Special teams, defense fuels Maulers' win over Stars in Week 3

DETROIT — Three days before they faced the Philadelphia Stars in Week 3, the Pittsburgh Maulers signed kicker Chris Blewitt to the active roster. Blewitt, whose career includes three stints with NFL franchises, quickly caught his new teammates’ attention by banging kicks through the uprights from farther and farther away, as he warmed up for the first time.

Eventually, head coach Ray Horton gathered his team around Blewitt to create a bit of pressure for an attempted 62-yard field goal. Blewitt’s kick cleared the crossbar with room to spare.

"And I think the guys thought, ‘Here we go,’" Horton said. "So little things mean a lot, and Chris means a lot to us."

He certainly meant a lot to Pittsburgh during Sunday’s 21-13 win at Ford Field that gave the Maulers their first victory of the season. Blewitt tied the USFL record for most field goals in a single game with five — 46 yards, 50 yards, 24 yards, 34 yards and 35 yards — before the offense finally reached the end zone late in the third quarter.

Special teams and defense fueled the Maulers on an afternoon when Blewitt’s timely kicking was bolstered by lengthy kickoff and punt returns that flipped the field and taxed what had been a high-flying Philadelphia offense. Three second-half takeaways and a critical fourth-down stop in the closing seconds sealed the win.

"I thought it was our offense’s best week of practice," Horton said, "so you could kind of see this coming. The defense has been playing solid, and obviously the special teams with Chris, the new addition, has been outstanding, really, the whole time. So this you could see brewing in the mix of what we were putting together in our stew. It was not a surprise. I was just glad that they all decided to show up on the same day."

Tightening the screw

Had the game’s opening possession been an indication of how the afternoon would unfold for the Maulers, which entered Week 3 having dropped their first two games by 24 combined points, it appeared the change in locale to Ford Field in Detroit did little to change the fortunes of Horton and his staff.

The Stars received the opening kickoff and, after an excellent return by Chris Rowland, needed just six plays to reach the end zone by the 12:07 mark of the first quarter. Quarterback Case Cookus completed all four of his passes for 43 yards, the last of which found wideout Corey Coleman — a former first-round pick by the Cleveland Browns — for a beautiful 24-yard score on a back-shoulder throw.

But what seemed like a harbinger for another lopsided defeat proved to be nothing more than a mirage, a finely-scripted opening drive that failed to foreshadow what the rest of the half had in store. The simple completions vanished, the coverage on Coleman improved, and every attempt by Philadelphia to establish its rushing attack was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Tailbacks Dexter Williams and Matt Colburn II combined for eight yards on their first eight carries.

After gaining 47 yards on their first possession, the Stars ended the half with drives of six yards, five yards, 17 yards (resulting in a field goal) and minus-1 yard, as the Maulers clawed back into the game with Blewitt’s field goals.

"Every one of those runs, we’re just, like, really close to popping, you know?" Philadelphia head coach Bart Andrus said. "We’re on the right people. We’re pushing the right people. At some point, you know, in my opinion, we’ve got to get that to where we have a legitimate running game."

Then came the Stars’ avalanche of turnovers that hamstrung each attempt at a comeback:  

— Cookus fumbled when he was leveled by defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu, and the Maulers turned a short field into a touchdown.

— Inside linebacker Reuben Foster, a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, corralled a deflected pass for an interception after Cookus was hit as he released the ball.

— Defensive back Eli Walker snared an overthrow by Cookus near the midway point of the fourth quarter.

"They were huge," quarterback Troy Williams said when asked about his team’s defense. "They were outstanding. Our defense has been lights out all year. That just gives the offense even more confidence as we continue to progress, like we were able to get it into (the end zone) late. Just continue to trust our coaches and the players and just continue to progress from here."

Whatever it takes

The moment of levity from Horton, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator before taking over the Maulers earlier this year, came during his sideline interview in the first half of Saturday’s game. Horton was asked about his team’s questionable play calling in the red zone, where consecutive possessions featured handoffs on third and long as the Maulers settled for field goals.

"I think [that] we think we're the Golden State Warriors," Horton said in reference to four consecutive field goals by Blewitt. "Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson) with all these 3s." 

Pittsburgh had entered Week 3 with the least-productive passing offense in the USFL, its pair of quarterbacks — James Morgan from Florida International and Williams from Utah — combining for just 165 yards in the first two games. No other team produced fewer than 300 passing yards during that span.

After splitting time with Morgan the last two weeks, Williams made his first start of the season against the Stars with offensive coordinator John Tomlinson tailoring his game plan accordingly. Tomlinson eschewed a downfield passing attack in favor of shorter crossing routes and check downs more in line with Williams’ skill set. He encouraged his quarterback to escape the pocket when necessary, and Williams finished as the team’s leading rusher with 65 yards that moved the chains at critical junctures.

His 15-yard scramble in the first quarter moved the Maulers into field goal range for Blewitt’s second connection of the half. His 16-yard jaunt in the second quarter maneuvered the offense into the red zone for another chip shot field goal that give Pittsburgh its first lead at 9-7.

It never trailed again.

"Whether it’s dance or music, you feel the rhythm," Horton said when asked about his team’s offense. "And to me, it just had a different look throughout the week. The players took ownership of what we were doing."  

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.