XFL Week 5 Preview: Defenders, Battlehawks, Round 2, Fight!
XFL - Week 5 marks the halfway point of the XFL season, and we have some catching up to do! The league is coming off of a week more exciting for what happened off the field rather than on it, but they hit some milestones worth recording. Let's check in on the health of the league before getting to this week's matchups.
The biggest news, of course, was the packed house in St. Louis as the Battlehawks opened their home schedule. The Battlehawks drew 38,310 fans to The Dome for their game against the Renegades, a number which will ultimately be more significant than any amount of points scored or yards gained. It's more fans than we have seen attend a spring football game in the U.S. for a long, long time—more than anyone in any incarnation of the XFL, more than anyone in the AAF or modern USFL, anyone. You have to dial all the way back to the Ohio Glory of the World League of American Football, who drew 41,853 to Ohio Stadium in a win over the Frankfurt Galaxy, to find a larger crowd for American spring football. And if anything, it could have been larger—there was more demand for tickets, but not enough employees or staff to really fill the building out yet. Admittedly, this was probably 40% actual Battlehawks fans and 60% people wanting to give Stan Kroenke the finger, but it produced the best atmosphere in the XFL so far.
Big mood. pic.twitter.com/Dt5heSJnZx
— St. Louis Battlehawks (@XFLBattlehawks) March 12, 2023
Led by the throng in St. Louis and a strong weekend crowd in Seattle, the XFL drew 74,947 fans to their four games last weekend. That isn't quite a modern spring record—a cold night in D.C. likely lowered the Defenders crowd, and it's a hard sell for anyone in Orlando to go see a Guardians game right now. It is, however, the fifth-largest cumulative attendance since the AAF kicked off our spring football resurgence in 2019, and each of the four larger weeks happened earlier in their respective seasons. They all featured multiple teams with their first ever home game, which naturally draws a larger crowd of interested onlookers. Obviously, the XFL benefitted from the return of football to St. Louis here, but the three other teams involved didn't have the novelty of home openers to draw fans, and St. Louis has shown a willingness to keep turning out for games before—they have already re-opened the 300 level for this week's game against D.C., for example.
It's great news for the league; packed houses make games feel more important, which in turn draws more interest from the casual viewer. And maybe it's unfair to say the XFL as a whole is doing great on attendance, rather than just being dragged forward by St. Louis. But I think the league has to be pleased with the crowds they're getting in Seattle, D.C., and San Antonio as well. The other half of the league has some work to do, but it feels like at least some of the XFL's franchises are settling well into their communities, which is going to be important for building the future of the league.
As for viewers at home? The XFL has settled into a pattern. Once again, they had fewer viewers than the USFL did in their equivalent Week 4, and that number might continue to go down as March Madness heats up. But the big difference there is that the USFL always had games on broadcast television, while the XFL right now is only on cable until Week 6. And the XFL's cable numbers are much, much higher than the USFL's cable numbers—the XFL averaged a little over 500,000 viewers per broadcast this week, including some very late-night Saturday action, while the USFL was getting less than 250,000 cable viewers at this time in their season. How much of that is superior interest in the XFL and how much of that is ESPN and FX being easier to find than FS1 remains to be seen; we're waiting with baited breath to see what the numbers look like when the XFL returns to broadcast television.
And speaking of numbers, here are this week's EVOA ratings!
|2022 XFL Rankings, Week 4|
|3||St. Louis Battlehawks||3-1||4.8||7.2||2||-2.5||6||12.5%||19.3%||6.8%|
|4||Seattle Sea Dragons||2-2||4.2||1.1||5||3.2||4||11.2%||2.7%||-8.4%|
|5||San Antonio Brahmas||1-3||-0.3||-6.3||7||6.0||1||-1.0%||-17.0%||-16.0%|
The big X-factor in the rankings at the moment is how much to penalize the Roughnecks for playing an exceptionally soft slate. Houston would be in first place without opponent adjustments, but they have played a slate of absolute nobodys to this point, with half their games being against the truly terrible Guardians. The Roughnecks' SRS of 7.7 is very good, but that includes a -9.0 penalty for strength of schedule at the moment. By comparison, the biggest strength of schedule penalty for NFL SRS last season was -2.3 for San Francisco, while the biggest penalty in the USFL was -1.3 for the Generals. A -9.0 penalty is insane, but that's what happens when you play a team as bad as the Guardians twice in four weeks.
Imagine an NFL team playing half their games against the Romeo Crennel Chiefs or the Jaguars with rookie Blake Bortles and you begin to see the problems with accurately determining just how talented Houston actually is. That will work itself out over time. For the moment, I think it's fair to call the two 4-0 teams essentially tied at the top of the standings as we await the first real challenges for Houston.
Houston Roughnecks (4-0) @ Seattle Sea Dragons (2-2)
Odds: Houston (-3)
Thursday, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
Yes, you read that right, 10:30 p.m. Thursday Night Football. This was originally scheduled for a 9 p.m. kickoff, which would have been late enough, but the league decided to sacrifice 90 minutes to bump the game up from FX to ESPN in an attempt to get more viewers. We'll see if it pays off; the other Thursday Night game was a 7 p.m. start on FX and drew 530,000 viewers, so that's the benchmark to try to beat.
Speaking of trying to beat things, Houston continues to look unbeatable, albeit against bad competition. They destroyed Orlando for the second time this season last week, sandwiching between them comfortable wins over Arlington and San Antonio. You might notice that none of those teams has a winning record, which is, I suppose, the big question with the Roughnecks—dominant, but against minnows. The Roughnecks come into the game with the highest Estimated Value in the league … and the weakest strength of schedule. You can't really complain too much about never losing a game, and Houston's swarming defense and explosive offense have proven too much for anyone on the schedule to handle. But will it hold up against the better teams in the league? We'll have to wait and see.
For that matter, are the Sea Dragons one of the better teams? They, too, do not have a winning record, though they have righted the ship after starting 0-2. And their run 'n' shoot offense finally got slowed down some against San Antonio, though they made enough big plays in key moments to come out on top. I do think Ben DiNucci and the triple-headed monster that is Josh Gordon, Blake Jackson, and Jachour Pearson are going to test Houston's defense something awful. Wade Phillips' defense likes bringing pressure, which leaves his corners one-on-one on the outside. And if Paxton Lynch and the Guardians could find a way to exploit that, I have little doubt that June Jones will find a way to do the same, but more so. I expect Seattle to be back in full high-flying offensive form and give the Roughnecks a run for their money that they have not seen to this point.
Trouble is, then they have to slow down the Roughnecks offense. I'm not yet a believer in Houston's defense, but that offense? Yeah, it's for real, and should continue to show up against even the toughest XFL defenses. While DiNucci is the most prolific passer in the XFL to date, Houston quarterback Brandon Silvers has settled in as the most efficient passer—he's averaging the same yards per attempt as DiNucci while also turning over the ball less frequently. Silvers has been surgical to this point, and the Roughnecks' passing attack is a well-oiled machine. Someone is seemingly always open in A.J. Smith's offense, and when defenses drop back to respect the pass, that's when the running game kicks in and takes over. Offenses around the league are in different stages of development due to the short preseason and expansion nature of all eight squads. Houston is, by a wide margin, the furthest along at this point.
This should be Houston's toughest test to date, but I like them to pass it with flying colors, picking up a victory on a short week on the road against a solid team. That would set up a Week 6 matchup with undefeated Houston heading into D.C. in what might well be the game of the year … if the Defenders can hold up their end of the bargain. Roughnecks 23, Sea Dragons 20.
D.C. Defenders (4-0) @ St. Louis Battlehawks (3-1)
Odds: D.C. (-2)
Saturday, 7 p.m., FX
Well, this was pretty fun last time, wasn't it?
In Week 3 in D.C., the Defenders just managed to outlast the Battlehawks in a thrilling back-and-forth game, with D.C. attempting to control all the clock and nearly watching St. Louis pull off a comeback in the closing moments. The teams scored 62 combined points, matching blow for blow, with the deciding factor being the four turnovers that D.C. managed to force on their way to a 34-28 victory. Turn the Battlehawks over, control the ball, withstand their late-game offense, dominate the fistfight that spontaneously starts on the field, and you win. Easy, right?
This has been eagerly awaited, with fanbases on both sides sending potshots at one another. And with more seats opening up in The Dome, the Battlehawks are hoping to have 40,000 St. Louisans there to greet the lemon-throwers from the nation's capital. Rivalries like this are so important for a fledgling league; there's no inherent reason why D.C. and St. Louis should be rivals, but the hard-fought and testy matchup two weeks ago has naturally created interest in the rematch (and the possible playoff rematch between the two, though of course that's still up in the air). A Battlehawks win here would go a long way to ensuring a rubber match in Week 11.
How do the Battlehawks pick up that win? They have to get the Defenders off the field. They only ran five plays in the third quarter of their loss in Week 3, and the Defenders were able to chew off more than 17 minutes of clock on just three drives. As explosive as the Battlehawks offense can be in theory, it can't do anything while the Defenders are controlling the flow of the game. The Battlehawks best moments against D.C. two week ago came early, while the Defenders were struggling to run the ball. But in the second half, they began to get the two-headed monster of Abram Smith and Ryquell Armstead going, and the Battlehawks' defense just started getting run over. The Defenders didn't allow any huge gashes, but the Battlehawks just kept getting positive pickup after positive pickup. That, coupled with two turnovers from AJ McCarron, was enough to allow D.C. to hold on for victory. If St. Louis can clean that up, they'll be well positioned to give D.C. their first loss of the season—but that's a massive if.
The Defenders are an old-school, smashmouth football team, grinding opponents down on both sides of the ball. Nothing too complicated or schematically difficult, which makes sense for this level of football; just solid, complementary play, avoiding mistakes and draining people out in the second half from sheer physical exhaustion. It will take a complete game to knock them off—avoiding mistakes, keeping D.C. from ripping off positive run after positive run, and withstanding the pass rush to find receivers downfield. The Battlehawks are capable of doing that, more so than most other teams in the league. But St. Louis is just a little too mistake-prone for me to be comfortable picking them in this one, even with the expected home-field advantage. Either way, this is the game to watch this weekend. Defenders 23, Battlehawks 20.
Orlando Guardians (0-4) @ Vegas Vipers (0-4)
Odds: Vegas (-7.5)
Saturday, 10 p.m., FX
The Tank Bowl! A head-on collision between the two worst records in the league in front of what promises to be a crowd of dozens at decrepit Cashman Field. Truly, the most minor league of the minor leagues, and the game to skip this week if you want to skip one.
But not all 0-4 teams are made equal, and our numbers consider the Vipers to be feistier than the Guardians, if only by a matter of degrees. While the Guardians are hovering down around -40.0% in our EVOA rankings, aligning themselves with the very worst NFL teams of all time, the Vipers actually find themselves ahead of the 2-2 Renegades. They have had chances to win this year, with a pair of one-score losses to Arlington and Seattle on their resume. They also had chances in both games against D.C., who clocks in as the best team in the league by our metric. That's not to say they're secretly a good team by any means—they have significant issues stringing plays together, and have already fired one offensive coordinator this year. But they probably deserve a net win from their performance over the first four games, if such a thing as fractional wins existed.
Not so the Guardians. Their offense seems entirely limited by inability to get the ball out on time, and the lack of any push up front to clear paths, either in the run game or the passing game. Quite frankly, it's a challenge to name anything Orlando does well, as Terrell Buckley's men seem in over their heads. There have been occasional flashes of something—a deep shot or two on offense, mostly. But they are too few and far between, as staying upright and ready to go seems beyond their capabilities at this point in time.
Vegas averages 4.3 points more per game than Orlando does. They average 7.3 yards per passing attempt compared to Orlando's 6.4, with one fewer interception and seven fewer sacks. Orlando has a slight advantage in rushing yards as Vegas' offensive line gets zero push, but at least the Vipers have managed to score twice on the ground; Orlando has just the one touchdown. The Vipers do a better job getting off the field defensively, holding their opponents to field goals—the Guardians have allowed 16 touchdowns, while Vegas has allowed just 11. It's not a complete statistical sweep across the board for the Vipers, but it would be very, very surprising to see the Guardians come out on top here. Vipers 27, Guardians 19.
Arlington Renegades (2-2) @ San Antonio Brahmas (1-3)
Odds: San Antonio (-2.5)
Sunday, 10 p.m., ESPN2
This game has some significant playoff implications. The Brahmas are a game back of Arlington, but by our numbers, they have been the superior squad. Both teams have been remedial on offense and strong on defense, but San Antonio beats Arlington in both categories. While the Brahmas have only beaten the hapless Guardians, they have stayed within one score of the Battlehawks, Roughnecks, and Sea Dragons—three of the top four teams in the league. The Renegades, our seventh-ranked team, have beat teams ranked sixth and eighth, but were pretty definitively handled by bough the Roughnecks and Battlehawks. You can chalk up Arlington's one-win advantage to the schedule so far, with the Brahmas getting their game against Vegas in April.
All that is well and good, but it doesn't mean anything if you can't actually win, and San Antonio's offense took a major step backwards last week against Seattle. They essentially abandoned the run game entirely, passing up multiple fourth-and-1s with the game on the line out of pure necessity. The Brahmas have been exceptionally one-dimensional in recent weeks, finishing with just 11 yards on 10 designed running plays a week ago. Jack Coan and the passing attack aren't good enough to overcome that on a weekly basis. Fortunately, the defense has been that good—the best in the league, by our numbers. San Antonio is second to only Houston with 16.8 points allowed per game, making them first in the "haven't played the Guardians twice" division.
But you know who they will play twice? Arlington, as the Brahmas strangely have back-to-back games against the Renegades. There really isn't time to figure out the offensive line issues; they have to get things working right now, or they're going to fall hopelessly behind in the South race.
But the same goes for the Renegades. The switch to Kyle Sloter has not produced the offensive explosion Arlington was hoping for, the offense once again sputtering and stalling out against St. Louis. Arlington seems to have fundamentally misjudged how good their offense was going to be—their identity was supposed to be about swinging it out to their tight ends and running backs, and it's just not working. They're scrambling for a Plan B, but the once-heavy favorites are in trouble. Between Bob Stoops, Jonathan Hayes, and Chuck Long, there's enough brainpower in place to figure things out; perhaps it's a too many cooks spoiling the broth situation?
The Brahmas have, at any rate, made the first move. Head coach Hines Ward has replaced his offensive coordinator with Jimmie Johnson—no, not that one, the former Vikings and Jets tight ends coach. There are also rumors that Coan will be benched for Reid Sinnett. None of this really addresses the fact that they can't run the ball, and may be just shuffling deck chairs at a certain point, but moves had to be made.
Either way, both teams are out of time. This two-week stretch could determine who will get the second playoff seed in the South. Whoever can patch together a halfway decent offense first wins. Brahmas 21, Renegades 14.
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