USFL Championship: Can Maulers’ stingy defense tame Stallions QB Alex McGough?

Facing the likely league MVP in the biggest game of the USFL season, Pittsburgh Maulers defensive coordinator Jarren Horton understands the uphill climb he faces this weekend.

Birmingham Stallions quarterback Alex McGough has been an unstoppable force this year in guiding his team back to the USFL Championship, where they will attempt to defend their title (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC).

An all-USFL team selection, McGough led the league in touchdown passes (20). He also completed 67.4% of his passes for 2,104 yards and ran for another 403 yards and five scores.

However, Horton said what makes McGough so tough to defend is his ability to create chunk plays with second-reaction throws against a distorted defense.

"Their offense stays on schedule because he is off schedule," Horton said. "He makes all the off-schedule plays."

Horton and his defense can take some solace in how the Maulers defended McGough in a Week 4 matchup earlier this season, limiting him to 157 passing yards and forcing two of his five interceptions this season.

However, Horton knows that McGough is playing much better in the postseason than earlier this year.

"He has grown a lot of confidence in their system," Horton said. "He’s doing more of the off-schedule, kind of just making things happen for himself now, than he was the first time we played them. 

"He’s still the same player. He’s a very good player, but he’s playing a little freer and more confident — that’s the biggest thing for him right now. He’s very confident in himself, as he should be."

Along with McGough, the Stallions have a productive group of playmakers for the 27-year-old signal caller to get the ball to. Tight end Jace Sternberger also earned All-USFL honors, leading the league with seven touchdown catches, with 33 receptions for 517 receiving yards.

Davion Davis was Birmingham’s top receiver on the perimeter, totaling 39 receptions for 575 receiving yards and four scores. Deon Cain and tight end La’Michael Pettway also made splash plays down the field.

And versatile running back CJ Marable (1,079 all-purpose yards) led the ground game, while also showing the ability to make plays in the passing game.

Horton said Sternberger specifically has been used as a chess piece for the Stallions, with Birmingham head coach and offensive play caller Skip Holtz moving him all over the field to create mismatches. 

"The biggest difference I would say now from the first time we played them is they are using the tight end a little bit differently," said Horton, who was named the USFL's Assistant Coach of the Year last week. "They’re putting him in space a little bit more because he is a mismatch problem. The way we talked to our guys about him is he’s kind of like Travis Kelce, where he’s not like a guy like Darren Waller where he’s necessarily going to run past you.

"He’s the kind of guy who’s going to understand where he fits in zones and — not to take anything from him athletically because he’s a big, strong, fast player — but he’s a guy that shows up a little differently than the first time we played them."

With the No.1-ranked defense through the regular season, allowing just 257.4 total yards per contest and forcing a league-high 20 takeaways, the Maulers will look to get back to their stingy ways defensively after a 31-27 overtime victory over the Michigan Panthers in the USFL North Championship Game last week.

The Panthers allowed dual-threat quarterback E.J. Perry to throw for 370 passing yards and two touchdowns. Michigan finished with eight passing plays of 15-plus yards against Pittsburgh’s defense.

Horton said Pittsburgh has to get back to playing assignment-correct football and doing their jobs.

"That’s something I personally preach — don’t chase plays, let the play come to you and make the play when it comes to you," Horton said. "You don’t need to chase plays. How our defense is built, everyone is going to get an opportunity to make a play."

As for stopping McGough and Birmingham’s explosive offense, Horton said that also will take a group effort.

"You’ve got to contain the quarterback," Horton said. "You can’t let him do what he wants to do. He wants to run around and make plays, and we have to counter that and not let him run around and make plays.

"With all his running around and making plays and throwing the ball, he’s going to give us some opportunities and make some bad decisions doing that. It’s just kind of the nature of the beast if you’re playing quarterback that way. Sometimes it works and things go your way, and sometimes they don’t. For us, if we can make him throw into some places he doesn’t want to throw necessarily and catch the ball on defense when we have the opportunity and contain him, I think we will put ourselves in a good position to win the game."

Eric D. Williams is an NFL writer for FOX Sports. He 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 @eric_d_williams.