Monday, October 24, 2016

Monday Morning Sentimonies: So Losing Is Still A Thing?

Riders 14 - Als 19

If I was an eternal optimist, or just one of those people who think the Riders can do no wrong, I would open today's post extolling the good strategy of the Riders for keeping the drive for the #1 overall pick alive. As you know, however, I am instead a bitter, jaded realist who could write a novel entitled "Things the Riders did wrong this year". If actual encyclopedias were still a thing it would make a great (and depressing) series.

In a meaningless game between two of the worst teams in the CFL on a rain-soaked afternoon, its hard to imagine a group of people who wanted to be there less than the fans. Turns out the Rider players, coaches and even the refs did not want to be there either as all seemed to go out of their way to put minimal effort into the afternoon. The care factor just didn't seem to be there on all accounts.

The Cole's Notes version (do people still get that saying?) is that our O-line showed a complete inability to pass block and our offensive play callers realized way too late into the game that Joe McKnight was the only thing we had going for us. Consider this: Over the first 23 minutes of play the Riders ran 11 offensive plays. 4 plays went to McKnight who totaled 31 yards and never got less than 4. The remaining 11 plays combined resulted in a total of -12 yards and only one play went for positive yards (3). It doesn't take a genius to see that maybe we should have given up on the pass plays (that only resulted in sacks and incompletions) and focused more on feeding the ball to the one guy who was actually being productive. As a Vikings fan I had the distinct pleasure of watching both my teams in consecutive days show no ability to pass block... and both refuse to adjust their play calling accordingly. I fully support the Fulton trade but we clearly have taken a step back in the trenches since he left. For all the gains we've made this season in talent O-line remains a glaring need.

Offense's futility squandered a pretty good defensive performance (albeit it against the worst O-line in the league and a depleted receiving corp). They put up 6 sacks and could easily have matched their yearly total if not for the escapability of a clearly greased up Vernon Adams. That's what it sucks being the first D to play a new QB. Next opponent will have the benefit of seeing his tendencies on film. Even so, if you exclude the TD they allowed when a Durant fumble set the Als up on the 2 yard line, the D did their job in this one (other than going offside way too much). One guy who blew me away was Tevaughn Campbell. All I have ever seen from him was a super fast guy with no coverage skills but Saturday he looked like a bona fide DB out there. Great play on his INT and I noticed him a couple other times for positive reasons.

As I mentioned the players weren't the only one mailing it in. The usually challenge happy Chris Jones clearly didn't want to lengthen the game anymore in Saturday. Also the refs, were so eager to be out of the rain that they missed that blatant head shot on McKnight at the end. I don't really care about how it affected the outcome of the game (let's not forget the game is meaningless) but if you really care about player safety then letting a guy torpedo himself headfirst at another player should probably be noticed and punished.

In the end the game was pretty much two pretty good defenses against two pretty bad offenses (minus what Adams was able to improvise) on a dreary day where the primary concern of pretty much everyone involved was "when will this be over". Personally I blame the presence of Jordan Sisco. I still have no idea how anyone in their right mind could see fit to honour him with the other deserving 2013 Grey Cup honorees. He literally contributed nothing. I'm convinced his mere presence caused a cosmic force of terribleness that affected the Riders.

Side note: I was the only guy in the stands booing when that Chip Cox fumble return TD was called back (on an embarrassingly bad plunge by the Riders). I have Cox in Fantaseh and that offside penalty may have cost me my playoff match-up.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Riders vs. Alouettes: The Drive For Five

Saturday features a match-up so far off the marquee that if it were not the second also game ever at old Mosaic, people might not care. One team comes into this game on a role, playing their best football of the year just in time for the final stretch, stabilizing their roster and generally giving their fans something to get excited about. The other team comes in just trying to find a fire extinguisher that will keep the dumpster fire moderately under control. They have won just 1 of their last 6, their GM just cut their top 2 receivers (just one of many crazy roster decisions this season), they are giving a rookie QB his first start, limping down the stretch and generally giving their fans reasons  pursue other sporting interests. The amazing thing here is that the latter is the one that still has a playoff shot (granted the odds are so slim that it would take 4 miracles and a government legislated intervention to actually materialize).

Coming into this year Montreal was essentially an extremely talented defense that was saddled with a mediocre offense. This year they are essentially a talented defense that has been gutted by headscratching attempts to save money (that evidently aren't working as the $300k over cap rumor just won't go away) and is saddled with a mediocre offense that has also been gutted and a crazy GM... and a terrible kicker... and, well in the interest of brevity I'll stop there. (As an asside it feels really weird to spend two weeks in a row blasting opponents for being gong shows given how our season went down).

Our defense will be missing Hecht and Cox which I think will provide a huge test for how far this defense has come. The secondary has remained unchanged for close to 2 months now. How will a new combination fare? The good news is that Montreal barely qualifies as being able to be referred to as an offense. They have the least yards gained this year and second last in points scored... and that was before they cut Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford and turned to a rookie QB with 4 completions to his name as their starter. Never like facing a QB without much film on him but given the general potency of the Als offense, I'm not sure we should be concerned. It starts upfront, the Als O-line is dreadful (most sacks allowed). Our front 4 need to make life miserable for Adams all day. Three things we need to watch, 1) Brandon Rutley is a very talented RB so we need to keep him in check. 2) With a new safety and without Cox as our lockdown DB I could see a bust in coverage leading to a big play for a guy like Cunningham. Gotta limit those. 3) Nik Lewis will get his catches. I'm sure his gravitational pull must help the ball come his way.

Offensively, I think we all want to see what Joe McKnight has for an encore. The Als have the worst run defense in the league so its a prime match-up for him. Feed him the ball until someone proves they can stop it. At this point in the season the debate is of course how much to play Durant as opposed to evaluating new guys. Its a home game, the team is on a role, I say give the fans what they want and let Durant play. The final road game can be for the back-ups but in the final home games at Mosaic give us our franchise QB well into the 4th at a minimum. Als have the #2 pass D and are #2 in points allowed so it won't be a cake walk if we can't get the run game going. But with contributions from Holley, Collins, Craig, Bagg and Demski, I think we have the firepower to put up at least more than the 2 FGs the Als offense will be producing (unless Bede is kicking again... then you can only count on half of that).

As a team eliminated from the playoffs I don't like being cocky but the Riders are playing with a great level of confidence, while the Als are just counting down the days until this dreadful season is over and their rebuild can begin. After 2 weeks on the road, the roar of the home crowd should give the Riders the boost they need to get a victory that should easily be their's.

Riders by 14.

Given that is the second last game at old Mosaic, I'm planning on getting an early start on calling dibs on all the stuff I'll be taking home as a memento. So I call dibs on my bench in the stands, the north goal post and the Max Tron.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Monday Morning Sentimonies:

Riders 29 - Argos 11

Don't look now but the Riders have as many wins in the past 5 weeks as they did in the previous 18 months. They are now on the second longest win streak in the CFL, could finish with the 5th or 6th best record... and have no shot at the playoffs. I realize the Riders have no one to blame for themselves for their lack of postseason opportunity but still the fact that if they were an East time they would be in contention for a home playoff game does suck a bit. It also highlights how horriawful (a combination of horrible and awful) the East division is.

After spending the bulk of 2016 (and 2015) as the worst team in the CFL, its weird to talk about how crappy an opponent is. But man oh man are the Argos crappy. Have to assume there will be firings come November. They are playing like a team that cut all their offensive weapons and put all their faith in a QB who is terrible... oh wait. To be fair, this wouldn't be this first Willy to over promise and under deliver.

For the Riders, it was all about Joe McKnight. 150 yards rushing, 8.8 yards per carry. He was damn near more effective on the ground in the first half than the Riders were in the month of August. I for one did not see that coming. I also assumed based on how the season had gone that after how effective he had been in the first quarter that we would inexplicably stop running the ball. Temper the excitement a bit because the Argos are awful but he showed some great vision and speed. Be exciting to watch him down the stretch. Kudos also to our O-line who were run blocking really well. Some huge holes for McKnight. Given that they were pretty awful in pass protection it made me wonder why we bothered passing.

Pretty early to be thinking about training camp (though I bet many of have been since mid August)
receiver depth but I am excited about the brewing battle at import receiver. Holley, Edwards, Fuller, Collins, Roosevelt, Craig. A lot of talent there. Speaking of Joe Craig, he may have scored one of the easiest punt return TDs I've seen. He just ran in a straight line. I do like what he has been showing at returner.

I won't read too much into our defenses performance against a non-existent offensive threat other than to say they continued their strong play of late. Henoc Muamba shook off a shaky first game to have an impactful game 2. While I don't think Hecht and Bennett are the best players out there you can't over emphasize the stability they have brought to our secondary since their arrival. I would say our D just had their easiest challenge of the season but after watching the Als' game I think they have it in them to give the Argos a run for their money.

It may be too little too late in terms of winning anything but dammit this winning thing is fun!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Riders vs Argos: Keeping the streak alive

Fresh off spending a day practicing on Parliament Hill, the Riders continue their Eastern road trip with a stop in Toronto.  Given the hype surrounding Austin Matthews and the Jays, I'm not sure anyone in Toronto will actually notice or care except for the few Rider fans and families who show up.

The Riders and Argos enter the game on very different trajectories. The Riders have the second longest winning streak in the CFL after rattling off 3 straight wins and the mood is generally pretty positive. The Argos enter on a league worst 4 game losing streak (and have lost 7 of their last 8) and the wheels appear to be coming off both on and off the field. Between the still mind-boggling Willy trade and the sudden cutting of their entire receiving core, the Argos seem intent on tanking for the 1st overall pick in the draft. Only problem is they can't even manage to tank effectively because they gave their pick to Winnipeg. Don't forget that this was once a team that had Ricky Ray, Zach Collaros AND Trevor Harris in their QB stable. Now all they have is a battered old man Ray and a useless Willy.

Offensively the only consistent thing they have going for them is Brandon Whitaker. He quietly has close to 1300 yards from scrimmage. Priority 1 defensively is shut him down (both as a runner and receiver). Shaw and Spencer are good receivers but I will gladly take my chances with Willy throwing behind an O-line that gives up the 2nd most sacks. Not sure what happened to Willy but it really looks like Winnipeg broke him mentally (hell I'd breakdown too if I had to live there). He's a shadow of the young (dare i say) up and comer that started his career here. Toronto turns the ball over lots and our D is vastly improved. So, provided we can limit the big plays (which the Argos rank dead last in), we should be okay.

Were it not for a rash of injuries I honestly think we would steamroll the Argos but it will be somewhat of a patchwork offense. Fulton is gone. Edwards and Fuller are injured (side note the only knock on Fuller is his tendency for appearances on the injured list so something to keep an eye on). Demski is banged up and may not play. For reasons I don't yet know Steele will be replaced by Joe McKnight at RB. The only positive news that Ricky Collins seems ready to step back in. Now the Argos allow the 2nd most points so they are vulnerable but they also force the 2nd most turnovers so we need to be careful. Also you can bet Shawn Lemon (and his damn near more sacks than our entire team) will be fired up to make an impact. I hope we continue the recent trend of coming out guns a blazing. Between Holley, Bagg, Collins and even Craig we have the weapons to put up points if Durant keeps throwing like he has been. The key will be sustaining that though and not having our offense disappear for large portions of the middle of the game. Remaining committed to run game would help, as would knowing when to dial back the long bombs and just take 5-10 yards passes.

It seems wrong to be cocky about our chances given how dismal the season has been but as I mentioned, if we were fielding the same offense as last week, I honestly think we would have destroyed the Argos. Fielding a new offense levels the playing field a bit. I think the biggest factor will come down to confidence. We are a confident group right now and it shows in our play. The Argos look anything but confident and it shows in their play. We need to attack them early because if they fall behind I don't see them showing much fight. But if we start slow and let them get an early lead it could be the opposite and their confidence could build.

There's always a chance that Willy plays he first non-craptastic game of the year but I far prefer the odds of that not happening.

Game will be closer than it should be but in the end...

Riders by a Rob Bagg TD

The only good news is that Willy picked the best city in the country to suck in. In Toronto, not only will Willy's poor performance not lead to laughter and ridicule. It will largely go unnoticed. Many Torontonians may even comment that they didn't know Willy was in yet.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Happy Thanksgiving

Riders 32 -RedBlacks 30 (OT)

Don't look now but after mustering just 1 win in the first 10 games, the Riders have won their last 3. It's now been a full calendar month since we last lost. And while playoffs are but a pipe dream (don't give me that mathematical chance crap), I must say that this whole winning thing feels really good. This particular win was made even sweeter because it was fueled by a Burris interception and a Milo miss. I should say that I have nothing personal against Milo, always liked the guy. I just figure that after all his misses here, he kind of owed us that one.

The game highlighted many of the aspects that the Riders have improved at... as well as many issues that have plagued this team all season.

On the good side, we once again came out guns a blazing on offense. Going straight for Ottawa's jugular. Durant was dialed in and the way he was throwing that easily could have been a 3 score game early if our receivers could catch. We spent all season napping through the 1st quarter and playing catch-up all game. It's no surprise that when we are aggressive early and build up a lead, its far easier to win.  Our defense has gone from embarrassingly awful to holding Harris/Williams/Ellingson/Jackson/Sinopoli to one score through 3 quarters. We got turnovers (plural!). We got sacks (also plural!). They were a real difference maker instead of something you prayed sucked just enough not to cost us the game. Willie Jefferson made a huge impact in his first game. Justin Cox is a stud. Ed Gainey is making me hate him less each week and Fred Bennett is one tough SOB to hang onto that pick while taking that hit.

On the bad side... we saw our potent first quarter defense go to sleep until part way through the 4th. Some of that was receivers not catching. But I think a big part of it had to do with a refusal to adjust our game plan. I liked pushing the ball downfield early. But when your D is locking things down and you have a lead it no longer makes sense to keep our offense based on deep shots. Curtis Steele had 5 carries for 50 yards... it doesn't take a mathmegician to figure out that he should have had at least double the touches. Also the short 5-8 yards passes that we decimated Hamilton with disappeared. Defense also came unglued in the 4th. Ottawa has a potent O so it's no surprise they finally managed to get points on the board but 22 in one quarter is ridiculous. Penalties hurt us. Honestly if Mrabure-Ajufo were American he would need to find a new career. Mediocre play coupled with very poor penalty-filled decisions the odd time he actually gets in position to make a play.

The good news is that unlike earlier in the year where the team would have crumbled based on this adversity, they actually battled back. That TD drive by Durant was so clutch. And that TD grab by Bagg was a sight to behold. Durant even got us back in position to kick a game winning and FG. I maintain that if the snap isn't off and if Bartel has time to spin the laces out that Crapigna would have made that 55 yarder. It's such a weird feeling having confidence when your kicker lines up again.

As exciting as the win was, it apparently came at a high cost. Edwards and Fuller are done for the year with hand injuries. Its too bad because Edwards he been flat out impressive. As for Fuller, unfortunately one of the few knocks on him is that he's often good friends with the injured list. Demski is out short term with a shoulder injury as well as what we hope is a curable case of Getzlafing.

It may have been closer than it should have been but I am not about to complain about a team that has made watching them lead me to drink due to excitement as opposed to drinking as a coping mechanism.

Other random thoughts:
- Josh Bartel has been damn good this year. He looks nothing like the guy who was here during his first tour of duty here.

- If they ever advertise a game where Burris is mic'd up, I won't watch it. His constant whining is intolerable.

- Durant joking with the ref about the "block" he threw was pretty funny.

- Unlike Jefferson, Muamba had a rougher time re-acquainting himself to the CFL

- Joe Craig has been impressing me as a returner

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Riders vs. RedBlacks: Back at It

Friday the Riders travel to the land of mediocrity aka the East Division for a match-up against the 6-6-1 RedBlacks. The last match-up back in June of course featured the highly anticipated Gale vs. Jensen match-up as Harris got injured early. It resulted in the Riders’ first win of the season… a fact that I don’t think the Redblacks were made fun of for nearly enough. The RedBlacks will be looking to separate themselves from the crap that is the rest of the East division (or barring that, suck slightly less than everyone else in order to maintain their lead in the division). The Riders will be looking to extend their winning streak to 3 (they haven’t lost in close to a month!). The wins may be meaningless but the boost to team and fan morale as they build towards 2017 is huge.

Coming off the bye week you may need some reminders on who is and isn’t with the team anymore as there were a number of changes that occurred. Willie Jefferson, Jeff Fuller and Henoc Mumba are in. Kendial Lawrence and Derrius Brooks are out (though unless you are a devoted follower of the team you probably won’t even remember Brooks as he spent all year on the injured list). These all look like great additions (and all have signed beyond just this season) and I’m very excited about all 3. But perhaps temper elation just a bit for a few games. Let’s not forget we were also excited when we signed Chiles, Lemon, and Lawrence.

Ottawa’s offense is a curious case. On paper they have unbelievable firepower evidenced by the fact that they lead the league in passing yards and completion %. But they are only #6 in scoring. Three things are holding them back. The first is their O-line… it’s been struggling. They have lowest gain per rush in the CFL and they allow the 2nd most sacks. The loss of SirVincent Rogers puts a massive hole in a unit that wasn’t firing on all cylinders before. The second is the revolving door at RB. Since their #1 guy William Powell went down in preseason, they have started 4 different guys. At the rate they are going, I’m slated to start game 17 for them. The final thing is Chris Williams (you heard me). After starting the season looking completely unstoppable, Williams has been inconsistent and unproductive most weeks. Consider these stat lines:

Chris Williams first 4 games: 36 targets, 31 receptions, 556 yards, 6 TDs
Chris Williams last 9 games: 76 targets, 43 receptions, 650 yards, 3 TDs

Some of the drops he’s been making even Chris Getzlaf would make fun of him for. Still he’s insanely dangerous as are his counterparts Jackson, Ellingson and Sinopoli so the secondary will have their work cut out for them. Key will be attacking that beleaguered O-line. If Harris has time he will dissect us. Even if we don’t get to him (which, looking at our sack numbers is a pretty safe bet), simply hurrying him or forcing him to move his launch point will help. The lack of a credible run game may open up chances to blitz our LBs more.

As for our offense, the key will be patience. Ottawa allows the third least yards and is number 2 against the run. Their biggest issue is their undisciplined play leads to a ton of defensive penalties. They lead the league in that category and it costs them. We need to take what the defense gives and wait for them to Plaxico Burress themselves (or I guess updating that referencing Aqib Talib themselves). We can and should take shots downfield but should do so sparingly and use the run game and the short/medium passes (like we saw against Hamilton). Ottawa’s outside pass rushers don’t overly scare me but one guy in particular in the middle needs to be kept in check… Zach Evans. He’s flourishing in his first full year as a starter. It’s too bad we never had the chance to keep him here… oh wait. Our O will need to do their part to keep us in this game as I see the big receivers for Ottawa putting up points.

Here’s a surprising fact: the Riders have won more home games this season than Ottawa. Then again the Riders are winless on the road so take that with a grain of salt. In fact the last 2 eastern games the Riders played they lost by a combined score of 94-10. You can blame the night life in Montreal… not sure what the excuse in Hamilton was... steel mills and ?

I honestly don’t know how this game will go. The Riders have been playing better and are coming off a bye. That could either lead to them coming out refreshed and firing on all cylinders or flat and slow going. The RedBlacks have been super inconsistent (tie the top ranked Stamps yet lose to Logan Kilgore and Mitchell Gale) so they are beatable. That said, they are not completely injury ravaged like Hamilton was and actually have semblance of a defense unlike Edmonton so they will be the toughest test we've faced in a while. 

I expect a close game but since I can't decide I'm going to play the odds and bet against the team that has yet to win on the road. Seems they do better when I bet against them anyway.

RedBlacks by a Sinopoli TD (I need the Fantas-eh points)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Monday Morning Sentimonies: New Mosaic Stadium

Even though it was a bye week in Saskatchewan, it was still a big weekend for football. We finally got our first taste of football at the new Mosaic Stadium. It was a small scale version of what we can expect come 2017 but there was no shortage of excitement in the stands on Saturday.

Here are some of my observations of the day:

- My experience started when I arrived at the gates and was "randomly" selected for a metal detector scan. Don't get me wrong security is a good thing but are you telling me that the mom and her small children that preceded me were not just as likely to be packing?

- The first thing I noticed was how bright it was. Its a beauty. A stark contrast from the dank pit we are used to.

- I like the wide concourse. Though I was reminded that they can engineer a more user friendly stadium but you can't engineer people to not walk like idiots.

- Until you actually stand under it, you don't appreciate how ludicrously massive the screen is. I mean you can tell its huge from the road but standing under it is a wow moment.

- Aside from the endzone seats (which I personally loathe), there did not appear to be a bad seat in the place from what I saw.  Great sightliens even from places you wouldn't normally expect.

- They grossly underestimated how much food was needed. Lines were crazy long and before half time most menus were half scratched off. Getting booze was super easy. Hopefully when the permanent food kiosks are in operation, things will go bit smoother.  That's the kinda thing this test event was meant to sort out.

- By the way the waffle gridiron sandwich from beer bros was surprisingly awful. I would not recommend. Opt instead for the 2 foot hot dog. It's essentially a loaf of bread with a giant tube of meat jammed inside.

- The 50/50 hit over $85,000... that just over $5 spent per person!

- Organizers were blessed with a perfect storm. Weather was superb for October and they lucked out with the Rams playing some great football this year. Had the stadium been completed a year earlier we may have had to freeze our ass off while watch the Rams get steam rolled.

- Speaking of the Rams... Noah PIcton is one hell of a QB. So many times I watched him throw and thought "were in the blue hell is that pass going?!?" only to see a Rams receive appear at the last second in the pecfect place. Picton's placement and sync with his receivers is something.

- The final couple minutes of that game were astoundingly weird to watch. The Rams were in FG range for the nail in the coffin late only to do the one thing they couldn't afford and turn the ball over. Then the Huskies get confused on what down it is and throw a 7 yard out on 3rd and 20 to effectively lose the game.

- One thing I did appreciate, the lack of challenges and ticky tacky pass interference/illegal contact calls.

All in all it was a great day, and left me pretty excited for the new season. Its somewhat cruel that after giving us a sample of a brand new stadium, for a first place team in sunny weather, they now return us to the old crappy stadium for meaningless and likely cold games.