The USFL's only winless teams will meet one another Sunday afternoon as the Pittsburgh Maulers face the Michigan Panthers in Protective Stadium down in Birmingham, Alabama.
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Both teams are looking to emerge from the North Division's basement. After being dominated by Tampa Bay in Week 1, the Maulers (0-2) lost a somewhat back-and-forth matchup to Philadelphia last week. The Panthers have dropped their first two matchups against Houston and New Jersey by a total of nine points. The winner of this game will have hope for the rest of the season, while the loser will need to consider some serious adjustments.
Pittsburgh (0-2) at Michigan (0-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, May 1 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
TV: USA Network
Spread: Panthers -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Panthers
Michigan has dismal on offense but has held its own on defense through the first two games..The Panthers rank in the bottom half in terms of total offense (273.0 ypg, fifth), are lower in passing offense (141.0 ypg, sixth), and most importantly, have the worst scoring offense (9.0 ppg) in the eight-team league. However, they are third when it comes to running the ball (132.0 ypg).
Quarterback Shea Patterson, the first taken in the position-specific draft back in February, is seventh in passer rating (112.7) and has just one touchdown pass thus far as protection has been an issue. He and his Pittsburgh counterpart Josh Love, have been sacked five times each already.
Michigan's ground attack is led by Stevie Scott and Cameron Scarlett but both are averaging under four yards per carry across their 49 total rushing attempts. Lance Lenor Jr. has been Patterson's favorite target (team-high 18) in the early going, but he's totaled 94 yards on 10 catches (9.4 ypr) as the team's longest play from scrimmage to this point is a 29-yard catch by wide receiver Devin Ross.
Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, the Panthers are No. 1 in both total (216.0 ypg) and passing defense (109.5 ypg), and are second in scoring defense (13.5 ppg). They have given up nearly 107 rushing yards per game (fifth), have just one sack (courtesy of T.J. Carter), and twp interceptions. It's more of a mixed bag than anything, but it's time for the offense to step up.
2. The Maulers are showing improvement
After losing to Tampa Bay by 14 points and managing just one field goal in their opener, Pittsburgh showed quite a bit of improvement last Saturday. The Maulers led their game against Philadelphia on four different occasions, including by two points entering the fourth quarter. A Stars touchdown and some defensive stops proved to be the difference in the 30-23 outcome but Pittsburgh produced its first two touchdowns of the season and 348 yards of offense in the losing effort.
Love threw for 236 yards with two touchdowns but he also had two interceptions and was sacked three times. Bailey Gaither had 117 yards and a score on just seven catches while the running game generated 123 yards on 28 carries (4.4 ypc). The defense picked off Stars quarterback Bryan Scott twice and forced him into three turnovers (two INTs), but surrendered 5.4 yards per play and gave up a touchdown on all three trips inside the red zone. So there were definitely positives on both sides of the ball and now the Maulers will look to take advantage of Michigan's offensive struggles.
3. Coaches needing a win
This is an understatement of course, but it's the truth at the end of the day. Pittsburgh head coach Kirby Wilson spent the first two weeks coaching against arguably the top offensive minds in this league in Tampa Bay's Todd Haley and Philadelphia's Bart Andrus. Now he's hoping to catch a break against a Michigan team that features the worst offense thus far. Jeff Fisher is hoping that his Panthers defense can continue to play well to give his offense an opportunity to find its rhythm. Both men have plenty of NFL experience but it's been an adjustment so far to the USFL and its unique rules. This week is not only a golden opportunity to get into the win column for the first time, but also a chance for both coaches to continue to mold their team's identity.
Simply put, unless the Panthers take a huge step forward on offense this week, the Maulers will be the ones picking up their first win.
Prediction: Maulers 14, Panthers 10
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.