XFL Week 5 Review: The Defenders Stand Alone

D.C. Defenders RB Abram Smith
D.C. Defenders RB Abram Smith
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

XFL - We have reached the midway point of the XFL season, in an odd week where the league got shunted onto late night television due to March Madness. For those who braved the channel swaps and late kickoffs, however, there was excitement and firsts to be found. The first time Houston has lost a game in the XFL! The first 200-yard rusher in league history! The first win for Vegas in a shootout in Orlando! And then there was also a Sunday game which we will not talk about under penalty of torture—the torture in question being having to watch that game again.

With just one undefeated team left at the midway point, we're seeing the league break down into clear tiers of haves and havenots.

2023 XFL Rankings, Week 5
1 D.C. Defenders 5-0 9.9 3.4 3 6.4 1 26.4% 9.2% -17.3%
2 Houston Roughnecks 4-1 6.1 5.6 2 0.5 5 16.3% 14.9% -1.4%
3 Seattle Sea Dragons 3-2 5.6 0.3 5 5.3 2 15.0% 0.8% -14.3%
4 St. Louis Battlehawks 3-2 4.5 7.1 1 -2.6 6 11.9% 19.1% 7.1%
5 San Antonio Brahmas 1-4 -1.6 -6.1 7 4.4 3 -4.5% -16.3% -11.8%
6 Vegas Vipers 1-4 -4.6 3.1 4 -7.7 7 -12.5% 8.4% 20.9%
7 Arlington Renegades 3-2 -5.3 -9.6 8 4.3 4 -14.5% -26.0% -11.5%
8 Orlando Guardians 0-5 -14.1 -3.7 6 -10.4 8 -38.0% -9.9% 28.0%

The Defenders are beginning to pull away, with the top running game and top defense in the league. They can't pass at all, but who needs to throw the ball when you're rushing for 175 yards a game and are the league's stingiest team on third downs?

Then you have the Houston-Seattle-St. Louis trifecta of solid but imperfect teams. St. Louis has the best offense in the league, but their defense struggles to stop teams from beating them at the line of scrimmage. Seattle has perhaps the highest potential of any team in the league but can't stop shooting itself in the foot on offense. Houston still is a mystery considering 40% of their games came against Orlando; they have dominated bad teams but just lost their first game against good competition.

Then you have the not-great teams—the solid defenses for Arlington and San Antonio paired with the two least competent offenses in the league, and the Vipers' sieve-like defense paired with an offense that's beginning to figure itself out. And finally, you have Orlando, who at least got out of the -40.0% range in EVOA this week. Baby steps.

With four good teams and four playoff spots, you'd think the XFL was in a good place—but three of those solid teams all play in the North, with D.C., Seattle, and St. Louis fighting for two slots. One of the lesser teams, very likely Arlington, is going to get extra football at the expense of one of the better teams in the league. I suppose that is just the way the cookie crumbles.

Seattle Sea Dragons 21, Houston Roughnecks 14

For the first time in XFL history—any XFL!—the Houston Roughnecks have lost a football game.

In front of a small, weeknight crowd, in a game that didn't end until after midnight on the East Coast, the Roughnecks finally met their match. The Sea Dragons jumped out to a 15-0 halftime lead, and then clung to it for dear life throughout the second to hand Houston their first loss in 10 XFL games between the two leagues.

If anything, the final score didn't fully reflect Seattle's overall success, because turnovers once again rose up to bite the Sea Dragons. Yes, Ben DiNucci scored twice, once on a pass to Damon Willis and another time on a 20-yard rush, but he also threw three interceptions, including one in the end zone that would have put things out of reach before the first half ended.

But when the Sea Dragons weren't shooting themselves in the foot, they were moving the ball well. It has been difficult to gauge just how strong Houston is because half their games have been against the horrendous Guardians, and the Sea Dragons showed that, if anything, we may not have been penalizing them for their schedule enough. While the Roughnecks were able to mostly take Josh Gordon out of the game, that didn't leave them with enough bodies to stop Jahcour Pearson or Damion Willis. Seattle ended up with 12.3 yards per reception, the most Houston has let up all season long. The Roughnecks only recorded two sacks as the pass pressure that had been their calling card to this point somewhat fizzled. Big pass plays had been available against this Roughnecks defense, but the pass rush had been too much for their opponents to overcome up to this point. Seattle stood tough and took advantage of it.

Despite Seattle's four turnovers, Houston simply could not move the ball enough to take advantage. The Roughnecks had just one first down on their first two possessions and things didn't get much easier from there. Houston turned the ball over twice themselves, with an Antoine Brooks sack of Brandon Silvers killing a Houston drive just outside the red zone being particularly harmful. In addition, Seattle blocked two punts, preventing Houston from flipping field position. While we don't have specific special teams rankings, it's worth noting that Houston punter Race Porter pins opponents inside the 20 on half of his punts. Getting a hand on two of them is huge.

But because Seattle never converted any of those Houston miscues into points, the Roughnecks had a chance to steal this one at the buzzer. Down 21-6 with 82 seconds left in the game, Silvers hit a long bomb to Justin Smith, with the ensuing two-point conversion making this a seven-point game with 19 ticks on the clock. In the NFL, that's still probably game over, but the fourth-and-15 option in lieu of the onside kick makes comebacks more feasible. Indeed, Silvers found Deontay Burnett to keep the game alive, and a pass interference penalty gave Houston the ball on the Seattle 27 with five seconds left—time for one more shot, and a possible third last-second loss for the Sea Dragons.

Instead, Elijah Ponder hit Silvers in the backfield, the ball fluttered into Niko Lalos' hands, and the Sea Dragons escaped. Things are getting interesting at the top of the North division now.

D.C. Defenders 28, St. Louis Battlehawks 20

Nearly 36,000 fans packed The Dome to watch the highly anticipated rematch between the Defenders and Battlehawks. If they came for an exciting, well-played game, they came to the right place. If they came to see records broken, they came to the right place. If they came to watch the home team get some revenge for two weeks ago, well, maybe not so much.

The Defenders have been a run-first, pass-second offense all year long, but Saturday saw that go to extreme levels. Abram Smith was the first overall pick in the XFL draft, and he showed why as he slashed and gashed the Battlehawks defense all night long. The former Baylor back had 23 carries for 218 yards and three touchdowns, flashing the cutback skills and patience that he had hoped would lead him into the NFL last season. His lack of experience at the position—he was a linebacker until 2021—was part of why he only got a cup of coffee in training camp with the Saints, but days like this could get some zone-heavy running team to give him a second look.

Even if you remove the two huge runs from Smith's day, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry against a Battlehawks defense that had no answers. St. Louis absorbed D.C.'s run attack fairly well in the first matchup; not so much this time. The Battlehawks slowed down the rest of the Defenders offense—Jordan Ta'amu had just 90 yards passing, mostly to Lucky Jackson—but that doesn't matter so much when Smith is setting and re-setting the league record for longest play from scrimmage.

If the defense couldn't slow Smith down, the Battlehawks' offense would have to be perfect and, well, they weren't. AJ McCarron turned the ball over twice, leading to a Defenders touchdown and the end of the game. St. Louis struggled to do much of anything for the first half, with only one drive going longer than 10 yards. Pressure from Cameron Lewis and the rest of the D.C. pass rush stymied St. Louis for much of the first half, repeatedly bringing McCarron down in the backfield. Penalties, too, kept the Battlehawks in neutral for the first half, letting the Defenders jump out to an early lead and lean on Smith the rest of the way.

The Defenders attempted to salt the game away with their running attack, but St. Louis wasn't going to go down without a fight. Hakeem Butler hauled in nine receptions for 86 yards. Steven Mitchell scored on a 50-yard catch-and-run from McCarron. Brian Hill ran for 79 more yards, grinding out some hard yards between the tackles. St. Louis chipped away at the D.C. lead, ending up down 28-20 with the ball with 1:55 left in the game. They already had a couple of come-from-behind victories this season; what's one more?

But it was not to be. St. Louis couldn't get the ball over midfield before McCarron was intercepted by Michael Joseph, effectively ending the game.

The Defenders remain the XFL's last undefeated team, sitting at 5-0 and looking down on the rest of the league. The Battlehawks drop to 3-2, tied with the Sea Dragons for the second playoff spot in the North.

Vegas Vipers 35, Orlando Guardians 32

The battle between the two winless teams remaining in the league turned into a shootout—and one not entirely fueled by bad defense. We had a couple of quarterback performances worth remembering, and some signs of home going forward for both teams. Maybe that hope will dry up when taking on actual solid competition, but you have to start somewhere.

For the Guardians, Paxton Lynch was benched. Again. This is becoming a near-weekly occurrence, and the gambling-focused league should really start offering over/unders as to how deep in the game Lynch will go before being sent to the sidelines.

But that just meant it was time for a redemption arc for Quinten Dormady! You'll remember Dormady as the quarterback who was cut from the Guardians for allegedly sharing his playbook with other teams. Dormady was immediately reinstated, but he had to undergo investigation from an outside law firm before he was allowed to return to the team, meaning he has missed the last month. That investigation found that the allegations of impropriety were "unsubstantiated" and there was "no basis for disciplinary action" against the quarterback. He was activated for this one, coming off the bench when Lynch was set packing.

And all he did was go 22-for-25 for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Cody Latimer and Charleston Rambo. Latimer had a day, hooking up with Dormady eight times for 124 yards, as once again the Guardians offense sprung to life with a quarterback not named Paxton Lynch playing. Perhaps one day they'll figure out the correlation here.

That set us up for a shootout against Luis Perez. The long-time spring league veteran had had his ups and downs this season but was given the starting reigns again this week after Brett Hundley proved ineffective. Perez rewarded the faith in him, going 20-for-28 for 269 yards and three touchdowns, hooking up with Jeff Badet for multiple scores. Add in Rod Smith being functional on the ground and the Vegas offense looked as good as it has all year long.

For most of the game, then, you could be fooled into thinking we were watching two competent teams—or two competent offenses, at any rate. With both teams averaging at least 6.0 yards per play, and only one turnover between them, we saw some sustained action, punches after counterpunches. We had an eight-drive sequence without a punt, which I believe is the modern-day XFL record:

  • Vegas kicking a 39-yard field goal to extend their lead to 17-7.
  • Orlando marching 71 yards in 10 plays, leading to Dormady hitting Rambo for a touchdown to cut the lead to 17-13.
  • Vegas squeezing back into field goal range as the half expired but missing the 56-yarder.
  • A great second-half kickoff return from Cinque Sweeting putting Vegas into position to score another touchdown and go up 23-13.
  • An 11-play, 73-yard response drive from Orlando, with Dormady slicing and dicing the Vegas secondary to close the gap to 23-19.
  • A 10-play, 71-yard response to that from Vegas, with Perez hitting Geronimo Allison multiple times to set up a Smith touchdown, extending the lead back to 29-19.
  • Dormady hitting consecutive deep shots to Rambo and Latimer to cut the lead back down to 29-26.
  • Perez finding Badet in the back of the end zone to push the lead back to 35-26.

Not quite back and forth, as Orlando never had the lead, but a fun case of punch-counterpunch. Hey, if you're going to be watching bad teams, they might as well move the ball, right?

Don't worry, though; if you're looking for terrible and baffling football, we had some at the end for you. After Dormady hit Latimer for a 45-yard touchdown, the Guardians failed the three-point conversion attempt, still trailing 35-32 with 1:04 left in the game. Latimer then … took himself out of the game for the ensuing fourth-and-15 desperation shot. We get that he had just ran a deep shot, but even a gassed Latimer would have been a useful thing to have. Dormady held on to the ball too long and took a sack, and that should have been game over…

… except Vegas butchered the clock. Orlando still had two timeouts, so Vegas couldn't run the entire thing out no matter what, but they attempted two passes on their drive, to the consternation of coach Rod Woodson, who ended up screaming at his coordinator on a live mic on the sidelines. Woodson has not shown the greatest game awareness to this point, shall we say, and is becoming more noted for his histrionics than for his coaching acumen.

No matter, however—the Guardians' offensive line parted like the Red Sea. Dormady was sacked at his own 1-yard line, and then back-to-back false starts (and the ensuing 10-second runoffs) drained the rest of the clock. A fitting way for Vegas to get their first win of the season.

Arlington Renegades 12, San Antonio Brahmas 10

A battle between the two worst offenses in the XFL predictably turned into a slow, plodding affair, one where neither team could move the ball with any sort of regularity. In the end, it became less about which team could help itself and more about which could avoid hurting itself the most. San Antonio's three turnovers to Arlington's one explain why the Renegades were able to walk away with the victory.

Things were supposed to be different for the Brahmas. This was supposed to be a new-look San Antonio offense. They swapped playcallers, with running backs coach Jimmie Johnson replacing receivers coach Jaime Elizondo in the booth. They swapped quarterbacks, with Reid Sinnett taking over from Jack Coan. Did this spark a San Antonio offensive revolution? The score tells you all you need to know there.

To be fair to Sinnett, he started off decently. Going 13-for-19 for 97 yards and a touchdown isn't going to get anyone jumping up and down in their seats, but maybe you could build on that. It was not to be, though, as Sinnett took a big hit on a pass that ended up intercepted. Sinnett came back to the sideline in a walking boot; his night was over, and we wait to see just how extensive the injury was. Either way, that sent the team back to Coan, who finished 7-for-15 for 42 yards and a pair of picks, the last one officially sealing the game for Arlington.

You may have crunched the numbers and come up with 4.1 yards per attempt and 6.4 yards per completion for the San Antonio passers, and that's because it appears Johnson has a playbook that only consists of screens and dump-offs. Ten of the 20 San Antonio completions went to running backs Kalen Ballage and Jacques Patrick. There is just nothing worth noting about this San Antonio offense at this point, and the already slim Sunday night crowd dwindled dramatically by the end of the game as the Brahmas farted around.

Not that the Renegades were much better! For the fourth time this season, they were held out of the end zone in the first half, only managing to stay around because the Brahmas couldn't do anything themselves. They had one drive of note—a legitimately impressive 14-play, 98-yard drive with a clever run with Rannell Hall for 21 that counts as the one (1) good Arlington play per game. Take that drive out and Arlington managed 155 yards on their other 47 plays, or 3.3 yards per play. And they won!

This was not a defensive slugfest. This was two offenses that simply could not understand the concept of forward motion. Truly terrible, and frankly disappointing. San Antonio is one of the more passionate fanbases in the new XFL; the league granted the city the first championship game in part because of the strong local response to the Brahmas coming to town (and, to be fair, because the Alamodome is less busy than the Dome in St. Louis). They deserve better than the Brahmas have been to this point, as it's very hard to drum up reasons for excitement for this team right now.

And we get to see them play again next week! Joy of joys.


7 comments, Last at 24 Mar 2023, 3:14am

#1 by KnotMe // Mar 20, 2023 - 11:32am

Interesting that the defenders actually have a  good defense. (It's the obvious problem with that name)


I wonder if Paxton Lynch has a certain number of starts in his contract or something. 

Points: 0

#3 by Mike B. In Va // Mar 20, 2023 - 12:51pm

Does he have a bonus clause based on how many leagues he washes out of?

Points: 1

#2 by Mike B. In Va // Mar 20, 2023 - 12:50pm

It's a pity San Antonio was wasting that crowd. They *want* to watch football, and this is what they get?

Points: 0

#4 by Bryan Knowles // Mar 20, 2023 - 1:32pm

Things were working a little better with Sinnett in, but they were actually swapping QBs before Sinnett's injury.  And even with Reid, they were dinking and dunking way too much.

Points: 0

#5 by Anger...rising // Mar 20, 2023 - 2:33pm

Orlando still had two timeouts, so Vegas couldn't run the entire thing out no matter what, but they attempted two passes on their drive, to the consternation of coach Rod Woodson, who ended up screaming at his coordinator on a live mic on the sidelines.


He screamed about the pass after being gifted 4th-and-1.  What he said beforehand about needing a first down to avoid putting the game on his defense makes it seem like he was on-board with throwing on 2nd-and-10 -- which worked.  Can't really blame the decision to pass for Koontz dropping the ball with no one around him.

Points: 0

#6 by ImNewAroundThe… // Mar 20, 2023 - 4:27pm

Can't really blame the decision to pass for Koontz dropping the ball with no one around him.

That's the problem with passing in such situations. Crazy things happen

Points: 0

#7 by Jannifer97 // Mar 24, 2023 - 3:13am

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Points: 2

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