Missed opportunities, poor offense overshadow Memphis Express inaugural game.
The Memphis Express walked away from their first AAF game with a poor offensive showing and failures to convert turnover and scoring opportunities as the overwhelming takeaways. Birmingham’s QB Luis Perez looked sharp throwing several nice passes early and an Express defense that had bottled up Trent Richardson early in the game ran out of gas as the Birmingham Iron beat the Memphis Express 26-0.
While the final score did read 26-0, the Express defense was without a doubt the shining unit. The defense held Trent Williams to only 18 yards on 11 rushes through three quarters and the score was only 9-0 as the 4th quarter. The defense kept the offense in the game far longer than they should have been. Only a controversial replay which allowed a Quentin Patton 39 yard pass play to stand fueled Birmingham to their defining and backbreaking early fourth quarter touchdown that eventually sealed the game. Earlier scoring drives by the Iron were kept alive by the Express committing illegal defense penalties which were heavily punitive. That can get better as the team gets used to the new rules. As a first game unit that had to come together, work on schemes quickly and they performed well. But they will need the offense to pull their weight if the Express is to be successful.
Anthony Johnson while technically a linebacker was featured many times on the defensive line. He, Jamichael Winston Sr. and Julius Warmsley all showed incredible effort and each had a sack or a combined sack. After Luis Perez had a couple successful play action, misdirect-rollouts, the defensive line adjusted and shut that down. Corey Vereen also played well on defense routinely getting great penetration. The defensive line also routinely did well to contain the short screens. However, there were times where there was no QB pressure at all, contributing to some big plays.
While Anthony Johnson did some of his best work on the defensive line, the linebacking corps was the least effective aspect. That fact does not minimize the play of former Ole Miss LB DeMarquis Gates, who consistently made great open field tackles including stopping Trent Richardson on 3rd and short and stripping two fumbles loose early in the second half which resulted in turnovers. Davis Tull came in and made some important plays in the second half as well. The middle of the field was open a lot for the Birmingham offense. That area needs to become more dangerous for opposing offenses if the defense is to be successful.
The defensive secondary played fantastic most of the game. There were some huge playmakers as well. Cornerback Terrell Bonds snuffed out an early jet sweep by the Iron that stopped the second drive without points. On a 3rd down play on the next drive, Channing Stribling, who was all over the field making plays, broke up a pass that would have gone for a big gain. On Birmingham’s eighth drive, Stribling single-handedly stopped Trent Richardson on a third and short in the open field. Jeremy Cutrer also made a third-down play in the open field on a screen pass that held the Iron to a FG deep in Express territory. He also recovered the second of DeMarquis Gates stripped fumbles.
Christian Hackenberg had a poor showing going 10-of-23 for 87 yards and an interception. While Hackenberg was harassed and had loads of trouble, it is hard to put a lot of it on his line. Early season games are always a work in progress but often, there will be lots of problems with the offensive line. The Express were not bad in the trenches and routinely gave Hackenberg the time he needed. Jessamen Dunker, Anthony Morris, Toby Weathersby, and Dallas Thomas all played well and provided good work on the OL. The only notable play that sticks out was Morris’ facemask of Birmingham’s Jonathan Massaquoi that negated a first down late in the third quarter when the game was not out of hand.
Hackenberg’s play was the most difficult part of the Express to watch. It was hard to tell if Hackenberg was having trouble because of poor offensive scheming or if he was having personal issues on the field. Several of Hackenburg’s throws came from an arm that didn’t want to follow through on its passes. Slant patterns were thrown too slowly enabling the secondary to react. His demeanor wasn’t right and it seemed like many of the things he did on the field were nonchalant or lacking the effort that was needed.
This attitude seemed to culminate in a late-game intentional grounding penalty where he just threw the ball into the turf. Though his receivers did drop a couple of his passes, most of his incompletions were the result of poorly thrown balls.
Hackenberg has the look, the stature and the pedigree of a classic QB. He will need to work hard to come back from this first week. Hackenberg will be as successful as the amount of work he puts in.
Former Troy QB Brandon Silvers came in at the end of the game and quickly suffered the Iron’s defensive lineman Xzavier Dixon’s incredible one-handed interception on his screen attempt to Rajion Neal. We will have to see more of Silvers to get a good idea of what he will be able to contribute. Zach Mettenberger was inactive for the entire game.
Though Zac Stacy had a moderately successful day running for 58 yards on 12 carries, he was slow to hit the holes that were there for him and he was stuffed on more than one carry. If he hits the openings earlier against the Iron, he runs for over a hundred yards and makes a bigger impact. The same was true of former Tennessee Vol Rajion Neal for who dropped passes and couldn’t seem to get going.
Terrence Magee and Anthony Manzo-Lewis provided hard running in short yardage situations. Both Manzo-Lewis and Magee run hard and they will be indispensable when the Express have to fight it out on the ground.
Despite the fact that there was a drop or two by the receiving core, it remains the hardest group to judge owing to the lack of aggressiveness in both the play calling and passes thrown. Reece Horn came in and made a couple of good catches with good energy but the brightest star in the receiving corps was Alton “Pig” Howard. He was effective on a jet sweep pass for a first down and was featured in most of the interesting things that the Express did on offense. I really look to see more from the receivers but the passing game looks to be a work in progress.
While the elimination of the kickoff and the extra point has taken a lot of the special teams out of the game, punting is still a thing and a busy Brad Wing showed he has the foot to get the job done. Josh Jasper missed wide on his first attempt, a 46-yard field goal. We’ll need to see more of Jasper to see where he is it currently.
While I love the way the AAF cameras show the offense from the backside, enabling the viewer to see how the play unfolds, I am less inclined to like the openness of the QB mic or the live feed of the replay announcer’s microphone. In both instances, it’s a little too much. To wit: Hackenburg’s lack of variety in his audible signals leaves one to wonder just how many pages the Express playbook has, and hearing the subjective way that the replay official makes a decision is not helpful to the idea that replay calls are objective and clear to see. In Orlando’s Saturday night win, the replay official seemed to say “okay that’s a catch” and then without skipping a beat says, “oh okay the elbow is down so that’s no catch.”
The reality is that any decision made by human beings is as messy as this is. But when subjective fans are watching, this plays up the individual accountability of the replay official and in my humble opinion, subjective fans don’t need to see this.
It is not surprising that a defensive great like Head Coach Mike Singletary has already put together a potentially great defense. The fear of having a defensive coach as head coach is that offense will not be the focal point. Birmingham has shown us the no-huddle and Orlando and Arizona have shown an ability to score and score often. With this in mind, the Express are going to have to find something to inject more offensive modernity and an ability to score. This will have to happen quickly.