PREVIEW: Houston Roughnecks at D.C. Defenders

Feb 18, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; The Houston Roughnecks take the field before playing against the Orlando Guardians Houston Roughnecks at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Houston Roughnecks at D.C. Defenders

The Matchup:

Houston Roughnecks (4-1) at D.C. Defenders (5-0)

Game Time: Monday, March 27, 6 p.m. CT


What’s at stake: Following their first loss of the season and first loss in franchise history, the Roughnecks look to maintain their control of the XFL South. They currently hold a 1.5-game lead on the Arlington Renegades (3-2), whom they currently hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over. To get back in the win column, they will have to go on the road and best the only remaining undefeated team in the XFL this season.

The Defenders currently hold a two-game lead in the XFL North over both St. Louis and Seattle, who are 4-2. D.C. holds head-to-head tiebreakers over both teams at this point in the season.

When the Roughnecks have the ball: The Roughnecks’ Air Raid offense was dealt a significant blow this week when it was learned top WR Jontre Kirklin would miss the rest of the season with a chest injury. Kirklin is still ninth in the XFL in receiving yards despite getting injured early in Week 5 and everyone ahead of him having played six games. Houston will turn to Travell Harris (15/237/2) and Justin Smith (6/96/1) to help fill the void.

Max Borghi is the Roughnecks’ lead back and is currently ninth in the XFL in rushing despite having only played four games. Borghi generally doesn’t get a ton of opportunities on the ground in the Mike Leach style Air Raid Houston employs, but he is also a weapon in the pass game, with 15 receptions.

When the Defenders have the ball: The Defenders’ offensive line has clearly been the best unit in the XFL this season. They are the best rushing unit in the XFL behind a powerhouse line that paves the road. The Defenders enter this game with a league-leading 870 yards rushing, nearly double the total of the next-highest team. Their 11 rushing touchdowns lead the league as well. Running back Abram Smith is the league’s leading rusher with 432 yards, and his four rushing touchdowns are second only to his teammate QB D’Eriq King (5). Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu (208 yards, two touchdowns) and backup RB Ryquell Armstead (156 yds) round out the Defenders’ steamroller ground game.

With Ta’amu and King as running threats at quarterback, the Defenders’ passing game is secondary to the rush attack. Ta’amu has only thrown for 658 yards, ranking seventh in the league. It’s the lowest total for any team’s primary quarterback that has played a minimum of five games. WR Lucky Jackson (19 rec, 250 yds) and WR Chris Blair (12/203/1) are the Defenders’ primary receiving options.

Key Roughnecks to watch:

LB Trent Harris: Harris still leads the XFL in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (8) despite missing Week 5 with injury. Harris is the key component of the Roughneck pass rush, as he demands double teams that free up his teammates for single coverage that they are able to exploit. Harris was not listed on the injury report this week, as the Roughnecks reported no injuries. As strong a pass rusher as Harris is, his run-stopping ability will be what is tried the most here.

WR Justin Smith: Smith has gotten off to a slow start, as he missed time early with injuries and found himself buried on the depth chart, but he is perhaps the fastest player on the team and definitely one of the fastest in the league. With the injury to Kirklin, Smith has an opportunity for more reps and more targets. If Smith can hold onto the ball, he could be very dangerous as a player who can both get behind the defense and outrun those in pursuit,

QB Brandon Silvers: Through five games, it is clear he is the unquestioned quarterback of the team and is in no danger of losing his job. That said, consistency has been an issue for Silvers this season, as he has hot and cold quarters that either lead to a point explosion or a bunch of three-and-outs. Silvers is a smart quarterback who understands the system and makes the right reads but doesn’t necessarily have the arm talent to make all the throws his mind identifies he should make. His wide receivers all have speed for days, and he needs to consistently get them the ball in manners where they can use that speed for yards after the catch. Too many throws last week were misfires, whether incomplete, behind receivers, too low, or other ways that the receiver had to alter their momentum to make a catch, preventing them from being able to get those important YAC yards. Against the best team in the XFL, he can’t have full quarters off.

DB Ajene Harris: With a pair of interceptions last week, Harris is now tied for the league lead with four. Like Trent Harris, he will need to excel in run defense this week while being wary of potential play-action to draw him in for deeper shots down the field. Harris and fellow corner Sean Davis (3 INT) will need to play a much more physical brand of defense against a bruising running team than they have at any time this season, and that they will again unless the two teams meet for the XFL Championship.

The Bottom Line: The Roughnecks will show their first response to adversity this week, coming off their first loss of the year and losing their top receiver. The offense must be more efficient as the Defenders’ run-heavy attack will chew up clock fast and limit the number of possessions Houston has.

The Roughnecks need a fast start on offense to give their defense time to adjust to the Defenders’ offensive scheme. So far this season, that usually requires Houston to make adjustments after their opponent’s opening drive. The defense has also been the most opportunistic in the XFL, with a league-high eight interceptions and 13 total turnovers to go along with their league 19 team sacks.

Houston plays the historic Phillips 3-4 defense, but the Roughnecks squad has been built primarily on pass rush and coverage. This game will be a huge test for the players, as the Defenders play an entirely different style of offense than the rest of the league, and right now look like any road to the XFL title will require defeating D.C.

This game is the most important game of the year to date for Houston and maybe the most important of the year in determining their title-worthiness.

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