Sunday the Riders will attempt to take the first step in defending their Grey Cup championship when they travel to Edmonton to battle the 2nd place Eskimos. All the successes and struggles of the previous 18 games don’t mean a damn thing anymore. It all comes down to 1 game.
At the beginning of the year I bet more than a few people predicted that the Riders and Esks would face off in the WSF… however I’m certain no one thought it would feature the epic QB battle of Nichols vs. Joseph. Speaking of things I didn’t expect, how about the fact that headed into this game the Rider QB situation is not the hottest topic. Chances of Durant starting were always remote and I personally didn’t think it would happen so we’ve known for a while that Joseph would be our guy. As for Edmonton… they are just trying to find a healthy QB. Rumours have been swirling since Reilly got hurt 2 games ago that he had a broken bone in is foot. Turns out they were true as Matt Nichols has been named the starter, though its being said that Reilly could be available in an emergency situation (aka if Nichols sucks so bad that a cripple is deemed an upgrade). Complicating things for the Esks is that 3rd stringer Pat White has a concussion and is questionable. That means the Esks are one bad hit on Nicols away from having to choose between crippled Reilly, newbie Matt Scott or newly acquired Justin Goltz (you know, the guy who adjusts his tie while celebrating TDs despite being down a ton of points).
While I don’t believe that the loss of Reilly suddenly makes the Riders the favourites (have you seen us play over the past 2 months?), I do believe this is a significant blow the Esks. Reilly’s mobility is an x-factor in that offense. It’s torched us before. It’s a nightmare for defenders and opens up the running game and passing game. Nichols is nowhere near the running threat and that will allow our defender to focus more on stopping John White and rushing the passer. Nichols is a decent QB but nowhere near the passer Reilly is either. Also factor in that they like to insert Pat White with the odd running play and the end result will be a significantly different playbook for the Esks than usual.
Despite my less than glowing endorsements of Nichols, he is still a competent QB and able to do the 2 biggest drivers of that Esk offense. #1 he can hand off to John White who is a dangerous and talented RB (and like Reilly he has torched us before). #2 Nichols can also throw short high % passes to Bowman. The Esks do that a lot to get the ball in the hands of Bowman and let him get YAC yards, which he is good at, always has been. So Nichols is a downgrade but I’m under no illusion that the Esk offense will suddenly be rendered useless just by his presence. Defensively our success hinges on our ability to limit John White. We did an alright job of that when we met in October and we had a chance to win that game. Conversely you can’t even call what happened in our first meeting an attempt to stop him and we lost badly. If we can force Nichols to throw then he is going to get harassed by our D-line and our secondary will be more than up to the challenge of stopping him. Look for the Esks to try and get Kendial Lawrence involve on some short misdirection stuff to help keep pressure off Nichols. Also, if there was ever a guy I would worry about a postseason breakout game, its Fred Stamps… guy is simply too good to have this quiet a season. We have yet to allow the Esks to get more than 24 points and I bet we hold them to a max of 3 TDs this game too. White will get some plays but I expect our defense to come out fired up and give Nichols all kinds of trouble.
Offensively, we will be turning back the clock and hoping old man Joseph has one more miracle playoff run in him. He faces an imposing foe in that Eskimo defense though… #1 against the pass, #2 against the run, least points allowed, most INTs. Let’s not over think this. We have been the most successful when we run the ball so let’s give them a heavy dose of Allen and whichever of Messam or the Space Cowboy make the roster. A big key will be our O-line. Assuming Best plays, it will be the first time since Game 8 and only the 7th time this season that all 5 starters play together. We expected a lot from them this year but injuries and inconsistent play have plagued them. A strong performance Sunday will make us forget about how the regular season went. Unless, Chris Jones suffers an acquired brain injury he will be expecting us to run and likely key up the D to stop it. While we can’t be scared to run, we need to be able to do other things in order to keep the chains moving. Dressler and Getzlaf will need to step up and lead the way in the passing game but unless we spread it around to the likes of Bagg and Williams we are not going to be very effective. Also Joseph is going to need to use his legs. We don’t need him to duplicate what Durant did last year and literally carry the team (mostly because at this age that workload would probably kill him) but if he can mix in the odd run it will help open the running game up and give him more time to pass. We will need contributions from everyone on offense if we are going to beat a defense this talented. Spread it around and be smart with the ball. Each turnover dramatically decreases our odds of victory.
Also we really need to get better production in the second half. 0, 6 and 8… that’s how many second half points we’ve generated this season against the Esks. That simply won’t cut it. This is going to be a knock down drag out fight… we need to fight like hell until the very last second expires, no letting up and trying to coast to the end.
People have been talking about the concern about Milo’s reliability and it’s valid but Hugh O’Neil does not exactly instill confidence on the other side so at best that match-up is a wash and I still give Milo the edge (not that that’s saying much).
The paper match-up in this game is close with the edge likely going to the Esks. The one thing that I think will be a big difference is playoff experience. Our locker room is full of guys with playoff experience who know how to win. The Esks don’t have many guys with that experience. That “heart” factor can be a big difference maker come playoff time.
Maybe I’m picking with my heart but…