This Saturday, the Birmingham Stallions take on the new kids on the block: the Memphis Showboats. Resurrecting a rivalry from the first iteration of the USFL, Birmingham and Memphis will get to write a new chapter in their storied history.
The Showboats are 0-1 coming into the game having lost a close one to reigning North Division Champions, the Philadelphia Stars. There’s no doubt the Showboats are coming to Birmingham hoping to rebound and knock off the defending champs.
The Stallions picked up where they left off last week, beating the New Jersey Generals decisively. However, there are some questions for the Stallions heading into week two. Here are five big ones.
#1: Can We Run The Ball?
I ask this because last week the answer was clearly no. Against the Generals, our running backs had 11 carries for 23 yards and averaged a miserable 2.09 yards per carry. Take out Marable’s 15-yard long, and we amassed 8 yards on 10 carries (0.8 yards per carry). That is unacceptable for a team that finished second in rushing last year.
To add insult to injury, Bo Scarbrough—who shockingly finished with negative yards last week (-1 yards on 2 carries)—was placed on the injured reserve list Friday. The news helped explain his absence last week (he only played in nine plays), but that did not make the news any more welcome.
The silver lining for the Stallions is the success quarterback Alex McGough had with his legs in week one. McGough was the team’s leading rusher with 51 yards and a touchdown on only six carries (8.5 yards per carry). Coach Holtz has asked McGough not to run the ball to help him avoid an injury, but we will see how that goes. McGough may not have a choice if the Stallions can’t gain yards on the ground otherwise.
Awesome run by @McgoughAlex, but it was only possible because of some awesome blocking by the o-line. Look at my man RG @Teamgrayy still blocking 15 yards downfield! pic.twitter.com/2bH8xsBDzW
— Luke Miller (@LukeMillerPFN) April 20, 2023
#2: Who Are Our Offensive Linemen?
Part of the reason we had so much difficulty running the ball may have been the lack of continuity up front. Last week, all seven of the Stallions’ offensive linemen played, and they each played a lot. Center Cohl Cabral played the most as he was in on 46 of 52 offensive snaps. Guard/Center Cole Schneider played the least, but he was still in on 27 plays—more than half of them.
The Stallions played around with a whopping seven different arrangements of linemen throughout the game with several guys playing multiple positions or switching sides. The Stallions clearly have not found their front five yet, and they wanted to get each player significant reps. However, it is going to be difficult to have success up front if the Stallions continue to rotate guys that frequently. Making things more difficult is the loss of guard/tackle Matt Kaskey, who is out with an injured thumb. Kaskey played the second most snaps last week, only one less than Cabral. In his place, the Stallions will activate tackle Lukayus McNeil.
The @USFLStallions week one OL snap count (52 total plays):
Cabral: 46 (88%)
Kaskey: 45 (87%)
Johnson: 44 (85%)
Gray: 34 (65%)
Harper: 33 (63%)
Dugas: 31 (60%)
Schneider: 27 (52%)
7 (!) different combinations of o-linemen played. Clearly still trying to find the best 5.#USFL
— Luke Miller (@LukeMillerPFN) April 21, 2023
#3: Can The Defense Continue Its Dominance?
The Stallions’ defense was one of the best in the league last year, and from the first drive in 2023, it was clear they had not skipped a beat. In the first quarter, the Stallions forced a fumble and two three and outs. They gave up a touchdown on a nine-play drive to start the second quarter, but that was the Generals’ only touchdown of the game.
The Generals marched down the field on their next offensive possession, but the Stallions stopped them at the one-yard line three plays in a row to regain possession. After a J’Mar Smith interception two plays later, the Generals got the ball back at the Stallions 15. But the Stallions held tough and limited the Generals to a field goal. The Stallions did not give up a single point in the second half, forcing another fumble at the beginning of the second half and three straight turnovers on downs to end the game.
The Stallions did give up 361 total yards, including 197 on the ground, so there is room for improvement. However, like last year’s team, the Stallions were opportunistic and bent but did not break. The Generals only scored one touchdown despite four red zone trips, and they went one of five on fourth down. The Stallions will be without some key players this week, though, including Scooby Wright, Joe Jackson, JoJo Tillery, and Darrion Daniels. It remains to be seen if they can maintain control of the game like they did last week against a good Showboats offense.
That's our ball! pic.twitter.com/OX3W5lFqfx
— Birmingham Stallions (@USFLStallions) April 15, 2023
#4: Are There “de facto” Starters?
One of the strengths of this year’s team is its depth. Skip mentioned this going into the season, contrasting it with last year’s team by saying he has no problem rotating in all active players during a game.
That was clear last Saturday when players constantly rotated at several positions. On offense, every wide receiver saw substantial playing time. Davion Davis saw the most (62% of snaps) while Mookie Dereus saw the least (23% of snaps). The Stallions completed passes to nine different players, with only one having more than three catches (Sternberger).
As mentioned above, the offensive line was constantly changing. If you ignore the first play of the game, the offensive line was not the same in back-to-back series once. And things were no different on the defensive side of the ball. Dondrea Tillman saw the most playing time on the defensive line (74% of snaps), but Darrion Daniels, who saw the least, still was in on 40% of plays. Every defensive back was in on two-thirds or more of the defensive plays except T. J. Green, who still saw the field about a third of the time.
The only positions where the starters got almost every snap were running back, tight end, and linebacker. C. J. Marable and Jace Sternberger were in on offense 85% of the time. Scooby Wright and Nate Holley played every snap until an injury sidelined Wright. Holley finished the game having played every defensive play while Rashad Smith filled in for Wright on almost every play after Wright’s injury.
This week it will be interesting to see if Holtz sticks with the series-by-series rotation he seemed to implement last week or if he decides to let the starters play more of the snaps. It will be difficult to keep the same rotation as last week given the number of injuries, but I imagine we will still see a healthy rotation of players at least at the receiver, defensive line, and secondary spots. However, this week will help us to know if the quantity of players seeing the field is due to no one having separated himself from others or if it is a strategic move to keep players fresh.
The @USFLStallions week one WR/TE snap count (there were 52 total plays):
Sternberger: 44 (85%)
Davis: 32 (62%)
Cain: 31 (60%)
Watkins: 29 (56%)
Williams: 27 (52%)
Mitchell: 21 (44%)
Dereus: 12 (23%)#USFL
— Luke Miller (@LukeMillerPFN) April 21, 2023
#5: How Do The Birmingham Stallions Handle All The Injuries?
When the Stallions injury report came out on Twitter, it took three tweets to cover all 18 players—to the horror of many fans. There is hardly a position that is untouched by injuries heading into week two. At the quarterback spot, the Stallions were dealt a devastating blow this week when they found out starting quarterback J’Mar Smith would have to undergo season-ending surgery on his non-throwing hand.
Previously, Smith and quarterback Alex McGough had led the team together, resulting in a championship last season and an opening-day victory last week. Holtz did not seem to have an intentional two-quarterback system as much as he had two guys who could play and who he would instinctively call upon at times to take over games. Riding the hot hand worked for the Stallions thus far, but now they will be forced to go it with McGough alone. Backing him up will be quarterback Jalen Morton, who was with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season.
At running back, Bo Scarbrough was placed on injured reserve. That leaves only two running backs on the roster: C. J. Marable and ZaQuandre White. Marable was the Stallions’ leading rusher last regular season as well as in week one this year, so I imagine he will carry the load for the Stallions again this week. However, White will get his first opportunity as a Stallion and will look to make the most of it.
Other than Smith, the biggest blow for the Stallions in week one was the loss of wide receiver Marlon Williams. The Stallions’ leading receiver from a year ago, Williams was poised to have a breakout year and was a dark horse MVP candidate. He was the only running back, wide receiver, or tight end to be in on every single offensive play before his injury took him out of the game. The Stallions lined him up in the backfield and handed the ball off to him as well as targeted him four times through the air. He touched the ball or was targeted on 22.2% of Birmingham’s offensive plays before his injury. Williams was clearly the Stallions’ top target heading into the season, and he will be hard to replace.
The man most likely to replace him is wide receiver Davion Davis, who had one carry and was targeted three times through the air after Williams left the game. Before Williams got hurt, Davis was in on 30% of offensive plays; afterward, he was in on 96%. Moving forward, he will need to step up in a big way for the Stallions along with Adrian Hardy and Thaddeus Moss, who the Stallions have activated for this week.
Defensively, the Stallions were dealt a huge blow this week with the loss of defensive end Joe Jackson. Jackson was arguably the most impressive player for the Stallions’ defense in week one, registering three tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, and a forced fumble. The Stallions’ defensive line is loaded and gets Khalil Davis back this week, so they should be okay. But Jackson being out does hurt, and Jonathan Newsome and Dondrea Tillman will both have to have big games in his absence.
Another huge blow last week that carries over into this week is the loss of linebacker Scooby Wright. The Stallions were already trying to replace DeMarquis Gates, and now they will have to play without either him or Wright. Nate Holley played every snap last week and did a great job for the Stallions, registering six tackles and forcing a fumble on the first series of the game. After Wright went out, Rashard Smith took his place. Elijah Sullivan will also be active for this week’s game. The linebacker spot continues to be an area of concern for the Stallions’ defense, and this week the Stallions are going up against a great running back in Alex Collins. Smith, Poling, or Sullivan will need to have a great game alongside Holley.
The good news for the Stallions’ defense is that they activated cornerback Donnie Lewis this week to help bolster an already stout secondary. The Stallions will be leaning on them to help shut down the Showboats’ passing attack.
Game Status Report:
CB JoJo Tillery: Out (B Ankles)
FB Bobby Holly: Out (R Pec)
WR Marlon Williams: Out (L Achilles)
DL Joe Jackson: Out (R Ankle)
LB Scooby Wright: Out (B Calves)
RB Bo Scarbrough: Out (R Knee)
OL Matt Kaskey: Questionable (R Thumb)
— Birmingham Stallions (@USFLStallions) April 21, 2023
The Stallions are down bad to have to play without J’Mar Smith, Bo Scarbrough, Bobby Holly, Marlon Williams, Matt Kaskey, Joe Jackson, and Scooby Wright among others. However, the good news is that they get to activate ZaQuandre White, Adrian Hardy, Thaddeus Moss, Khalil Davis, Elijah Sullivan, and Donnie Lewis. As Skip said, this team is deeper than last year’s team, and that is already proving to be critical to their hopes of repeating as champions.
Despite all the injuries, I think the Stallions still pull this one out over an up-and-coming Showboats team. I think the Stallions defense is just too unrelenting and the offense can still hum under McGough’s leadership and playmaking ability. I think it will be a close one, but the Stallions win 24-15.
What do you think of the Birmingham Stallions matchup with the Memphis Showboats? Which USFL players will have to stand out on Saturday? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!