Pittsburgh Maulers vs. Michigan Panthers | USFL Playoffs Preview

Pittsburgh Maulers vs. Michigan Panthers | USFL Playoffs Preview

The USFL playoffs are officially upon us. It all kicks off Saturday night, as the Pittsburgh Maulers host the Michigan Panthers, in what will be the third time these teams see each other this season.

Interestingly enough, both organizations finished with a record of 4-6. The North Division did not feature one team with a record above .500.

That being said, these two teams have plenty of talent – especially defensively. The last two outings have been controlled by each respective defense, and the third should be no different.

Pittsburgh is coming off a 26-6 demolition of the New Jersey Generals, in a game that clinched the Division title. Meanwhile, Michigan got their first win at home, taking down the Stars in thrilling fashion.

Let’s take a look at the key factors ahead of this playoff showdown, and what to expect.

USFL Season Matchups

Back in week five, the Pittsburgh Maulers put on a defensive clinic, to no surprise. They won a 23-7 slugfest, as Michigan didn’t sniff a score after their opening drive. Troy Williams absolutely killed the Panthers with his mobility, and Pittsburgh cruised to the win. Turnovers haunted Michigan, with multiple red zone interceptions ending promising drives.

In week nine, it was a nearly identical story. The Maulers got the regular season sweep, dominating from start to finish. Besides one decent drive to begin the second half, it was a Josh Love disaster-class, throwing four interceptions.

It’s important to look at these prior matchups, simply to see how impressive Pittsburgh’s game plan was. In both affairs, they stuffed the run game, which resulted in poor passing – and eventually, turnovers. In 2023, the Pittsburgh Maulers outscored the Michigan Panthers 42-14.

Quarterback Play

Now, the whole dynamic of this game has shifted. Last week, EJ Perry started for Michigan. Josh Love had been the signal caller for nine straight games, but a four interception affair against Pittsburgh resulted in Perry being handed the reins.

Perry had only been with the Panthers for a couple of weeks, but played quite well. In the second half, he settled into the offense, utilizing his dual threat capabilities. Ultimately, Michigan got the win because of his efforts.

Now, EJ Perry will face the difficult task of playing against the league’s best defense. He will need to find a way to throw the football with a bit more efficiency, as there is no room for error against such a fierce unit. With another week of practice under his belt, he should look a bit more comfortable.

Michigan’s glaring issues have surrounded their immobility at the quarterback position, so EJ Perry brings an entirely different set of skills to the offense that Michigan desperately needed.

On the other hand, Troy Williams has shown so much growth in his time with Pittsburgh. He’s been exactly what the team ordered: mobile, elusive, and smart with the football. While he gets plenty of attention for what he does on the ground (as he should), Williams has proven himself to be an efficient passer as well.

Williams will have his work cut out for him this Saturday, facing off against the Panthers defense for the third time. However, he’s done well so far, and we should expect his success to continue. Troy’s confidence has taken steps forward with each and every game.

Backfield

The Michigan Panthers will have some much-needed assistance this time around. In week nine, Reggie Corbin wasn’t available. He is back and ready to go on Saturday, which is excellent news for Mike Nolan. While he’s had an up and down season, Corbin is an All-USFL back, and is primed to have a big game – he’s due.

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Pittsburgh’s backfield needs some help. Madre London and Garrett Groshek don’t provide the team with much of a punch. Their quarterback leads the team in rushing yards. Both London and Groshek are solid downhill backs, but don’t bring much explosiveness to the table.

Offensive Playmakers

Both of these teams are pretty equally stacked when it comes to offensive talent. On Michigan’s side, they feature a solid receiving corps of Joe Walker, Trey Quinn, and Cole Hikutini who have been the go-to guys all year long.

It will be interesting to watch Walker this week, who’s had quiet games against Pittsburgh this year. One has to imagine that Joe would need to have a decent showing in order for Michigan to win.

On the other side, the Pittsburgh Maulers have plenty of weapons for Troy Williams to throw to. Isiah Hennie, Joshua Simmons, Tre Walker, Bailey Gaither, Matt Seybert – the list goes on and on. The Maulers have an underrated offense, and one that hasn’t peaked quite yet.

Another storyline to follow: Ishmael Hyman. He was released by Michigan earlier in the season, and was picked up immediately by Pittsburgh. Now, he’ll have a chance to contribute to potentially eliminating his former squad.

Defensive Dominance

Defense is where both of these teams thrive. Beginning with the Pittsburgh Maulers, their unit has been sensational all year long. There’s a reason why DC Jarren Horton won Assistant Coach Of The Year: this defense is clearly the best in the USFL, leading the league in multiple categories.

Why has Joe Walker been silent against Pittsburgh so far? Mark Gilbert. Gilbert has been one of the top – if not the best – cornerback in the USFL this year. He’s locked down opponent’s #1 option consistently throughout the season, and also leads the league with four interceptions.

Up front, Pittsburgh has so many talented defenders to throw your way. Boogie Roberts, Olive Sagapolu, Nasir Player, Kyahva Tezino, Reuben Foster, etc. – they always find a way to get to the quarterback, wreaking havoc all year long.

Pittsburgh’s secondary is just as strong. Arnold Tarpley, Eli Walker, Bryce Torneden, etc. – they’re stacked. It’s going to be tough sledding for Michigan’s offense, no doubt.

However, the Michigan Panthers have a defense to fear as well. Led by Breeland Speaks and Frank Ginda, this unit pulverizes opponents weekly. Ginda led the USFL in tackles, while Speaks leads the league in sacks.

It’s not easy to throw at their corners, either. Levonta Taylor and Josh Butler have been excellent in coverage, with Taylor not allowing a single touchdown in 2023. It’s going to be quite the showdown between these two defenses, to say the least.

Special Teams Brilliance

We might be in for some electrifying returns on Saturday night. To start with, Marcus Simms turned out to be a hidden special teams gem, providing the Panthers with a much needed spark in their win on Sunday. Without his efforts, they would not be in the postseason.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh features two All-USFL returners, in Isiah Hennie and Joshua Simmons. Simmons has been outstanding as a kick returner, leading the league in total return yards. He averages 31.7 YPR, and took a kick to the house back in week seven.

Chris Blewitt and Matt Mengel have been consistent for Pittsburgh all year long. Mengel absolutely blasted an 83 yard punt earlier in the year, which was astounding to watch. For Michigan, Kyle Kramer and Cole Murphy have done their job well, as Murphy has hit multiple attempts from beyond 50 yards in 2023.

Coaching Matchup

Michigan Panthers | Mike Nolan: Well, somehow, some way, Mike Nolan got his team to the postseason. It wasn’t pretty. Michigan went 2-6 in their final eight games. However, they won the matchup that ultimately mattered, and here they are. Nolan made the right call by giving EJ Perry a chance, something fans had been wanting for quite some time. After losing to Pittsburgh twice this season, it’ll be intriguing to watch how Nolan approaches things tomorrow.

Pittsburgh Maulers | Ray Horton: Ray Horton has done an impressive job in Pittsburgh, taking a 1-9 team to the postseason in his first year as a head coach. It hasn’t been perfect by any means, but their 4-6 record doesn’t reflect how talented this team truly is. With a 2-0 record against Mike Nolan in the USFL, one has to feel relatively confident in the Maulers and Horton in this upcoming game.

Final Thoughts

The Pittsburgh Maulers seem to have a bit of an advantage heading into this affair, especially considering the prior two outcomes. However, the new-look Panthers are riding hot with EJ Perry, which will provide fans with what should be exciting playoff action.

It all kicks off on Saturday night, at 8pm ET on NBC. The game will be held in Canton.

What are your thoughts on this upcoming USFL matchup between the Pittsburgh Maulers and Michigan Panthers? Which team will advance to the Championship? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!

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