DC is licking its wounds after last week's embarrassing 30-point loss in Los Angeles; it was the biggest loss of the season for any team. Some say that the Defenders underestimated the Wildcats, while others say that the real Wildcats team finally showed up to play. The Vipers, on the other hand, continue to struggle, although they did get within a touchdown of the Houston Roughnecks in their home debut last weekend.
The Defenders are looking to rebound, while the Vipers hope to pull off an upset of their own. Here's how this one will shake out.
DC at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, March 1 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: Defenders -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterback carousel continues in Tampa
Marc Trestman's team has issues on both sides of the ball, but the quarterback position has been the most glaring among those issues. Taylor Cornelius (32-of-58, 347 yards, TD, 3 INTs) will get his third straight start this week. Aaron Murray (16-of-34, 231 yards, 2 INTs in the season opener at New York) has missed the last two games with a foot injury, but he's practiced this week and is expected to by Cornelius' backup. The one signal-caller who won't be on hand, however, is fan-favorite Quinton Flowers.
Earlier this week, Trestman told the media that Flowers has taken a leave of absence from the team for "personal reasons." But reports suggest that Flowers had become frustrated with his lack of use (106 passing yards, 78 rushing yards, rushing TD). Despite Flowers' limited reps this season, fans have been clamoring for the USF alum to be the starter based on his effectiveness when he does play (7.1 yards per pass attempt, 4.8 yards per rush attempt). Trestman's original plan was to have Murray as the full-time starter with Flowers and Cornelius rotating in specific packages. So far, that approach hasn't worked as well as the Vipers had hoped it would.
Cornelius held his own against Houston last week, as he was responsible 226 total yards and two combined touchdowns, while helping engineer five scoring drives. The Vipers even had a one-point lead over the Roughnecks in the second half. So the Vipers showed significant improvement last week, but can they keep that going in this important division game that could decide the season?
2. Which Defenders team will show up?
Last week's embarrassment against the Wildcats was certainly an eye-opener. So the question is are the Defenders still reeling from that loss, or are they refocused for this week? Either way, the Vipers defense will still have a chore ahead of them. Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones ranks third in passing yards (602), fourth in touchdown passes (4), and third among XFL quarterbacks in total yards (675). The Defenders also bring a solid rushing attack that ranks third in yards per game with 125.3. Running backs Donnel Pumphrey (97 yards, 4.4 ypc), Jhurell Pressley (83, 3.1), and Nick Brossette (75, 9.3, TD) form a three-headed monster in the backfield of head coach/play-caller Pep Hamilton.
3. Both teams can play a little defense
The Defenders lead the XFL in total defense (260.3 ypg) while ranking third in scoring defense (19.3 ppg) and pacing the East division with four interceptions. And despite being the XFL's only winless team, the Vipers rank third in each of the following categories: total defense (280.7 ypg), total yards allowed (842), run defense (92.0 ypg), and pass defense (188.7 ypg). Whichever team gives a better defensive effort is the most likely team to win this game.
While the Vipers put together a strong effort against Houston, the Defenders have too much talent to play poorly for the second consecutive week. DC will also be motived to wipe that disappointment from their memory banks. Combine that with the Vipers issues at quarterback, and the Defenders bounce back with a win in primetime.
Prediction: Defenders 23, Vipers 20
— Gabe Salgado 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's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.