After opening their inaugural season with a 31-19 win against the Seattle Dragons, the D.C. Defenders (1-0) will return to Audi Field on Feb. 15 to host the New York Guardians (1-0). Both D.C. and New York are both looking to claim the rebooted XFL’s first winning streak, and the Defenders are looking to win their first game against an Eastern Conference opponent.
D.C.’s defense intercepted Dragons quarterback Brandon Silvers twice, and Defenders cornerback Bradley Sylve returned one of those picks 69 yards for the game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Defenders scored their first touchdown in franchise history when cornerback Elijah Campbell blocked a punt by Brock Miller and linebacker Jonathan Celestin recovered the loose ball in the end zone. Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones tossed two touchdown passes – one of those being on a double-flea-flicker trick play.
Meanwhile, the Guardians opened their season last Sunday with a blowout 23-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Vipers. New York’s defense made life miserable for Tampa Bay’s offense, sacking Vipers quarterback Aaron Murray five times and picking him off twice. Guardians quarterback Matt McGloin outperformed his Vipers counterpart, scoring two total touchdowns and not committing any turnovers.
Here are four key players (other than the quarterbacks) to keep an eye on when the Guardians and Defenders face off on Saturday for the rights to first place in the Eastern Conference:
No. 15 Rashad Ross, WR, Defenders
Ross, who has previously played for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, caught two passes for 52 yards and a score against Seattle despite being relatively new to the Defenders’ system. Despite the lack of targets, Ross made the most of them. His second reception, a 31-yard score, occurred on fourth-and-6 in the third quarter, which gave D.C. a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Look for Jones to get him more involved in the passing game against New York.
No. 28 Wesley Sutton, S, Guardians
Sutton was a nightmare for the Vipers’ offense on Saturday. He tallied five total tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss against Tampa Bay. If he can generate that much pressure against D.C., the Defenders could be in for a long day. The Guardians’ defense allowed the fewest points of any team in Week 1, and Sutton was a big reason for that.
No. 54 Jonathan Massaquoi, LB, Defenders
Massaquoi did a little bit of everything for the Defenders in their win over the Dragons. He registered three total tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit, and two tackles for loss against Seattle. So far, he is the only Defender in franchise history to record a sack. Making McGloin uncomfortable should be the chief priority for D.C.’s defense, meaning Massaquoi will need to generate pressure early and often.
No. 29 Bryce Jones, CB, Guardians
The Guardians’ defense didn’t surrender a touchdown against the Vipers last Sunday, but Tampa Bay still was able to find success through the air – particularly against Jones. Vipers wide receiver Dan Williams caught six passes for 123 yards against New York, with most of the production coming at Jones’ expense. Because of this, D.C. may view Jones as the weak link of New York’s secondary and throw the ball in his direction often.
Key Matchup: Cardale Jones vs. Guardians’ secondary
New York cruised to victory over Tampa Bay last Sunday by forcing multiple turnovers from Murray. On the flip side, Jones’ mistake-free performance was a big reason D.C. defeated Seattle this past Saturday. Something needs to give.
Prediction: Defenders over Guardians, 27-26
The Defenders will win the turnover battle by sending relentless pressure McGloin’s way and forcing him into some ill-advised throws. One of those throws will be intercepted by a member of D.C.’s secondary and returned for a score. Jones will commit his first turnover of the season against the Guardians. However, he will still outplay McGloin.
According to Jake Russell of the Washington Post, the Defenders are sending cornerback Bradley Sylve to the Wildcats in exchange for linebacker Anthony Johnson.
Johnson made two combined tackles in Los Angeles’ 37-17 loss to the Houston Roughnecks last Saturday. He was reportedly upset that the Wildcats decided to part ways with defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson earlier this week. On Monday, it was reported that Johnson was going to be released, and he even took to Twitter to announce he was a free agent.
Instead, Los Angeles will get something in return for its defensive captain. Sylve’s presence should immediately bolster the Wildcats’ secondary, as he registered a game-sealing pick-six for D.C. against the Seattle Dragons last weekend.
Johnson played for five different teams in the NFL after signing with the league as an undrafted free agent out of LSU in 2014. He also had stints with the AAF’s Memphis Express and the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders.
Sylve, on the other hand, previously played with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints after going undrafted out of Alabama in 2016. He was also a member of the AAF’s Birmingham Iron before the league folded.
Johnson is set to debut for the Defenders when they host the New York Guardians on Saturday. Sylve will debut as a Wildcat when Los Angeles hosts the Dallas Renegades on Sunday.