XFL Week 3 Preview: St. Louis, D.C. Highlight Tripleheader
XFL - Are you ready for a tripleheader?
Week 3 of the XFL season sees three games on Sunday, the only tripleheader for either the XFL or the USFL this year. I won't lie; that's a lot of football for one day. A full NFL Sunday can be fairly draining, and that's football played at the highest levels. Three XFL games, back-to-back-to-back? Competing with the NFL combine? That's a tough one.
The game of the week will be going up head-to-head with the Underwear Olympics too, as the 2-0 St. Louis Battlehawks take on the 2-0 D.C. Defenders at 1 p.m. on Sunday on FX, just about at the same time as Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs take to the field in Indianapolis to run the 40. I'm sure if the XFL had known ahead of time which teams would be good, they would have tried to schedule this one to be the Saturday night highlight game, not a battle of 0-2 teams. Instead, it will be a good test of the XFL's drawing power. The USFL was able to draw 830,000 fans going head-to-head with the NFL draft last year, though that was on FOX and not relegated to FX. But that does show that there's at least some appetite for actual football over potential football. We'll see how the XFL manages to stand up against NFL competition.
It's worth checking out the Battlehawks and Defenders going at it, though—a battle of 2-0 teams, fighting for first place in the division, as the league returns to the site of Week 1's Lemongate is a compelling matchup. The Battlehawks will be looking to win their eighth game in XFL play with zero losses. That streak and reputation is why they have the strongest fan base in the league; they're opening up new areas of The Dome in St. Louis for what's sounding like it's going to be a packed house. And I'm sure there's nothing in the world the Defenders would like better than to spoil the Kaw is Law party next week, backing up their slight lead in our first XFL EVOA ratings and handing the Battlehawks their first ever defeat.
As for the ratings watch? The XFL averaged 660,000 viewers last week, the same amount as the USFL averaged in their second week. But the USFL had games on FOX and NBC while all four XFL games were on cable. The USFL only kept 42% of their viewership from Week 1; the XFL kept 51% of theirs. That's still not as strong as the 2020 version of the XFL (2.1 million viewers and 66% of their viewership retained), but then, they're not competing with the 2020 XFL. We'll see how those viewership numbers hold up over the next few weeks, as the XFL is banished to FX and ESPN2 until Week 6 while March Madness marches on madly.
Seattle Sea Dragons (0-2) @ Vegas Vipers (0-2)
Odds: Seattle (-3.5)
Saturday, 7 p.m., FX
Is Week 3 too early for a must-win game? Maybe not, with both the Sea Dragons and Vipers sitting at the bottom of the North, two games out of playoff position as Week 3 kicks off. It's hard to imagine either team recovering from an 0-3 start to catch the cream of the division, though obviously stranger things have happened. Certainly not what you want to try, at any rate!
The Sea Dragons, at least, have had the higher highs through two weeks. If you take away their turnovers, they're easily 2-0 at this point; they have turned the ball over multiple times in the red zone in key situations, hence the pair of one-score losses. Ben DiNucci is proving to be of the more reliable deep passers in the league and has been excellent at avoiding sacks, if not so much fumbles and interceptions. Swapping to Morgan Ellison as their primary rusher paid dividends last week against St. Louis, too—they move the ball well. They're just not particularly adept at making big plays on defense, so they kind of have to play perfect offensive football to win, and they just shoot themselves in the foot too much. Of the 0-2 teams, they seem to be the one most likely to be able to pull themselves out of their tailspin.
The Vipers looked respectable in defeat in Week 1. Luis Perez looked solid through the air, and while they couldn't run the ball a lick, they were doing alright until interceptions reared their ugly head. That went away in the rain and the muck last week against the Defenders. With the conditions not conducive to throwing, that Vipers run game, or lack thereof, kept the offense in neutral. Perez got benched for Brett Hundley, who didn't offer much of a spark himself. It's possible the rain affected the Vipers more than the average team because of the trouble they have had at the line of scrimmage; conditions which favor rushing might be particularly harmful to Vegas and their all-passing attack. At the very least, they have to hope that's the case, because if their true talent level is what we saw on Saturday night? Yikes.
Aside from the record, there's very little these teams have in common. Seattle's offense has actually been the best in the league by our numbers. They're the most prolific passing team in the league and move the ball quite well. They're both willing to go for it on fourth down and successful at converting it. Really, it has been a bit of bad luck and some tough scheduling that has them winless so far. They should get into the win column for the first time on Saturday. Seattle 22, Vegas 13.
St. Louis Battlehawks (2-0) @ D.C. Defenders (2-0)
Odds: D.C. (-3)
Sunday, 1 p.m., FX
It's sword versus shield for first place in the North! The Battlehawks are here thanks to two thrilling come-from-behind victories. The Defenders are here thanks to two strong second halves and … well, the less said about their first-half performances, the better. A win here gets you to 3-0 with the tiebreaker over the most likely second-place team in the division for home-field advantage in the postseason. This is about as marquee a matchup as you can expect to find in Week 3 of an expansion league—two of the top three teams in our EVOA rankings as well as, y'know, two of the three remaining undefeated teams. Pretty good.
This is also a matchup between two of the best rushing teams in the league. The Defenders do it in bulk—a league-best 313 rushing yards already at a 4.2 yards per carry clip behind Abram Smith and Ryquell Armstead. The Battlehawks are far behind with 176 rushing yards, but they beat D.C. on efficiency, rushing for 4.3 yards per carry. The Defenders rely on their rushing attack; they have yet to hit 100 yards passing. St. Louis, on the other hand, turns to the air when they need a clutch play. They're the only team in the league yet to throw an interception, with A.J. McCarron coming up big in key moments.
The question on what the Defenders are going to do at quarterback continues. Jordan Ta'amu has been pulled for D'Eriq King in both games, but King isn't a passer—he's 1-for-2 for 7 yards so far. The Defenders are great on the ground, and King's athleticism gives them dynamic options there, but if the Defenders get into a situation where they have to throw the ball, they can't rely on King. Ta'amu, therefore, needs to play better—he's completing less than 44% of his passes, he's averaging 4.2 yards per attempt, and he hasn't thrown a touchdown yet. You expect smaller numbers in the XFL, but this is something that needs to be rectified immediately. We have seen Ta'amu play better. He led the USFL in passing yards! But we need to see it now.
The Battlehawks are cooking a little, with the connection between McCarron and Austin Proehl being something worth watching. They just need to work on some consistency. They have gotten to sluggish starts in both of their first two games, requiring McCarron to play nearly perfectly in the second half to catch up. That's a recipe for disaster against the Defenders; you don't want to get into a situation where they can sit on the ball with their running game and drain clock. If St. Louis starts off slowly again, D.C. may not have to worry about whether or not Ta'amu can get his head on straight. We may see how this one is going to go in the first 15 minutes or so. D.C. 19, St. Louis 17.
Orlando Guardians (0-2) @ Arlington Renegades (1-1)
Odds: Arlington (-8.5)
Sunday, 4 p.m., FX
Are the Guardians a lost cause, or are they just off to a slow start? In leagues starting from scratch like this, everyone is theoretically on the same footing, but that doesn't mean everyone puts together an equivalent team. The USFL had to deal with the Pittsburgh Maulers embarrassing themselves throughout 2022, and the Guardians look to be that team so far for the new XFL. Their -41.5% EVOA through two games is a little bit of a small sample size problem, but we have seen very little to say that they're some secretly good team ready to break out. Coach Terrell Buckley, after the loss last week, was interviewed saying that they had to "get different guys," as the guys they had are "not competing and not making plays." That's not great! We're two weeks into the season!
Alright, so what do the Guardians do well? What can they build on? Well, they lead the league with 4.7 yards per carry. Both Jah-Maine Martin and Kelvin Taylor are in the top eight rushers in the league, both averaging over 4.0 yards per carry. The problem is, these rushes are often happening with the Guardians down double digits and their opponents willing to let them drain clock—not quite full prevent defenses, but no one is afraid of Orlando climbing the scoreboard on their rushing attack. And their quarterbacks? Terrible. Paxton Lynch has been sent to the bench in both games as the Guardians rotate him with Quinten Dormady and Deondre Francois, and it's just not working. Combined, the Guardians passers are 41-for-70 for 300 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. That's 4.3 yards per throw and only 8.6 yards per completion, with plenty of failed completions mixed into the bunch. At this point, I'd go with Francois, as he's the most mobile of the bunch and the offensive line stinks. Meanwhile, they have allowed the most points and most passing yards on defense, because they are always on the field. Thirty points allowed in both of their games? In a league where the average score is less than 20? That's no good.
And now we have drama. Because on Thursday, news broke that Dormady was being released—and, on top of that, his stats were removed from the XFL website, though that may be more poor coding than anything else. The rumor at the moment Is that Dormady gave an opposing team plays from the Guardians' playbook, though that's something that I have been unable to confirm with anyone directly. It's entirely possible this is just a rumor that has gotten out of control; it's not like Dormady was lighting up the field himself. But it certainly doesn't make the Guardians' situation look better.
Oh, right, there's a second team in this football game. The Renegades only have two offensive touchdowns; everyone else has at least four. They have scored twice defensively, but their offense is stuck in the mud. They're averaging just 3.5 yards per play, which isn't going to cut it! They have the potential to be much better, considering the spring league talent they have on the roster, and yet they still seem determined to start Drew Plitt over Kyle Sloter. There's some drama there, too—Sloter liked a bunch of Tweets this week calling for Renegades coach Bob Stoops to start him. That pales in comparison to the Guardians drama, but there are things amiss in Arlington. Either way, this is the potential for a get-right game; it's not a shock to struggle against a Wade Phillips defense like they did last week. I would be shocked if they didn't win this week, but the margin will tell us how much we need to worry about Arlington going forward. Arlington 26, Orlando 11.
San Antonio Brahmas (1-1) @ Houston Roughnecks (2-0)
Odds: Houston (-3.5)
Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
The battle of teams that have stomped on Orlando! The Brahmas and Roughnecks are the only teams that have topped 30 points so far this season, and both did it while crushing the Guardians. San Antonio did at least look solid before allowing St. Louis a come-from-behind victory back in Week 1, but Houston looked much sharper against Arlington last week. This is, in many ways, Houston's first real test as the Brahmas try to hand the Roughnecks their first-ever loss in XFL play.
Jack Coan versus Brandon Silvers (with featured rushing guest Cole McDonald) is a marquee quarterback matchup in the XFL. They share the league lead with four passing touchdowns each, and they are first and second among qualified passers in yards per attempt. But Silvers and the Roughnecks have the volume, with both Jontre Kirklin and Deontay Burnett in the top five in receiving yards. The Brahmas are a more balanced team in general—or they try to be. Their rushing game was great in Week 1 against St. Louis but bogged down significantly against Orlando in the first half. They are good enough to overcome an off day on the ground with Coan and the passing attack against a team like Orlando; they'll need to be sharp from the beginning if they want to hang with the Roughnecks.
Wade Phillips' defense is going to give San Antonio more than they can handle, in all likelihood. They lead the league with 12 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss, and five interceptions. Already, the Roughnecks have a pair of players with multiple sacks: Trent Harris (4.5) and Tim Ward (3). It is perhaps not a surprise that in a league starting up from scratch with five weeks of build, the top defenses are ones led by veteran NFL defensive coordinators like Wade Phillips in Houston and Gregg Williams in D.C. They are doing a stellar job of installing pressure packages quickly, getting the most out of limited talent and preparation time. As long as the defenses are ahead of the offenses, as they are this early in the season, guys like Wade are going to have a field day.
I'd love to see the Brahmas pull the upset and get all the Texas teams to 2-1—it would make for the most exciting race this season. As it stands, though, the Roughnecks are the more consistent team and have the tougher defense, which should see them through. Roughnecks 20, Brahmas 17.
4 comments, Last at 06 Mar 2023, 7:41am
#2 by Bryan Knowles // Mar 03, 2023 - 2:21pm
Not DVOA, because of issues with getting the stats, but we do have EVOA -- Estimated Value over Average.
After two weeks, it's still a bit wobbly, but the DC Defenders are just above the Houston Roughnecks and St. Louis Battlehawks. It's more or less a three way tie, whereas at this point in the USFL season, the Birmingham Stallions were running away with things.
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