Ray Horton won two Super Bowls as the Steelers secondary coach in the 2000s. Currently in his first season as the Pittsburgh Maulers head coach, Horton's team is two wins away from bringing another championship to the City of Champions.
Prior to the start of the regular season, USFL president of football operations Daryl Johnston said he was eager to see how Pittsburgh would fare this season under Horton, a Super Bowl-winning safety with the Dallas Cowboys who served as an assistant coach for seven NFL teams prior to becoming the Maulers' head coach. A one-win outfit last season, the Maulers won their final two games of the regular season to clinch a spot in Saturday's North Division Championship against the Michigan Panthers in Canton, Ohio.
"The unique thing about Pittsburgh," Johnston recently told CBS Sports, "is great defense, great special teams. The offense can just go out there and not make the critical mistake. I really think Pittsburgh is a dangerous team. ... You may look at their record as 4-6, but they don't believe that really indicates who they are. They feel they're a better team than that."
As Johnston eluded to, the Maulers' success has been largely due to defense and special teams. Pittsburgh's defense was second in the USFL during the regular season in points allowed, while the Maulers led the league in turnover ratio, punt return average and kickoff touchback percentage. Josh Simmons led the USFL in kickoff return yards, while teammate Isiah Hennie paced the league in punt return yards. Defensive back Mark Gilbert led the league with four interceptions during the regular season. All three players were tabbed as All-USFL performers along with teammates Kyahva Tezino and Arnold Tarpley III.
Gilbert, a former Steeler, had a key end zone interception during Pittsburgh's 19-7 win over Michigan back in Week 9. It was one of four interceptions thrown that day by Josh Love, who was surprisingly benched in favor of E.J. Perry ahead of Michigan's must-win Week 10 showdown with the Philadelphia Stars. While Perry wasn't prolific against the Stars, he took care of the football and rushed for a score in Michigan's 23-20 win.
"I thought it was very bold for [Panthers coach] Mike Nolan to go with E.J. Perry at that point with everyone on the line," Johnston said. "They're very similar [to Pittsburgh]. They've got good special teams. They've got a good defense. If the offense doesn't make the critical mistakes, I think Michigan is a much better team.
"If either one of these teams in the North gets a consistent offense that does not turn the ball over, they are much better than a 4-6 team."
Pittsburgh and Michigan (who also finished the regular season with a 4-6 record) will play for the right to face either the New Orleans Breakers or Birmingham Stallions, who will play each other Sunday in Birmingham in the South Division Championship. The defending champion Stallions went 8-2 during the regular season despite being hit by several major injuries early in the season. Alex McGough, who replaced injured quarterback J'Mar Smith after Smith was injured in Week 1, led the USFL with 20 touchdown passes during the regular season. McGough has been complemented by a Birmingham defense that allowed the fewest points in the USFL during the regular season.
New Orleans will likely focus on McGough, but it shouldn't sleep on running back C.J. Marable and what has been the USFL's best offensive line.
"When they really have to hunker down and grind out a clock," Johnston said, "it's been fun to watch them lean on that running game."
Breakers coach John DeFilippo is one of four USFL first-year head coaches and one of three who guided his team to the playoffs. After a 4-0 start, DeFilippo's team dropped three straight games before righting the ship and ending the regular season on a three-game winning streak. After a midseason slump, the Breakers' offense returned to early season form entering the playoffs. DeFilippo's offensequarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who is looking to win a second championship in less than a year after leading the Toronto Argonauts to a Gray Cup title last fall.
"I think they're better when they have a little more balance," Johnston said of the Breakers, who finished second behind Birmingham in total yards per game during the regular season. "If they get the run going, if that offensive line starts to take control and Wes Hills becomes a big part, I think that opens things up for Sage [Surratt], Johnnie Dixon and what Bethel-Thompson can do for them."
The winner of Saturday's Maulers-Panthers game will surely be an underdog for the USFL Championship Game. That wouldn't be uncharted waters for Horton, who was part of the 2005 Steelers team that became the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl. Johnston, who won three Super Bowls as a member of the 1990s Cowboys dynasty team, isn't ruling anything out as far as what will unfold over the next two weekends.
"I think the matchups are very even," he said. "I think the big one is going to be our championship game. Our southern hub has been solid across the board. I'm a big believer in iron sharpens iron. ... Those four teams made each other better throughout the course of the year. ... I think the north is dangerous, because good defense and good special teams can take you a long way, (but) can those offenses not make the critical mistakes that we've seen them make through the course of the season that have gotten them to 4-6?"
We'll find that answer out on July 1, when the USFL's 2023 champion is crowd inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.