The Path To The USFL Playoffs For The Pittsburgh Maulers

The Path To The USFL Playoffs For The Pittsburgh Maulers

With just three weeks to go in the USFL regular season, the Pittsburgh Maulers have some work to do. Ray Horton’s team sits at 2-5, with the fourth seed in the North Division.

A two game losing streak hasn’t helped matters too much. After taking down the Michigan Panthers in dominant fashion in week five, Pittsburgh was shutout in Memphis – and then proceeded to lose in a shootout with the Philadelphia Stars.

However, considering Michigan holds the second seed at just 3-4, the door is wide open for Pittsburgh to make a late push. This team is extremely talented, and if they can simply put the pieces together, that final berth in the North could fall into their grasp.

Let’s take a look at what lies ahead for the Pittsburgh Maulers, and what this organization has to do to secure a postseason ticket.

Where Is The Ground Game?

An area of emphasis for Pittsburgh heading down the stretch has to be running the football more effectively. Throughout the entire 2023 USFL season, neither Madre London or Garrett Groshek have provided the team with much firepower.

While the backfield has their moments, it’s been a relatively lackluster performance across the board. Interestingly enough, since QB Troy Williams became the starter, he’s been the biggest factor on the ground.

Right now, the Maulers rank sixth in the USFL, averaging 94 rushing yards per game. They do boast a respectable 4.2 YPC, but this is because Williams carries the team in that category.

The only top 10 rusher in the league for Pittsburgh is Troy Williams, who has posted 258 yards – averaging 6.1YPC. His ability to use his legs to extend plays – and drives – has been invaluable to the team.

Madre London has only rushed for 146 yards this season, averaging 3.9YPC. The former ELF MVP hasn’t been nearly as productive in the USFL, which can be attributed a bit to the overall scheme that Horton has implemented. However, London needs to be more productive – Troy can’t do it all.

Garrett Groshek has had a rough outing as a running back. He’s averaging just 2.4 YPC, with 106 yards in 2023 (18th in the USFL). Quite simply, if the Pittsburgh Maulers can’t begin to run the football more effectively, it makes their playoff aspirations that much harder to achieve.

Defense: Get Back On Track

Without a doubt, the Pittsburgh Maulers boast some of the top defenders in the USFL. In fact, their top five PFF graded players are all from the defense:

1: LB Reuben Foster (90.9)
2: S Eli Walker (81.9)
3: DL Olive Sagapolu (80.2)
4: CB Mark Gilbert (79.1)
5: DL Boogie Roberts (78.5)

However, it wasn’t a great outing for this unit on Saturday night. Philadelphia posted 37 points, a season high in two regards (most Philadelphia has scored in 2023, while simultaneously the most points Pittsburgh allowed in a game).

We know how resilient this unit is. They’ve ranked as one of the top defenses through seven weeks, leading the league in multiple categories throughout the season.

The Pittsburgh Maulers will have to lean into the genius of Jarren Horton as things come to a close. The Maulers shockingly scored 31 points in week seven, yet still found a way to lose. Obviously, this can’t happen again.

Right now, Pittsburgh allows the fewest yards per game in the USFL, at 259.7. Additionally, the 19.9 points they allow per game has them at fourth. Take away the Stars matchup, and this defense is clearly the best in the league.

Starts Up Front

So, what needs to be adjusted moving forward? Keep it simple. Pittsburgh has to keep doing what they do well, and stick to it.

Olive Sagapolu and Boogie Roberts are two of the top PFF graded Maulers for a reason. They have been outstanding, showcasing just how dominant they can be in the trenches. While Boogie Roberts takes the brunt of the double teams, Sagapolu feasts on the inside, taking advantage of quarterbacks time and time again.

Boogie Roberts currently has 27 tackles and two sacks, but the numbers don’t reflect everything he does for this squad. He’s an excellent leader on and off the field. Meanwhile, Sagapolu has four sacks of his own, demonstrating why he belongs on the professional stage.

Reuben Foster and Kyahva Tezino are two of the best linebackers in the league. Tezino leads the USFL in total tackles, with 77 – alongside two forced fumbles. Without Kyahva, this defense wouldn’t be near the same unit that they are with him on the field. Add in a healthy Reuben Foster, and it’s a scary sight for opposing offenses.

Secondary’s Impact

It’s imperative that the front seven provide pressure, because the secondary is just as elite. Pittsburgh’s corners and safeties have been flying around the football field for seven straight weeks, continuing to make big-time plays consistently.

Eli Walker has been special. Per Pro Football Focus, Walker has impressed: “Among 21 safeties who have faced 10 or more targets in coverage, Walker ranks fourth in open-target rate allowed (41.2%)”. Arnold Tarpley has done his part, with a couple of interceptions this year and 29 tackles.

Someone who hasn’t gotten enough attention is Mark Gilbert, who has taken on the challenge of defending some of the best wideouts in the USFL. A prime example of this came in week five, when Gilbert successfully shut down Michigan’s Joe Walker, who is an electrifying receiver in his own regard.

What separates this defense apart from others in the league, is that every player seems to know their role. They know what they’re supposed to be doing at all times, and the chemistry some of these athletes have built over two seasons is remarkable.

Every single role player leaves their mark, whenever their name might be called. Chris Okoye, Dale Warren, Keith Gipson, Nasir Player, Will Miles, Vaughn Taylor – the list goes on and on. This defense is special, and it’s one of the top groups we’ve seen in the modern spring football scene.

Special Teams: Top Notch

The Pittsburgh Maulers also sport two of the top returners in the USFL. Joshua Simmons has been electrifying as a kick returner, leading the USFL with 638 return yards. He’s shown that he can provide any team with quality special teams performances, breaking out for an 88 yard touchdown return against the Stars.

On the other hand, Isiah Hennie is doing his thing as well. He’s been elite as a punt returner, taking one to the house in week one. His 70 yard return against Philadelphia set the team up in perfect scoring position down the stretch. In fact, had it not been for Simmons and Hennie’s efforts in week seven, they would have likely been blown out.

These two returners can’t afford to take their foot off the gas pedal. Time and time again, they have provided the Maulers with excellent field position. Pittsburgh will continue to rely on their brilliance in the coming weeks, for more reasons than one.

The Road Ahead

It won’t be an easy trip to the postseason by any means. The competition in the USFL is as tough as ever, with unparalleled parity between both divisions. With their 2-5 record, Pittsburgh ideally would have to win out to give themselves the best opportunity at a playoff spot at 5-5.

However, there is still a chance for Pittsburgh to make the postseason at 4-6, believe it or not.

Remaining USFL Schedule

Houston Gamblers: Pittsburgh will look to get back on the right track against the Gamblers, who have been quite hot as of late. Houston is 4-3, and fighting for leverage in the South Division. If there is one game for the Maulers to lose, it would be this one – simply because Houston isn’t in the North. That being said, Pittsburgh desperately needs a win here. If they come away victorious, and if Michigan drops to 3-5, Pittsburgh will hop them in the Standings.

Michigan Panthers: Pittsburgh already beat Michigan once, and if they can pull off the sweep, it gives them a major advantage. The Maulers have struggled to play well in 2023, but their best game of the year came against this very team. If they can replicate that success, it gives them a chance to clinch the second seed, if Michigan is 3-6 and New Jersey is 2-7.

New Jersey Generals: While New Jersey might not be the threat that Michigan is, Pittsburgh can’t afford to lose this one, either. The Generals have the head-to-head advantage over the Maulers. Considering the injury to De’Andre Johnson, Pittsburgh is in a prime position to pull ahead of New Jersey as they continue to plummet in the North Division.

Strength Of Schedule For Opponents

Michigan: New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia
New Jersey: Memphis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh

Final Thoughts

The Pittsburgh Maulers have been a fascinating team to watch in the USFL this season. After an abysmal 1-9 tenure in 2022, Ray Horton has made some impressive improvements. The overall structure, cohesiveness, and chemistry has looked smoother compared to a year ago. Troy Williams, in particular, has been a revelation, leading the team to two wins in his five starts.

However, a lot of work needs to be done if this team is serious about making the postseason. The opportunity is there, and now it’s up to the Maulers to make it a reality. Their destiny is in their hands.

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

What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh Maulers this season? Will they make the USFL playoffs? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!