XFL Week 3 Review: Defenders Surge to Victory

D.C. Defenders QB Jordan Ta'amu
D.C. Defenders QB Jordan Ta'amu
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

XFL - Week 3 of the XFL saw the D.C. Defenders emerging victorious in a battle of undefeated teams, beer snake proudly waving in the wind. And yet, the Defenders have lost their grip on the top of our power ratings as Wade Phillips and his Houston Roughnecks continue to rack up victories in the weaker South division. Either way, the last two undefeated teams standing are poised proudly atop our leaderboards as the first third of the season comes to a close.

And what a week it was. All four games were close, coming down to a single possession. Two of them were fantastic from start to finish, with the Sea Dragons and Vipers racing back and forth down the field and the Defenders and Battlehawks serving as a worthy clash of the titans, ending in a fight which promises more rivalry in the immediate future. The Roughnecks and Brahmas game was exciting, if a bit one-sided until late, and the Guardians and Renegades … well, they, too, played football this weekend. Hey, the second act of anything tends to drag a little, right?

Either way, this was the spring league in full form, especially in D.C., where 16,000 raucous fans packed Audi Field. It's a reminder of what we missed for most of the USFL's debut season; any level of sporting event is improved with a crowd going nuts. It remains to be seen if the in-person crowds will spread throughout the league, as Vegas continues to draw flies. But with D.C. having to offer more tickets at the last moment and St. Louis opening up the top section of the Dome for their home opener next week, the immediate future for the league looks bright.

Yes, we said home opener for the Battlehawks in Week 4. As we come to our Estimated Value over Average (EVOA) rankings, we should note that we do not yet have a coefficient for home-field advantage just yet. We really have no idea what the home-field effect is in the XFL at this point in time; we didn't want to make assumptions about crowd sizes or the effect of every team having to travel from Arlington to each game, whether they be home or away. So it's possible, at this point, that the Battlehawks are a little underrated. But, well, with only three games in league history, some uncertainty is part of the equation. The "E" stands for estimated for a reason, and strength of schedule and home field advantage are fairly vague concepts at this point. Some uncertainty is going to be a thing after only three weeks, so I would refrain from reading too much into differences of 5% or so.

Anyway, here's how our numbers actually stand at the moment:

2022 XFL Rankings, Week 3
1 Houston Roughnecks 3-0 8.3 6.8 1 1.5 4 22.0% 18.1% -4.0%
2 D.C. Defenders 3-0 7.1 2.6 3 4.6 1 19.0% 6.8% -12.2%
3 St. Louis Battlehawks 2-1 3.1 5.2 2 -2.0 6 8.0% 13.7% 5.6%
4 San Antonio Brahmas 1-2 2.0 -2.4 6 4.4 2 5.0% -6.6% -11.7%
5 Seattle Sea Dragons 1-2 1.2 1.6 4 -0.4 5 2.8% 4.1% 1.2%
6 Arlington Renegades 2-1 -4.6 -7.3 8 2.7 3 -12.8% -19.7% -7.0%
7 Vegas Vipers 0-3 -4.8 -0.1 5 -4.7 7 -13.2% -0.4% 12.7%
8 Orlando Guardians 0-3 -11.4 -5.8 7 -5.6 8 -31.1% -15.9% 15.2%

We basically have four tiers at the moment. The Roughnecks jumped the Defenders into first place, and our two remaining 3-0 teams are along atop our standings. D.C.'s nine-point win over St. Louis was about what our numbers guessed, and so they stay put. Houston is crushing weaker opposition; they have the weakest strength of schedule in the league so far with an SRS component of -4.7. We'll have to wait a little while longer to see them against the cream of the XFL, but you can only play who's on your schedule. Those two teams seem like the favorites in the South and North, respectively.

Then you have the other solid teams—the 2-1 Battlehawks and the 1-2 Brahmas and Sea Dragons. As mentioned, it feels like the Battlehawks should be higher, considering they have gone 2-1 against a comparatively tough Brahmas/Sea Dragons/Defenders three-game road trip. Their strength of schedule component in SRS is +3.4; the next hardest slates belong to the Guardians and Sea Dragons at +1.9 and +1.8. It's quite possible that this early on, strength of schedule isn't reacting strongly enough to the quality of opponents; this is an unusually tough slate and should even out somewhat as we go along. But we'll go with what the numbers are telling us at the moment while acknowledging that the Battlehawks have not been quite as consistent as our top teams, having too many drives stall out before unleashing the full power of the offense in clutch situations. They're only converting 35% of their third downs, sixth in the league, while Houston and D.C. are both over 46%. If you want to subjectively knock St. Louis up a bit, I'd agree, but they did lose a game. Meanwhile, the Sea Dragons are all offense and shooting themselves in the foot, while the Brahmas are all defense and stalling out on drives; they need to find some consistency to join the top teams in the league.

The Renegades and the Vipers are bad teams that saw some faint signs of hope this week, with both teams making quarterback changes to moderate success. Perhaps with some more time with their new signal-callers under center, they can make some sort of drive, but they still have a ways to go before they can be considered threats.

And then there are the Orlando Guardians. Hey, at least they're no longer in the -40.0% range, and they didn't have to bench their starting quarterback this week! Baby steps, Orlando.

Seattle Sea Dragons 30, Vegas Vipers 26

I don't mean to alarm you, but 2013 was a full decade ago. The Super Bowl blackout, Breaking Bad, the Harlem Shake—all items of nostalgia now. The passing of time is undefeated, and all this, too, shall crumble into dust. However, if you want to feel young again, there is something from 2013 you can watch right now: Josh Gordon destroying people.

Gordon had six receptions for 118 yards and two scores as Seattle furiously came back against the Vipers (and, to be fair, from their own mistakes) with a 15-point fourth quarter erasing a 20-15 deficit and giving them their first victory on the season. It has been coming—they have played all their games close against the top teams in the league—and it was tougher than we figured it would be, but the Sea Dragons have finally hit the win column.

Both teams played arguably the best game of their seasons to this point as they tried to avoid falling to 0-3. Seattle quarterback Ben DiNucci went 29-for-37 for 377 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception, going on the short list of best passing days in modern spring football history. He also ran for 32 yards, though he added a fumble on the ground. The trio of Gordon, Jahcour Pearson, and Jordan Veasy had big play after big play through the air. And that opened up the rushing game, too—Morgan Ellison had 17 carries for 103 yards as Seattle ran for 5.7 yards per pop. All in all, the Sea Dragons averaged 8.2 yards per play against a decently competent XFL defense.

Not that the Vipers exactly rolled over, mind you! They turned control of the offense over to Brett Hundley, getting the start over Luis Perez, and he played well! 13-for-28 for 224 yards, a pair of scores, 66 yards on the ground with a rushing touchdown, and no turnovers. Perez, a spring football veteran, had had some struggles—just 250 yards passing in his two games, with two interceptions to go along with three touchdowns. Hundley had subbed for him some last week and came out looking sharp against Seattle, hooking up with Jeff Badet regularly and firing a 50-yard touchdown to John Lovett on a wheel route. With Hundley under center, the Vipers were calm and controlled and more fluid—there are a lot of positives to take away from this one for Vegas, despite the loss.

Part of Seattle's problem was continuously attempting the three-point conversion and coming up short. All four Seattle touchdowns ended with failed three-point conversions, so they were just getting six points per pop while Vegas went 1-for-3 on two-point conversions, or 6.7 points per score. "Points per touchdown" is an interesting metric in the XFL, where kicked extra points do not exist; couple Vegas getting more points per score with a +2 margin in the turnover game and a Vegas upset was far from out of the question despite Seattle's offensive explosion.

But Seattle scored on each of their final four drives, including touchdowns on each of their final three. And that's where you get Josh Gordon. About a minute left, Seattle down two, facing fourth-and-2 from their own 35-yard line. Dial up Flash.

That's a 65-yard touchdown and, ultimately, ball game—the Vipers didn't have enough time to march down the field in response. Sea Dragons hold on and win.

D.C. Defenders 34, St. Louis Battlehawks 28

Best game in XFL 3.0 so far? Yes. Best game in XFL history? Arguably, though the 2001 Chicago Enforcers versus L.A. Xtreme game that went into double-overtime and ended up getting the league into trouble because it delayed Saturday Night Live has a strong, strong argument. The Battlehawks, seemingly incapable of playing anything but an exciting football game, came up just short in a comeback attempt against the Defenders, our best team in the league through three weeks.

But before we get to any of that, the beer snake is back!

After it was banned in Week 1, leading to lemons being thrown on the field in protest, Defenders fans got to build their beer snake. And build it they did—16,000-plus fans pushed the snake all the way from field to the edge of the stadium, and started on a second one before the game went final. Long live the beer snake, forever may it reign.

Oh, right, the football game. It more than lived up to its billing as a battle between two of the top three teams in EVOA entering the day.

It was something of a tale of two halves, too. The Defenders jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on two big swing plays. Jordan Ta'amu hit Chris Blair for 58 yards to set up a touchdown on the first D.C. drive, and they followed that up with Michael Joseph picking off A.J. McCarron and returning it for six. It was Joseph's third interception of the year, and second touchdown already.

But that was kind of it from the Defenders in the first half. They want to run the ball and control the clock, but the Battlehawks clamped down after that. Both of the next two Defenders drives ended in Ryquell Armstead fumbles, keeping them from getting into a rhythm. And their three drives gained a total of 23 yards, ending in three punts. Other than the one bomb to Blair, D.C. had three receptions for 18 yards in the first half, and that seemed like a recipe for disaster against St. Louis. After the interception, McCarron started shaking off the rust. He's developing an excellent rapport with Hakeem Butler, who had nine receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown, scoring just before the end of the first half to knot us up at 14.

It felt like D.C. was going to lose this one—they weren't moving the ball with regularity, and St. Louis was beginning to heat up. And then the second half began, and D.C. simply kept the ball for one and a half quarters. The Defenders had three different drives of at least 11 plays, as the dual-threat of Abram Smith (16 carries for 54 yards) and Ryquell Armstead (11 carries for 51 yards) began to take over the game. And when the Blackhawks did creep up, Ta'amu would find Lucky Jackson over the middle, taking advantage of open field behind them to keep drives alive. Nothing super explosive here, just one of those soul-draining performances where you just keep losing ground inch by inch. With Devin Bellamy strip-sacking McCarron and setting up a field goal, there was a point where D.C. had run 39 of 47 plays in the second half, stretching their lead out to 34-20.

But the Battlehawks fought back. Part of the reason for that massive play differential was a 72-yard kick return from Darius Shepherd, followed up immediately by McCarron hitting a wide-open Jake Sutherland for a touchdown. McCarron had a solid day—and he had to, as he was getting little help from his running game. McCarron finished 26-for-42 for 262 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions, hitting Butler and Shepherd over and over again when the Battlehawks actually could hold onto the football. The Defenders were draining clock as much as they could to try to keep St. Louis off the field, and it mostly worked.

Then we got to the game-ending sequence, which is what took things to another level.

  • Down 14 with less than two minutes to go, McCarron drove the Battlehawks down the field, picking up huge chunks on passes to Butler. But his Hail Mary on fourth down was intercepted just outside the end zone with 28 seconds left. All the Defenders had to do now was fall on the ball, and they win—but they're too close to the goal line to kneel. That has never hurt anyone, has it?
  • D.C. pulls a Buffalo! Ta'amu attempted to dive forward away from the goal line but fumbled, with the Battlehawks falling on top of it with 22 seconds left.
  • McCarron then hits Steven Mitchell for the touchdown and the two-point conversion, making the score 34-28 with 16 seconds left.
  • That, in turn, cues up the fourth-and-15 option instead of the onside kick. The Battlehawks are the only team in the league to convert one of those this season, and they lined up to try it again…
  • … but Davin Bellamy, the all-USFL player who defected to the Defenders, breaks through on a three-man rush and sacks McCarron to preserve the win!
  • ... and then all hell breaks loose as frustrations boil over.

That fight—and another on the Defenders' final run to run out the clock—resulted in multiple ejections as the chippiness of the game exploded. So tempers may be a little high for the rematch, in the Dome in two weeks. Circle your calendars.

Arlington Renegades 10, Orlando Guardians 9

Well, they can't all be winners, right?

After two exciting games this weekend, the XFL released a dud in the form of a Renegades-Guardians matchup which sought to confirm every stereotype of spring football. Punting! Ugly turnovers! Checkdowns! Like, one moment of competence that can be strung out into a sequence of highlights! It wasn't the worst game we have ever seen by any stretch of the imagination—hey, it was close, wasn't it?—but it was a massive letdown after some thrilling games early. The three drives that ended in the third quarter gained 10 total yards between them. It was not, suffice it to say, a particularly compelling product.

The Guardians are terrible. But at least Paxton Lynch didn't get pulled this week—didn't throw an interception, either. He was 19-for-31 for 219 yards, doing a good job hooking up with Cody Latimer in some kind of nightmare for Denver Broncos fans. Problem for Orlando this week was that he was also the Guardians' leading rusher, with 10 carries for 43 yards as Orlando experimented almost with an option attack at points. The rest of the team? 15 carries for 37 yards, including two fumbles from Jah-Maine Martin. Lynch also took four sacks, further stopping Orlando from gaining forward momentum. He did, however, lead one legitimately good drive, marching 73 yards in 11 plays and running in for the score himself, giving Orlando a 9-3 lead as the fourth quarter began.

The Renegades' offense may, in fact, be worse than Orlando's. Their defense is really solid—eight takeaways in three games, including the two fumbles today—but they can't move the ball to save their lives. They did finally make the quarterback change we have been calling for, bringing in all-USFL passer Kyle Sloter, but that didn't exactly spark the offense. Sloter started 9-for-13 for 53 yards as the Renegades offense remained firmly in neutral. Orlando averaged a full yard per play more than Arlington could, and only repeated first downs via penalty (Orlando committed nine on the day) kept the Renegades on the field. The Renegades did finally wake up after the Guardians took the lead, however. Sloter was 6-for-7 for 52 yards and a touchdown strike to Tyler Vaughns. Unlike Orlando, Arlington converted their extra point, taking a 10-9 lead.

That ended up being enough. The Guardians very nearly made it interesting with a deep shot to Lance Lenoir, but after extensive review the pass was ruled incomplete. Orlando was unable to convert the resulting fourth-and-13, and that was ballgame. It was the best offensive performance for Orlando this season, and we saw their EVOA rising as a response, but neither of these teams feel particularly competitive at the moment.

Houston Roughnecks 22, San Antonio Brahmas 13

The Roughnecks joined the Defenders at 3-0, getting out to a big early lead over San Antonio and then holding on despite an attempted Brahmas comeback—a bold move to get all their offense out of the way early and then rely on defense to bring them home. Hey, don't knock it if it works, right?

Houston quarterback Brandon Silvers started this game absolutely on fire—15-for-20 for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. It looked for a while like this would simply be uncontested as Silvers hit Jontre Kirkland repeatedly. In the first half, Houston had five complete drives, which ended in three touchdown passes and a pair of bad kicks (a short punt and a missed field goal). Just don't take the ball out of Silvers' hands; problem solved.

San Antonio got off to a hot start, with Kalen Ballage running through open lanes and Jack Coan finding the end zone three and a half minutes into the game, but they quickly found themselves sputtering from there. All five other Brahmas drives in the first half went three or four plays, four of them gaining single-digit yards. The second Battle of Texas looked like it was going to be a snoozer.

The Brahmas' defense stepped up in the second half, forcing three punts and managing to pick off Silvers, which in turn led to San Antonio's second touchdown of the day, trimming the lead to 22-13. And remember—nine points is a one-score game in the XFL, so it looked, for a moment, like San Antonio had something going here. It looked even bigger when, with less than five minutes left, Ajene Harris was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, granting San Antonio first-and-goal from the Houston 1-yard line. Scoring all nine points and getting the tie was a tough ask, but surely, surely, San Antonio would score and get a chance to run the fourth-and-15 comeback play.

Instead, Houston had the goal-line stand of the season so far. They stuffed Ballage on first down for nothing. They stuffed Ballage on second down for nothing. They stuffed Coan on the QB keeper on third down for nothing. And on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Ballage was wrapped up for a loss of four. Turnover on downs, and essentially ballgame.

Are the Roughnecks the best team in the league? They lead in point differential and scoring; they have the most sacks and interceptions on defense; they have never, and I mean ever, lost a game in the XFL. But their schedule has been soft to this point, with the Guardians, Renegades, and Brahmas going down 1-2-3, and with the Guardians and Sea Dragons coming up next. We'll find out how good Houston truly is in Weeks 6 and 7, when they have to face the Defenders and Battlehawks back-to-back. Until then, though, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and Houston is stifling them.


1 comment, Last at 06 Mar 2023, 2:23pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 06, 2023 - 2:23pm

Houston is one win away from tying the LA teams for the most in XFL history.

Points: 0

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