Thursday, July 28, 2016

Riders vs. Alouettes: O-line? More like No line

At this point I’m surprised most of you still read this column. Last week I pretty much said the Riders’ chance of victory was on par with the chances that Michael Bishop is inducted into the Plaza of Honour. The Riders proceeded to go out and win. To be fair, I couldn’t have predicted the Harris injury (just another reason why I’m surprised you people still accept me as a prophet). The point is, I think I should just keep predicting cataclysmic loses for the good of the team.

Friday Mitchell Gale leads the Riders into Montreal in search of their second victory of the season. Given the current state of our team I’m reluctant to trash other teams… but let’s be honest, Montreal is a hot mess right now. Their only victory this season came against the lowly Bombers in week 1. Since that game they have averaged just 12 points per game and lost by an average margin of 17 points per game. But the on-field performance is only part of the story. All signs point to a very ugly situation off the field. There’s the fact that Noel Thorpe tried to leave but was forced to stay; the ongoing drama production that is Duron Carter; the mind boggling decision by the team to fine Nik Lewis for showing some leadership; and probably more issues that have yet to hit the public eye. This is all a product of Jim Popp’s decision to coach this team. His track record as a GM is pretty good, but a coach he is not. So it’s little surprise to see everything crumbling under his watch.

Defensively this will be a match-up of the league’s worst offense vs. the league’s worst defense (hopefully TSN comes up with something better for their promo video for this game). Montreal has scored just 5 TDs this season, have the second worst passing attack and the second most giveaways. The loss of SJ Green, Kenny Stafford and Terrell Sutton was pretty devastating.  Obviously that leaves stopping Duron Carter as priority #1. We managed to shut down Williams last week so there is hope. Thick Nik is still a reliable possession receiver with the ability to gain yards after the catch (mainly because “wrapping up” when tackling is damn near impossible on him). Also, Brandon Rutley is a threat both as a runner and receiver. Still if Carter can be contained then Montreal’s offense will fizzle. D-line has put in 2 pretty decent games now and that needs to continue. Part of that is Chris Jones noticeably dialling up the pressure and relying less on that damn 3 man rush. We need them to be disruptive to help out our secondary. I fully expect the usual bust in coverage leading to a long TD but overall I think this D is up to the challenge of containing an offense that even Duron Carter’s girlfriend apparently thinks is awful.

Offensively, I suggest you begin praying to your deity of choice because we need some divine intervention. This has nothing to do with Gale. He seems to be handling himself pretty good all things considered. This has everything to do with fielding an O-line that I can't even call patchwork because it’s now a step below that. Coleman is now the lone starter left and he’s joined by a ragtag group that instills confidence in pretty much no now. We were a team with highly questionable OL depth coming into the season and now we are in a situation where St John is one of our most experienced OL by virtue of making his 3rd appearance. With guys like John Bowman and Gabriel Knapton coming at them, you can see why I might be a bit concerned. It's at this point that I make my weekly mention that I wish we would run the damn ball. We have rushed a league low 54 times. It's just ridiculous. Help out the O-line and QB by running. It just so happens to be Montreal's biggest weakness as they allow a league high 117 yards per game. Looks like Dyer will carry the rock, which suits me just fine because I've made my thoughts on Steele pretty clear. Running (even a little bit) will help open up the passing game. Als have the #3 pass D but oddly enough are allowing a league high 76% completion percentage (probably just get tired from the being left out so often by the O). So that tells me we need to be patient but not be afraid to take deep shots when they are there. Als will be bumping up to take away the short passes so deep shots will be available if we can buy time with a rollout or play action.

A couple other advantages I see for the RIders in this game:
- Discipline: We have taken the least penalties in the League (including just 6 accepted offensive penalties) while the Als are the second most penalized. 
- Kicking: Fresh off a massive game winning kick, confidence in Crapigna is sky high. Bede on the other hand is beyond brutal. He's just 5 of 12... that 42%!

A large part of me wants to take the Riders in this one. This is a winnable game against a weak opponent. My only reservation is our abomination of an O-line. They scare me against a D as good as Montreal. Not sure we'll be able to overcome that. Especially since we refuse to run. Besides, given how well the Riders play when I predict them to lose, I'm going to do the responsible thing and say

Als by 3


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Riders vs RedBlacks: Stop, Stop, He's Already Dead

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the game Friday against the RedBlacks and I have good news for you. I have come up with an extensive list of scenarios that would lead to the Riders winning.

1) RedBlacks mistakenly thinks the game was in Ottawa and don't make the flight here

2) Points scored by the Riders get multiplied 7

3) Greg Ellingson blows out his knee and Chris Williams gets ejected for bumping into Chris Jones (I would actually pay to see that because Jones would absolutely level him)

4) All 46 RedBlack players fail to get through security due to an "anonymous" tip

5) Trevor Harris plays blindfolded with one arm tied behind his back.

6) Trainers slip ruffies into the visitors' sideline Gatorade on

Short of these I see no scenario where the Riders pick up their first win of 2016. Here's all you need to know about this match-up: Undefeated team with the top offense in the league takes on winless team with a back-up QB, second string O-line and the worst defense in the league. Just because its obvious doesn't make it any less true.

But since you're here anyway, I'll make an attempt to breakdown this match-up.

The fact that Durant is practicing is promising but Friday will be the Mitchell Gale show. Too risky and too early to even think about Durant. I feel sorry for Gale because Labatte and Best will be out and at this point I haven't heard Clark is healthy so... Umm... yeah, good luck with that. We need to help out Gale and whatever line we manage to cobble together. Ottawa has the #1 run D in the CFL (allowing just 3.3yds per rush) but still we need to be more committed to running the ball. In our case "more committed" means at least considering it once in a blue moon. This would also be a good time to work in Kendial Lawrence on some short passes to get him the ball in space. Ottawa can be beaten through the air but if we just resort to letting Gale chuck it down field, Ottawa will obliterate our line and things will get ugly. Can't be afraid to take shots but can't live solely on them either.

Defensively, I can't even attempt to sound positive. Trevor Harris is playing at an unreal level. He leads an offense that is tops in points and yards and completing a ridiculous 80% of passing attempts. In order to have a chance we need a herculean effort from our front 4. They need to disrupt Harris and the robot-like efficiency is executing.  Not sure who we will assign to tall task of covering Chris Williams either way I don't like their odds. Williams is currently on pace for 2500 yards and 26 TDs!! Now there's no way he keeps up that pace.. but I don't expect we will be the team to slow him down. I honestly think our best chance of containing this offensive juggernaut is a strong pass rush and creating turnovers.

Trust me, better days are coming in Riderville but this won't be one of them. In fact this may be the worst one to date. I encourage you to take the college guy approach to this game, lower your standards, drink a lot and there's a chance you might end up enjoying your evening.

Note: I typed this up Wednesday prior to leaving on a fishing trip so this will not account for the dozen or so roster changes that have occurred since. I will be away until Tuesday so there will be no Monday Sentimonies. Though if there were I assume they would be something along the lines of "Well that was an ass kicking." and "At least there were no lines getting out of the stadium... because everyone left at halftime." 

See you next week

Monday, July 18, 2016

(Belated) Monday Morning Sentimonies: Medic!

Riders 27 - Lions 40

After 2 straight games where glimmers of hope were emerging, the growing optimism in Rider Nation was dealt a harsh blow. Saturday's game was a bit like watching a real life version of The Replacements. Though unlike what years of Hollywood movies have taught us, there isn't always a happy ending (or Keanu Reeves or kickers who smoke). The game started out with so much promise but quickly deteriorated to a serious question of "will we have enough players to finish the game?" We knew coming into the season that our depth was questionable. Saturday we were testing every inch of that depth... with predictable results.

I'll start with the positives... mainly because there were far less of them.

This was the first game were I really noticed our front 4 getting solid disruption (at least at times). They were supposed to be a real strength for this team and thus far they have been very average. I think the addition of McInley helped. Hopefully this is something that unit can build on because, BC has a pretty good O-line. We need far more out of them on a consistent basis.

Overall I like how all members of the receiving group are contributing to our pass offense. We have lots of good weapons and the more we keep spreading the ball around, the better it will make our offense. Mitchell Gale did something we haven't seen a Rider back-up QB do in a long time: look competent. He was by no means an all-star out there but he at least looked calm and didn't turn the ball over. You can tell the bar for back-up QBs has been set low here in Saskatchewan. By virtue of the fact that he didn't fumble like Moniz and the fact that he didn't fail to make a decision like Sunseri, we generally think he's ok.

In terms of criticisms its hard to be too critical given the fact that our starting QB, best O-lineman, starting Cdn WR, starting CB and another Canadian RB all went down to injury. Don't forget also that we are already down our centre and RG meaning our entire interior OL was out. Tough for any team to win in those circumstances, let alone a team with so little depth like us. Guys like Tevaughn Campbell have no business being a starter (a fact made obvious when he literally chose to cover air instead of an actual human being) but such is our lot in life right now.

That said, despite our injury situation I thought we could have been better. Our aversion to running the football is starting to bother me. We ran the ball just 6 times all game and only 3 after Gale was in the game. With a patchwork OL and back-up QB and the lead, most coaches would opt to take pressure off both by running. We instead thought that an air show was our best chance. I know just finding a package with enough Canadians was a struggle but still... run the damn ball!

Defensively, we knew our secondary would be a liability early. So that part comes as no surprise. Especially when Justin Cox went down. It's like they say, its tough to expect a happy ending without Cox. In back to back games we have allowed over 25 second half points after having the lead at halftime. Now a large part of the blame (especially in this game) goes to the offense for doing absolutely nothing and leaving our D on the field way too long.  Still, our second half defense needs to be better, starting with the front 4 all the way back to the secondary.

It will be a rough few weeks in Riderville as we wait on Durant to heal. Not to mention all of our Canadian Linemen. I suggest finding a good coping mechanism... preferably a legal one but I guess that decision is up to you.

Other random thoughts:
- Anyone who uses this game to voice concerns about Durant's durability need to give their head a shake. Not many QBs ankles can withstand a low hit like that.

- On a positive note, at least we weren't stopped on 3rd and short.

- Ever notice how the only time people talk about Jonathan Jennings having a breakout game its after he plays a really bad Rider secondary?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Riders vs. BC: Saturday Showdown

Saturday the 0-2 Riders host the 2-1 BC Lions. Both teams will be looking to avenge losses suffered last week. The Riders will also be honouring the 1966 championship team. Personally I hope they give us the full 1966 experience. I'm talking spirographs handed out, the Monkeys playing on the P/A system and audio quotes reminding us that Beatles are bigger than Jesus.

A week ago I was a lot more apprehensive about this game than I am now. BC is still a good team but the Argos showed they are beatable. Also, our team took a big step forward last week (albeit while still failing miserably at one of the most straightforward plays in football). While BC still enters as the favourite, I think the match-up is a lot closer than it would have been had we met a week or 2 earlier.

BC's resurgence has been powered by a very strong defense and Chris Rainey on special teams. The defense has allowed the least yards and points of any team (just 15.3 points/game). This has masked an offense that has not been very good at all. I guess that's not entirely accurate. They have the top rushing attack but their passing attack has been about as effective Johnny Manziel's rehab efforts. They are averaging just 20.7 points per game (2nd last in the league) and have the least passing yards. A lot of this stems from the struggles of Jonathan Jennings. He is completing just 58% of his passes and has just one passing TD. It got so bad that Buono finally had to pull him from the last game.

Jennings will start again and by no means can you write him off yet. Defensively, stopping him starts with taking away the run. That O-line has been very good in run blocking and former Rider Anthony Allen looked really good last week. A major factor in that will be the play of our D-line. I have been underwhelmed with their play so far. The trade for McInley shows that Jones feels improvement is needed as well. We only have 2 sacks this season and while I know sacks aren't the be all end all, we need our front 4 to have a bigger impact. If we can contain the run, it will force Jennings to rely on his arm and based on recent play that gives us a good chance to win. Now they have receivers like Arceneaux who can score on any play so our secondary will need to find a way to limit the big plays we saw last week in Edmonton. Can't forget that Jennings has a strong arm.

Offensively don't expect the air show we saw last week, the Esks secondary is very porous right now whereas the Lions are currently the top D in the league. It will take a lot more patient and methodical approach to best them. Cutting Bryant Moniz certainly helps cut down the turnovers so that's a good start. Giving Steele more than 8 carries is probably a good idea. The Argos were able to control the game thanks to 152 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches from Whitaker. Can't become 1 dimensional and expect success. Durant needs to keep spreading the ball out like he did last week. It will keep the D from keying in on any one player. I have a feeling this could be Bagg's biggest game of the season. O-line will have their hands full as the Lions lead the CFL with 11 sacks. We have allowed just 1 sack so far so I think we are up to the challenge (provided we keep ourselves out of 3rd and inches situations).

The last note on BC is special teams will need to play their best as we can't allow a big Chris Rainey play in the return game. Play smart, maintain lanes and leave BC's offense a long field to work with. It would be nice if our own return guy could make a big impact but at this point I'm just happy if he maintains possession.

Maybe I'm overly optimistic, or maybe I've started my Craven drinking earlier than normal but I think we can win this game. We'll need to eliminate the big mistakes but our team is really starting to come together and with the home crowd energy to feed off, this could very well be the game were we get in the win column. I can guarantee that it won't be easy and that Arceneaux will score a TD of 40+ yards. I would say this is the week that Jones gets the Gatorade shower but I'm pretty sure he's informed the team that anyone who does that will be cut.

Riders by a John Chiles TD

Win or lose there will just be something right in the universe again when we can collectively yell "Get Off The Field Wally!"

Monday, July 11, 2016

Monday Morning Sentimonies: The Good, The Bad and Whatever It Is We Do On 3rd & Short

Riders 36 - Esks 39 (OT)

Friday the Riders added yet another chapter in the long history of giving fans hope, only to crush it, then give them hope again and just as they are piecing their heart back together, throwing on the ground and stomping it out for good. It was also another game where I fully expected us to lose and yet somehow they managed to leave me disappointed in the end.

For the second week in a row, the Riders played beyond expectations yet in the end made too many mistakes to earn a victory. They came out roaring in the first half shocking the Esks and most fans. They then decided to take a break from the whole "playing good" thing and proceeded to play like absolute crap until there were less than 10 minutes left in the game. They then launched an absolutely amazing comeback and scored the go ahead points with 19 seconds left in the game. Then of course they once again reverted to craptastic levels and managed to lose the game. They were like Jekyl and Hyde. At some points they looked like a team that could beat a lot of teams. At some points they looked like a blooper reel that was only missing the circus music in the background.

The good news is that every phase of the team chipped in and contributed in a very meaningful way in an effort to win. Offense was awesome. Durant spread the ball around to everyone (4 different players caught TDs) and thew no INTs. The touch on some of his passes was amazing to see. Ricky Collins is quickly making a name for himself. Defense got a nice endzone pick and made some very timely stops late in the game. Special teams forced a fumble, recovered an onside kick and was perfect on FGs.

The bad news is that every phase of the team also contributed to the loss in a very meaningful way. Offense completely disappeared from halftime until the 9 minute mark of the 4th. I find Steve McAdoo trying to get too cute. We ran the ball just 8 times and only 3 times in the whole second half. Then there is this whole Bryant Moniz thing. Just take any plays involving him out of the play book and burn them. Him even stepping on the field appears to be a liability. Durant seems to be firing on all cylinders so why bother inserting Moniz? Lastly there is our damn near comical inability to execute a 3rd down plunge. Esks did it twice in that game and got 3 yards each time. We are damn near 0 fer on the season. On a play that is essential fall forward and you succeed we have failed at least 4 times this season, fumbled twice and given up a TD. May want to address that because short of the entire O-line losing their pants simultaneously I'm not sure how things can get worse. Defense looked amazing early but then they settled into more what I expected. The Esks have too good of an offense to completely snuff out. They exploited our inexperience at safety. But that part didn't bother me near as much as that god awful excuse for defense that allowed them to drive for the tying FG. Even Richie Hall would have mocked that prevent defense for being soft. Play 4 yards further up and we win that game. Special Teams (more specifically Kendial Lawrence) chipped in 2 untimely fumbles to the losing effort.

It was a frustrating game because we saw definite proof that this Rider team can be a force in this league. But it was mixed with the kind of mistakes you'd expect of a bottom dwelling team. The optimist will look at that game and see a ton of positives: offensive showed firepower, defense is making progress, special teams is making a difference. The pessimist will see a team that despite the progress its made in level of play, is still finding ways to lose game (and one that I swear made 6 roster moves while I was typing this).

On a high level, I think we are happy with the direction that Chris Jones has this team pointed. We went toe to toe with the defending champs. Good things are in store for this team if they keep progressing like they are. It would just be nice if all this potential could be translated into a win sooner rather than later.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Riders vs. Eskimos: The Return

Friday night, Chris Jones leads the Riders in Edmonton for a match-up with the team he won a Grey Cup with and then left before the confetti had even settled. It was like the sporting equivalent of a one night stand. “Look this has been great but I’m not really a spend the night kinda guy and besides, I gotta get up early for work tomorrow and also… there’s someone else”. Predictably it intensified an already budding rivalry.  So expect the home crowd to be a little extra jacked up and looking to stick it to their old coach. Both teams enter this game looking for their first win of the season. 
We have a pretty small body of work to judge the 2016 Esks on as they’ve only played one game. The early observations though pretty much coincide with what was expected. The offense under Maas may actually be more potent than last year. The defense… well it looked terrible. While the loss of Jones is certainly a factor in that, the bigger factor is the loss of Grymes, Ojo, McCoil and Foster. That is a ton of talent to just lose all at once (hell that is probably 2-3 times the talent we had on defense total last season). To be fair their only game was against arguably the top offense in the CFL so they certainly aren’t a trainwreck… but still they looked bad. They allowed over 500 passing yards and allowed an eye popping 80% of passes to be completed. It honestly made me check to make sure it was Benevides calling the D and not Corey Chamblin. 
Offensively, I would follow the Ottawa blue print and go on the aerial attack. The secondary will improve but it’s currently their weak point. Now I don’t mean just recklessly throwing deep bombs all night. We need to get guys like Bagg and Lawrence more heavily involved and not just lock in Roosevelt (though I fully expect him to crack 100 in this). We need to work some short crossers, swing passes and layered routes to make the new guys in that secondary have to think and make decisions. That said we can’t become one dimensional. There’s too much talent in that d-line to let them pin their ears back. Runs and short passes will help take pressure of them.  
Defensively, this could get ugly. I saw some great things against Toronto but let’s be honest, Toronto’s offense has looked marginal at best. This will be an infinitely tougher test. This is a pick your poison scenario. Too much focus on shutting down Walker/Bowman and John White will run all over us. Too much focus on shutting down the run will leave many 1 on 1 chances for Walker and Bowman (which does not bode well for us). Given the choice though, I think priority 1 needs to be keeping White in check. They have a good O-line so our D-line will need to step up their game and create pressure as well as keep blockers from getting to the second level. The loss of Williams hurts but of our starting 4 he is the guy we can most afford to lose. A combo of Leonard (because, hey why not?) land Kashama ike fills that spot. The other thing our front 4 needs to be aware of is keeping Reilly contained. He’s dangerous with his legs whether he’s running or just extending plays. This could be a game where Kevin Francis’ inexperience really gets exposed. We will need his help over top to help keep Walker and Bowman somewhat in check. I imagine Maas is smart enough to run plays where 2 guys go deep and Francis is forced to choose. 
I actually expect our offense to have a good game. Edmonton’s D has weaknesses our O will be better now that they’ve had a full game’s experience. The problem is that also expect Edmonton’s O to have a good game. And if this game devolves into a shootout I like Edmonton’s chance of getting a timely stop on D better than ours. 
As much as I would love to see Chris Jones stroll in a steal a win (mostly just so I can watch the ensuing chaos in Edmonton) I just don't see it happening. I think we will be competitive and give them a good fight but in the end....
Esks by 10 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Monday Morning Sentimonies: We'll take it

Riders 17 - Argos 30

In a telling sign that last season pulled fans down to rock bottom, the prevailing sentiment among people I've spoken too since the season opener is "that was actually pretty good"... this despite the fact that we lost. I find it a bit weird. I mean there have wins where people were more upset than they were at this game ("we should have won by more", "there was too much showboating, show some professionalism", "there was not enough showboating, show some emotion", "the fact that Chris Szarka is not the focal point of our offense is a travesty" and so on). But the sentiment is generally positive at least for now.

And why not? What we saw on Thursday was pretty much what we expected... a team that looked like it had been blown up and rebuilt from scratch. There will be mistakes, there will be growing pains but we seem to be headed in a positive direction. Also on the positive side, our star receiver didn't knock down a coach, our coach didn't execute a dive worthy of a berth in the Rio Olympics and we are not the dumpster fire that is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Actually I think people are upbeat because if you takeaway two plays, we win that game. Take away that long punt return that put our defense in an awful spot and Bryant Moniz channelling his inner Tino Sunseri, that takes 14 points off the board and has us squeaking out a narrow victory. In fact, take away a predictably rough first quarter and the score was 17-16 for us over the final 3 quarters. Of course moral victories are worth about as much as my stash of Club Z points (does anyone get that reference?) and in the end we lost (again) but there was a lot of positive stuff to build on from that game. That said, after watching the Argos for 2 weeks they certainly are not a top end team.

Offensively, we are very much a work in progress. Durant threw for over 300 yards which is good but he'll be the first to admit there's a lot of room to improve. He through what should have been 2 picks sixes had Toronto had any ability to catch, he missed a wide open Rob Bagg a couple of times and by the end it was painfully obvious that every pass was going to Roosevelt. Don't get me wrong Roosevelt is a great player but it would help if the defense at least had the illusion they had to cover someone else. I thought Steele put in a good performance. I also thought the O-line did a decent job (giving up just one sack). I had a mild panic attack when Coleman went down. Had I been coaching I may have pulled Durant just to be safe but it wasn't a jail break when Hazime was briefly in so that was nice.

Defensively I was actually very happy. There was of course the long TD to Hazelton where Dixon got burned like a pasty skinned ginger who stayed in the sun too long but you have to expect these things when you have new guys in the secondary (especially with Dixon playing halfback). But aside from that one play the defense held Ricky Ray to 130 other yards and no second half TDs. We will certainly play better offenses than Toronto but you have to be very happy with how this unit played in their first game. They will get better as thay secondary starts to gel. One name you didn't hear at all was Brandon McDonald and given that he was playing halfback that is a good sign.

I still hate losing and the fact is the Riders didn't do enough to win. But the Riders gave us something in that game that we haven't had in a while... hope. Better days are coming in Riderville. Though given that our next 3 opponents are Edmonton, BC, Ottawa, it may be a bit longer before that hope materializes into that elusive win.

Other random thoughts:
- Attendance was pretty poor considering it was the final home opener. They announced 29,000 but that was clearly tickets as there was no way actual attendance was close to that high.

- That said, I thought the Riders did a piss poor job of the pregame festivities. Someone should tell them that if you spend weeks pumping up the "last home opener" you should actually do something different than what has been done at every single game for the past number of years. The only notable thing about Thursday's intro was how fast the anthem singer powered through O'Canada (record time, dude had places to be). They failed to make the game "special" in my opinion.

- I'll end with a commentary on the whole Lemon trade. I wish it didn't have to come to this (especially after giving him an $85k signing bonus) but all things considered we have the depth to withstand losing him and actually got a really good return considering we were forced into dealing him midseason. Sewell adds needed OL depth and given that I currently have zero confidence in any Rider QB not named Darian, Gale is welcome competition.

- I have openly expressed my concern with our OL depth but in the past 2 weeks the Riders have added Josiah St John, Dillon Guy and Matt Sewell. That certainly gives it a big boost.