The XFL is back. After a three-year absence, the critically acclaimed spring pro football league that had the plug pulled out in mid-stream back in 2020 returns. Week 1 of the XFL 2023 season kicks off this weekend with four games on ABC, ESPN, FX, and ESPN Deportes.
In a week one rematch from 2020, the D.C. Defenders host the Seattle Sea Dragons at Audi Field in the closing game of the XFL’s opening week.
XFL 2023: Week 1 Seattle Sea Dragons @ D.C. Defenders Preview
|Defenders -1.5, O/U 35.5
|Sunday, February 19, Audi Field, Washington D.C.
|8:00 p.m. ET
Partly cloudy. Low around 45F. Winds SSW at 10 to 15 mph.
|ESPN/ESPN +/ESPN Deportes/TSN Plus/ESPN Player/Sport1+
John Schriffen, Tom Luginbill, Stormy Buonantony, Harry Douglas (Field Analyst)
The oddsmakers have the Defenders as slight home favorites Sunday Night at Audi Field. The line itself is not surprising. However, the point total is at 35.5. The lowest over/under of week one’s XFL games. The projection is intriguing mainly because the Dragons and Defenders will play in favorable weather conditions. Something that is typically not a given come February in the District.
XFL 2023 Week One: Seattle Sea Dragons @ D.C. Defenders Matchup
Week One Depth Charts
In new leagues with fully formed teams from scratch. Getting a read on team identities is challenging because they haven’t been formulated yet, especially as it pertains to the players, who are mostly playing together for the first time this weekend.
However, you can lean on individual coaching staffs to get an idea of how teams will play schematically.
Sea Dragons Offense Vs. The Defenders Defense
It’s clear as day how the Seattle Sea Dragons will attack you offensively with the legendary June Jones and his run-and-shoot. The Dragons’ base offense is four wide receivers on every play minimum.
And on the flip side, for better or worse, anyone who has followed pro football long enough knows exactly the type of defense that Gregg Williams deploys. Under the longtime NFL defensive coordinator, the Defenders will be ultra-aggressive and might start blitzing the Dragons in the parking lot before the game kicks off.
As a result of the latter, there’s no doubt that Seattle has worked on beating the blitz in their lead-up to this game. Dragons QB Ben DiNucci will undoubtedly be looking Josh Gordon’s way on Sunday night. But don’t discount anyone of Seattle’s “other” receivers. Throughout his lengthy coaching career in college, the NFL, CFL, and the XFL. June Jones has a long history of unearthing unknown receivers from obscurity to stardom.
Defenders Offense Vs. Sea Dragons Defense
Under Reggie Barlow’s right-hand man at offensive coordinator, Fred Kaiss. The Defenders will also run a spread offense, but you can expect more emphasis on the ground game than Seattle.
D.C. sports three mobile quarterbacks. And the fifth-leading rusher in the nation in 2021, Baylor rookie running back Abram Smith. The Defenders, for lack of a better term, can get cute in their offensive packages in short yardage, the red zone, and on extra point conversions (1 point from the two, 2 points from the five & yes, 3 points from the ten), which have all returned to the XFL in 2023.
D.C. has multiple gadget-type players on offense, including WR/RB Pooka Williams and FCS standout slot man/returner Jequez Ezzard, who can both factor in the quick passing game, on run plays, and down the field. Williams (4.3) and Ezzard (4.4) are lightning-quick in open space.
Ron Zook, Dragons head coach Jim Haslett, and their defensive staff will have to be on guard for some trickery from the Defenders. The double forward pass, which is also back, could also be in play, as quarterbacks Eric Dungey and D’Eriq King potentially line up at the TE or WR spot. Two positions that both D.C. signal-callers have experience playing.
Special Teams Matchup
Special teams are definitely not a sexy topic and are typically put on the back burner. However, they could play a significant role in not only Sunday night’s game. But in being determining factors on opening week league-wide.
Most pro and college football teams tend to have some growing pains early in seasons on Special teams. However, it can be amplified in a new pro league that has essentially eight expansion squads.
The XFL kickoff itself, which was extremely successful three years ago in reducing injuries and increasing returns, is back. In this department, the Defenders have an edge with Matthew McCrane, who was perfect in XFL 2020 for New York, returning to handle kickoff duties. D.C. could opt to give strong-legged rookie punter Daniel Whelan a shot at that chore. But McCrane has done it successfully before.
Of the four specialists suiting up on Sunday. Only Matt McCrane has experience kicking in an XFL-styled game.
With the XFL kickoff, there are specific return designs and strategies involved with the kick itself that come into play. Players in coverage and on return units are not allowed to engage until the returner catches the ball.
By midseason in 2020, XFL teams started cracking the code on returns and were doing a great job of springing long gains by designing blocking schemes to create gaps in coverage.
In the coaching department, the Dragons have an experience edge in this area. Special teams/WR coach Ty Knott not only coached the best ST unit in the AAF back with Memphis. But most importantly, he has experience dealing with the XFL’s unique special teams rules in 2020 with Los Angeles.
Coach Knott has plenty of talented returners at his deploy,ment like Oregon’s Jaylon Redd and Ole Miss’s Jahcour Pearson. But the Sea Dragons coverage units will have their work cut for them on the opposing side. Especially dealing with the electrifying Jequez Ezzard in the return game.
Defenders STC/LBs coach Jamie Sharper, who once upon a time was one of the best special teams players in the NFL, will be tested by Knott’s expertise.
The one area that could creep on D.C. and hurt them on Sunday Night is at long snapper. The Defenders have decided to roll out with FCS standout and Boston College tight end Trae Barry in that role. The talented 6’6 pass catcher won an audition to be the Defenders’ long snapper in training camp. Almost by default as D.C. tried two traditional specialists in camp before landing on the rookie tight end.
The experiment by the Defenders could go awry on Sunday night. While the XFL does not have extra-point kicks. The league still has to punt the ball and kick field goals. One or two bad snaps in a closely contested game can change momentum and, ultimately, the outcome.
Final Practice/Injury Report
The Defenders had some concerns with two of their most important players coming into their opening game. On defense, starting CB Michael Joseph and Edge Rusher Davin Bellamy are good to go. They will both be needed against Seattle’s wide-open passing attack. DL Fadol Brown is out with a hamstring, and could see Malik Fisher, and Gabe Wright rotate into the lineup in his place.
WR/RB Pooka Williams will also be available. He was dealing with a knee issue but has progressed during the week. Veteran WR Chad Hansen, who was a late pickup by D.C., is out for Sunday Night’s action.
The Dragons might be a little thing upfront defensively, with defensive tackles Treyvon Hester and Austin Faouliu both questionable to suit up. The good news is that veteran DT P.J. Hall will be suiting up for Seattle. The Dragons will need him against D.C’s rushing attack.
XFL 2023 Week One: Seattle Sea Dragons @ D.C. Defenders Prediction
The Defenders and Dragons are now Northern Division rivals, and after kicking their seasons off together, they won’t meet again until Week 8 in Seattle.
D.C. has a crucial first half of games on deck. They will play five straight divisional games to open the year. Because of this, It’s imperative that the returning Beer Snake toasts an opening week victory at Audi Field.
Some outlets like Football Gameplan’s Emory Hunt and CBS Sportsline see the Defenders as the team to beat in the XFL because of the team’s excellent coaching and roster construction headed up by D.C. Director of Player Personnel Von Hutchins, and head coach Reggie Barlow.
From my vantage point, the Seattle Sea Dragons have to be seen in the same light, or fire, as it were. Former NFL executive of the year Randy Mueller is no stranger to success in spring pro football, having helped construct XFL 2020’s undefeated Roughnecks. And the veteran executive has a strong history of putting together rosters for Dragons head coach and former NFL coach of the year Jim Haslett. As well as offensive coordinator June Jones.
That type of experience is hard to match up against. Especially in a week one setting. Home game or not.
As a result, despite all the promising young talent they have, I am leaning toward an uber-close Seattle victory Sunday Night at Audi Field. The experience edge is on the Dragons’ side.
When the smoke clears on the XFL 2023 season (barring an alien invasion, another super virus, or nuclear war), the D.C. Defenders may end up being the better overall team. But for now, Seattle tops them in the season opener.
Prediction: Seattle Sea Dragons 27 D.C. Defenders 25
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