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Roughnecks secondary wants first touchdown

Houston Roughnecks CB Jeremiah Johnson (41) celebrates his Week 2 interception with his teammates.

HOUSTON – It’s only a matter of time before a member of the Houston Roughnecks secondary takes one to the house.

At least that’s how they see it.

The XFL co-leaders in interceptions through two weeks have come dangerously close to posting a defensive touchdown or two. Somehow, despite four aerial takeaways, including a pair returned within the shadow of the goal line, the Roughnecks have fallen short of the elusive pick-6.

And they’re the first to admit it.

“Almost don’t count,” strong safety Cody Brown said. “I got to get it in the end zone.”

Brown’s near-score happened in the second quarter Sunday against the St. Louis BattleHawks. The Arkansas State product swallowed an underthrown ball by BattleHawks quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and maneuvered 50 yards, finally getting tackled inches shy of glory.

The Roughnecks pounded it in on the ensuing play to go up 15-6.

Houston then saw its 15-point lead get whittled to three in the fourth, with St. Louis driving for a potential go-ahead score. That’s when cornerback Jeremiah Johnson stepped up by stepping in front of another errant Ta’amu throw and going back 64 yards before running out of gas at the BattleHawks’ 6-yard line.

“I was supposed to have that,” Johnson lamented.

Jeremiah Johnson with the CLUTCH interception in Week 2

Another touchdown followed, allowing Houston to go back up 10. The Roughnecks would hold on for a 28-24 win.

“It’s a team game, we talk about it every week, every day about taking the football away,” Roughnecks head coach June Jones said, “and those two interceptions were obvi­ously the difference in the game.”

The momentum swings caused by a turnover are obvious. When that turnover leads to immediate points, the impact is exponentially greater. The Roughnecks (2-0) remained unbeaten thanks in large part to the two takeaways against St. Louis. 

“It was a huge turnaround in the game, especially the second one by Jeremiah Johnson,” Brown said. “That was a huge play. They started coming back a little bit and that play right there killed them.”

Of the four picks on Houston's young season, three have led to touchdowns. (The DC Defenders are tied with Houston with four interceptions.) Deatrick Nichols set up a TD with his interception in the 37-17 win over the Los Angeles Wildcats in Week 1.

The play of the secondary hasn’t happened in a vacuum. No team thus far harasses the quarterback more than Houston, which leads the league with pressures on 41 percent of dropbacks. The Roughnecks also have 14 passes defended and eight sacks through two games, and are second overall in turnover margin at plus-4.

Houston’s defense has also received significant contributions from linebacker DeMarquis Gates (nine solo tackles, one sack), linebacker Beniquez Brown (10 tackles, four solo) and cornerback Ajene Harris (nine tackles, one for a loss).

“We talk about it in practice being ball hawks,” Johnson said. “I feel as though we go against a great offense. Coach June Jones is a mastermind and it’s the competition level we set for ourselves, and we go hard. When we’re out there we’re having fun and we set our minds to be the best DB corps on the field.”

Highlights: Roughnecks 28, BattleHawks 24

In addition to giving the offense a short field to work with, Houston defenders know what just a stop can do. Led by dynamic quarterback P.J. Walker, the Roughnecks are leading the XFL in scoring (32.5) and touchdowns (9).

Holding the opposition to a punt and bringing the offense back on the field quickly can be just as effective as forcing a fumble or picking off a pass.

“We try to do that,” Brown said. “We always preach taking the ball away. We know our offense is explosive and we know any time we can get the ball to them, we’re in good hands. That’s what we try to do. We try to limit the other team. We have the mentality that if they don’t score, they don’t win.”

That formula has worked out well for two weeks, with both victories coming at home. West-leading Houston ventures on the road for the first time at the Tampa Bay Vipers (0-2) on Saturday (2 p.m. ET, ABC).

Taking that ball-hawking mentality into an enemy stadium is a new challenge. The Roughnecks are up for it.

“We’ve got some dogs on defense,” Johnson said. “We’re just going to keep building. We have Tampa Bay this week and we’re going to go there and look for a road win. We’re gonna get a road win. That’s our mind set.”