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How it happened: Explaining Defenders' 2-2 start

Defenders CB Doran Grant looks on as Tampa Bay celebrates its third touchdown of the game.

The DC Defenders (2-2) return to Washington, D.C., for Week 5 of the 2020 XFL season -- and not a moment too soon. 

When the Defenders embarked on their two-game road trip prior to Week 3, they were the XFL's most entertaining product. A raucous homefield atmosphere, a superstar QB in Cardale Jones and a playmaking defense propelled the Defenders to a 2-0 record, making DC the talk of the league.

Not anymore.

The Defenders returned to the nation's capital late Sunday night having failed to score in their 25-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Vipers (1-3). Just a week prior, the team arrived home early Monday morning with their first loss of the season, a 39-9 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Wildcats (1-3).

So what happened? How does a team that outscored its opponents 58-19 in the first two weeks get outscored 64-9 in the following two weeks? How does one of the only two remaining undefeated teams suffer back-to-back losses to teams that had yet to win a single game?

There are plenty of questions to address as the Defenders prepare for the St. Louis BattleHawks (3-1) on Sunday, March 8, at 3 p.m. ET (FS1).

But the good news is this: The answers are clear.

Penalties

In Week 4 against the Vipers, the Defenders were penalized seven times for 50 yards, including three penalties for too many men on the field. It was the latest in an alarming trend.

In Week 3, the Defenders were penalized five times for 54 yards, including three false starts, and an offsides penalty that kept the Wildcats on the field and led to a 20-yard touchdown run from Martez Carter on the very next day.

After being penalized just once in Week 1 against the Seattle Dragons, the Defenders amassed eight flags, including four false start penalties, in the 27-0 Week 2 win over the New York Guardians. Luckily, the Defenders were able to win the turnover battle and move the ball down the field against New York, minimizing the impact of the penalties.

Turnovers

Defending is what the Defenders did best at home. DC forced seven turnovers while committing just one in Week 1 and Week 2 combined, including two interception return touchdowns and a blocked punt return touchdown.

Forcing turnovers is a sustainable task, but scoring off turnovers is not as replicable.

The Defenders forced just one turnover in two games on the road, while committing seven of their own. Turnovers are major catalysts for momentum swings. The Defenders were never able to control the momentum away from Audi Field.

Stopping the Run

The Defenders' run defense was solid enough in Week 1 and Week 2, giving up just 162 yards on 37 attempts. Neither the Dragons or Guardians found the end zone on the ground.

In Weeks 3 and 4, the run defense was not solid enough at all.

With LA starting running back Elijah Hood a gametime inactive, the Defenders allowed the backup Carter to score two rushing touchdowns as well as a receiving touchdown on 78 all-purpose yards.

In Week 4, Vipers running backs De'Veon Smith and Jacques Patrick became the first two backs to rush for at least 100 yards in a single game by gashing the Defenders for 266 yards and two rushing touchdowns. On top of that 18 of the Vipers' 41 rush attempts went for at least five yards.

Tampa Bay's dominance on the ground led to the Vipers controlling the football for 37:10 compared to the 22:50 for the Defenders.

Staying on, Getting Off The Field

The keys to winning football are simple: Win the turnover battle, dominate the line of scrimmage, and control the time of possession.

To achieve the latter, a team has to be able to keep its offense on the field and prevent its opposition from doing the same. 

The Defenders picked up 29 first downs while giving up 24 in the first two home games of the season, and were able to extend drives by converting on 14 of 33 third downs. The defense did its part at home, too. The Dragons and Guardians on just five of 26 third-down attempts combined. 

On the road, however, it was different.

The Defenders picked up just 22 first downs in Week 3 and Week 4, and converted just four of 23 third-down attempts. But on the road, DC struggled to keep the opposition's offense on the sidelines. The Wildcats and Vipers combined for 49 first downs and were 7-for-20 on third down.

The Breaks

You don't necessarily need to be a stathead to understand how the Defenders got to 2-2.

What went well in Week 1 and Week 2 did not make the trip for Week 3 or Week 4.

Take Week 1, for example. The Defenders made up for three empty offensive possessions and a 35-yard field goal miss in the second quarter alone thanks to an interception, a blocked punt return touchdown, and a 54-yard field goal at the end of the first half. 

Later in the game, the Defenders had just only retaken the lead 25-19 on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Rashad Ross when Bradley Sylve picked off Brandon Silvers for the 69-yard game-breaking touchdown.

But there were no such breaks on the road.

In Week 3, the Defenders trailed 27-3 at the half, but received the ball to start the third quarter and with a strong drive and scoring conversion, could regain some momentum in the game. The Defenders went on a nine-play 49-yard drive only to have Jack Tocho intercept Jones. Instead of picking up three or six-plus points themselves, LA's Carter would score less than two minutes later to give the Wildcats a 33-3 lead.

In Week 4, the Defenders found themselves in a 12-0 hole in the second quarter against the winless Vipers, but a sustained drive had them in scoring position. On a third-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 25-yard line, Jones found Malachi Dupre in the back of the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown. The referees ruled Dupre did not get his foot down in bounds, resulting in an incomplete pass and a fourth down.

The Defenders called timeout in hopes the officials would review the play. They did not, and on fourth down, the Vipers blocked Ty Rausa's field goal attempt.

It's been a wild ride for the DC Defenders through the first four games of the 2020 XFL season. 

The good news is Week 5 will be held at Audi Field, where the Defenders have used the energy from the crowd to gain momentum and take control of the game. 

How we got here is very clear. Where we go now all depends on applying what the Defenders know, and catching some breaks along the way.

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