This past Saturday, the Birmingham Stallions had to deal with something unfamiliar: defeat. They lost to their rival, the New Orleans Breakers, for the first time in the modern USFL. The final score was 45-31, but the game felt more lopsided than the score would indicate. In the words of Birmingham head coach Skip Holtz, “We got run through…I mean they lined up and they beat us.”
For those who watched the Stallions decimate the Memphis Showboats to the tune of 42-2 in week two, Birmingham’s week three loss likely caused some cognitive dissonance. How could a team that looked so dominant just a week prior fall so far?
To a casual observer impaired by recency bias, it is a fair question. However, the Stallions’ week three loss was not entirely unforeseen. If one looks back more closely at the Stallions’ week one performance against the New Jersey Generals, a pattern begins to emerge, and the loss in week three begins to feel less inexplicable.
Week One Offensive Struggles
The main struggle the Stallions had in week one was running the ball. They finished with 87 yards on 22 carries, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and adding a touchdown. Those numbers seem respectable. However, one begins to see a different picture when factoring in that quarterback Alex McGough had most of that production. Without McGough, the Stallions only rushed for 36 yards on 16 carries, averaging a meager 2.25 yards per carry with no touchdowns.
Alex McGough appreciation post 🙌#GiddyUp | @McgoughAlex pic.twitter.com/4wQ7BmGCxs
— Birmingham Stallions (@USFLStallions) April 18, 2023
The inability to rush the ball meant the Stallions struggled to sustain drives and maintain possession of the ball. The Stallions had 12 offensive drives against the Generals, but only three had eight plays or more. The Generals held the ball longer than the Stallions, 32:16 to 27:44. The Stallions only had the ball 46.2% of the time and ran 13 fewer plays than the Generals.
The majority of the Stallions’ points (14) came off of big plays following New Jersey turnovers. Only 13 points came from sustained drives. So while the Stallions’ 27-point week one outing was impressive and enough to secure a win, there were some shaky foundations to their offensive success.
Week One Defensive Struggles
The Birmingham Stallions not only struggled to run the ball in week one; they also struggled to stop the run. They gave up 197 yards on the ground (6.6 yards per carry). That was greater than double the second-most rushing yards given up in week one. Only twice so far this season has a team rushed for more yards: the Generals rushed for 198 against the Panthers and the Breakers ran all over the Stallions in week three (we will get to that shortly).
Because the Generals had so much success running the ball, they held the ball 53.8% of the time against the Stallions and ran 62 plays to the Stallions’ 49. While the Generals did not have much success passing the ball, they still outgained the Stallions in total yardage 361 to 310.
Where the Stallions had success was creating turnovers and stopping fourth down conversions. The Stallions forced two turnovers that led to 14 points. They also forced four turnovers on downs, two of which were inside the ten-yard line and one of which was in field goal range. In a different world where the Generals were able to convert those fourth downs, they could have scored at least 17 more points, which would have been enough to tie the game.
The Stallions’ defense was not dominant in week one; they were opportunistic. New Jersey made it into the red zone four times but only scored a touchdown once. That is not to take anything away from the Stallions’ defensive performance. They made key plays when they had to. But “bend, don’t break” only works if you don’t break; once you do, you are in trouble.
Fast Forward to Week Three
The Stallions demonstrated some serious vulnerabilities in week one. However, their dominant performance in week two erased the memory of them from many peoples’ minds. But facing a better team in week three, their vulnerabilities reemerged—and this time not just as vulnerabilities but as full-blown problems.
After a great effort running the ball in week two, the Stallions rushing woes came back to haunt them in week three. The Stallions only had 46 rushing yards on 14 carries, averaging 3.3 yards per carry and adding one touchdown. They also could not do anything to stop the run, giving up 200 yards on 38 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
THREE TOUCHDOWNS for Wes Hills today 😤 This is his second consecutive game with 3 TDs 😤
🎥: @USANetwork pic.twitter.com/tBpIZIBiAU
— New Orleans Breakers (@USFLBreakers) April 29, 2023
New Orleans dominance in the trenches led to them controlling time of possession 36:36 to 23:24. They had the ball 61% of the time and ran 22 more plays than the Stallions. A better passing team than New Jersey, New Orleans outgained Birmingham through the air as well. In the end, they put up 483 yards to the Stallions’ 253.
Against the Stallions, New Orleans was more efficient with the ball than New Jersey had been. They scored touchdowns on four of five red zone attempts and only turned the ball over once. This led to a huge 45-point output. The Birmingham Stallions were able to score 31 points behind a kickoff return for a touchdown, a touchdown off a turnover, and 17 other offensive points. But ultimately, a better team was able to exploit the Stallions’ weaknesses and beat them handily.
This weekend the 2-1 Birmingham Stallions will take on the 1-2 Pittsburgh Maulers. There is good news and bad news for the Stallions. The good news is the Maulers’ offense has struggled mightily this season, only scoring one touchdown so far. They average the least yards per game (174) and have the worst passing offense in the league (77.3 yards per game). They have also struggled running the ball, averaging 96.7 yards per game (sixth in the league). They have given up the second most sacks (11), and they are averaging just over one turnover per game (one interception and three fumbles so far). So it should be a good opportunity for the Stallions’ defense to get back on track.
The bad news is the Maulers’ defense is a force to be reckoned with. They are tied with the Stallions for the third-fewest points given up, having not given up more than 22 points in a single game. Their front seven, led by former Alabama All-American and last week’s USFL Defensive Player of the Week Rueben Foster, have been particularly dominant. They have the best run defense in the league, only giving up 63.7 yards per game, and are tied for the third-most sacks in the league. They are a little more vulnerable through the air, having the third-worst pass defense in terms of yardage given up. They have produced five turnovers so far (two interceptions and three fumbles), one of which was a touchdown.
The Birmingham Stallions and Pittsburgh Maulers enter this game coming from very different places. The Stallions will hit the road to play in Canton, OH for their first-ever USFL regular season road game. They are familiar with the stadium, though, as they played there twice in the 2022 postseason. The Maulers will play their second home game of 2023.
The Stallions are coming off their first loss of the season, which is only their second in two years. The Maulers are coming off their first win, which is only their second in the same span. The Maulers looked to have found a recipe for success in week three behind quarterback Troy Williams. The offense produced 21 points after struggling the first two weeks, and the defense kept a potent Philadelphia Stars offense to just 13 points. They will look to build off that momentum this week against the Stallions.
The Stallions will likely struggle to run the ball against the Maulers’ front seven. The offense will have to rely on the arm of Alex McGough, but it will be critical to give him time and keep the Maulers’ defense out of the backfield. The Stallions’ defense will look to get back on track against a fledgling offense.
This will be a close, hard-fought game, but I think the Stallions are able to keep the Maulers offense at bay and pull it out in the end, 20-9.
What are your thoughts on this USFL matchup between the Birmingham Stallions and Pittsburgh Maulers? Which USFL players will impress? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!