14 Jan

Stacking Pacers against Celtics stands out as strong fantasy strategy for Saturday

Saturday’s main NBA slate will only consist of four games, and fantasy managers can take advantage of stacking by picking out a group of productive players from the same team when the pool of options is smaller. The Indiana Pacers are the team that stands out from the limited pack ahead of their 7 p.m. ET matchup with the Boston Celtics. Both teams boast top-five scoring offenses, but Indiana is struggling with injuries and could have a significantly shorter rotation.

Here’s the full breakdown of the three players you may want to pair together for your lineups on Saturday:

Pacers stack
Tyrese Haliburton
Myles Turner
TJ McConnell

The Pacers dusted off the Atlanta Hawks 150-116 on Friday and will face the Celtics in the second half of a back-to-back on Saturday. While each side will be playing for the second night in a row, both secured blowout victories in their previous contest. As a result, the stars should be well-rested for this one.

Haliburton is averaging 22.3 points, 13.7 assists, and 6.3 rebounds despite logging a mere 25 minutes against Atlanta. His premier playmaking already helped him post a 26-point triple-double when Indiana hosted Boston earlier this season. He’s averaged 20 points, 15 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game at home since the start of last December. Pairing him with one of his favorite targets makes too much sense here.

Turner scored on 40 more Haliburton assists than any of his teammates this season. He’s thrived during Haliburton’s hot run, with averages of 21.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks at home since last December. He was a dud in his first matchup with the new-look Celtics, but averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in three head-to-head matchups with Kristaps Porzingis last season.

McConnell is more of a dart throw, as his ceiling will likely be determined by Andrew Nembhard’s availability. The reserve point guard racked up 10 points and 10 assists in 23 minutes against the Hawks. He’s thrived as the primary ball handler off the bench with averages of 8.0 points, 6.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game in the pair of games Nembhard has missed with a back injury. The Gonzaga product is questionable for Saturday and few value players will be able to match McConnell’s potential in this small slate. He could play significant minutes in a close game or blowout, given Indiana’s lack of depth at point guard.

13 Jan

Here’s who’s in, who’s out and everything to know entering Week 10

The 2023 USFL champion will be crowned in less than three weeks, but there’s still plenty to be determined when it comes to the playoff picture. Much of it will come down to the final week of the regular season next Saturday and Sunday; we did, however, learn a few things in Week 9.

For starters, we learned that while the defending champion Birmingham Stallions didn’t always look like the best team this season, make no mistake: the Stallions are the team to beat. Birmingham became the first team to clinch a playoff spot — the only team to do so with just one regular-season week remaining — after dismantling the Houston Gamblers.

So, who else will make the playoffs? Two teams make it from each division, and we’ll dive into every team’s chances below, but first a look at the Week 9 scores.

Pittsburgh Maulers 19, Michigan Panthers 7
New Orleans Breakers 31, Memphis Showboats 3
Birmingham Stallions 38, Houston Gamblers 15
New Jersey Generals 37, Philadelphia Stars 33

South Division playoff race
The Stallions (7-2) are in the playoffs. The New Orleans Breakers (6-3) sit a game back, and split their two games with Birmingham during the regular season, so they still have an outside shot at the top seed. The other two South teams — the Houston Gamblers (5-4) and Memphis Showboats (5-4) — need a win in Week 10 combined with a Breakers loss to have any chance at getting the No. 2 seed.

The South teams all play each other in Week 10 — Stallions vs. Showboats on Saturday, and Breakers vs. Gamblers on Sunday.

The Stallions’ two losses this season came against the Breakers in Week 3 and Gamblers in Week 5. Since the start of last season’s USFL reboot, Birmingham has gone just 2-2 against Houston and 16-1 against every other team combined.

Stallions quarterback Alex McGough added to his case as league MVP on Sunday, throwing for 208 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT (his first interception since Week 4). One of McGough’s TD throws was this one to Jace Sternberger just before the half.

What a throw, what a catch. Alex McGough to Jace Sternberger has been one of the top connections in the #USFL this season, and another score for the duo gives the @USFLStallions a halftime lead.

It’s heating up in Houston. #USFL | @_Jstern pic.twitter.com/8nUYwo43TN

— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) June 11, 2023
Sternberger’s touchdown gave the Stallions a one-point lead heading into halftime, but it was all Birmingham in the second half.

The Breakers — aka the only USFL team other than Houston to beat the Stallions in the past two years — also have momentum on their side after crushing the Memphis Showboats. New Orleans controls its own playoff destiny, with a win over the Gamblers next week giving it the No. 2 seed.

The Breakers won with defense on Saturday, including one of the wildest plays in the league this season that resulted in a pick-six.


🎥: @nbc | @peacock pic.twitter.com/9rAXTi70Y7

— New Orleans Breakers (@USFLBreakers) June 10, 2023
New Orleans looks to be back on track after stumbling to three straight losses after a 4-0 start. It’ll be a surprise if the Stallions and Breakers aren’t the two South playoff teams.

North Division playoff race
There’s a strong argument to be made that the USFL’s four best teams reside in the South Division and its four worst in the North. Take the Pittsburgh Maulers, for example — a team that was 2-6 last week yet still controls its own playoff destiny.

Pittsburgh’s win over the Michigan Panthers put both teams at 3-6. The New Jersey Generals are also 3-6, with the division-leading Philadelphia Stars a game ahead of the other three North teams at 4-5.

The Stars had a chance to clinch a spot on Sunday night, but lost to the Generals 37-33. New Jersey led 30-16 entering the fourth quarter before holding off a late Stars rally. Philly lost despite quarterback Case Cookus throwing for 263 yards with 3 TDs and no picks. Darius Victor led the Generals with two rushing TDs.

“The bowling ball, Darius Victor!” 🎳

Who else but @yungvitov for the TD 👏 pic.twitter.com/AaGJPSQXf2

— New Jersey Generals (@USFLGenerals) June 12, 2023
The Week 10 games in the division pit the Maulers vs. Generals and the Stars vs. Panthers. If the Stars win, they’ll be the No. 1 seed with the Maulers-Generals winner the No. 2 seed. A Stars loss makes things very interesting: The Stars, Panthers and Maulers-Generals winner would finish in a three-way tie for first at 4-6, meaning tiebreakers would decide the top two seeds as well as who’s out of the playoffs.

The good news for the Stars — who lost to the Stallions in the USFL title game last year — and every North team is that, as the XFL title game proved, regular-season records don’t mean anything in the playoffs.

13 Jan

Here’s a look at how all eight teams stack up in both divisions as regular season ends

The USFL is back, and if you’re wondering what the 2023 standings look like and how the playoffs work, you’ve come to the right place. Each team plays 10 regular-season games beginning April 15 (here’s the full schedule), with the top two from each division moving on to the playoffs. The North Division and South Division title games will be on June 24 and 25. The USFL championship game will be held at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 1 in Canton, Ohio.

We’ve got the standings below, and don’t miss all of CBS Sports’ USFL coverage here.

13 Jan

Breakers-Stallions rematch, Panthers-Maulers surprise

The USFL’s 10-week regular season is in the books and with the two playoff semifinals set, there couldn’t be a much bigger contrast. The South Division semifinal features the league’s two highest-scoring teams with the two best records. The North Division semifinal features the two lowest-scoring teams, with both below .500.

Here’s a quick rundown of what to know after the weekend’s final four regular-season games:

— The two USFL semifinals will be Pittsburgh Maulers vs. Michigan Panthers on Saturday, followed by Birmingham Stallions vs. New Orleans Breakers on Sunday. The winners will play in the championship game the following Saturday, July 1.

— The defending champion Stallions are favored to repeat. The Stallions, who beat the Memphis Showboats 27-20 over the weekend, have the league’s best record at 8-2. In two seasons of the rebooted USFL, the Stallions have gone 19-3.

— The Breakers are the No. 2 seed in the South Division and will face the Stallions for the third time this year in the semifinals, a rematch of last year’s South semifinal. The Breakers clinched a playoff spot by beating the Houston Gamblers on Sunday, 17-10.

— The Pittsburgh Maulers clinched a semifinal berth by beating the New Jersey Generals on Saturday, 26-6. Fittingly for a team from Pittsburgh, the Maulers have allowed the fewest points in the league. However, they finished with just a 4-6 record, and needed victories in the final two weeks to reach four wins — which was somehow good enough to win the division.

— The Michigan Panthers got the final playoff spot by coming back from a 20-6 halftime deficit against the Philadelphia Stars on Sunday night in a 23-20 victory. The Panthers, Stars and Maulers all finished 4-6 in the East, but the Maulers got the top seed with the best division record (4-2), including going 2-0 against Michigan. The Panthers swept the Stars.

Below we’ll break down everything to know about the 2023 USFL playoffs. Here’s how to watch the two semifinals:

North Division semifinal
Teams: Pittsburgh Maulers (4-6) vs. Michigan Panthers (4-6)
Location: Canton, Ohio
Date, time: Saturday, June 24 at 8 p.m. ET

South Division semifinal
Teams: Birmingham Stallions (8-2) vs. New Orleans Breakers (7-3)
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Date, time: Sunday, June 25 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: Fox

Stallions vs. Breakers: USFL’s top teams set for playoff rematch
The bad news for the Breakers is that their reward for finishing with the league’s second-best record is that they’ll have to beat the team with the best record to reach the final. Birmingham beat New Orleans three times last year, including the semifinal, and once more this season. On top of that, the South Division semi will be held in Birmingham.

But the Breakers — who won one more game than they did last season — do have reason to believe they can pull off an upset. For one thing, they scorched the Stallions defense in Week 3 in a 45-32 victory. The teams’ other meeting, in Week 7, saw Birmingham win 24-20.

The Stallions have scored the most points in the league by far, led by quarterback Alex McGough (league-leading 20 TD passes, second-most passing yards at 2,104). Jace Sternberger leads the USFL in receiving TDs (7) despite playing tight end.

The Breakers, meanwhile, have allowed the second-fewest points in the USFL, while also scoring the second-most. New Orleans quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson is the only QB to have thrown for more yards (2,433) than McGough, while running back Wes Hills is the league’s rushing yards leader (679).

The Stallions beat the Breakers 31-17 in last year’s semifinal after grabbing the lead before halftime on a 90-yard kick return TD (the league’s first). The rematch is set up to be the best game of the season; expect the Breakers to keep it closer than last year, with a real shot at an upset.

Maulers, Panthers both playoff surprises
Pittsburgh was 2-6 through eight weeks. Michigan entered Sunday night with a 3-6 record and trailed the Stars by two touchdowns at halftime. Yet somehow here we are, with one of those teams set to make the USFL championship game.

To the Maulers’ credit, they finished with a bang, holding their last two opponents to a combined 13 points to finish 4-6. Pittsburgh relies on the league’s best defense. Offensively, quarterback Troy Williams (1,414 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs) is also the team’s rushing leader (341 yards, 3 TDs).

The Maulers beat the Panthers twice this season (23-7 in Week 5, and 19-7 in Week 9), accounting for half Pittsburgh’s wins.

Michigan, which struggled through a 1-6 stretch after starting the season 2-0, switched up its starting quarterback for the regular-season finale. After going with Josh Love (1,556 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs) all season, the Panthers went with E.J. Perry, a more mobile QB, on Sunday night. Perry threw for 141 yards with without a passing TD or pick, but led the team in rushing with 10 attempts for 48 yards and a touchdown.

These teams have both allowed more points than they’ve scored, but as we saw in the XFL championship game, the regular season doesn’t matter once the playoffs begin.

13 Jan

Expect Maulers to move on, lean on Breakers in postseason rematch

For the second year in a row, the USFL has completed a successful season and made it to the playoffs. The North and South divisions could not have been more different in 2022. The two best teams in the North held 4-6 records, while the top two teams in the South were the only clubs in the entire league with winning records. Here’s our “final four.”

The Pittsburgh Maulers and Michigan Panthers are your two representatives from the North. It’s pretty surprising both teams made it in, as Pittsburgh once sat at 2-6, and Michigan trailed the Philadelphia Stars 20-6 on Sunday before scoring 17 unanswered points to clinch a spot in the postseason.

More on USFL
USFL playoff semifinals: How to watch
Johnston: Maulers ‘dangerous team’ entering playoffs
As for the South, we get a playoff rematch this weekend. It will be the reigning champion Birmingham Stallions vs. the New Orleans Breakers. Both teams enter red-hot, with the Stallions having won five in a row, and Breakers having won three in a row.

Below we break down how to watch the USFL playoffs, and give our gambling picks.

Michigan Panthers (4-6) at Pittsburgh Maulers (4-6)
When: Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game location: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Canton, OH

This is the playoff game being overlooked by everyone, but maybe these two first-year head coaches can put on a show. That show likely won’t include a ton of points, however. The Maulers allow just 257.4 yards of total offense per game, which ranks No. 1 in the league, and 17.2 points per game, which ranks second behind the Breakers. Offensively, everything goes through quarterback Troy Williams, who leads the team in passing yards (1,414), passing touchdowns (6), rushing yards (341) and rushing touchdowns (3).

For the Panthers, there’s a quarterback question as Josh Love was replaced by E.J. Perry last week. What you need to know for this matchup is that Pittsburgh swept Michigan in the regular season, defeating the Panthers twice by a combined score of 42-14.

The pick: Maulers -3
Projected score: Maulers 17-10

New Orleans Breakers (7-3) at Birmingham Stallions (8-2)
When: Sunday, June 25, 7 p.m. ET (Fox)
Game location: Protective Stadium, Birmingham, AL

Last year in the postseason, it was Kyle Sloter leading the Breakers into battle vs. the Stallions. Fast forward to now, and Sloter is on the Stallions roster, while McLeod Bethel-Thompson is under center for New Orleans. Bethel-Thompson led the league in passing with 2,433 yards, was third in passing touchdowns with 14 and had eight interceptions. He won a championship not even a year ago with the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League, and is looking for another. Running back Wes Hills led the league in rushing with 679 yards.

On the other side, no one has thrown more touchdowns than Birmingham’s Alex McGough, who has 20 TD tosses. His tight end, Jace Sternberger, leads the league in receiving touchdowns with seven, while wide receiver Davion Davis is second in the USFL with 575 receiving yards.

These two teams faced off twice in the regular season. In late April, the Breakers dropped 45 points on the Stallions in a 14-point win, and Hills exploded for 191 rushing yards and three touchdowns on a whopping 34 carries. A month later, the Stallions got their revenge with a 24-20 win despite the Breakers scoring 11 unanswered in the fourth quarter.

I find myself rooting for the veteran Bethel-Thompson, who is capable of overcoming what could be a raucous environment. Both offenses can put up points, but the Stallions defense allows a league-worst 309 yards per game! Isn’t there some saying about defenses and championships? Expect this fun matchup to be close, but I’m leaning toward the underdogs.

13 Jan

2023 USFL Championship picks, best bets by proven expert

One of the USFL’s best defenses will face one of the league’s best offenses in an intriguing 2023 USFL Championship matchup on Saturday night. The Pittsburgh Maulers used their elite defense to punch a surprising ticket to the title game, but they will now be tasked with slowing down the Birmingham Stallions high-powered attack. Birmingham is the defending champion, while Pittsburgh is trying to go from worst to first this season.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET. Caesars Sportsbook lists Birmingham as the 7.5-point favorite, while the over/under is 46 in the latest Stallions vs. Maulers odds. Before making any Maulers vs. Stallions picks or USFL Championship predictions, see what SportsLine expert Emory Hunt has to say.

Hunt is the founder and CEO of Football Gameplan, which has been supplying analysis of all levels of football since 2007. He is a former running back for the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns and knows the game from a player’s perspective. Hunt’s dedication to analysis of all levels of college and professional football helped him start the USFL season 24-18 last year and he went 25-18 on his XFL spread picks this season.

Now, Hunt has set his sights on Stallions vs. Maulers. You can head to SportsLine to see his picks. Here are several USFL betting lines for Maulers vs. Stallions:

Stallions vs. Maulers spread: Stallions -7.5
Stallions vs. Maulers over/under: 46 points
Stallions vs. Maulers money line: Stallions -300, Maulers +240
Stallions vs. Maulers picks: See picks at SportsLine
Why the Stallions can cover
Pittsburgh is relying on its defense and turnover rate to win the title, but that is not going to be a winning formula against an experienced championship team. Birmingham has been excellent at ball security throughout the season, and its offense can rack up points in a hurry. The Stallions made a statement when they cruised past New Orleans in the semifinals, racing out to a 40-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Alex McGough completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 84 yards and an additional score. The Stallions averaged 8.2 yards per carry and 9.9 yards per pass attempt, dominating the Breakers in every aspect of the game. They have the experience and championship mentality to win Saturday’s title showdown against a less experienced opponent. See who to back at SportsLine.

Why the Maulers can cover
Birmingham was ultimately able to escape with a victory when these teams met in the regular season, but it was one of their most challenging games. The Maulers took a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter after quarterback Troy Williams scored on a 34-yard rushing touchdown. They also held McGough to a 58.6% completion rate and forced a pair of interceptions.

Pittsburgh limited McGough to 48 rushing yards, while Williams completed 63.6% of his passes for 217 yards and rushed for another 63 yards. The Maulers ranked second in the regular season in points allowed per game (17.2) and led the league in turnover margin (+8). Their defense will make it difficult for Birmingham to win this game by at least a touchdown. See who to back at SportsLine.

13 Jan

Jaguars sign Doug Pederson’s son Josh, who becomes second USFL player to ink NFL contract in 2023

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson has brought in a familiar face — and a very familiar face at that. The Jaguars have signed tight end Josh Pederson, the son of coach Pederson, the team announced Monday.

Pederson played his college ball at Louisiana-Monroe before going undrafted in 2021. In 35 games for the Warhawks, he caught 99 passes for 1,191 yards and 11 touchdowns. Pederson previously had short stints with the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Kansas city Chiefs, but never suited up for an NFL game. Most recently, Pederson played for the USFL’s Houston Gamblers.

Josh Pederson
This past USFL season, Pederson was the Gamblers’ second-leading receiver with 24 receptions for 325 yards in 10 games played. Houston went 5-5 and missed the postseason.

Last week, the Gamblers announced they had terminated Pederson’s contract with the designation that he was going to sign with an NFL team. Now we know who that team is. Pederson is the second USFL player to sign an NFL contract this offseason after the Cowboys added former MLS player and standout Birmingham Stallions kicker Brandon Aubrey.

AMAZING: #Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson attended today’s USFL game to see his son, Houston Gamblers tight end Josh Pederson:

And Pederson credited spring football as an important opportunity for players to show the #NFL what they can do.

👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/atqg7fqcEe

— MLFootball (@_MLFootball) April 16, 2023
Currently, the Jaguars have six tight ends on roster: Evan Engram, Luke Farrell, Gerrit Prince, Sammis Reyes, Brenton Strange and Leonard Taylor. Engram received the franchise tag this offseason after a career year in which he caught 73 passes for 766 yards and four touchdowns, and Strange was selected in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft with the No. 61 overall pick.

13 Jan

Packers to sign former Birmingham Stallions QB, USFL MVP Alex McGough, per report

The Green Bay Packers are beginning a new era after trading away franchise legend Aaron Rodgers this offseason. Jordan Love has the chance to establish himself as the new quarterback in Green Bay, but the Packers are adding someone who could compete to be his backup. Per KPRC2, the Packers are expected to sign former Birmingham Stallions quarterback and 2023 USFL MVP Alex McGough after a successful workout.

The Stallions repeated as USFL champions this summer, and their quarterback was a big reason why. McGough completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 2,104 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions in the regular season. He led the league in passing touchdowns, and ranked third in passing yards.

It’s also worth noting that McGough was a dual-threat quarterback, as he finished sixth with 403 rushing yards and third with five rushing touchdowns. His USFL head coach, Skip Holtz, believes McGough is an NFL quarterback.

“I think he’s as good as I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around a lot of NFL quarterbacks,” Holtz said, via theusfl.com.

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McGough played his college football at Florida International University, and was a seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2018. However, he did not make the final roster, and was signed to the practice squad. McGough also had short stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans, but the 27 year old has yet to play in an NFL game.

If the McGough signing comes to fruition, the Packers will carry four quarterbacks into training camp: Love, Sean Clifford, Danny Etling and McGough.

13 Jan

Daryl Johnston names the one USFL player he’s most surprised to see not signed by an NFL team

Over 20 former USFL players are currently on NFL rosters. Daryl Johnston, the former Cowboys legend and current USFL president, is surprised that one USFL player is not currently employed by an NFL team.

When recently asked to name the USFL player he is most surprised is not currently signed by an NFL team, Johnston quickly pointed to Justin Hall, a receiver/returner who spent this past USFL season with the Houston Gamblers. An undrafted rookie last spring, Hall spent the 2022 preseason with Raiders and had a workout with the Dolphins last month.

“He’s tough as nails,” Johnston recently said of Hall during an interview with CBS Sports. “He was one of those guys that I just thought, with the direction the NFL is moving, he’s that space guy. Doesn’t have the quick twitch that KaVonte [Turpin] has, but he’s got a toughness and a contact balance that’s very impressive.”

The 5-foot-8 Hall played collegiately at Ball State, where he caught 318 passes and 18 touchdowns. He also averaged 26.1 yards per kickoff return that included a 99-yard return for a score against Army.

Hall signed with Houston after not making the Raiders’ 53-man roster. During his first season with the Gamblers, Hall was top five in the USFL in receiving yards, touchdown catches and punt return yards.

The Chiefs, given all the drops that transpired during their season-opening loss to the Lions, may decide to give the 24-year-old Hall a look sometime soon.

Kenji Bahar to Justin Hall for the Houston Gamblers #USFL


— USFL Gambling Podcast (@USFLGambling) April 22, 2023
While Hall waits for his next opportunity, several other former USFL players are preparing for Week 1 of the NFL’s regular season. Four former USFL players — Cowboys receiver/returner KaVonte Turpin, Cowboys kicker Brandon Aubrey, Broncos long snapper Mitchell Fraboni and Panthers defensive tackle LaBryan Ray — are currently on 53-man rosters. Quarterback Alex McGough, the USFL’s reigning league MVP, is one of 17 former USFL players currently on NFL practice squads.

These players are part of the 100 former USFL players who signed with NFL teams over the past two years. All but one of the NFL’s 32 teams have signed a USFL player over that span.

“I couldn’t be happier for these guys,” Johnston said. “It’s what we talk to them about and what we strive for as a league. I always remember Jeff Fisher saying it’s not about getting them to the NFL, because a lot of them have already done that. It’s about getting them the opportunity to stay in the NFL.”

Not surprisingly, a considerable number of USFL players who jumped to the NFL have come from the two-time defending champion Birmingham Stallions. Two members of the Stallions’ 2022 championship team — Bears linebacker DeMarquis Gates and Ravens cornerback Tae Hayes — are beginning their second consecutive seasons on NFL rosters. Six members of Birmingham’s most recent championship team are currently employed by NFL teams.

Despite that turnover, Johnston feels that Birmingham will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in 2024. He said that the trust that’s developed between Stallions coach Skip Holtz and GM Zach Potter is one of the reasons why.

“He’s got great connections. He’s always trying to turn the roster over to get better,” Johnston said of Potter. “I think Birmingham is always going to be tough. Depending on what happens with Alex. Alex was the difference-maker in our league last year. He was just outstanding.”

As far as the USFL is concerned, Johnston feels that the league will eventually be a better alternative for players than college football when it comes to preparing to play in the NFL.

“What we’re providing with the USFL is invaluable because it allows these guys to get into a professional atmosphere, work on the day-to-day grind, work on the details of the position, get better at their craft,” he said. “We really feel like, once we get the momentum behind us, we’re going to be the better alternative.”

13 Jan

USFL president Daryl Johnston says don’t let record fool you, Maulers a ‘dangerous team’ entering playoffs

Ray Horton won two Super Bowls as the Steelers secondary coach in the 2000s. Currently in his first season as the Pittsburgh Maulers head coach, Horton’s team is two wins away from bringing another championship to the City of Champions.

Prior to the start of the regular season, USFL president of football operations Daryl Johnston said he was eager to see how Pittsburgh would fare this season under Horton, a Super Bowl-winning safety with the Dallas Cowboys who served as an assistant coach for seven NFL teams prior to becoming the Maulers’ head coach. A one-win outfit last season, the Maulers won their final two games of the regular season to clinch a spot in Saturday’s North Division Championship against the Michigan Panthers in Canton, Ohio.

“The unique thing about Pittsburgh,” Johnston recently told CBS Sports, “is great defense, great special teams. The offense can just go out there and not make the critical mistake. I really think Pittsburgh is a dangerous team. … You may look at their record as 4-6, but they don’t believe that really indicates who they are. They feel they’re a better team than that.”

As Johnston eluded to, the Maulers’ success has been largely due to defense and special teams. Pittsburgh’s defense was second in the USFL during the regular season in points allowed, while the Maulers led the league in turnover ratio, punt return average and kickoff touchback percentage. Josh Simmons led the USFL in kickoff return yards, while teammate Isiah Hennie paced the league in punt return yards. Defensive back Mark Gilbert led the league with four interceptions during the regular season. All three players were tabbed as All-USFL performers along with teammates Kyahva Tezino and Arnold Tarpley III.

Gilbert, a former Steeler, had a key end zone interception during Pittsburgh’s 19-7 win over Michigan back in Week 9. It was one of four interceptions thrown that day by Josh Love, who was surprisingly benched in favor of E.J. Perry ahead of Michigan’s must-win Week 10 showdown with the Philadelphia Stars. While Perry wasn’t prolific against the Stars, he took care of the football and rushed for a score in Michigan’s 23-20 win.

“I thought it was very bold for [Panthers coach] Mike Nolan to go with E.J. Perry at that point with everyone on the line,” Johnston said. “They’re very similar [to Pittsburgh]. They’ve got good special teams. They’ve got a good defense. If the offense doesn’t make the critical mistakes, I think Michigan is a much better team.

“If either one of these teams in the North gets a consistent offense that does not turn the ball over, they are much better than a 4-6 team.”

Josh Love throws into double coverage and gets picked off by Mark Gilbert. Another turnover for the shutdown #Maulers defense!#PITvsMICH | #USFL2023 pic.twitter.com/18OGiJtWwI

— USFL Center (@USFLCenter) May 13, 2023
Pittsburgh and Michigan (who also finished the regular season with a 4-6 record) will play for the right to face either the New Orleans Breakers or Birmingham Stallions, who will play each other Sunday in Birmingham in the South Division Championship. The defending champion Stallions went 8-2 during the regular season despite being hit by several major injuries early in the season. Alex McGough, who replaced injured quarterback J’Mar Smith after Smith was injured in Week 1, led the USFL with 20 touchdown passes during the regular season. McGough has been complemented by a Birmingham defense that allowed the fewest points in the USFL during the regular season.

New Orleans will likely focus on McGough, but it shouldn’t sleep on running back C.J. Marable and what has been the USFL’s best offensive line.

“When they really have to hunker down and grind out a clock,” Johnston said, “it’s been fun to watch them lean on that running game.”

Breakers coach John DeFilippo is one of four USFL first-year head coaches and one of three who guided his team to the playoffs. After a 4-0 start, DeFilippo’s team dropped three straight games before righting the ship and ending the regular season on a three-game winning streak. After a midseason slump, the Breakers’ offense returned to early season form entering the playoffs. DeFilippo’s offense has been led by quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who is looking to win a second championship in less than a year after leading the Toronto Argonauts to a Gray Cup title last fall.

“I think they’re better when they have a little more balance,” Johnston said of the Breakers, who finished second behind Birmingham in total yards per game during the regular season. “If they get the run going, if that offensive line starts to take control and Wes Hills becomes a big part, I think that opens things up for Sage [Surratt], Johnnie Dixon and what Bethel-Thompson can do for them.”

The winner of Saturday’s Maulers-Panthers game will surely be an underdog for the USFL Championship Game. That wouldn’t be uncharted waters for Horton, who was part of the 2005 Steelers team that became the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl. Johnston, who won three Super Bowls as a member of the 1990s Cowboys dynasty team, isn’t ruling anything out as far as what will unfold over the next two weekends.

“I think the matchups are very even,” he said. “I think the big one is going to be our championship game. Our southern hub has been solid across the board. I’m a big believer in iron sharpens iron. … Those four teams made each other better throughout the course of the year. … I think the north is dangerous, because good defense and good special teams can take you a long way, (but) can those offenses not make the critical mistakes that we’ve seen them make through the course of the season that have gotten them to 4-6?”

We’ll find that answer out on July 1, when the USFL’s 2023 champion is crowd inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.