XFL Week 6 Preview: Houston and D.C. in a Prime-Time Special
XFL - Did you enjoy Week 5 in the XFL? Then you're in a fairly exclusive club.
We knew the XFL was going to have trouble with March Madness kicking off, and boy, did they ever capitulate. Three of the four games in Week 5 started at 9 p.m. Eastern time or later, with two kicking off after 10 p.m. For the most part, the league abandoned any hope of competing with brackets and braced themselves for a whoopin'—and a whoopin' they received. The four games, combined, totaled 1.06 million viewers, with none topping the 320,000 provided by the one 7 p.m. kickoff. If there was any reason to believe that these were going to be normal XFL numbers, this would be full-blown crisis mode; it's the lowest individual viewership for any week since the AAF re-launched spring football in 2019. Even that league, shunted off to something called the "CBS Sports Network," managed to draw more eyeballs than the XFL did last week.
Now, however, we're going to get a chance for some real competition. For the first time since Week 1, the XFL is returning to broadcast television, with ABC broadcasting afternoon games on both Saturday and Sunday. Plus, we get our first Monday Night game, in prime time on ESPN2, a matchup between the two best teams in the league in the Defenders and Roughnecks. While Week 5 had everything stacked against the XFL, ratings-wise, we'll get a better gauge of the health of the league in Week 6.
To this point, the XFL has generally been outdoing the USFL's cable numbers, but the USFL had more total viewers because they were on Fox and NBC week-in and week-out. Are the XFL's superior cable numbers just due to ESPN having more reach than FS1? Or is it the more appealing product in general as a result of having games in front of actual fans? We'll be able to get our first real check-in point this week. The ratings will end up being more important in the long run than any of the actual results on the field … though we should probably talk about those some, too, as we enter the back half of the season.
Seattle Sea Dragons (3-2) @ Orlando Guardians (0-5)
Odds: Seattle (-9.5)
Saturday, 1 p.m., ABC
This game was moved from ESPN to ABC in an effort to get more games on broadcast television. That's a good sign for the XFL, an indication that the networks are interested in giving them more prominent billing. It's just too bad that the matchup in question has to involve the Guardians.
That being said, Orlando showed signs of life for the first time all year last week against winless Vegas. Hopefully we have seen the last of Paxton Lynch, and it will be Quinten Dormady under center for the Guardians. In both cases when Dormady has replaced Lynch, Orlando has done a better job moving the ball. Their defense is still bad, the coaching is still suspect, and there are still far too many procedural penalties that really keep Orlando far, far below the other teams in the league, but Dormady at least provided an offensive spark that we just never saw from Lynch—22-for-25 for 256 yards and a couple of scores is a reason to tune in. We're in 0-10 watch for Orlando for sure, but the team we saw last weekend is at least capable of winning professional football games. Baby steps.
The Sea Dragons' biggest opponent continues to be themselves. They are 3-2 despite a -10 turnover differential, which seems next to impossible. Ben DiNucci is always good for a big play; it's just hard to guarantee what team that play is going to be for. Against the old Guardians, turning the ball over three or four times probably just limits your eventual winning margin to two scores. Against an Orlando team that can actually move the ball? Maybe we have something interesting here—at least, more interesting than it seemed at this point last week.
The other thing worth watching out for Seattle is team chemistry. There was an on-field altercation between DiNucci and receiver Josh Gordon, with DiNucci blaming Gordon for giving up on a play and causing one of his interceptions. Gordon did seem to run the wrong route multiple times against Houston, and he was less active than he has been in other games this year. Then again, considering DiNucci's propensity for throwing passes into coverage, blaming someone else for his interception troubles is a bit rich.
Is this drama enough for the Sea Dragons to slip up against the Guardians? No. No it is not. Seattle 43, Orlando 3.
St. Louis Battlehawks (3-2) @ Vegas Vipers (1-4)
Odds: St. Louis (-3)
Saturday, 7 p.m., FX
Congratulations to the Vipers for finally getting into the win column, though their tight victory over winless Orlando may not be cause for a parade just yet. Still, with the return of Luis Perez to his spring football star form, perhaps things are looking up for Vegas. It's hard to picture them climbing out of a 1-4 hole and finding their way back to relevancy in the North, but if they are to do it, it starts this week.
There isn't a bigger contrast between home environments than you get in Vegas versus St. Louis. The Battlehawks have drawn 35,000-plus fans to The Dome in each of the last two weeks as St. Louis has quite passionately supported their team. The Vipers, meanwhile, have never even drawn 7,000 fans to Cashman Stadium, which at press time is still standing. And that's about the best you can hope for out of Cashman, a stadium the league must improve upon in Year 2.
Credit to the Vipers for hanging in there—they needed every bit of Perez's 269 passing yards, as well as multiple defensive stops in the final two minutes, in order to finally win. It was painful to watch at times as Rod Woodson's team seemed discombobulated and confused strategically. Any game which ends with the head coach yelling at the offensive coordinator over play calling is not a fantastic omen for the future. And with their defensive EVOA in the toilet, they allowed Orlando to hang around far, far too long. They're probably in a better situation than they were two weeks ago, but they do not yet feel like a team that's a serious threat to anyone.
Maybe their run game will have some success against St. Louis, which is going back to the drawing board defensively after allowing Abram Smith to run through them for 200 yards. Tackling and lane assignments were an issue as the Battlehawks are coming to the realization that they're fairly soft at the point of attack. The solution to that? Don't let your opponents jump out to a lead to begin with. AJ McCarron and Hakeem Butler have to be salivating at the thought of pressing the Vipers' secondary, which has been burned week-in and week-out to the tune of 8.3 yards per attempt—not completion, per attempt. Expect the Battlehawks to attempt plenty and try to go up huge early. The best defense is a good offense and all. St. Louis 28, Vegas 16.
San Antonio Brahmas (1-4) @ Arlington Renegades (3-2)
Odds: Arlington (-3)
Sunday, 3 p.m., ABC
We're running back one of the worst games of the season as the Brahmas and Renegades play each other in back-to-back weeks. For ABC's sake, here's hoping that literally any offensive performance comes with it, because this one was a rough watch this past weekend.
Our numbers still hate the Renegades—or, more specifically, hate the Renegades' offense. They hate San Antonio, too, but that's to be expected for a 1-4 team. The other seven teams in the league go from the top of the EVOA rankings to the bottom in win-loss order, but the Renegades are seventh, below the 1-4 Brahmas and 1-4 Vipers.
Can you blame them, though? Just look at this list of offensive lowlights:
- They are the two lowest-scoring teams in the league (74 points for San Antonio, 69 for Arlington).
- They have the two lowest total of rushing yards in the league (372 yards for San Antonio, 358 for Arlington).
- They have the two lowest yard per carry rates in the league (3.18 for San Antonio, 2.86 for Arlington).
- They have the two fewest rushing touchdowns in the league (each with two).
- They have two of the three lowest passing yards in the league (696 yards for San Antonio, 684 for Arlington).
- The have the two lowest yards per pass attempt rates in the league (5.38 for Arlington, 4.99 for San Antonio).
- They have two of the three fewest passing touchdown totals in the league (six for San Antonio, three for Arlington).
- They have two of the three most interceptions thrown in the league (seven for Arlington, five for San Antonio).
- They have the two lowest passer ratings in the league (70.8 for San Antonio, 63.0 for Arlington).
- And, of course, they have the two lowest total yardage totals in the league (1,068 for San Antonio, 1,042 for Arlington).
There's no amount of advanced stats or opponent adjustments that can make up for that sheer bulk of offensive incompetence. So the winner of this week's rematch will likely be which team can avoid shooting themselves in the foot the most.
At least Arlington has reinforcements coming. This week, they signed Victor Bolden, an all-USFL receiver who spent the 2022 NFL season on the practice squads of Arizona and Denver. Anything to provide a spark.
Despite last week's results, I still like San Antonio in that department. Arlington had one solid drive but spent most of the rest of the game in neutral; San Antonio was doing a better job moving the ball throughout the game but kept killing themselves with turnovers. San Antonio also had to turn back to Jack Coan after new starter Reid Sinnett left with a foot injury that will end his season just as it got started; a mid-game quarterback change can stymie even a good offense, and San Antonio does not have a good offense. Given the choice between the two, I'll take a full practice week for Coan leading to a turnover-free game as San Antonio retreats further inside a shell. Not happy with the pick, mind you! But then, neither of these teams excel at bringing me joy. San Antonio 19, Arlington 17.
Houston Roughnecks (4-1) @ D.C. Defenders (5-0)
Odds: D.C. (-2.5)
Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Monday night football, with the broadcast moving from FX to ESPN2 to try to get the matchup of the two best teams in the league into more homes. This is one we've been waiting for, and while the Roughnecks couldn't hold up their end of the bargain by coming into this one undefeated, this is still to determine the best team in the league at the midpoint of the year.
Offensively, this is a massive contrast of styles. Houston is second in the league with 1,255 passing yards to this point, and their 12 passing touchdowns pace the XFL. Brandon Silvers spreads the ball around early and often, looking to pick apart opposing secondaries—something Seattle was able to stymie last week after Jontre Kirklin left with an injury, but this has generally been one of the more potent attacks in the league. It will be interesting, then, to see how Houston reacts to the loss of Kirklin, who is expected to miss the rest of the season with his chest injury. Kirklin had an argument as the best receiver in the league to this point; he was sixth in the XFL with 253 yards, and his 16.9 yards per reception was second behind only D.C.'s Chris Blair among qualified receivers. It will be up to Cedric Byrd, Deontay Burnett, and Travell Harris to step up.
The Defenders? They don't pass—their 701 passing yards are, by a wide margin, the fewest in the league, as are their 107 attempts. Instead, they count on their running game to blow through people and control the clock. They don't always get 200-yard rushing days like Abram Smith managed last week, but their 870 total rushing yards are nearly double any other team in the league, their 11 rushing touchdowns nearly triple, and their 4.6 yards per carry first by a comfortable margin. They're the only team in the league averaging over 100 yards per game, and they average 174.0. That's a combination of Smith, Ryquell Armstead, and quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, a three-headed monster that has yet to be solved.
In short, to beat the Roughnecks, you need to lock down receivers, and to beat the Defenders, you need to control the line of scrimmage. Of the two teams, you like the Defenders in this matchup. They're vulnerable downfield if you have enough time to throw against them, but time is not a luxury their opponents have had to this point. They lead the league with 16 sacks and are second with six interceptions—they'll give up yards, sure, but they have a tendency to make big plays in high-leverage moments. Opponents are only converting 32.8% of third downs against them; they can clamp down when the time is right.
By contrast, Wade Phillips' Roughnecks are a more gambling defense, more likely to send pressure and try to force mistakes. That's not ideal against the running game, and there have been points where Houston has been gashed this season. An average of 3.67 yards per carry allowed is far from terrible, but you have to remember that 40% of their games are still against the league-worst Guardians, and that's affecting the raw numbers. Phillips will probably have to dial down the pressure a little bit against D.C. and try to stay more disciplined, and we haven't really seen what that will look like yet.
This game could go either way, as this really is a matchup between the two best teams the XFL has to offer. When you drill down into the specifics, the Defenders appear to have a slight edge, and being at home certainly won't hurt—but this could go either way, and we might see both teams again in San Antonio in the championship game. D.C. 23, Houston 17.
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