For the second time in two years, the Birmingham Stallions are in the USFL Championship. This year they have a new opponent: the Pittsburgh Maulers. Despite finishing last in the USFL in 2022, the Maulers emerged as the best team in the North under first-year coach Ray Horton.
⚒️ BATTLE OF THE STEEL CITIES ⚒️
➖Defending Champs 🆚 Worst to First ➖Best in South 🆚 Best in North ➖Best Offense 🆚 Best Defense ➖MVP Alex McGough 🆚 DPOY Candidate Kyahva Tezino ➖Head Coach of the Year 🆚 Assistant Coach of the Year
These teams only faced off once in the regular season with the Stallions pulling out a close win 24-20. What do the Stallions need to do to emerge victorious again?
1) Start Fast
In their first matchup, the Stallions got off to a rough start. Their first three drives were a punt, interception, and another interception. The short field allowed the Maulers to score three times before the Stallions got their first points. The Stallions didn’t score a touchdown until the final play of the first half.
— B2B CHAMPIONSTALLIONS 🏆🏆 (@USFLStallions) May 8, 2023
The Maulers are not a team built to come from behind. If the Stallions can jump out to a big lead early, it bodes well for their success.
2) Limit Turnovers
The Maulers are experts at forcing turnovers. They led the league in takeaways with 20. They also had the fewest giveaways at 12. Their +8 turnover margin was the best in the league and five greater than second place.
In last week’s playoff game against the Panthers, they forced three turnovers in the first half. When the Maulers and Stallions played in the regular season, it was a similar story. The Maulers forced two turnovers in the first half—both interceptions. It was McGough’s only multi-interception game.
The Stallions have been turnover prone at times. For example, they had eight turnovers in their final three regular season games. They ended up finishing the regular season with a -2 turnover differential. The Stallions have proved they can win when they lose the turnover battle, but those games are usually uncomfortably close. When they play like they did last week—forcing multiple turnovers while surrendering few to none—they usually run away with games.
3) Feed Davis and Sternberger
The Maulers have the best secondary in the league. They allowed the fewest pass yards per game and produced a league-leading 13 interceptions. Cornerback Mark Gilbert and safety Tre Tarpley were both All-USFL selections. When Pro Football Focus released their regular season grades, three of the Maulers’ top five graded players were in the secondary. The cornerback opposite Gilbert, Keith Gipson Jr., would likely be the top corner on several USFL teams. Both he and Gilbert picked McGough off in their first meeting.
What that means is the Stallions will likely have a hard time passing the ball to their perimeter receivers. That was the case in their first matchup, as Deon Cain had zero catches, Adrian Hardy had two, and Austin Watkins had three. Despite nine targets, the three of them only produced 44 receiving yards.
Where the Stallions had success—and where they are most likely to have success again—is in the slot. Their best receiver and one of McGough’s favorite targets, Davion Davis, lines up in the slot and will be matched up against the Maulers’ nickelback—likely Bryce Torneden. Davis had a huge game the first time these two played, catching eight of 10 targets for 71 yards and a touchdown. He was huge last week, catching all five of his targets for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The Stallions will need that kind of performance again from him.
The Stallions also need to get Jace Sternberger involved. Along with Davis, he has been McGough’s favorite target all season, setting a modern USFL record in the regular season for receiving touchdowns with seven. He had another one last week to make it eight on the year. However, the first time these two played, the Maulers shut him down. He only had one catch on four targets for five yards. Sternberger has called this a “revenge game” after the Stallions poor offensive outing the first time these two played. Look for him to come up big Saturday night.
While the Maulers secondary is excellent, they are not invincible. Last week they got torched for 370 yards and two touchdowns. E. J. Perry averaged 9.7 yards per attempt on his way to a 99.7 passer rating. If the Stallions can capture some of the magic the Panthers found last week, they should be primed to produce through the air.
4) Establish the Run
What the Panthers were not able to do last week was run the ball, finishing with 40 yards on 15 carries. The Stallions began the year with similar stat lines, but they really found their stride in the rushing game the first time they played the Maulers in week four. In that game, a tripartite rushing attack consisting of McGough and running backs C. J. Marable and ZaQuandre White ran for 124 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. The Maulers only allowed an average of 83 yards per game on the ground during the regular season, so the Stallions knew the rush defense was a strength of the Maulers. Coach Skip Holtz said the Stallions wanted to beat the Maulers at their own game, and they were able to do that in their first matchup.
The Stallions rushing attack has only improved since then, and they exploded last week against a good Breakers defense for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Again, it was a three-headed monster in the backfield with McGough, Marable, and this time running back Ricky Person Jr. Look for them to try and recreate that success in Canton.
Red zone defense has been the Stallions calling card all year. Despite giving up the most yards per game in the league (309), the Stallions allowed the third-fewest points. The Stallions allowed fewer red zone touchdowns in their eight regular season wins than they did in their two losses. In their two losses, they allowed seven touchdowns in nine attempts (78%). In their eight wins, they only allowed six touchdowns in 26 attempts (23%).
The Stallions allowed fewer red zone TDs in their eight wins than they did in their two losses 🤯
Stallions RZ defense in their 2 losses: 7 TDs in 9 attempts (78%)
Red zone defense was the difference-maker the first time these two played. In the first half, the Maulers had three red zone trips—twice getting inside the five and all three times getting inside the 10. However, they never came away with more than a field goal. A touchdown in any one of those red zone trips could have swung the game in the Maulers’ favor. The Maulers’ offense has struggled in the red zone all year, and the Stallions will need to capitalize on that again.
6) Stop Troy Williams
The Stallions have not had to face many dual-threat quarterbacks this year. No quarterback in the South Division other than Alex McGough rushed for more than 120 yards. Williams, though, is a true dual-threat passer. He finished the season as the Maulers’ leading rusher with 341 yards on 60 carries with three touchdowns. His longest rush of the year came against the Stallions: a 34-yard touchdown scamper. He finished that game with 63 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries.
If the Stallions can contain Williams and keep him from extending plays and drives with his legs, their chances of getting off the field consistently will go up immensely.
7) Win on Special Teams
The Maulers have the best special teams unit in the league. Their kick returner and punt returner were both All-USFL, and they have an excellent kicker and punter. Special teams have been a massive part of their success this year. However, the Stallions’ special teams have also been superb and were a deciding factor the last time these teams met. Late in the fourth quarter, Stallions kick returner Deon Cain returned a kick 91 yards for a touchdown, giving the Stallions the lead for good.
— B2B CHAMPIONSTALLIONS 🏆🏆 (@USFLStallions) May 8, 2023
It’s critical the Stallions contain the Maulers returners while producing their own big plays when given the opportunity.
It All Comes Down to This
We have been waiting for this moment since the season kicked off. Last year’s championship was an incredible game, and I don’t expect this one to be any different. Tune in to see all the action live on NBC at 8 pm EST.
The Championship Game is going to be a party 🙌🔥
Join us Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium for the USFL Championship Game AND a concert from @DylanScottCntry before kickoff 🎶
What are your thoughts on the Birmingham Stallions heading into the USFL Championship? Which USFL players will make an impact? Let us know down in the comments below or join the conversation on Discord!