Heading into week three the Stars are coming off their home opener, coming in Canton, Ohio versus their cross hub rival Michigan Panthers. This week three match up will be broadcast on NBC, and Peacock. Per Mike Mitchell of USFLNewsHub.com NBC averaged the highest per game viewership in season 1 with over 1.1 million. While so far viewership is down quite a bit from season one at the same point:
“Sunday saw the USFL return on NBC at Noon ET with a game between the Michigan Panthers and Houston Gamblers. The telecast averaged 974,000 viewers. Last season’s NBC Sunday afternoon Week 1 USFL game averaged 2.1 million viewers.” Mike Mitchell‘s article.
I am very curious to see the attendance in this game, when the Stars play in Ford Field for the first time. While some USFL fans don’t care to discuss the more concerning matters of the league, color me a sceptic that these attendance numbers can continue long term as the USFL looks for success, especially if they can count on an early season slump in viewership when competing with XFL for viewership. They need to find ways to attract fans to the teams not representing the city they play in. The Stars being one of them.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Two weeks, and nine sacks later Case Cookus was showing the wear and tear on his body at the end of this game. Having been banged up for two weeks straight, Cookus was left to try and erase a 14 point deficit with no time to push the ball downfield. Getting the ball back with over Six Minutes remaining, the Stars couldn’t find any momentum and sputtered to a 24-10 loss to the Michigan Panthers.
Injuries took away two starting offensive linemen, leaving our protection issues even worse than before. While Michigan only put up four sacks, Cookus was hit early and often. After week one Coach Andrus was asked about the protection woes. He attributed it to week one rust being knocked off. In a league with only ten weeks and no preseason games, there may not be any time to suffer through that rust. The Stars now sit tied for second place with the Generals while Michigan gains an early upper hand on their division rival Stars.
Points of Emphasis Moving Forward
Going forward this offense HAS to get these issues with protection under control. We saw the Breakers transition to an offensive set implementing a 6th offensive lineman, which worked to neutralize the pass rush of the Maulers in week one. This changed the whole flow of the game resulting in a victory for New Orleans.
I’m not saying the Stars need to trot 6 linemen out there every play, but your roster holds 3 healthy tight ends, and many larger receivers. These players need to be used to help slow down the opposing pass rush. Even if you are lining up Ryan Izzo tight every play, and having him chip a defensive end every play allowing the tackle that extra millisecond to get into his set. Also with two backs that can hold their own in pass blocking why aren’t we seeing more of that? Especially when you’ve watched your quarterback get beat up all day long.
Through the first two weeks the Stars have allowed 241 rushing yards, and 3 touchdowns. Reggie Corbin by himself had 2 touchdowns, and averaged over 11 yards per carry on the day. Last week Alex Collins managed 63 yards at 4.5 yards per carry and a touchdown with White adding 27 yards at 7.2 yards per carry. This can not continue if the Stars want to make another trip to the championship.
I spoke about it before this game, I believe the injuries to the linebacker group and the defensive line has hampered their production, and their ability to get penetration and stuff run plays. The Stars have made an active attempt to add bulk up front, but it has yet to pan out. Last night we saw some improvement at points in time, but not steady enough to keep Corbin away from 130 yards and the end-zone. In my opinion Lattimore needs to be a guy we build around to stiffen up this run defense. He looked to be the most productive interior lineman on Sunday. I would also like to see more of Jordon Scott, one of the larger defensive linemen brought in to help this run defense.
Unfortunately part of our issues in the run defense, are scheme related. The Stars like to run a variation of the wide 9 defense which is essentially a slang term for saying we want our defensive ends to attack the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. This front uses smaller, faster defensive ends and allows them to pin their ears back and make plays. This is a big reason why a guy like Adam Rodriguez was allowed to rack up 9 sacks last season. The scheme uses his speed to beat larger less agile tackles and it works wonders in the passing game. However in the run game, it by design opens up larger C gap, and creates venurabilities that a great running back can exploit. This is precisely what happened with Reggie Corbin. Corbin is a smaller, quicker back.
It’s no accident that he took the bulk of the carries in this game. Eric Marty proved his coaching chops by knowing Corbin’s burst and vision would be the perfect combination to exploit these gaps. In the meantime Coach also provided the blueprint to defeating this Stars defense.
Dedication to the Run
This off-season we saw in my mind what I would amount to a philosophical change on the offensive side of the ball for the Stars. Heading into last season, Matt Colburn was the power back on the roster at 205 lbs. Darnell Holland was our first back off the bench, and Paul Terry a hybrid RB/WR was the third back. Much like the Philadelphia Eagles, the Stars ignored the need for a larger back to carry the load and use in short yardage situations. Instead they intended to spread teams out.
This offseason they decided to add a bit more size to the backfield bringing back Dexter Williams a back who plays a similar style to Colburn but brings with him about 10-15 more pounds with him and is a bit more adept at short yardage situations. They then moved on from Paul Terry, and it looked like we were gearing up for a 1-2 punch with Matt Colburn and Dexter Williams, with Darnell Holland expected to be a change of pace back, coming in more in passing situations to utilize his speed.
If we needed any more evidence that this was the plan, we got it when Darnell Holland was placed on the injured reserve list just before the season began. The Stars refrained from adding to their backfield. Instead, they looked to Chris Rowland a wide out to fill these few carries a game. To his credit, if not for a late game injury he likely would’ve been the only one filling that role. However he would end up getting banged up, unable to play in week 2. Again the Stars didn’t bring anyone in, my thought was they had Corey Coleman, and Terry Wright two players that can do a lot of the same things Rowland did in week one.
However, instead we saw a dramatic drop off in running plays called. In week one the Stars logged 24 carries, in week two it dropped to just 15. That’s a 38% drop, game play of course factors in, but it was their choice to abandon the run game that left them throwing the ball 44 times, nearly 3 times the frequency they ran. This led to the defense keying on the pass, and hitting Cookus on what felt like every one of his 44 passing attempts.
Some will point to their lack of success running the ball as to why they moved away from the run. I would argue, as the game went the run defense for Michigan started relinquishing some more yards. To put this into perspective, during their first three drives the Stars produced -4 yards rushing. It wasn’t until the fifth time the Stars held the ball that they had a carry gain more than 2 yards. It came on a 3 yard run by Corey Coleman. It was their 6th possession before they hit positive rushing yards on the day. At this point sitting at just 5 yards rushing on 6 drives headed into halftime.
This signaled a shift in production per run, yet it went unnoticed. In fact from here on out the run game went largely ignored collecting just 8 more carries all game long. It was the run game that tied the game on the Stars first possession of the second half. On the drive Colburn rushed 4 times for 18 yards and 1 touchdown, or 4.5 yards per carry. At this point the running game was working and needed to be the focus going through rest of the second half tied 10-10 there was no reason to get away from anything that was working.
However after this initial drive the team as a whole attempted just 4 more carries. This complete lack of a run game put Case Cookus in a tough spot. Part of why Cookus had so much success last season was the balance the Stars had on offense. Colburn averaged around 50 yards by himself rushing each game. At this point, the team is averaging just 69 yards per game rushing, this isn’t sustainable unless you want your quarterback hurt.
Last season the Stars made a switch from Matt Mengel who is more of a punter and kickoff specialist than he is a kicker, to Luis Aguilar who is the exact opposite. Bringing in Aguilar did in fact cause our punt unit to suffer, but our kicking game with him there was near perfect. He finished the season 8 of 10 on field goals and 19 of 19 on extra points.
Already in two games, he’s missed two field goals, and an extra point. Granted he missed on long-distance kicks, with his USFL long 49 yards, this is a facet of his game that needs some work if he is looking to get to the NFL. It’s also left 7 points off the board, which at this rate seems very important for the offense given the questions about the health of Case Cookus’s shoulder. The injury report this week is must read content with Cookus banged up after 9 sacks, and countless hits on the QB. Could we see Vad Lee or Kevin Thomson if the beating continues?
Keys to Victory
The first key to victory is something I asked Coach Andrus about after week one when “unforced errors” led directly to points for Memphis. These unforced errors are what kept the Maulers in week one until New Orleans was able to make adjustments and slow down the pass rush. If not for a punt return touchdown, and a fumble recovery return for a touchdown this Maulers team is staring at an 0-2 record with a team that hasn’t scored a touchdown since June 19th of 2022.
If Philly continues to give away points like they did to Memphis, this Maulers team has enough talent to capitalize and steel a victory from the Stars. This victory would drop the Stars to fourth place in the division after back-to-back losses within the division.
Stop the Run
We are about to face a team whose entire identity on offense goes through their running backs. With Madre London, Garrett Groshek, and newcomer Duane Gary who currently leads the team in yards per carry. In just two games these three players have combined for 33 carries, with another 9 carries coming from various other players on the roster. With 42 carries to just 57 passing attempts this is about as balanced an offense gets, but the passing game has produced under 4 yards per attempt. In my mind it’s a no brainer that you load up the box, and let James Morgan or Troy Williams try and beat us through the air, where our defensive strength, our secondary, lies.
The Stars vs Maulers game in Detroit for the Stars first true home game at their new stadium should be an interesting matchup. The Stars come into this game as 4.5 point favorites over Pittsburgh, but what this doesn’t tell us is how these teams matchup and how close this could be if the Stars can’t slow down this pass rush that gave New Orleans fits in week 1.
The Stars are -213 favorites while the Maulers are +160 underdogs. With the over/under set at 44.5 points.
If there were two injuries the Stars couldn’t have afforded at this point on defense it was the two players we saw transferred to the inactive list this week:
With the injuries at linebacker and defensive tackle already, losing Coney, and Holley who were key contributors in 2022 was a large blow this defense couldn’t afford to sustain. I understand that the Stars staff is very loyal to these guys, and is trying their best to be creative to keep them all on the roster, but at this point it’s week three, and we are down two offensive linemen, two defensive tackles, and three linebackers. It’s time to start making moves to fill some of these holes that have quickly formed. The Stars went heavy on wide outs, quarterback, and tight end, but now is the time to use this roster construction to your advantage and start shedding some extra players at these positions to bring in depth where needed.
Maybe even get creative, and go after guys that can play multiple positions, I have spoken about it before but looking at National Arena League players could prove valuable in a position like this. Instead of bringing in a guy who strictly plays linebacker, you can go out and get a guy like Rashad Payne, who most recently played for the Jacksonville Sharks. Payne has played linebacker, defensive end, tight end, and fullback during his professional career. A guy like this signed to play linebacker and special teams, but who can come in as an extra tight end, or a lead blocker at times when needed could be invaluable to a roster that is ailing in many areas. Payne is also a guy teams should be familiar with, as he had some traction heading into the 2022 USFL draft, and has also seen some XFL interest as well.
Why not go find a tackle that can double as a nose tackle? Add some more girth to this defensive line allowing the linebackers to flow more freely sideline to sideline and make the tackles in the run game. Regardless something needs to be done sooner rather than later?
Stars 24-18, while I expect the Stars to have to make adjustments to slow down this Horton defense, their offense should be no tall task for this Stars defense even with the injuries on that side of the ball. Pittsburgh has scored 18 points and ALL of them can be attributed to special teams or defense. With two field goals, one punt return for a touchdown, and a scoop and score. This offense might be the worst unit in my 20+ years of watching professional football.
My biggest curiosity with this game will be attendance. I love that Ford Field is a venue for the USFL, and I’m hoping the Panthers see solid support at home. But I’m doubting they find many ways to get fans in the stands for the Stars game, unfortunately. That is the unfortunate downside to only having four hubs. It would be interesting to compare the cost the XFL incurred in stadiums and travel in their single hub-8 stadium model versus the cost of the USFL model. After all, the USFL champions a long-term approach and a budget-conscious business model to achieve this goal.
Overview of Week Three
So far the Maulers offense has looked stagnant, and the defense allowed over 300 yards passing in week one, once the Breakers figured out their pass rush and prevented further pressure in McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s face. If this game comes down to stopping a pass rush, my concerns with this offensive line are valid to say the least. So far through two games we have seen their fair share of sacks, and pressures allowed with Case Cookus paying the price, albeit not all of them are their entirely their fault.
If the Stars want Case Cookus to “play in 12 games” like he mentioned in our recent interview, they need to be able to protect him better. Even if they take half the blame, at this rate this still amounts to a ton of hits on Cookus. I’m fairly certain that Andrus, and company aren’t looking to repeat the number of players that lined up at quarterback in 2022 (3).
More concerning than our protection of Case Cookus has been our venerability in the run game. An issue the Stars went about trying to correct by bringing in Tyler Clark, and Jordan Scott, while bringing back Chris Nelson. Nelson and Clark have been injured, and Scott finally was active in week 2. However we still have seen issues in this area. I wonder how much of this has to do with the continued absence of Jordan Moore who led the team in tackles at the linebacker spot last season as well, and Jordan Genmark-Heath as well. The depth on defense is being tested already early in the season.
If you’re a fan of the USFL, the XFL or both check out my weekly show Spring Football Reports: