Game Preview: Vegas Vipers at Houston Roughnecks

Feb 18, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Roughnecks running back Max Borghi (22) breaks a tackle by Orlando Guardian linebacker Terrance Smith (8) in the fourth quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Vegas Vipers at Houston Roughnecks

The Matchup:

Vegas Vipers (2-6) at Houston Roughnecks (5-3)

Game Time: Saturday, April 15, 11:30 a.m. CT


What’s at stake: The Roughnecks can clinch the XFL South and a home playoff game with a victory against the Vipers or a loss by the Arlington Renegades to the D.C. Defenders. The XFL’s playoffs pit the regular season division winner against the regular season runner-up in round one, with the winners of these two games playing for the XFL Championship. Houston would win any tiebreakers with Arlington based on its division record.

At 2-6, the Vipers have been eliminated from postseason contention and are playing solely for pride.

When the Roughnecks have the ball: In his last game, Quarterback Brandon Silvers looked like he was still feeling the effects of the elbow injury that caused him to miss Week 7. Now another week removed from the injury, Houston hopes he can regain his much more effective early-season form.

With Jontre Kirklin lost for the season, Cedric Byrd and Deontay Burnett are now the Roughnecks’ top two wide receivers. Justin Smith and Travell Harris provide depth and speed.

Running back Max Borghi is not only the Roughnecks’ primary ball carrier but also a receiver out of the backfield. Dejoun Lee, the Roughnecks’ primary backup back, is unavailable due to a shoulder injury.

With Silvers under center, Houston’s offense will be extremely pass-happy. Backup quarterback Cole McDonald will slide under center for run-oriented packages in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

When the Vipers have the ball: Quarterback Jalen McClendon is a dual-threat player. Last week against St. Louis, he finished 13-for-23 for 159 yards and a touchdown while leading the team in rushing attempts (13) and rushing yards (62).

Running back Rod Smith also had 13 carries last week for 51 yards and added three receptions for 20 yards.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant hasn’t exploded the way the Vipers had hoped, but the 31-year-old is still a receiver who must be accounted for. Former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Geronimo Allison led the team with two receptions for 44 yards last week and scored the team’s only receiving touchdown. Jeff Badet, the team’s most consistent receiver this season, is listed as questionable with a thigh injury.

Key Roughnecks to Watch:

LB Trent Harris: Harris leads the XFL in both sacks (8½) and tackles for loss (11) despite having missed one game earlier this season due to injury. Harris demands double-teams on every pass attempt, and because of this, he frees up his teammates for one-on-one opportunities. Harris is the key to the Roughnecks’ pass rush, and when he plays well, so do his teammates.

WR Deontay Burnett: Burnett was quiet last week as quarterback Brandon Silvers struggled after the opening drive, but in the previous two weeks, he racked up 212 yards receiving. Burnett has found the end zone in six of his eight contests as well. He has established himself as a force on the outside, but Houston needs to get him the football.

RB Max Borghi: The Roughnecks could not find any room to run the football last week, as Borghi was held to just 10 yards on seven carries against San Antonio, but Borghi did have a team-high four receptions for 49 yards. A better day on the ground could help take pressure off of Silvers, whose health status with his elbow is still somewhat of an unknown.

LB Emmanuel Ellerbe: Despite missing last week’s game due to injury, Ellerbe remains tied for fourth in the XFL with 50 tackles. The former Rice star, who has also been a part of four different NFL organizations including the Texans, is expected to play this week. His presence will be important as pass-rushing specialist Tim Ward will miss his fourth consecutive game with a shoulder injury. Ellerbe has 1½ sacks and four tackles for loss this season. He will need to play a big role in making up for Ward’s absence.

The Bottom Line: This is the regular season home finale for the Roughnecks, and with a win they lock up the XFL South. Houston currently has a one-game lead over the Arlington Renegades, but the Roughnecks have already beaten the Renegades and therefore hold the tiebreaker. Houston will face the Renegades next week in Arlington to finish the regular season.

Houston also holds the tiebreaker on division record over the Renegades. Should Houston triumph over Vegas this week, the Roughnecks would hold onto the XFL South division even if Arlington were to knock off Houston next week. The Renegades already have two division losses, while the Roughnecks have none. Arlington faces the 7-1 D.C. Defenders on the road Sunday afternoon.

This week’s matchup with Vegas is a game the Roughnecks should win, but it is important that they quarterback Brandon Silvers shows he’s healthy by playing a quality game. Houston struggled mightily to move the ball against San Antonio last week and needed a score in overtime (led by backup quarterback Cole McDonald) to secure the win. If the Roughnecks win this week, they will also have the opportunity to rest Silvers next week so that he can be healthy as possible for the playoffs.

The most likely playoff scenario involves the Roughnecks playing at home against Arlington in two weeks. Should the Roughnecks clinch the division this week, it could be wise for Houston to avoid showing much of its playbook to the Renegades in Week 10.

After Houston’s best rushing performance of the season was followed by its worst, expect running backs Max Borghi and Brycen Alleyne to get a few more opportunities and make the most of them. Houston should comfortably cover the 6.5-point spread as their defense will test Vegas’ quarterback protection early and often.

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