XFL Week 3 Preview: Will Defenders stay perfect?

  • By Grant Gordon NFL.com
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In the 10-game slate that is the XFL's reintroduction, the league's eight franchises find themselves in the precarious situation of it still being early in the season and yet also being susceptible to a slow start derailing the campaign early as it may be.

Bookending Week 3 of the XFL's quartet of offerings are matchups of haves and have-nots with the winless Tampa Bay Vipers hosting the league's most impressive squad thus far, the Houston Roughnecks. The weekend will conclude Sunday evening with the winless Wildcats and coach Winston Moss still looking for answers against the unblemished D.C. Defenders.

Only four playoff berths are to be had in the XFL -- two in the East and two in the West. Thus, time and opportunity will be scarce for the winless Vipers and Wildcats should they fall to 0-3 to begin the season.

Along with the undefeated Roughnecks and Defenders, the St. Louis BattleHawks have also emerged as a playoff favorite and consequently all three have received the league's best quarterback play from P.J. Walker, Cardale Jones and Jordan Ta'amu, respectively.

As the offenses are likely to get better in their execution as the season goes on, it will be worth watching to see if the early standouts stay the course or the rest of the field catches up.

Here's a closer look at the four Week 3 XFL offerings:

Houston Roughnecks (2-0) at Tampa Bay Vipers (0-2), 2 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC

Through eight quarters of offensive offense, the Vipers O has yet to find the end zone, as cornerback Tarvarus McFadden's 78-yard interception return for a score in a 17-9 Week 2 loss to the Seattle Dragons stands as Tampa's only touchdown. Three quarterbacks have played in coach Marc Trestman's offense and an answer is still being searched for as the Vipers' bite has been poisonous only to them and their faithful to the tune of a league-low 12 points.

And the worse news for Tampa is the times may well be tougher this week with the Roughnecks in town.

Having run roughshod through two weeks of highlights and victories, Houston and quarterback P.J. Walker have emerged as the favorites in the XFL West. Walker is leading the XFL with seven touchdown passes as he's been stellar with just one interception, 449 yards passing and a 107.4 QB rating. His top target in Week 2's 28-24 triumph over the BattleHawks was Cam Phillips. The wideout was the XFL Week 2 Star of the Week. Phillip's production was as redundant as the name of the award he won thanks to it, as he had three touchdowns on eight catches for 63 yards, including the eventual game-winner early in the fourth quarter.

As the Vipers are still looking for their first offensive score, the Roughnecks have a league-high nine touchdowns and are off to the races looking to establish themselves as XFL frontrunners as they venture onto the road for the first time.

Dallas Renegades (1-1) at Seattle Dragons (1-1), 5 p.m. ET Saturday, FOX

Landry Jones debuted and Bob Stoops' Renegades got their first dub. That's technically what happened in Week 2 when Dallas outlasted a bewildered Wildcats squad, 25-18, but Jones looked a bit out of sorts, struggled with his accuracy on anything past 10 yards and had his receivers make some horrendous drops. Nonetheless, the Renegades won, Jones threw for more than 300 yards and promise was found with the former Steelers signal-caller leading one of the league's marquee franchises. Most impressive, though, was the play of former Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who struck for 99 yards on 14 carries in the win over the Wildcats, averaging a ridiculous 7.1 yards per game as he tallied two touchdowns, notched a one-point conversion and also hauled in five catches for 32 yards. Why he wasn't the league's star of the week might be debatable.

Dallas' offense produced 444 yards, while its defense allowed just 251, the Renegades leaving L.A. with a tighter win that should've been. Again, there's promise here. And in terms of the XFL West standings and taking a step to being a contender or taking a step back, this game has potential to be a big one as the schedule plays out.

The Dragons likewise got win No. 1 by besting the lowly Vipers a week ago, 17-9. Coach Jim Zorn's firebreathers are still a work in progress on offense like everyone else that's not the Roughnecks or Defenders. However, the defense shows promise and linebacker Steven Johnson is getting it done to the tune of a league-best 18 tackles coming off a 10-tackle showing against the Vipers.

New York Guardians (1-1) at St. Louis BattleHawks (1-1), 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

While offenses might be struggling, the majority still seem hard-pressed to get it done through the air.

St. Louis, meanwhile, continues to produce with the running game.

Running back Matt Jones has hardly been spectacular, but he's leading the XFL with 129 yards rushing on 37 carries as the BattleHawks will maintain a gameplan, which also features a healthy dose of dual-threat QB Jordan Ta'amu, whose 109 yards on the ground are third in the league. Ta'amu's 493 yards through the air are also third in the XFL and he's got four passing TDs (and one on the ground) to show for it. Down, 21-6, in Week 2 against the Roughnecks, Ta'amu and Co. battled back to make it a 21-18 game after he threw and ran for scores. Linebacker Beniquez Brown and the defense -- which lost co-defensive coordinator Matt Raich to the Colts -- need and should have a bounce-back game as they go from a dynamic Houston attack to a New York offense that made history when it became the first XFL team to be shut out.

After the Guardians' Week 2 shutout loss to the Defenders, it's hard to fathom how New York emerged from its season opener with a win. Then again, it's likely evidence of all the struggles the Vipers (who lost to N.Y.) are dealing with. Nevertheless, it might be February, but there's a New York football team with offensive struggles and a quarterback under scrutiny. Quarterback Matt McGloin was throwing incompletions, interceptions and insults at the Guardians game plan and his teammates in a game in which he was benched after completing 8-of-19 passes for 44 yards with two interceptions. His completion percentage of 42 was just shy of his yards and his 10.1 rating was reason enough for him getting benched for backup Marquise Williams. On the year, he's completed 23-of-48 passes for 224 yards with one touchdown and two picks. Defensive end Bunmi Rotimi (16 tackles) has been a bright spot through two games and if the Guardians are to get it done, it's likely an inspired defense will be the reason.

Down the road, former NFLer Marquette King, punting for the BattleHawks, might be making a case for a return to the show as he's leading the XFL with 47.2 yards per punt.

D.C. Defenders (2-0) at L.A. Wildcats (0-2), 6 p.m. ET, FS1

Having fast emerged as the XFL East frontrunner and a favorite along with Houston for the title game, D.C. has produced highlights aplenty on offense, but also boasts the league's best defense.

In two games, the Defenders have allowed a league-low 19 points. Safety Rahim Moore, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson and linebacker Jameer Thurman are part of a balanced squad that's solid at every level. Leading the offense, quarterback Cardale Jones is leading the XFL with 511 yards passing and has thrown four touchdowns, with receivers Rashad Ross, a former Alliance of American Football standout, and Eli Rogers, a former Steeler who not long ago in 2016 had a near-600-yard receiving rookie season, providing the best tandem in the league. And on special teams, kicker Ty Rausa is tied with the Renegades booter Austin MacGinnis for a league-best five field goals. Quite simply, the Defenders' name doesn't tell the tale as they are most surely a three-phased squad.

Down and out in L.A., the Wildcats might suddenly be faced with a lost season if they can't figure out how to get their first win. Though there wasn't as much noise made in the aftermath of their second loss (they fired their defensive coordinator and made a trade after Week 1), L.A. needs to find a way as it's got a talented squad that's floundering. Josh Johnson, every bit the definition of a journeyman quarterback, showed equal parts promise and struggle in a two-touchdown outing against the Renegades last week. However, wide receiver Nelson Spruce hauled in both scores and might well be the brightest spot in the struggles. Another former AAF standout, Spruce is leading the league with 17 catches and 192 yards receiving. This is a big game for the Defenders as they look to stay atop the XFL East, but it's a huge game for the Wildcats as they look to stop their season from falling to the wayside before it ever gets going.