The DC Defenders continued their stellar start to the XFL season this past Saturday, shutting out the New York Guardians, 27-0, earning their second win in as many weeks.
Now, the East division's top squad travels across the country to take on the Los Angeles Wildcats on Sunday, Feb. 23. The Wildcats have yet to earn their first win in the relaunched XFL, as they've opened the season falling to both the Houston Roughnecks and the Dallas Renegades.
Here are three things to watch in Sunday's contest...
1. Will the Defenders be able to contain Josh Johnson and Nelson Spruce?
Through two weeks of the XFL season, DC's defense has been the league's best. They posted the XFL's first shutout a week ago in a victory over New York, and the week prior, Seattle offense struggled significantly. The Defenders have allowed a 54.1 passing rating to opposing quarterbacks, the XFL's best.
But on Sunday, the Defenders face arguably their toughest challenge on defense when they go up against Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson. The signal-caller missed Los Angeles' opening game due to injury but impressed with his vertical passing game in Wildcats Week 2 loss.
Johnson, a journeyman NFL quarterback who started three games for the Redskins in 2018, is a significant upgrade over Brandon Silvers and Matt McGloin, the two quarterbacks the Defenders have had their way with this season.
Los Angeles also possesses the XFL's best wide receiver through two weeks, Nelson Spruce. The wideout's 192 receiving yards is a league-high, 45 yards more than Defenders' wideout Rashad Ross, the next highest. Spruce excels in the slot and will provide a tough challenge for the Defenders' secondary.
2. Familiar Faces
Since the birth of the relaunched XFL, the Defenders have only made two trades. Both were with the Wildcats.
Last Friday, the Defenders sent cornerback Bradley Sylve to Los Angeles for defensive end Anthony Johnson. Sylve scored the Defenders' first touchdown in their Week 1 victory over the Dragons. Johnson was previously a captain for the Wildcats before coming to the nation's capital.
During training camp, the Defenders acquired Ross from Los Angeles in exchange for wideout Tre McBride. Since arriving in DC, the same city Ross last played professional football in as a member of the Washington Redskins, all he's done is produce. Ross is second in the XFL in receiving yards, only trailing Spruce.
3. Will the Defenders rushing attack get going?
Through the first two weeks of the XFL season, Defenders fans have little to complain about. The team is 2-0, and both wins have come in convincing fashion.
But entering the season, much talk was about the dynamic duo the Defenders have in the backfield. Through two weeks, neither running back Jurell Pressley or Donnell Pumphrey has really broken loose.
In the Week 1 victory over Seattle, Pressley had a team-high 31 rushing yards on 12 carries. Not good. In that same contest, Pumphrey, the NCAA Division I all-time leading rusher, mustered just five yards on four carries.
The team improved on the ground last week against the Guardians, but neither back had a breakout game. Pumphrey improved immensely from his Week 1 dud, finishing with a team-high 52 yards on the ground on 12 carries. Pressley finished with nearly an identical stat line from a week ago -- 11 carries for 32 yards.
Maybe Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton has committed to letting quarterback Cardale Jones drop back to pass on the majority of offensive snaps. Maybe the team simply just doesn't want to run the ball more than 20-25 times a game.
Regardless, the Defenders could use a boost from the backfield to make the offense a little more multi-dimensional than it has been through two weeks.
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