Offense finds endzone but defense falters in Vipers loss to Roughnecks

Quinton Flowers was one of two quarterbacks the Vipers used in their bid to beat the Roughnecks. (Credit: XFL.com)

It took the Tampa Bay Vipers 140 minutes and 49 seconds of the new XFL season to finally score their first offensive touchdown. It took just nine minutes and 11 seconds for them to score their second. Yet, it wasn’t enough to stave off the red-hot Houston Roughnecks in Tampa’s home opener.

The Vipers were downed 34-27 in front of 18,117 at Raymond James Stadium, a number that bested many analysts’ expectations. It was Quinton Flowers who scored that first offensive TD, on a seven-yard keeper. Combined with Jalen Tolliver’s one-point conversion, it put the Vipers on top 10-9 in the second quarter.

Just prior to halftime, the home offense found the end zone a second time, this time on another QB run, this time with Taylor Cornelius at the helm. Cornelius started again over the injured Aaron Murray, who is expected to return next week. Cornelius was 16-31 passing for 193 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. “I felt really good today,” said Cornelius, when asked about the added reps he took at practice this week. “Moving forward, we’re in a better spot offensively and we feel good about the game plan.”

In preparation for this game, head coach Marc Trestman ceded play calling duties to offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo. “I thought if I could get out of the weeds a little bit and step back with the team, I thought that could help the team in a number of different ways,” said Trestman about the change. Through the first two games, the Vipers had largely been able to move the ball down the field, but had struggled in the red zone. The offense was more successful there on Saturday (2 for 3), but stalled on the one yard-line in the fourth quarter with a chance to come within a one-point conversion of tying the game.

A major storyline, for the second week in a row, was the QB rotation. Cornelius started and played on the first two drives. Flowers took over for drives three, four, and five. It was Cornelius who took the final drive before half, as Trestman noted on the broadcast that he liked the way Cornelius performed during the 2:00 drill before the end of the game last week.

In the second half, it was all Cornelius, despite the protestations of the home crowd. They wanted the hometown hero, Flowers, who played his college home games at Raymond James Stadium. Trestman’s decision to go with Cornelius the entirety of the final half will be debated, notably when the Vipers had it 1st-and-goal inside the five and were unable to cash in late in the game. Flowers’ versatility could’ve put the Roughnecks on their heels. “I think it’s a valid question,” said Trestman when asked about not going to Flowers in that situation. “We decided to stick with the plan and keep Taylor in there.”

Houston put the game away for good with 10:24 left in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay had two drives after that in the fourth, the one that stalled at the one yard-line, and another, their last, resulting in a Cornelius interception in Houston territory.

The game was a seesaw affair and was one of the best games in the XFL this season. The lead changed hands or the score was tied six times. Houston’s P.J. Walker, an early MVP candidate, appeared as advertised. He was 24-36 passing for 306 yards and three touchdowns. Last week’s XFL Star of the Week, WR Cam Phillips, torched Tampa’s secondary to the tune of eight receptions for 194 yards and three touchdowns.

“…(W)e’ve got a sick locker room in there, a lot of guys worked their tails off today,” said Trestman. “I know we got better this week, but it wasn’t good enough.”

The Vipers host the 2-0 (pending Sunday’s result) D.C. Defenders next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Kickoff will be at 7pm EST and will air on ESPN2.

Game Notes: Tampa’s inactive list this week was filled with injured players. QB Aaron Murray, CB Jalen Collins, DT Ricky Walker, and TE Nick Truesdell all appeared on the injury report leading up to Saturday’s game. The only two healthy inactives were LB Anthony Stubbs and WR S.J. Green, a recent acquisition from the Seattle Dragons…Tampa Bay has exceeded the 100-yard rushing mark as a team in all three games this season…A couple more firsts in team history were achieved, including first rushing touchdown (Flowers) and first passing/receiving touchdown (Cornelius to WR Dan Williams).

COLUMN: Vipers in a Must Win…er…M*st W*n situation on Saturday against the Roughnecks

Vipers look to get their first XFL win at their home opener at Raymond James Stadium this weekend.
Vipers look to get their first XFL win at their home opener at Raymond James Stadium this weekend. (Credit: XFL.com)

Week three of the ten-game XFL season seems awfully early to deem a game “must win.” So I’m not going to call this weekend’s Tampa Bay Vipers game against the Houston Roughnecks that.
I’ll call it a M*st W*n.

Because really, that’s where we are. A win to keep themselves in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Division and, perhaps, a win to keep the team from mutiny.

Tampa will have home-field advantage for the first time this season, joining the St. Louis BattleHawks as the two teams that have had to wait the longest for the first game on their own turf. We’ll see how many turn out to help motivate the Vipers.

Despite being 0-2, Tampa’s peripheral numbers look good. Their defense has had its moments, and the offense has moved the ball well despite the low scoring output. Cleaning up the red zone woes would cure a lot of their ills.

Other than that, just two weeks into the season, the team doesn’t have much going for it. Starting quarterback Aaron Murray will miss his second straight game due to injury. But he’s not the only walking wounded as six other starters have either sat out practice or been limited participants due to injury this week.

Neither Taylor Cornelius nor Quinton Flowers engendered much confidence at the QB position in Murray’s stead last Saturday. Can they find some consistency this week against the Roughnecks, who, oh by the way, are 2-0 and have shown to be one of the XFL’s most explosive offenses? Not exactly a cakewalk for the Vipers.

Speaking of offenses, Head Coach/General Manager Marc Trestman went into his archives to shore up that side of the ball, bringing in Tampa native and CFL legend S.J. Green to provide depth at wide receiver. At 34, Green’s best days are behind him, but he knows Trestman’s offense (he was coached by Trestman in the CFL) and how he operates.

Trestman himself could be on the hot seat, as rumors of locker room unrest have come out this week. If Green doesn’t provide a spark, how will the players feel about Trestman bringing in one of his cronies to take another player’s spot? Will the whispers of discontent grow louder if 0-2 turns into 0-3?

There are teams that are worse off than the Vipers in the chemistry department: Both the LA Wildcats, with the firing of defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson after one game and the trade of defensive captain Anthony Johnson soon after, as well as the New York Guardians, whose offensive staff was called out by QB Matt McGloin on national television last weekend, have had much more public issues. Some of the frustration could arise because Tampa was picked by many to finish near the top of the standings; results have not met expectation thus far.

Expect a raucous crowd for the home opener, but if the Vipers don’t win, future home games could feel empty in cavernous Raymond James Stadium, one of the larger parks in the league. Tampa was not one of the best-selling tickets in the league to begin with.

It’s true that just two games into the season, the Vipers are feeling some pressure from within and from the outside to win and win now. Just don’t call Saturday a Must Win. Instead, let’s call it a M*st W*n, and see what happens.

Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades vs. Seattle Dragons (week two)

Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius

QB: D: Starter Aaron Murray was out with a foot injury, though it was at times hard to tell. Backup Taylor Cornelius shared many of the same struggles Murray experienced the previous week. The rainy conditions in Seattle didn’t help. Cornelius floated a few passes, and his first interception came when he was hit on the throw. Quinton Flowers played for the first time on the third drive, taking the entire series. The Dragons appeared more prepared for Flowers and his runs than the Guardians last week. Flowers and Cornelius both took 4th down sacks during the game. A Flowers screen pass attempt was gifted right into the arms of Marcell Frazier, who gained one yard for a touchdown. Overall, Cornelius had the look of a player who hadn’t played a meaningful snap in 1 ½ years, which is exactly who he is. Flowers also didn’t look like a legitimate option to start and play the entirety of the game.

RB: A-: While the passing game struggles to get untracked, the Vipers running game has shown to be in midseason form based on the first two games. Jacques Patrick out-touched starter De’Veon Smith 15-12, and bested Smith’s per-carry average by a full yard. Smith ran well on their scoring drive just before the end of the first half. They continued to run hard, with Patrick giving out a highlight reel steamroll over DB Jordan Martin on the first play of the fourth quarter. Patrick was open for a 3rd down TD but the quarterback misfired; it may behoove the Vipers to get the backs more involved in the pass game going forward. The one mistake was a crackback block called on Smith, costing Tampa 15 yards as they were driving for a potential tie with less than a minute to go. TE Colin Thompson played three snaps at fullback.

WR/TE: B-: Opportunities down the field were missed because of quarterback play. Cornelius averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt; at times it felt the Vipers were throwing short either because they didn’t trust their QB or they didn’t trust their offensive line to pass protect. TE Nick Truesdell showed impressive physicality and balance on a short catch-and-run to get inside the red zone late in the first half. The Vipers moved him all around the formation in an effort to scheme him open and allow their first round skill phase pick to make plays. All four tight ends were active and played. Reece Horn led the team in targets and receptions. Dan Williams caught a TD pass with :04 left but was called for offensive pass interference.

OL: C-: Dragons defenders accumulated five sacks and 11 tackles for loss, showing how successful they were in penetrating the Tampa offensive line. Run blocking was again the strength, though Smith and Patrick are numbers one and three respectively in the league in yards gained after contact, showing they’re doing a lot of the work themselves. Seattle blitzed effectively, a smart play as offensive lines have had little time to gel during the truncated preseason. Goal-line blocking was an issue in the fourth quarter. Tampa’s philosophy to build the line from the inside-out during the draft hasn’t quite paid off yet.

DL: B-: Ricky Walker and Nikita Whitlock were both banged up at various times during the game as Seattle largely relied on the run. Dragons QB Brandon Silvers dropped back 20 times compared to 31 runs. Walker and Whitlock both made splash plays: Walker blew up a run early and Whitlock showed good speed to cover a running back in the flat and drop him for a loss. Given the number of runs and the ineffectiveness of the Tampa offense at times, it’s worth wondering how much getting worn down played a part in the line’s play. The ends did a lot of standing up on the edge of the line. DEs Jason Neill and Deiontrez Mount each had a QB hurry. Bobby Richardson missed a tackle in the backfield resulting in a 19-yard gain in the third quarter.

LB: C+: Terrance Plummer had four tackles and a roughing the passer penalty. Seattle didn’t target the backs out of the backfield or challenge the linebackers in coverage much at all. The Dragons were able to find more running room as the game progressed, wearing down the Vipers defense with 31 runs. In particular, there were too many cutback opportunities for the backs. Lucas Wacha had three tackles and a QB hurry. Reggie Northrup, cut during training camp but re-signed before the season began, had a tackle on defense and special teams.

DB: A: Seattle threw for just 91 yards and Brandon Silvers completed less than 50% of his passes, but it was just as much Silvers’ inaccuracy as it was Tampa’s sticky coverage. There were numerous receivers open that Silvers simply missed. That’s not to say the Vipers played poorly in the defensive backfield. Marcelis Branch was active early in both the run and pass game. His big error was a crown of the helmet penalty with under 2:00 left in the fourth that allowed Seattle to further bleed the clock. Defensive backs were credited with six passes defensed, including one at the goal line by Micah Hannemann in the third. Tarvarus McFadden scored Tampa’s first touchdown of the year, bringing an interception back 78 yards while in zone coverage (as noted by McFadden himself on the broadcast). Silvers’ TD pass was when a safety jumped a short route, leaving Jalen Collins to get beaten one-on-one on a throw to deep centerfield.

ST: F: This was not one for the highlight reel. Donteea Dye slipped and fell on his first punt return attempt, then had another for no gain. Andrew Franks hit a 36-yard field goal, but had a kickoff go too short, penalizing the Vipers and allowing the Dragons to start their drive at the Tampa 45 yard-line. Kickoff coverage gave up a long return for the second week in a row. Mack Brown fumbled a kickoff into the end zone and brought it out to the 10 yard-line; he was replaced by Rannell Hall on the next return and was then released a few days ago. A high snap by Nick Moore resulted in a bobble by Jake Schum, scrapping a short field goal try.

Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades vs. New York Guardians (week one)

Credit XFL.com

Quarterbacks: D+: I couldn’t in good conscience give the QB position an “F” because of how Aaron Murray was able to lead the offense down the field throughout the game to the tune of nearly 400 yards of offense. But there’s no doubt Murray had his issues. One of the more experienced starters in the league, Murray looked like a rookie at times, feeling phantom pressure in the pocket and escaping when there was no rush. His first interception was as poor of a decision as you’ll see, chucking the ball into the end zone off his back foot while at the six yard-line on first down. You wonder how much the foot injury that may keep him out this week affected Murray’s play.

Quinton Flowers provided a spark when he was in, but he only played one snap in the first half. Game flow may have dictated his lack of usage. He lined up at QB every play he was in except three: He lined up in the slot taking a jet sweep, then faked the sweep the two other times. If Murray doesn’t play this week, it will be interesting to see how (if?) he shares time with backup Taylor Cornelius.

Running Backs: A-: The Vipers had one of the more effective rushing attacks during the first week of the XFL season. As expected, De’Veon Smith received the bulk of the carries and averaged 4.9 yards per tote. Both Smith and Jacques Patrick, the third-down back, ran hard. Patrick dropped a pass in the throw game and was generally a non-factor there. TE Colin Thompson lined up at fullback for seven snaps, five in the first half and two in the second. The Vipers threw the ball every time Thompson lined up there.

Receivers/Tight Ends: C+: It was an inconsistent day for the receivers. Daniel Williams, the surprise of training camp, had six catches for 123 yards and emerged as an early deep threat. He converted a 4th down for a 42-yard gain in the fourth quarter. However, he also dropped two passes in the second quarter that led to a punt. Reece Horn converted a 3rd-and-12 on the first drive but then later had a goal line drop on 4th down.

Nick Truesdell had a fumble overturned by replay early in the game but replay couldn’t help him late when he fumbled and it was returned for a touchdown. He had an impressive one-handed 27-yard catch inside two minutes in the first half. His blocking was suspect at times. Backup TE DeAndre Goolsby missed the game due to injury.

Offensive Line: C: The run blocking was ahead of the pass blocking in game one. Five sacks were given up by the line, offset by the 150 rushing yards gained. LG Jerald Foster and RT Isaiah Williams both recovered fumbles that if they hadn’t, could’ve led to the score getting even more out of hand much earlier. RG Daronte Bouldin was flagged for a false start and there were a couple of other close calls.

John Yarbrough came in at center for the last drive, replacing Jordan McCray, who left with a knee injury. If McCray is out, that leaves a big hole on the offensive line. Most of the pressure given up in pass protection seemed to come up the middle. It’s not shocking that pass blocking would be an issue in the first game of a new league. We’ll see if they’ll be able to improve as they jell together.

Defensive Line: B-: This group was stretched thin when DE Jason Neill was declared inactive prior to the game due to injury, and DT Ricky Walker was ejected in the second quarter for throwing a punch at Guardians C Ian SIlberman. Prior to that, Walker seemed to get more playing time than the listed starter, Josh Banks. CeCe Jefferson started in Neill’s place but didn’t appear on the stat sheet. There were a couple times the line came close to jumping offsides trying to time the snap count. DE Bobby Richardson finally got caught in the first half.

The ends occasionally stood up to rush the passer. It was ultimately ineffective, as the Vipers didn’t register a sack and only had two QB hurries. DT Nikita Whitlock had three tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass defended. It’s a group that desperately needs Obum Gwacham to return from injured reserve to provide a more productive pass rush.

Linebackers: B: Joining up with the defensive line, linebackers were effective at stopping the run. The Guardians had just 44 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per carry. The whole team swarmed to the ball well, a signature of Jerry Glanville’s defenses. The Vipers play nickel most of the time but when Walker was ejected, we saw more three linebacker sets to offset the lack of depth up front.

All five linebackers saw action on defense. Lucas Wacha led the group with four tackles, while Emmanuel Beal chipped in with three. Like the rest of the front seven, they were lacking in splash plays, which were needed on a night the offense failed to break through.

Defensive Backs: B-: Matt McGloin threw for just 182 yards and 6.3 yards per attempt. The broadcasters talked about how confident Glanville was in his safeties, but not so much with his corners. Anthoula Kelly stood out among them, breaking up three passes (all in the first half) and playing the ball well in the air. The Vipers start three safeties in their 4-2-5 defense. Marcelis Branch led the team with five tackles but was beaten on a 4th down conversion on the first drive.

Glanville tried to manufacture pressure by blitzing his defensive backs often, but they never got home. Shelton Lewis had rough back-to-back plays, getting toasted by MeKale McKay for a 45-yard gain, then slipping at the line of scrimmage and losing Colby Pearson on a touchdown. The defensive backs didn’t always seem to be on the same page as just before half, three of them tried to cover one player, resulting in a wide-open 32-yard gain. New York was able to hit a field goal just before the half thanks to that play. But the defensive backs played well enough to keep the Vipers within striking distance of the Guardians.

Special Teams: C+: New York returned the opening kickoff for 59 yards in what ended up being an ominous start. Third-string RB Mack Brown returned kicks on the day, while Reece Horn and Donteea Dye were the punt returners. Listed on the depth chart as a first-teamer at both of those positions, CB Rannell Hall ended up being inactive. Horn called for a couple of fair catches when it looked like he had room to run; he was replaced in the second half by Dye.
Andrew Franks missed his first field-goal attempt, a 50-yarder, but came back to connect on a chip-shot 23-yarder for Tampa’s only score. Even so, getting early points on the board with that 50-yarder could’ve given the offense a little more confidence. Jake Schum’s punts lacked distance, but the coverage team held up well. Emmanuel Beal registered two tackles on special teams.

Tampa Bay Vipers defanged in week one loss to New York Guardians

By most accounts, the XFL had a successful week one re-debut. The quality of play was higher than many expected, the ratings were solid, crowds were rocking, and innovations were met with a thumbs-up from fans and analysts alike.

However, football is a competition and as positive as week one was, four teams did have to lose. One of those teams was the Tampa Bay Vipers, whose inaugural game went about as poorly as one could imagine, losing to the New York Guardians, 23-3.

The game was rife with miscues from the Vipers: penalties, defensive breakdowns, dropped passes and poor quarterback play permeated the playing field. “Our play today was unacceptable,” said Vipers Head Coach Marc Trestman, not mincing words in the post-game press conference. “When you have over 400 yards of offense and come up with three points…your play is just not acceptable.”

YouTube video

 

Tampa’s performance was one of the surprises of the weekend for a team thought to have the best chance to win the XFL Championship. The offense was able to move the ball down the field, but red zone woes did them in. They were 0-for-4 inside the 20-yard line, with only the XFL’s tiered extra point system keeping them in the game until late.
New York got on the board on their first drive, culminating in a Matt McGloin 1-yard TD dive. Tampa’s first drive ended at the Guardians six yard-line with an ill-advised Aaron Murray first-down prayer intended for Nick Truesdell that was intercepted in the end zone by Andrew Soroh of the Guardians. “If I don’t force a ball in the back of the end zone and throw it away [instead], it’s second down and five,” said Murray. “I have to be a little bit smarter in the red zone.”

A 45-yard strike from McGloin to Mekale McKay set up a Colby Pearson touchdown grab on the next play to put New York up by two scores in the second quarter. Tampa threatened again late in the second when they reached New York’s 27 yard-line, only for Murray to again throw an interception.

Tampa’s day was summed up when DT Ricky Walker was ejected for punching Guardians C Ian Silberman following a second quarter play. It reflected not only the frustration felt by the players, but also the undisciplined play that cost them throughout the game.

Though he played just one snap in the first half, the slash-like Quinton Flowers saw extended time in the second half at the QB position and seemed to give the Vipers a needed spark. He finished the game with 6.8 yards per carry on five totes while also connecting on a 37-yard pass to Daniel Williams.

With the score 17-0 in the third quarter, Trestman sent Andrew Franks out for a 23-yard field goal on 4th-and-goal from the five yard-line. It was a decision sure to be second-guessed even though Franks connected there after missing a 50-yarder earlier in the game. The game was all but put away early in the fourth when Jamar Summers returned a Truesdell fumble 13 yards for a touchdown.

Despite the sloppy play, the Vipers did put up nearly 400 yards of total offense, held the Guardians to just 45 yards rushing, and converted 47% of their third downs. Those are numbers to build on as they prepare for the Seattle Dragons on Saturday night. But until then, for the next six days, the entire team will no doubt have a bad taste in their mouth given the way results likely did not meet expectations for week one.

Game Notes: Tampa’s inactives were QB Chase Litton, WR Ryan Davis, CB Rannell Hall, OL Na’Ty Rodgers, TE DeAndre Goolsby, and DE Jason Neill. Goolsby and Neill were the only two players to appear on the injury report. CeCe Jefferson started in place of Neill…Hall was listed as the primary kick returner and punt returner on the team’s initial depth chart. Those duties were handled by Mack Brown (KR) and the combination of Donteea Dye and Reece Horn (PR)…A couple of firsts in Viper history: First catch (Nick Truesdell), first carry (De’Veon Smith), and first points (Andrew Franks FG). The Vipers still await their first sack and interception…Marcelis Branch led the team in tackles with five.

Analyzing Tampa Bay Vipers week one depth chart

Aaron Murray
Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Aaron Murray. Credit: Tampa Bay Vipers

The Tampa Bay Vipers released their week one depth chart to local media earlier in the week, and today, along with the rest of the teams, on XFL.com. Here’s a breakdown of the position-by-position lineup as they prepare to play the New York Guardians on Sunday.

QB: Aaron Murray was announced as the starter by the Vipers’ Twitter account on January 31st, an announcement that should have come as no real surprise to anyone following the team. What’s more interesting is that Quinton Flowers is listed as #3 QB ahead of Chase Litton.

Litton was acquired by the Vipers near the end of training camp so he may still be learning the playbook. While he’s not listed on the injury report for week one, Vipers head coach Marc Trestman noted in an article on XFL.com that Litton had been battling an illness. That could explain his placement on the depth chart for this week.
Just as interestingly, Flowers is not listed on the RB depth chart, the position he was expected to see the most amount of playing time. Even as the third QB, he’s likely to be active on gameday and see a handful of snaps on offense.

RB: The absence of Flowers leaves just three other backs. The order listed on the depth chart is not surprising, as I had this pegged during camp. Jacques Patrick may be the third-down back while De’Veon Smith is expected to play the early downs. Mack Brown has the talent to eat into someone’s playing time as the season progresses.

TE: Only one tight end is listed as starter, that being #1 pick Nick Truesdell. DeAndre Goolsby and Colin Thompson are two and three, though it doesn’t seem if there’s a major talent gap between the two. Goolsby is on the injury report for week one, which may explain the signing of Pharaoh McKeever today. McKeever was on Team Nine and was let go in final cuts by Tampa. If Goolsby doesn’t play, Thompson will move up and see more playing time.

WR: A couple of surprises here among the three starters listed. Two of the more experienced receivers, Seantavius Jones and Stacy Coley, are on the second and third team respectively. Coley was waived today so that the Vipers could add McKeever to the roster. That makes a disappointing return in the trade that sent Freddie Martino to Dallas; Martino is a starting receiver on the Renegades’ initial depth chart.

Youngsters Jalen Tolliver and Dan Williams, plus AAF standout Reece Horn, get the starting nods. Tanner McEvoy could be a big red-zone target and joins with Flowers in having some positional flexibility.

OL: The depth chart shows the guard position as being perilously thin. Andrew Tiller was placed on injured reserve recently, leaving backup center John Yarbrough as the likely swing guard. Marquis Lucas, who has settled behind LT Martez Ivey, also has experience at guard. The center and both tackles seem entrenched as starters going forward. OT Na’Ty Rodgers was a recent waiver pickup who mostly played right tackle in college.

DL: The Vipers have four down-linemen in the starting lineup. The most interesting battle was at defensive tackle; Josh Banks outlasted Ricky Walker to earn the first team nod next to veteran Nikita Whitlock. There is decent depth at the end with Bobby Richardson and CeCe Jefferson backing up Jason Neill (who joins Goolsby as the only two players on Tampa’s week one injury report) and Deiontrez Mount.

LB: As expected given the roster numbers, only two linebackers are listed as starters, meaning the Vipers expect to be in nickel most of the time. I had predicted this when I looked at Tampa Bay’s initial 52-man roster (https://xflboard.com/news/2020/01/27/tampa-bay-vipers-official-52-player-roster-breakdown/).

Reggie Northrup returns to back up Terrance Plummer after he was released at cut-downs, replacing the injured Ike Spearman. Korey Toomer, who was claimed on January 22nd but placed on the reserve list on January 27th, could play a key role if he’s activated during the season. There’s some depth here.

DB: The nickel back spot will be manned by two safeties in Micah Hannemann and Corey Moore. Like receiver, this is another position where the veterans have taken a backseat to younger players; Demontre Hurst and Jalen Collins in particular have found themselves on the second team. This was a spot I had real difficulty projecting heading into the season, and the depth chart bore that out.

ST: Kicker, punter, and long snapper have long been set. Colin Thompson will back up Nick Moore at long snapper. WR-turned-DB Rannell Hall is listed as both first team kick and punt returner. Hall returned kicks in college, but not punts. Receivers Ryan Davis and Reece Horn back up those spots. Davis, out of Auburn, was lauded for his “quickness and suddenness” in his NFL.com draft profile, both qualities necessary for a return man.

It’s the rules: A look at the good and the not-so-good of the XFL’s new rules and gameplay innovations

When XFL teams hit the field this weekend they will be playing under a different set of rules. (Photo: XFL.com)

The XFL’s release of the its new rules and gameplay mechanisms seems like it occurred in a previous decade, especially as we are in the thick of the first game-week of the relaunched league. While many gave immediate knee jerk reactions to the new rules, I wanted to sit back and take time to digest them. That said, here are two newly created rules I like, two I’m taking a wait-and-see approach with, and two from the 2001 incarnation of the XFL that I would’ve like to have seen utilized.

Rules I like

Kickoff: Aside from overtime, this might be the most controversial new rule in that it will be one that looks much different from what fans are used to watching at the college and pro level elsewhere. The XFL has two goals in mind with the kickoff rules: (1) increase the number of kickoffs returned, adding excitement and another play to the game; and (2) reduce injuries.

I think the league can be successful on both fronts given how the kickoff rule has been explained and tested (I’ll assume readers of this column know the gist, so I won’t spend a lot of space breaking down the minutiae; you can find details here. It’s important to note these aren’t hamfisted ideas trotted out that league big-wigs are crossing their fingers will work; these have been tested in Your Call Football, The Spring League, and elsewhere.

It remains to be seen how this translates to every week action, and how special teams coaches may look to take advantage of loopholes they discover after studying film. But on paper, the kickoff rule can be something interesting that sets it apart from the NFL and others, which the league needs a certain amount of to attract fans.

Overtime: The other rule that has garnered some of the most negative feedback from football purists is the overtime rules. It’s being done shootout style, with each team alternating plays from the five yard-line. It’s been interesting to see how the overtime rules have been molded over time and how they’ve morphed into what was eventually announced.

Shootouts are arguably the most exciting part of hockey and soccer, and it sure makes more sense than the NFL’s overtime rule. College football’s overtime can artificially inflate the scores by the end of the game if multiple overtimes are played, so the XFL’s OT scores being worth two points is a nice compromise. The league may not see all that many overtime games so it ultimately may not matter as much, but like the kickoff rule, it’s a cool way to set the league apart from others and also doesn’t feel completely gimmicky.

Others: PAT, 25-second play clock, two timeouts per half, running game clock, one foot inbounds for a catch, ball spotting official, coach-player communication, shorter halftime, simplified man downfield rule

Wait-and-see rules

Comeback period: I don’t like rules that change depending on the point of the game (except, obviously, overtime). The comeback period is designed to make the plays inside two minutes of each half more exciting and allow for more thrilling comebacks. To me, the operation of the clock should be the same no matter what point in regulation we’re at.

It feels like an artificial way to keep teams in the game as long as possible and avoid blowouts. I get that’s important, especially to a league looking to build fanbases from the ground-up in each city. But the XFL already established multiple point-after touchdown options designed to accomplish this very task. I think it’s a bit much to add yet another way to guarantee a team is never out of it, even if it means the better team may win more infrequently than other leagues. I think that would be more of a problem than blowouts.

Double-forward pass: Of all the rules established by the XFL, this feels the most gimmicky and unnecessary. Was there some outcry in the far corners of the Internet for this play to be made legal of which I hadn’t caught wind? Part of me feels like this may be nothing to worry about because I really wonder how many times per game (per week?) coaches will actually utilize such a play.

I’m more than willing to be proven wrong on these rules that I question; in fact, I hope in practice they impress. That’s why I’ve termed them “wait-and-see” rather than dismissing them out-of-hand. The XFL wants to stick to traditional football while tweaking gameplay a bit; to me, this is more than a tweak and it’s another rule that gives further advantage to the offense.

Others: Punt

Rules from 2001 I would’ve liked to see return

Punts live after 25 yards: Want to make special teams truly exciting again? Make the punts live after 25 yards. Directional punting would increase in value and it would put pressure on the returning team rather than just become a ho-hum change-of-possession. It would also force returners to field the ball rather than let it drop to the ground and be downed by the kicking team, thus increasing the amount of real live plays in a game, something the league has worked hard to provide.

In this era of player safety, adopting a no fair catch rule would be difficult in the sense that you’d have to put protections in place for the returner to the point that the no fair catch rule would likely be significantly watered down. But making the punt live after 25 yards (or whatever distance is reasonable) would make up for that.

Forward motion for receivers: The XFL in 2001 adopted this CFL rule where receivers could be moving toward the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. Not every team took advantage of this, but some did. Giving the receiver a running start would theoretically give him an advantage over the defensive back covering him. As the XFL tilts the game toward the offense, this could’ve been a rule they considered.

It’s a small rule, yet one that would differentiate it from the NFL but not seem so gimmicky as to cause traditionalists to break out their fainting couch. That push-pull likely played a part in the XFL deciding on many of the rules for year one of the league. Not all may stick for year two, and they may decide to adopt others as they go along. Perhaps they wanted to distance this league so much from the one nearly two decades ago that they didn’t want to repeat too many of the same rules. Too bad…I think they may have missed out on a few that made sense even in this era.

Others: Scramble for the ball (okay…maybe not)

Tampa Bay Vipers Official 52 Player Roster Breakdown

On Monday, the Tampa Bay Vipers, along with the other seven XFL teams, released their official post-training camp rosters. However, it’s important to note that these rosters will be fluid throughout the season, possibly even leading up to the first week’s games. That being said, here’s an analysis of Tampa Bay’s roster and the cut-downs made after camp.

Quarterbacks: Aaron Murray (#11), Taylor Cornelius (#4), Chase Litton (#8), Quinton Flowers (#9)

Released: None

Call it three-and-a-half quarterbacks. That’s a lot, as some XFL teams kept as few as two. This does give the Vipers some roster flexibility during the season, and also allows them to dangle a QB in a trade if they’re looking to upgrade another position.

Although not reported at the time, it was revealed that Litton was acquired in a trade with Seattle that brought the Vipers DT Shane Bowman in exchange for WR Alonzo Moore and G William Campbell on January 19. Had Litton arrived earlier in camp, he could’ve challenged Taylor Cornelius for the backup job. He still may be in position to do that.

Flowers, despite being the fourth QB, will likely be active on gamedays as a backup running back and potential special teamer. Some of the offensive wrinkles that will be included in XFL gameplay could work to the advantage of a player like Flowers.

Running Backs: De’Veon Smith (#24), Jacques Patrick (#29), Mack Brown (#34)

Injured Reserve/Designated for Return: Tarean Folston (#25)

Released: DJ May

The Vipers went with three running backs with Flowers also likely rotating in. I don’t have a strong sense for what the rotation might look like now, though based on training camp videos and reports, Smith seems like a good bet to get the bulk of the carries early on. This could be a position in which the playing time for all three transition throughout the year based on production and matchups.

Folston is on IR/Designated for Return, but it’s hard to see how he’ll crack the roster when he’s ready unless injuries strike or someone proves to be ineffective. Brown, who was added to the roster during training camp, managed to beat out May for the last running back spot. DT Nikita Whitlock has experience at fullback and could see time there in short-yardage situations.

Tight Ends: Nick Truesdell (#85), Colin Thompson (#86), DeAndre Goolsby (#80)

Released: Kano Dillon, Pharoah McKeever

The Vipers went traditional at this spot by keeping three tight ends. Truesdell could be a focal point of the Tampa Bay passing game. It’ll be fun to see how the Vipers get him involved in the offense after his big spring last year in the Alliance of American Football. Given the number of wide receivers the Vipers kept, they may only keep two tight ends active on gamedays. Dillon was released after being placed on injured reserve in camp.

Wide Receivers: Seantavius Jones (#15), Antonio Callaway (#5), Stacy Coley (#14), Reece Horn (#18), Jalen Tolliver (#17), Daniel Williams (#81), Ryan Davis (#83), Tanner McEvoy (#19), Donteea Dye (#13)

Released: Jawill Davis, KJ Maye

The Vipers may be planning to replace a couple offensive linemen on the field with wide receivers based on the startling nine receivers they’re keeping. This position group underwent some major changes during camp, as two of my projected three starting receivers were jettisoned in trades (Freddie Martino and Alonzo Moore).

In their stead arrived the controversial Antonio Callaway, who is currently under suspension by the NFL, and Stacy Coley, a trade acquisition from Dallas. Both add speed and the ability to stretch the field, which will help out QB Aaron Murray. If Callaway can stay on the straight and narrow, he could make a huge splash in Marc Trestman’s offense. Like at the running back position, there could be jockeying for playing time that occurs over the course of the ten-week season.

Offensive Line: OT Martez Ivey (#73), OT Isaiah Williams (#71), OT Marquis Lucas (#78), C Jordan McCray (#63), C John Yarbrough (#50), G Jerald Foster (#67), G Andrew Tiller (#75), G Daronte Bouldin (#76)

Released: OT Christian Morris, G Tre Jackson, OT Rod Taylor, G Tony Adams

A couple of position changes from the training camp roster, as Yarbrough, once listed at guard, is now at center. He’ll back up Jordan McCray there. Foster was originally listed as a tackle and is now a guard, which could indicate he’s moved into the starting lineup in that spot. Lucas and Williams were both listed as guards in camp. It looks like, at the least, Tampa is doing a lot of cross-training of its linemen, which is wise if they’re keeping low numbers at the position.

Morris and Jackson are listed under releases here, but they were not listed as being released on the XFL.com transactions page. It could be that they’ve been placed on some other reserve list besides the injured reserve, as they are not on Tampa’s active roster.

Defensive Line: DE Deiontrez Mount (#53), DE Jason Neill (#96), DE Bobby Richardson (#91), DE CeCe Jefferson (95), DT Ricky Walker (#97), DT Josh Banks (#92), DT Nikita Whitlock (#49)

Injured Reserve/Designated for Return: DE Obum Gwacham (#58)

Released: DE Devin Taylor

It was a surprise to see the Vipers release Taylor, who has extensive NFL experience, considering their first-round front-seven pick and fellow DE Gwacham will start the year on injured reserve. Taylor was the only Viper player released on cut-down day to be claimed by another team, as Taylor is now a member of the LA Wildcats.

Gwacham’s absence puts pressure on the other defensive ends on the roster to produce early on. Jefferson was a quality pick-up during training camp and he could benefit most from Taylor’s release and Gwacham’s injury. The Vipers will rotate four ends, keeping just three tackles. Walker and Banks are two young, talented players. Whitlock is one of many on this team who can play multiple positions.

Linebackers: Emmanuel Beal (#43), Lucas Wacha (#45), Terrance Plummer (#41), Ike Spearman (#56)

Released: Reggie Northrup, Anthony Stubbs

Like a few of the offensive linemen, neither Northrup nor Stubbs show up on the XFL transactions page as having been cut, but they’re also not on Tampa’s active roster. The number of defensive linemen kept indicate Tampa running a 3-4 defense, but keeping only four linebackers doesn’t fit with that theory. What’s most likely to happen is that Tampa will predominantly play nickel or dime defense, where only one or two linebackers are on the field at a time.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville has four young linebackers to choose from, none of whom have made their mark professionally to this point. Plummer could end up as the leader of this position group and see the most playing time on defense, at least early on. With the XFL’s rules putting a priority on kick returns, linebackers being able to contribute on kick coverage will be key.

Defensive Backs: CB Demontre Hurst (#30), CB Jalen Collins (#32), CB Bryce Canady (#28), DB Tarvarus McFadden (#20), CB Shelton Lewis (#33), DB Anthoula Kelly (#23), S Corey Moore (#31), S Marcelis Branch (#35) , S Micah Hannemann (#27), DB Rannell Hall (#22), S Robert Priester (#21)

Released: CB Herb Waters, S Robenson Therezie, CB Rodney Randle

If there was any doubt what kind of league the XFL was going to be, Tampa keeping nine receivers and 11 defensive backs should give you an indication. Hall made a successful transition from wide receiver to defensive back during training camp. Being listed at DB indicates he’s working at both corner and safety. Same for McFadden and Kelly.

With the XFL’s 25-second play clock, it may behoove teams to keep more defensive backs. Running downfield with fast receivers play after play with little downtime in between could necessitate more frequent substitutions than we see in the NFL or in college. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how teams will take advantage of the new rules and on the defensive side of the ball, how they’ll compensate for the rules intended to increase offense.

Special Teams: K Andrew Franks (#3), P Jake Schum (#10), LS Nick Moore (#42)

Released: K Matthew Wright

As expected, Franks won the kicking job. Schum and Moore had no competition in camp. The Vipers may have one of the stronger special teams in the league. But like offense and defense, there will be new rules kickers and punters have to adjust to, especially when it comes to kickoffs and ball placement for punters.

In search of talent, Vipers take chances on questionable characters

Jalen Collins

Over the past month, the Tampa Bay Vipers have invested in two characters whose troubles have played a big part in their exits from the NFL. First, they acquired CB Jalen Collins from the LA Wildcats in a December trade. Collins was a second round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 out of LSU. While preparing for the draft, it was revealed that he was reported to have had multiple drug test failures in college.

Personal missteps followed Collins to the NFL. After a quiet rookie season on that front, his sophomore season began with him serving a four-game suspension for a failed drug test. His third season, in 2017, began similarly, only this time it was a 10-game ban. The Falcons released him after that suspension. A third suspension followed, this time four games. As a free-agent in 2018, he was given another ten-game suspension, his fourth since joining the league three years earlier.

Collins’ story is not one of run-ins with the law, but it’s a risk for the Vipers nonetheless. The XFL does not have a drug testing policy for performance enhancing drugs (which is what the failed NFL tests were reported as being for), at least one that has been publicly released, so as long as Collins is a good teammate and earns his way onto the roster with his on-field play, he’ll be fine.

Antonio Callaway

Last week, the Vipers dipped their toe into the water of controversy again, this time by signing WR Antonio Callaway. The University of Florida product comes to a Vipers team that should be on the TV show Hoarders for their propensity to keep Florida players in-state. Like Collins, Callaway was a high draft pick in the NFL (fourth round) who would’ve gone higher had it not been for controversy that embroiled him at Florida.

Callaway was accused of sexual assault while in college and suspended. He was eventually found not responsible for the assault, nor for any University of Florida code of conduct violations. Like Collins, Callaway kept clean during his first year in the league. Also like Collins, his second year began with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He was released from the Cleveland Browns for showing up late to meetings. The fact that he was also facing a ten-game suspension – for using a tainted CBD product, per a league source to Cleveland.com – likely played a part in the release from the Browns. He was suspended for the final seven weeks of the 2019 season, and the first three weeks of the 2020 season.

The Vipers needed defensive back help. They took a chance on the tall, speedy Collins. They needed to add deep speed in their wide receiver corps. They took a chance on Callaway and his 4.41 40-yard dash time. Vipers head coach Marc Trestman has made these calculated additions to the team, both appearing to be boom-or-bust acquisitions. Trestman is not a fire-and-brimstone coach, and the success of Tampa Bay’s initial foray into the XFL relies on him not needing to be one. It remains to be seen how he’s able to handle two players who, while talented, bring a lot of baggage to the team and the league. For the perception of the league, they too are taking a chance on Collins and Callaway. Both the Vipers and the XFL hope the only noise Collins and Callaway make is for their on-field play.

Projected XFL Tampa Bay Vipers Defensive and Special Teams Depth Chart

Continuing with my look at the Tampa Bay Vipers potential defensive and special teams depth charts about halfway into training camp. In creating these charts, I’ve emphasized draft status and pro experience. (Click here for Offensive Depth Chart)

Defensive Line

First Team: DE Obum Gwacham (Oregon State; R1/1), DT Ricky Walker (Virginia Tech; R3/17), DE Deiontrez Mount (Louisville; R2/16)

Second Team: DE Devin Taylor (South Carolina; R10/80), DT Josh Banks (Wake Forest; R5/33), DE Jason Neill (UTSA; R9/65)

Third Team: DE Bobby Richardson (Indiana; OP1), DT Nikita Whitlock (Wake Forest; OP1), DE CeCe Jefferson (Florida; TC), DT Giorgio Newberry (IR – FSU; OP2)

Gwacham has the potential to be an impact defensive player in the XFL. He was the first overall pick in the defensive front seven phase of the XFL Draft. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of defense Jerry Glanville plays – the numbers on the roster indicate a 3-4, but the team doesn’t have a true space-eating nose tackle. There are a few ends, like Gwacham and CeCe Jefferson, who could double as outside linebackers.

Even though Nikita Whitlock is on the third team here, he has familiarity with some on Tampa’s coaching staff, and can also double as the team’s fullback. That position versatility will be key when the coaches assess the final few roster spots. Taylor has the most NFL experience of this position group, having been a fourth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2013; he has played in 63 NFL games.

An interesting battle to keep an eye on is for the starting defensive tackle spot between Banks and Walker. Banks has spent time with the New York Giants in their camp, and Walker was a priority free agent signing by the Dallas Cowboys after the draft in 2019. Jefferson, despite being a recent addition, has the potential to work his way into the rotation as a pass-rusher.

Linebackers

First Team: Emmanuel Beal (Oklahoma; R6/48), Reggie Northrup (FSU; R4/32), Lucas Wacha (Wyoming; R7/49)

Second Team: Terrance Plummer (UCF; OP2), Ike Spearman (Eastern Michigan; OP1), Anthony Stubbs (Prairie View A&M; R8/64)

While a traditional 3-4 alignment features three down linemen and four linebackers, it’s likely the Vipers will spend most of their time in nickel and dime defenses, meaning a linebacker will come off the field. Therefore, I’ve only listed three starters here.

Beal and Northrup feel like solid bets to start, with Wacha and Stubbs battling over the third linebacker position. Given the added importance to the return game in the XFL, I’m surprised the Vipers aren’t carrying more linebackers in camp, as that’s a position where teams often keep a few just for the use in the third phase of the game.

This is not a group long on pro experience; both Plummer and Northrup entered the league as undrafted free agents with the Washington Redskins, in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Several players have appeared in the CFL and the AAF.

Defensive Backs

First Team: CB Demontre Hurst (Oklahoma; R3/24), CB Herb Waters (Miami; R8/57), CB Jalen Collins (LSU; T/LA), S Corey Moore (Georgia; MC), Robenson Therezie (Auburn; R9/72)

Second Team: CB Bryce Canady (FIU; R10/73), CB Tarvarus McFadden (FSU; MC), CB Shelton Lewis (FAU; OP2), S Marcelis Branch (Robert Morris; R5/40), Micah Hannemann (BYU; R6/41)

Third Team: CB Anthoula Kelly (Fresno St; MC), CB Rodney Randle (Lamar; MC), CB Rannell Hall (UCF; R7/53); S Robert Priester (Wyoming; OP2)

This may be the most difficult part of the Vipers’ roster to project. Given Hurst’s combination of high draft status and success in the NFL, he seems like a good bet to be a starter at corner. Collins was acquired in a trade with LA, and while he has talent (as evidenced by his second round NFL Draft pedigree), off-field issues have been his downfall.

Moore was a minicamp acquisition, but he has 46 NFL games under his belt. Therezie could be battling Branch and Hannemann, two players drafted ahead of him, for a starting safety spot opposite Moore. McFadden was another interesting late add to the roster as the Vipers have been active in churning this section of their roster.

Depth has taken a hit with second round XFL Draft pick CB Picasso Nelson Jr. and supplemental draft selection S PJ Locke both now in the NFL. It doesn’t look like their services will be available to the Vipers during the 2020 XFL season.

Hall recently transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback. That puts him behind the eight-ball somewhat, though he’ll be given every opportunity to make an impact in the defensive backfield.

Special Teams

First Team: K Andrew Franks (RPI; OP1), P Jake Schum (Buffalo; OP1), LS Nick Moore (Georgia; OP1)

Second Team: K Matthew Wright (UCF; OP3)

Tampa added long snapper Wes Farnsworth off waivers in December, but he was quickly scooped up by the Denver Broncos. That leaves Moore still as the only snapper in camp. He was a highly rated snapper coming out of college last spring. He spent summer with the New Orleans Saints. We’ll see if the Vipers just wanted to create competition at that position in claiming Farnsworth, or if they’re looking for an upgrade from Moore based on if they grab another snapper for the final days of camp.

Schum is uncontested as punter, while the kicking battle will come down to Franks or Wright. Franks kicked two years for the Miami Dolphins while Wright camped with the Pittsburgh Steelers this past summer. Wright holds UCF records for points scored and field goals made, so it’s not a slam-dunk that Franks will emerge as the winner of that competition.