football plays often come from high-risk decisions—threading the ball through double coverage and letting your receiver make a play, for example. They're taking the interesting step of applying that philosophy to general league management. In Week 3 of their inaugural season, the USFL is gambling that football fans are going to go significantly out of their way to watch it, going head-to-head with the NFL for the first time.
Week 3 will see the two best teams in the USFL go head-to-head in front of what's likely to be an actual crowd, with the hometown Stallions taking the best offense in the league to battle the Breakers' top defense. It's the single most interesting matchup in USFL history to this point. And, wisely, the league has flexed the jewel of the week from a Sunday afternoon cable spot to the second game in FOX's Saturday doubleheader.
Yes, a Saturday doubleheader. That seems all well and good, until you realize that the NFL is holding the draft this weekend, and that includes Saturday. So the first game of FOX's doubleheader will go head-to-head with the fifth round of the NFL draft. That's a heck of a gamble—a gamble neither the AAF nor XFL before them was willing to take. Both the USFL game and the fifth round will be filled with players you have never heard of; it's just that the USFL is betting you'd rather watch those players play football for teams you're not attached to, rather than see which one of them goes to a team you actually support. And they're counting on April football fans not being exhausted from three days of draft coverage to tune into a late-night matchup to see the best teams the USFL has to offer. It's a bold strategy, Cotton. The last time a USFL tried to go head-to-head with the NFL, it didn't exactly work out that well. We'll see what happens this week.
And continuing the theme of "making games harder to watch," this week will also see the USFL's first ever streaming-only game, with the Sunday night game only available via Peacock. It's not free, either—you either need Peacock's premium plan or an existing cable subscription to watch it. Because whenever you can slide a game to the fifth-most popular streaming service, you have to take it.
These moves are especially interesting as we have the Week 2 viewer numbers now and, uh, they're not good.
This week's FOX game dropped from 3.07 million viewers in the league kickoff to 1.06 million viewers in Week 2. NBC saw their numbers fall from 2.15 million viewers to 810,000. The USA game fell from 770,000 to 360,000. The FS1 game did actually rise, with the delayed Week 1 game drawing 270,000 viewers and the regularly scheduled Week 2 game rising to 420,000, but that's damning with faint praise.
Some drop-off from Week 1 was to be expected, but losing 58% of your audience after one week is a nightmare. By comparison, the XFL lost just about 33% of their initial audience in Week 2. The USFL's four games combined had 2.65 million viewers last weekend; the XFL's top Week 2 game had 2.4 million viewers by itself, and they didn't see viewership drop below one million for any of their games until Week 5, just before the season was cancelled due to COVID. Admittedly, the USFL has had to go up against the NBA playoffs, which is stiff competition, but it's not like they didn't know that was going to happen when they made their schedule to begin with. In truth, the USFL has just done a very bad job getting people aware that they even exist. The XFL had a stronger presence on social media, a stronger presence in the communities their teams represented, and a stronger overall presentation and package. Couple that with less competition in the sporting world, and it's not a surprise at all the USFL is struggling to find viewership.
Before the season, FOX reportedly guaranteed advertisers an average of 2.6 million viewers for each network telecast. But now they're backpedaling a little bit, with one of their executive vice presidents tweeting out that they want to be in the realm of Sunday Night Baseball, F1, NHL, and the English Premier League. Those sports tend to hover between 500,000 and 1 million viewers. Maybe this is panicked recalibration after seeing this week's drop, or maybe it's just the advertising wing and the content wing not actually communicating. One way or another, it seems doubtful that they'll see their viewership rise this week, as they exchange a major Warriors game for the NFL draft in terms of competition. But I suppose we shall just wait and see.
Bandits (1-1) vs. Gamblers (1-1)
Line: Bandits (-1)
Saturday, 4 p.m., FOX
This matchup, the undercard of both the Saturday doubleheader and the USFL South, features the two worst 1-1 teams by our USFL rankings. That makes it something of a hard sell to flip over from the draft.
The Bandits are actually ranked underneath an 0-2 team, coming in to this one with an Estimated Value over Average (EVOA) of -17.5%, and the second-worst offense in the league. They have yet to score in the second half as Todd Haley's men sat on the ball in a 17-3 win over the Maulers, and then got sat on themselves in a 34-3 demolition at the hands of the Breakers. The Gamblers, meanwhile, are sitting with a 0.0% EVOA, winning a one-score game against the Panthers and losing one against the Stallions. They're one of the higher-scoring teams in the league, hitting at least 17 points in each of their first two games, so the Bandits have their work cut out for them.
The Gamblers are the best rushing team in the league, when they remember that they actually can do that. They only have 26 rush attempts per game, second-fewest in the league, but they're averaging a league-high 4.6 yards per pop. Mark Thompson is the league's leading rusher, both in total yards and yards per carry (164 and 5.7, respectively), and he's going to be a tough draw for the Bandits. If they can't force the Gamblers into some third-and-long situations, they're going to have a long day at the office.
The Bandits' best hope is to lean heavily on their passing attack. They built this team around Jordan Ta'amu's arm, with the idea of him throwing to former Haley players such as Eli Rogers and Derrick Willes. So far, not so good—Ta'amu has mostly been living up to his potential, but Rogers never reported and Willes is inactive. Instead it's Cheyenne O'Grady and Vinny Papale leading the way, and the Bandits have suffered from drops and bad route-running since the word go. The Gamblers let up 65- and 34-yard touchdowns last week, so there's the potential for Ta'amu to exploit a questionable defense. But the Bandits just looked totally outclassed last week in a way the Gamblers just haven't to this point. Gamblers 23, Bandits 17.
Stallions (2-0) v. Breakers (2-0)
Line: Breakers (-4)
Saturday, 8 p.m., FOX
If you're only going to watch one USFL game this weekend, make it this one. The league wisely flexed this matchup off of USA and onto a main network so more people could see the two best teams in the league going head-to-head in front of several thousand fans, with the people of Birmingham actually turning out to watch the hometown Stallions. It's a playoff preview to be sure—the winner will be the last undefeated team in the league, while the loser will still be tied for the second playoff slot in the South and be a clear rung above the rest of the competition.
Watching the Stallions feels like watching a real NFL offense. Yes, obviously some of that is because they're playing USFL defenses, but there's a connection between the players on the field, there's a fluidity to play calling, there's solid play design that highlights the strengths of the players they have—it's the most professional offense in the league, and it's aesthetically pleasing to watch. The J'Mar Smith-to-Osirus Mitchell connection is the best in the league right now, but everyone's getting in on the act—Victor Bolden leads the league in all-purpose yards, CJ Marable and Tony Brooks-James have been a strong 1-2 punch as runners, and so on and so forth. The Stallions had the worst odds coming into the season, but we told you they had the skill position players to punch above their weight class and, well, here they are. Their 29.6% offensive EVOA leads the league, as do their 7.0 yards per pass attempt. They're also the only team converting more than 40% of their third downs; it's tough to get them off the field.
But they haven't run into the Breakers yet. The Breakers have been, by far, the best team in the USFL through two weeks. They built themselves on speed, and speed has been killing so far, especially on defense. The Breakers have 10 sacks, led by the duo of David Bellamy and Kamilo Tongamoa. No other defense in the league has more than five. They're leading the league in turnover differential as well, as no one has been able to break away from their speedy secondary. They're tied for the league lead with three interceptions, despite having to face two of the better quarterbacks in the league in Jordan Ta'amu and Bryan Scott. Neither the Stars nor Bandits had any real answer to the sheer speed of the Breakers' defense. And now, the Breakers get their third game in a row against one of the top three passers, and it's Smith's turn to try to break them down. If the Breakers can shut down the Stallions' offense, I'm not sure who is going to stop them this year. The Breakers' -21.5% defensive EVOA doesn't quite match the Stallions' offensive numbers, but this is a matchup between the league's top offense and top defense, and that's always great to see.
The deciding factor will be on the other side of the ball. The Stallions have needed every ounce of their offense because they have yet to allow fewer than 24 points in a game; they have statistically been the worst defense in the league through two weeks. The Breakers, on the other hand, actually lead the league in yardage. Kyle Sloter has not been quite on the level of the top passers in the USFL, but he hasn't been far off; he's thrown just one interception on 66 passing attempts, and 6.3 yards per attempt is a respectable number in this league. His health is a concern, however—he played last week through a painful groin injury. If he can't make it through this one, it will be Zach Smith hooking up with Jonathan Adams. Against the Stallions' defense, that might still be more than enough. Breakers 31, Stallions 17.
Maulers (0-2) v. Panthers (0-2)
Line: Panthers (-2.5)
Sunday, 2:30 p.m., USA
Jeff Fisher's Panthers haven't been quite as bad as their 0-2 record would indicate. They can, at least, hang their hat on a decent defense, as they have limited their opponents to just 27 total points in a pair of one-score losses. They have some actual defensive talent; Orion Stewart had an interception last week that ended up being the only reason they scored points, and they have generally done a solid job in coverage. The problem is their offense is a badly run version of a badly designed system. First-overall pick Shea Patterson has been very disappointing, basically not showing up for half of Week 1 and 95% of Week 2. His backup, Paxton Lynch, has been statistically the worst quarterback in the league. And other than Reggie Corbin, there's just nothing at the skill positions; the Panthers are running awkward platoons at running back, tight end, and third receiver, and none of it is working. Couple it with a conservative two-tight end base set without any of creativity in play calling that is required to make that work in the modern game and you have a frankly depressing offense to watch.
But hey, compared to the Maulers, Fisher and the Panthers look like Sean McVay and the Rams. The Maulers have been, by far, the worst team in the USFL through two weeks. They picked themselves up after an embarrassing Week 1 disaster, taking advantage of some Stars miscues to keep their matchup close last week, but as soon as the Stars got out of their own way, the game ended up rather predictably. The Maulers have a league-worst -33.7% EVOA; they're the only team to be below average on both offense and defense so far. Things aren't hopeless for them in the long run; they have already made some positive moves by benching Kyle Lauletta for Josh Love as their full-time passer. That unleashed Bailey Gaither some; he was the only player to go over 100 yards last week, so you can see some potential there if they can figure themselves out. But so far, head coach Kirby Wilson has given us precious few reasons to expect much out of them this season. Panthers 23, Maulers 16.
Generals (1-1) v. Stars (1-1)
Line: Stars (-1)
Sunday, 8 p.m., Peacock
The Stars are the third of the three teams that ended the first two weeks with positive SRS and EVOA, and the only one to do so in the North division. That being said, the Generals finished the first two weeks at dead-on average, so this is no runaway by any stretch of the imagination.
Two problems have become apparent for the Stars over the first two weeks of the season. The first is that their offensive line is made up of Swiss cheese and hope. They have allowed 10 sacks while no other team in the league has allowed more than six; even taking into account they had to play the Breakers, that's bad. They have averaged a league-worst 3.2 yards per carry, as their backs tend to get hit in the backfield more often than not; this is why they attempt a league-low 18.5 rushes per game. The second is that they shoot themselves in the foot too often. They're tied for the league lead with five turnovers, including a league-high three fumbles lost; they're the only team to have a punt blocked; they have missed a league-high two extra points and saw one of their field goals go wide too. No team leaves more points on the board than the Stars.
But when they aren't letting their quarterback be ground into a paste or tripping over their own feat, the Stars flash significant passing potential. Former Spring League MVP Bryan Scott has been the best quarterback in the USFL to this point. His lead in passing yards and touchdowns is partially volume, but he also has the best completion percentage in the league at 70.8%. He's a hair behind J'Mar Smith in terms of yards per pass attempt, but some of that is due to having to get the ball out quickly behind the Stars' offensive line, and his aDOT rose significantly in Week 2 when he didn't have to play the Breakers. Scott's also dealing with a banged-up receiver room and running back corps, so he's doing all of this while throwing to backups.
The Generals have been an above-average defense so far, shutting down the Panthers last week and hanging on against the Stallions in Week 1 in a game that looks better the more J'Mar Smith plays. The problem is their offense, which got nothing going against the Panthers last week. They're platooning De'Andre Johnson and Luis Perez at quarterback, but Perez hasn't got much going in the air and Johnson's running ability was bottled up last week as well. They'll need to pick themselves up a little bit if they're going to keep up with the Stars' passing attack. If the Stars can stop tripping over themselves on every other drive, they should be able to win this one fairly easily, but don't count on that. Stars 23, Generals 20.