What to expect in Birmingham Stallions vs. Pittsburgh Maulers

By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer

Skip Holtz and the Birmingham Stallions (2-1) are looking to get back to their winning ways when they face the Pittsburgh Maulers (1-2) in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Tom Benson Memorial Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app).

The defending USFL champions lost their first game of the season last week against the New Orleans Breakers, giving up 45 points in the loss.

The Stallions will look to improve defensively against a Pittsburgh offense that finally found a spark last week, with Maulers head coach Ray Horton earning his first victory, 21-13 over the Philadelphia Stars.

"I hope what happens is the guys now trust and believe in the process of what we’re doing," Horton said. "Obviously, will be playing Birmingham this weekend, and it offers another chance to do something different, whatever they bring to the table. So, what will try to do is build. Obviously, success and confidence go hand and hand. … For us, it’s trust and belief."

Birmingham Stallions: How can defense limit explosive plays?

The Stallions allowed nine plays of 20-plus yards against the Breakers in Birmingham’s 45-31 humbling loss last week. So, limiting big plays will be a point of emphasis defensively for the Stallions when they face Pittsburgh on the road. 

Birmingham has allowed a league-high 153 rushing yards per contest through three games.

"I thought they played more physical than we did," Holtz said about his team’s loss to New Orleans. "I thought in the trenches on both sides of the ball, they won the line of scrimmage, and it’s hard to win a football game (like that). They’ve got a good football team, and they wanted it. I told the team, you wear that crown for a while, and if you start believing it, it’s going to eat you up." 

Holtz said he’s hopeful to get a couple of players back on defense — including linebacker Scooby Wright — to help tighten things up on the side of the ball. The Stallions face a Pittsburgh offense that ran for 137 yards in last week’s win over the Stars, led by quarterback Troy Williams, who rushed for 65 yards on seven carries.

Pittsburgh Maulers: Can Maulers continue to ride kicker Chris Blewitt?

It’s unusual for a team to get a spark from a kicker, but that’s what happened for Pittsburgh when Blewitt joined the team last week.

"When Chris first came in, he was just warming up, and he kept moving back, and back and back," Horton said. "We brought the whole group up just to put a little pressure on him, and he made a 62-yarder with room to spare. 

"And I think the guys thought, here we go. Little things mean a lot, and Chris means a lot to us." 

Blewitt finished 5-for-5 on field goals last week, including a long of 50 yards. But he missed his only extra-point attempt.

The Maulers also have benefited from strong returns on special teams. Isaiah Hennie leads the league in punt return yards with 161. Hennie has 82- and 53-yard punt returns to his credit already this season, while teammate Josh Simmons had a 56-yard kickoff return last week.

The big returns created short fields for the Maulers, making it easier for the offense to get into scoring position last week. Horton also made the switch from James Morgan to Williams at quarterback in Week 3, and the Utah product’s added dimension as a runner helped create more juice for the Maulers on offense. 

"Whether it’s dance or music, you feel the rhythm," Horton said about the improved way his offense performed last week. "And to me, it just had a different look throughout the week. The players took ownership of what we were doing, and responsibility. And I think that’s what it was, more than anything." 

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.