Defense takes center stage as Maulers, Panthers battle for USFL North Championship 

CANTON, Ohio — Pittsburgh Maulers defensive coordinator Jarren Horton faces a tough task in his team’s USFL North Championship contest against the Michigan Panthers on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on NBC) at Tom Benson Hall of Fame stadium.

Horton will have to get his top-ranked defense prepared to face Michigan quarterback E.J. Perry, who just made his first start last week in a surprising, win-or-go-home victory over the Philadelphia Stars.

Although Perry has only been with the team a short time, Michigan linebacker Frank Ginda said the QB has taken on a leadership role in the offense.

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"He’s only been here two or three weeks and he spoke in front of the team," Ginda said. "And you can see the leadership, just from the jump. To go up in front of the team, speak and get us riled up and ready to go, he seems like a great leader. And I think guys are loving to play with him."

While Pittsburgh doesn’t have much film to watch on Perry, Horton said the Maulers will rely on the team’s experience going against Panthers offensive coordinator Eric Marty and the scheme they saw during the regular season.

"Looking at the tape, he’s a really good athlete," Horton said. "So, I think you’ve got to start there. You’ve got to be able to contain him, not let him get loose. I know he had a big run, I think the first play of the fourth quarter against Philadelphia. That was a big play in that game.

"So, we feel they probably will have some QB-designed runs, just to kind of get him going. But we’ve just got to play sound defensively. Keep that guy in the pocket and not let him be the athlete he is." 

The Maulers started the season 1-3 but went 3-3 down the stretch. Horton said the key for Pittsburgh’s turnaround has been finding a blueprint for success each week and believing in their ability to consistently execute and win games.

The defense has been a big part of that success. The Maulers finished in the top spot in total defense, allowing just 257.4 yards per game. Pittsburgh also was first in pass breakups (53) and takeaways (21), and second in points allowed (17.2) per contest.

"Guys are just comfortable in the scheme," Horton said. "Everybody knows their job, and they’re able to do it. I think that’s the biggest thing. Guys are just comfortable. They trust each other. They trust the coaches and that we’re not going to put them in bad situations. And they just believe in what we’re doing." 

Horton was voted USFL assistant coach of the year. The 31-year-old defensive coordinator has had the unique experience of coaching with his father, Maulers head coach Ray Horton. The two coached together with the Cleveland Browns in 2016 when Ray Horton served as the defensive coordinator and Jarren as quality control coach. 

But this year has been special for the Hortons.

"It’s been awesome," Horton said. "With him being the head coach and me as the defensive coordinator, we have a lot more control over what goes on, with the roster, day-to-day and kind of the big picture. It’s been everything I could have wanted."

Just like Pittsburgh, the Panthers are led by their defense. Ginda earned All-USFL honors, leading the USFL in combined tackles with 104. Ginda’s teammate Breeland Speaks led the league in sacks with nine, also earning All-USFL honors.

The Panthers lead the league in forced fumbles with eight and have 19 takeaways on the year. 

Ginda said the Panthers will be focused on keeping cat-quick quarterback Troy Williams and the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense from breaking loose, including deep shots on fade balls to keep the defense honest.

"The first thing is their quarterback," Ginda said. "When he’s going, the whole offense is going. When he’s not in a rhythm, or he’s getting shut down, their offense is very one-dimensional. So, that’s the biggest key.

"The second-biggest key is defending horizontally. They like to get the ball to their guys in space. They don’t like to come downhill or do big, schematic things in the passing game. Everything is very bland, but they execute it at a high level."

Matchup to watch: Maulers returners Isiah Hennie and Josh Simmons vs. Panthers defenders

Hennie led the USFL in punt return yards with 297 during the regular season, averaging an eye-popping 17.3 yards per return, including one for a touchdown. The Maulers also have the league leader in kick return yards in Simmons, who averaged 30.8 yards per return, including two returned for scores.

It will be important for Michigan’s coverage units to stay disciplined and get the returners tackled early, so the Panthers do not lose the hidden yardage battle in what is expected to be a defensive, field position game.

Season series: The Maulers swept the season series against the Panthers. Pittsburgh took a Week 5 contest against Michigan, 23-7, and then won again four weeks later in Canton, 19-7.

The Maulers won their last two games to reach the postseason, while the Panthers lost six of their last eight games to finish the year after starting the season 2-0.  

Key stat: The Maulers turned it over a league-low 12 times during the regular season while the Panthers gave it up a league-high 17 times. The team that does the best job of taking care of the football likely wins this one.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.