Apr 2, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Roughnecks quarterback Cole McDonald (14) pass is deflected by St. Louis Battlehawks linebacker Carson Wells (53) in the fourth quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
PREVIEW: Houston Roughnecks at San Antonio Brahmas
Houston Roughnecks (4-3) at San Antonio Brahmas (2-5)
Game Time: Sunday, April 9, 2 p.m. CT
What’s at stake: The Roughnecks can seize control of the XFL South with a victory and guarantee themselves a playoff spot. Moving to 5-3 with a win would not clinch the division, but it would put them one win over Arlington from doing so. XFL playoff format will have the top two teams in each division play each other for a third time at the home of the division champion. The winner of that game will face the winner of the other division’s playoff game for the championship.
For San Antonio, they need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. At 2-5, they are only still alive because Arlington is 3-4, and two teams from each division are guaranteed to go to the postseason. A win over Houston, who won the first meeting between the two teams 22-13 in Week 3, would help position them to catch the Renegades, with whom they split the season series. The Brahmas’ remaining games are against Orlando (1-6) Week 9 and D.C. (6-1) Week 10, both at home. The Renegades close out the season at D.C. in Week 9 and home against the Roughnecks Week 10.
When the Roughnecks have the ball: Injuries have certainly taken their toll on the Roughnecks, and there is no guarantee that starting quarterback Brandon Silvers will be ready to play this week. Silvers is dealing with an elbow injury that kept him out of last week’s game. He has been a limited participant in practice all week, is listed as questionable, and looks like a game-time decision. Cole McDonald, who was terrific in relief of Silvers Week 6, struggled badly in his first start of the season last week against St. Louis as he completed just 15-of-32 passes for a lowly 106 yards. McDonald will be called on again if Silvers can’t play.
Houston ran the ball more times last week than they have at any point this season, a function of how the offense must be different with Cole McDonald at quarterback. McDonald is a very mobile quarterback who can both make and extend plays with his legs, but he is not as polished a pocked passer as Silvers, whom the Roughnecks Air Raid style offense is designed for. Houston ran 25 times for 136 yards last week, a strong 5.44 YPC while dividing carries among four players (Max Borghi 9, McDonald 8, Brycen Alleyne 6, Dejoun Lee 2). All four averaged over 5 yards per carry, so the team was successful regardless of the ball carrier.
With top receiver Jontre Kirklin out for the season, the team must do a better job of getting the ball to wideout Deontay Burnett, who can make things happen with the ball in his hands. Cedric Byrd has emerged as a reliable target, but the team continues to struggle to find speedster Justin Smith. Smith, perhaps the team’s fastest receiver, can take the top off the defense on almost any play but has not developed a rapport with either Silvers or McDonald.
When the Brahmas have the ball: The Brahmas will be starting their fifth straight different quarterback, as they have also been beset by injuries. Recently signed QB Kurt Benkert got the start last week, and suffered three broken ribs in the game. Former starter Jack Coan, himself previously injured, will return under center this week. Coan wanted to play last week, but head coach Hines Ward didn’t think he was ready to do so. The Brahmas also acquired quarterback Paxton Lynch from Orlando, so he could get action as well.
San Antonio has scored more than 15 points just one time this season. The Brahmas could not run the ball at all last week, with just 30 yards on the ground on 16 carries. Their longest run was 5 yards, and that was by Benkert. They are a one-dimensional offense, and that plays into the Roughnecks’ strength of rushing the passer. Running backs Jacques Patrick and Jon Hilliman do more damage receiving than rushing. Landen Akers led the team in receiving last week with six receptions for 75 yards.
Key Roughnecks to Watch:
LB John Daka: With fellow linebackers Tim Ward set to miss his third straight game with a shoulder injury and Emmanuel Ellerbe questionable with a back injury, Daka will be asked to pick up the slack in the pass rush opposite the XFL’s top sack artist Trent Harris. Daka was credited with 1½ sacks last week, a TFL, and a forced fumble. With Harris likely drawing constant double-teams, Daka will need to continue to win his one-on-one matchups and bring the heat.
K Austin Jones: The Roughnecks placed K Hunter Duplessis on IR this week, so Jones gets his first start for Houston. The rules in the XFL are funky on kickoffs, the ball has to be in the kick zone between the 20 and the goal line. Kicks outside that zone have a harsh penalty of giving the opponent the ball at the plus-45 yard line, an extremely short field. Houston hasn’t attempted many field goals this year, but the kickoffs, which hurt last week when Duplessis botched a kickoff that led to a score, must be executed properly. Struggling through a three-game slide while beset by injuries, Houston cannot afford to give away easy points to opponents because of bad kickoffs.
The quarterbacks: Will Brandon Silvers be ready to go? If he is, how much will his elbow injury impact his ability to deliver footballs to the second and third levels? If Silvers cannot go, which Cole McDonald will the Roughnecks see? Will it be the one who was brilliant against the Defenders (8-for-11, 194 yards, TD) or the one who struggled mightily against St. Louis (15-for-32, 106 yards)? The quarterback play will determine not only if the Roughnecks can win this game but also if they can be considered a threat to win the championship. Whether it’s a healthy Silvers or good play from McDonald, Houston needs to settle their quarterback situation.
DB Ajene Harris: Harris is the unquestioned top defensive back on the team now with Sean Davis out for the year. He also leads the XFL with five interceptions. Turnovers have been a hallmark of the Roughneck defense all season, and Harris must rise to the role of shadow on the other team’s top receiver and continue to generate turnovers to help the defense support a struggling offense.
The Bottom Line: The Brahmas season literally hangs in the balance, but they may be too undermanned to do anything about it. As bad as the Roughnecks’ injury situation has been, the Brahmas may be the worst injury situation in the league.
Barring a miracle offensive performance, San Antonio is highly unlikely to score enough points to beat the Roughnecks, but they could keep it close with solid defense and Houston’s struggling quarterback situation the past three weeks.
Close is likely the best situation for the Brahmas, as the Roughnecks should end their slide and get their fifth win of the season, locking in a playoff spot.