Pittsburgh Maulers vs. Houston Gamblers | Week 8 Preview

Pittsburgh Maulers vs. Houston Gamblers | Week 8 Preview

Week eight of the USFL kicks off Saturday afternoon, with the Pittsburgh Maulers hosting the Houston Gamblers. As we hit the final few weeks of the season, this matchup will prove to be very important in the overall playoff picture.

Right now, the Houston Gamblers are 4th in the South Division, despite having a 4-3 record. There is a three-way tie, but due to tiebreakers, they sit in last place. Curtis Johnson’s team had won four straight, but a loss against Memphis last week set them back in the South.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Maulers are 2-5, losing two in a row. They now hold the fourth seed in the North, as New Jersey owns the head-to-head advantage over them.

When these two teams faced off in 2022, it came down to the wire. Vad Lee connected with Bailey Gaither as time expired, and Pittsburgh would go on to win their one and only game of the season.

Let’s take a look at the key factors ahead of this game, and what to expect from both organizations.

Quarterback Play

Interestingly enough, both teams have somewhat similar quarterbacks, as Kenji Bahar and Troy Williams are mobile quarterbacks who have improved as the season has gone on.

Starting with Kenji Bahar, he’s shown some tremendous growth. After turning the ball over six times in two weeks, he limited that issue for the next four games (three of which, he was active for), and Houston went on a 4-0 run in that span.

However, his three interceptions came back to bite the Gamblers late, as they fell to Memphis on Sunday. Plain and simple, Bahar has to make smart decisions with the football. He has the potential to be one of the USFL’s top quarterbacks, if he can simply avoid giving it away to the opponent.

Troy Williams made his first start in week three, and has clearly been the answer for Pittsburgh’s offense. While they’ve lost a couple in a row, Troy brings so much to the team with his dual threat capabilities.

A key for Williams in this game will be his ability to get into an early rhythm. A couple of weeks ago against Michigan, Troy played arguably his best game of the year, because he was able to develop chemistry with his receivers early. Additionally, he was wisely using his legs to keep plays alive. Can he replicate that success against a stout Houston defense? Time will tell.

Standout Playmakers

Where these two teams do not match up, is in the backfield. Pittsburgh’s tandem of Madre London and Garrett Groshek have underwhelmed this season. In fact, most of the ground game comes from Troy Williams using his legs.

On the other hand, Mark Thompson has been nearly unstoppable since making his debut in week three. He’s racked up 11 touchdowns in just five games (modern USFL record), and continues to make defenses pay week in and week out. Add in a healthy T.J. Pledger and Shermari Jones, and you’ve got one heck of a lineup behind Kenji.

From a receiving standpoint, these teams are pretty equally matched. Justin Hall and Anthony Ratliff-Williams have been one of the best WR duos in the league, doing a little bit of everything for the Gamblers this season. However, Ratliff-Williams was just placed on injured reserve, so Houston will need Keke Chism and Teo Redding to step up in his absence.

On the other hand, Pittsburgh just gained more depth, having signed Ishmael Hyman (formerly with the Michigan Panthers). Adding Hyman into the fray is excellent news, as Tre Walker, Bailey Gaither, Isiah Hennie, and Matt Seybert are all reliable targets in their own regard.

It will be intriguing to see how Hyman fits into Ray Horton’s system. Hyman wasn’t utilized to his full potential in Michigan, but is clearly one of the league’s talented WR’s. Expect Ishmael to make an impact as he settles into the offense.

Special Teams Specialty

An area where Pittsburgh thrives, is their special teams unit. Chris Blewitt is one of the best kickers in the USFL, having done an excellent job since joining the Maulers midseason.

Meanwhile, Joshua Simmons and Isiah Hennie are two of the most electrifying returners in the game. They are two of the top five USFL athletes in all-purpose yards, and for good reason.

Simmons’ kickoff return for a touchdown in week seven was the third of the year in the USFL. It’s excellent to see special teams being highlighted on a weekly basis, and Pittsburgh excels in that area time and time again.

Dominant Defenses

Defense is where the Pittsburgh Maulers have the advantage. Don’t get me wrong – Houston has a very capable unit of their own.

That being said, Jarren Horton has developed a formidable squad, boasting some of the best defenders in the entire USFL. While they looked a bit out of sorts against Philadelphia (allowing a season high 37 points), Pittsburgh’s defense has consistently played top notch football in the USFL this season.

Up front, there’s not much you can do to stop Boogie Roberts, Olive Sagapolu, Vaughn Taylor, Kyahva Tezino, Reuben Foster, etc. – they’re stacked. This defense is constantly getting at the quarterback, which means that Kenji Bahar will have to be ready to use his legs to escape the pocket.

It isn’t easy to throw against this defense, either. Mark Gilbert, Arnold Tarpley II, Keith Gipson, Bryce Torneden, and many others make quarterbacks’ lives quite difficult week in and week out. Houston will have their work cut out for them. If they can establish Mark Thompson on the ground early, that would certainly help.

The Gamblers will be without Donald Rutledge, who was placed on the IR this week. This is unfortunate news, as Rutledge has been an excellent defender this season.

Houston will look to Manny Bunch, Elijah Jones, Jeremiah Johnson, and others to step up in his absence. This defense has to look to generate turnovers, especially by putting pressure on Troy Williams. If they can find a way to keep him contained in the pocket, that gives them quite the advantage on Saturday.

Coaching Matchup

Houston Gamblers | Curtis Johnson: In his first year in the USFL, Johnson has done quite well. The Gamblers are above .500, and are in a position to make a postseason run if they string together a couple more wins. Expect this team to look cleaner than they did a week ago.

Pittsburgh Maulers | Ray Horton: Ray has quite a bit to figure out ahead of this matchup. Pittsburgh’s defense has been their crown jewel, but the Maulers still couldn’t find a way to win last week, despite scoring a season high 31 points. Horton has this team in a much better position than Kirby Wilson did – but, if they don’t start winning soon, they can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.

Final Thoughts

With how much is on the line for both of these USFL teams, it’s bound to be an intense matchup from start to finish. Even though Houston and Pittsburgh are the fourth seed in their respective divisions, they are just one win away from being bumped up to the second seed, barring some help from division opponents.

Heading into this affair, the Houston Gamblers seem to be the favorites. Their offense has been playing quite well, and they are due for a big game after mediocre performances the last two weeks.

However, fans can never count out the Pittsburgh Maulers. This team is scrappy and resilient, and boasts one of the USFL’s top defenses. If Pittsburgh can simply put the pieces together, they are a playoff team.

The Pittsburgh Maulers will host the Houston Gamblers this Saturday, at 12pm ET on USA Network.

What are your thoughts on this upcoming USFL matchup between the Pittsburgh Maulers and Houston Gamblers? Which USFL players will have a big day? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!