Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday Morning Sentimonies: How Far Have We Come?


Despite the fact that our position at the basement of the west division has not changed, most people will agree that the Riders are a better team than last. I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to worse than the 2016 Riders but the Hamilton Ti-Cats have proved otherwise. Anyway, I thought I would take the opportunity over the Riders’ bye week to dig into exactly how much better the 2017 Riders are after 7 games than the 2016 Riders were.

Below is a comparison of the stats after 7 games between 2016 and 2017.

  2016 2017 Difference % Change
Wins 1 3 +2  
Offense
Points 138 197 +59 +43%
Offensive TDs 10 20 +10 +100%
Passing Yards 2057 2228 +171 +8%
Rushing Yards 463 514 +51 +11%
Sacks allowed 17 16 -1 -6%
Turnovers 15 9 -6 -40%
Defense
Points allowed 233 172 -61 -26%
Passing Yds allowed 2213 2041 -172 -8%
Rushing Yds allowed 643 678 +35 +5%
Sacks 10 15 +5 +50%
Turnovers 10 12 +2 +20%
Special Teams
Punt Return Avg 7.9 11.1 +3 +41%
Opponent Punt Ret Avg 12.8 9.4 -3 -27%
Kickoff return avg 19.5 25.5 +6 +31%
Opponent Kickoff Ret Avg 24.7 20.6 -4 -17%
Net punt avg 32.8 35.7 +3 +9%
Penalties 61 50 -11 -18%
Players Dressed 65 60 -5 -8%


The first thing that jumps out is that there is improvement in every category but 1. Some of the increases are dramatic and some are incremental but its improvement pretty much across the board. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

Offense
What stands out here is that we are actually scoring points (almost exclusively at home but that’s another topic for another day). Scoring is up 43% and we have doubled… I repeat doubled… the number of times our offense has crossed the goal line. We have also drastically decreased turnovers. The offseason focus on upgrading our O-line and receivers seems to be working.

Defense
Again, scoring is what jumps off the page here. We are allowing 26% less points that last season. Don’t get me wrong are defense still has its deficiencies (particularly in pass defense) but they are a far cry from the utter garbage we fielded last year. This may be in part to a decrease in a statistical category I didn’t track above “players converted to defensive starter from god knows what they were before”. Seems playing actual defenders has its advantages.

Special Teams
This is the one that really caught my eye. I had a general sense just from watching the games that we are playing pretty solid on special teams but I didn’t realize how much better. Our kick and punt returns are significantly better and our coverage teams are allowing smaller returns… particularly on punts.

Overall we are seeing a more disciplined team as penalties are down… as are fines (at least since the actual season started).

I think some of this improvement is a product of the last category in my table there. Unlike last year where our game roster was a constant carousel of players on and off, on route to dressing a record 100 players, this year there is a lot more stability overall. Key is the stability we are getting along the O-line and in the secondary.

Ultimately the only statistical category that matters is winning and we are still clearly the 5th best team in the West division in that regard until we prove otherwise. So while I’m hopeful, I’m not yet on the “the Riders have turned the corner” bandwagon yet. That said, I do think it’s important we take a step back and appreciate that we seem to be headed in the right direction following one of the biggest tear downs and rebuilds in recent memory. But also keep in mind that when your starting point is rock bottom, a few big steps forwards doesn’t immediately put you back on the top.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Vernon Adams and the Rider QB Situation

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The Riders ensured it would not be a quiet bye when they acquired Vernon Adams and a 5th round pick in exchange for Tevaughn Campbell and two 3rd round Picks. With the possible exception of daylight savings time, there is no topic that results in as much heated debate in Saskatchewan as quarterbacks. I’m sure there were calls for Adams to be appointed starter before most people were halfway through reading the headline in the press release.

In terms of quarterback recruitment this is the biggest move Chris Jones has made to date. Up until now his QB recruiting efforts can be categorized into 3 categories: Other teams’ discards (Bryant Moniz, GJ Kinne, Mitchell Gale, Jake Waters, Brandon Bridge, Bryan Bennett), Recruits who weren’t that good (Vad Lee, Jacob Huesman, Philip Sims, BJ Coleman, Maty Mauk) and misguided attempts to revive NFL careers (Vince Young and Johnny… errr I mean totally just Vince Young). We considered a ton of options this offeason. There were discussions about Lulay, Drew Tate, Michael Vick, Vernon Adams himself and of course James Franklin. Ultimately we settled on Kevin Glenn though he is clearly just a placeholder for this season.

So now that Adams is here in the flesh what does it mean for the Rider QB situation?

Effect on the backups – Regular readers will know that I am not the biggest Bridge fan. I maintain that if he wasn’t Canadian nobody we care about him. I will admit he has shown more this season that I expected but to put this bluntly, if the Riders actually thought Bridge was the QB of the future then they don’t make this deal.  I fully expect that the arrival of Adams will mean that one of Bridge or Williams has to go (despite what the coaches have said). Personally I would like to see us keep developing Williams as we don’t yet know his ceiling but there may be logic in keeping Bridge until Adams is up to speed without offense (though knowing McAdoo had we played yesterday Adams would have been randomly inserted to run a play so that point may be moot). We didn’t give up a Canadian player and 2 picks for Adams to hold the clipboard, I’ll tell you that much. He’s now the #2.

Effect on the starter – My position has always been that Kevin Glenn is our best shot at the playoffs. So barring injury, he starts as long as we are in contention… and I mean serious contention, none of this “not mathematically eliminated” garbage. If we are not 5-5 following the Banjo Bowl, then personally I think all bets are off. When it becomes apparent that playoffs are a longshot then I say Adams becomes the starter and Glenn makes his annual appearance on the trading block as a rental player.

Effect on next year – Never say never, but this move makes it less likely that James Franklin is coming here (sorry to put a damper 2+ years of anticipation). I don’t see a scenario where we have both Adams and Franklin on the roster. I guess its possible, but like I said, unlikely. We have been trying for 2 year to strike a deal for Franklin and we may have finally decided that the asking price will never be in our acceptable range. Plus, Edmonton would way rather trade Franklin to an East team than help prop up a division opponent (unless they get a ransom for him). So in Adams we may be choosing the certainty of getting someone with a ton of potential on the roster now over taking a chance that we land Franklin in free agency where nothing is ever guaranteed. We still likely try for Franklin but at a minimum we have something to fall back on if your attempts at Franklin don’t pan out.

I’m not ready to appoint Adams the saviour of the prairies just yet but I do think he’s by far the best attempt Chris Jones has made thus far to find the next franchise QB.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday Evening Sentimonies: Who was that team?


Riders 41 – Lions 8

There are a couple major concepts (that were previous damn near unfathomable) to wrap my head around in the fallout of the Riders’ blowout win on Sunday. For one, we actually beat a West team. That is a game changer as far as our chances this season goes. Equally as mind blowing, we actually played defense. And not just “good enough to win defense”. Solid, dominant defense. We also started very strong, something we tend not to do. I don’t know who it was that took the field on Sunday night but it certainly wasn’t the Riders I have been watching all season.

The offense went according to script: they play like utter garbage on the road but at home are electric. But for me this game was all about the defense. They made more plays on Sunday than I swear they made in the previous 6 games combined. Coming into this game we had forced 5 turnovers and sacked the QB just 11 times (less than 2 per game). Sunday they exploded for 7 turnovers and 4 sacks. Now I will put a caveat on all of this prior people start thinking we have finally turned the corner defensively. This was against a team with a terrible O-line, missing their most productive WR (and losing another one mid-game) and a QB who tuned in one of the worst performances of his career. Don’t get me wrong, I love that we took advantage of that and turned in a dominant performance but we have to prove that level of play can be repeated vs. just being a one off. Maybe we finally found a combination of players that work. I like Butler at HB a hell of a lot more than Lyles. Also, Moncrief turned in a great performance (minus the part where he ran out of gas 5 yards into what should have been a pick 6). He was really good in coverage all night. Have to give props to Gainey. He has been not very good this year and was drifting his way back onto my hate list but man did he make some plays. None of those picks were easy catches. As much I loved his performance, I wish he would have let Duron get that last INT. Not sure we ever would have heard then end of that. That man can do anything… Just ask him. My only negative comment about the D was that we should probably structure our roster a bit better so Carter isn’t our only back-up DB.

Offense turned in another great performance on home turf. At some point maybe we should look into why they can’t do that on the road, but I’ll focus on the positives for now. It started upfront with a solid performance from the O-line. Unlike Clark, Labatte actually has the ability to read a stunt and the middle was noticeably more sealed up. Having your top 2 OL playing out of position is not ideal but if that combo keeps working I’d be inclined to ride with it. While the defense was the biggest shock of the day, a close second for me was our commitment to the run and Marshall getting double digit carries. It’s such a key part to our O. Overall it was a good offensive game plan we had. The ball was spread around (even to Spencer Moore). Guys were getting open. Glenn was throwing well (minus that pick that was all kinds of terrible decision making). My only real knock on the O was when we went shot-gun formation twice in a row from the 1 yard line. Not going to lie, was losing my marbles in stands. Even though it worked out in the end, I still hate it.

We even played really good on teams. Christion Jones is quickly making an impact as a returner. Short of injury, I don’t see how Chad Owens makes it onto the roster. Our coverage was also pretty solid (minus a couple times).

It was surprising result but a win against the West huge, if for no other reason than to prove we can. We still have a long road ahead of us to claw us back into the playoff mix but Sunday showed that we can hang with at least one West team. The prospect of playing the road after a bye scares me still (it went so well last time) but this is by far the most optimistic I’ve been about our chance this season.

Other random thoughts:
- I still can’t believe that no Rider did anything about Ty Long being at mid-field when they came out of the tunnel. I was hoping someone would plow him but I get not wanting to do that. But at least get in his face and chirp him until he leaves. Back in the day no way guys like Kitwana or Kornegay would have let that happen. Show some pride, defend our turf.

- Riders sure mailed it in for the halftime show. They must take the same approach to being forced to work on Sunday as the rest of folks.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Riders vs. BC Lions: Let’s Try This Again


After getting embarrassed out west, the Riders will get another crack at the Lions, this time on home turf. If you were a big enough sucker for punishment to watch all of the last game, you have little reason to be hopeful for the encore. I mean even the schedule makers are against us as the Sunday night start time precludes most of us from even drinking this one pretty. There is only one thing that is prevent me from limiting today’s analysis to “We’re screwed” and ending it right there. That thing that provides me a shred of hope (that in true Rider fashion is likely to be smashed to smithereens come Sunday) is that the Riders are a completely different team at home.

Well I guess I should qualify that last statement… the Riders’ Offense is completely different at home. The defense is what it is regardless of location and what it is, isn’t all that great… but more on that later. It’s pretty obvious that all hopes in this game rest on our offense. I put the odds of our defense grinding out a close, low scoring victory right up there with the odds of the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl, I mean sure I suppose it could technically happen but... On the road our offense couldn’t find the endzone if they were placed right beside it and pushed in its general direction. They are averaging 13.7 points on the road (a figure that drops to 8.7 if you exclude the 2 garbage time TDs from Bridge). But at home, they seem to be drawn to the endzone like an O-lineman to an all you can eat buffet. 38.3 points per game at home and never less than 37 points over our 3 home games. BC’s Defense is certainly better than the previous 3 we faced at Mosaic but as I said, there is hope in this fact.

So how do we move from theory to reality in terms of a potent offense? Three pretty basic steps. #1 Keep Glenn upright. With Dan Clark out it seems that we are moving to 3 imports with Dennis moving to guard and Campbell taking over at tackle (We can debate the status of Canadian OL depth another time). We need them to step up and actually give Glenn some time. Also, if they aren’t giving them time, our OC needs try a foreign concept called adjusting and roll Glenn out to move his launch point. Or try some screens/swing passes. #2 Run the ball. I have probably written this phrase more than anything else over the past year and half. By now you would think I would have resigned myself to the fact that it is futile but I guess I’m stubborn. Our offense works best when Marshall is chewing up the yards. When he gets the minuscule 5 carries he got last week, our offense becomes 1 dimensional and predictable. #3 Stretch the field I am admittedly not the biggest Brandon Bridge cheerleader but I’ll give him credit for being smart enough to realize that throwing it deep to your playmakers once in a while is a good idea. If all you are going to do is 8 yard passes (especially on 2nd and 10) then we might as well save Roosevelt and Carter’s salary because they aren’t needed here. The famous Kevin Glenn dink and dunk only works if you occasionally stretch the field to back the defense off. I think we need 28 points minimum from our offense to have a fighting chance in this.

As for the defense… well just try not to embarrass yourselves too much. As painful as it was to watch them last week, at least they managed to force a lot of FGs. I hate being this negative but I realistically think that's the best we can hope for. Jennings will be back and I guarantee they will want to showcase what the combo of his arm and Chris Williams’ speed can do. I think we need to do 2 things to give us a chance given that my assumption is we will be giving up a lot of passing yards. First we need to not be such wussy babies in the trenches. BC’s O-line is not that good. It’s one of their few weaknesses. Rather than making them look like all-stars by sending 3 or 4 to go hug them gently for a bit, let’s attack them and expose the weakness. Minter is out which means we likely go with an all Canadian interior, not that it matters much as our interior overall is mediocre at best (certainly an issue). We need pressure on Jennings and we need him to have to throw quick. If he has time, his receivers will obliterate us. The second thing we need to do is not get bullied on the ground. This certainly starts up front but as a unit the 200 rush yards we gave up last week is an embarrassment even by our low standards. We need to plug that up.

I am maintaining my conviction that until the Riders prove otherwise, unless they are playing an East team at Mosaic then bet against them. I would love if they defied expectations. If our offense is as potent as it has been at home then I think we have a legitimate chance. But I won’t go as far as to predict victory. Possible is not probable.

BC by 10…. But the good news is I expect a first half TD from the Riders so that’s progress.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Road Kill

Riders 15 - Lions 30

About the time Crezdon Butler bounced off the goal posts we should have realized it was not going to be our night. Actually about the time we saw we had to play on the road (against a western team to boot) we should have realized it was not going to be our night. Yet again this team's complete and utter inability to play like anything but crap on the road was on full display. The result was a predicable and painful to watch loss. At this point it seems that our best odds of making the playoffs are by relocating to the East division. 

There's probably not enough words or time for me to fully describe how brutal our offense was. In 3 road games (excluding garbage time), our offense has produced a total of 2 TDs. I'm not going to bother wading into the whole QB controversy thing but based on the our season so far I would leave Glenn at home next road trip. He plays great at home, but on the road evidently the travel schedules messes with his Matlock time and he shows up to the game useless. His eyes apparently could not see more than 6 yards down field as that's as far as he attempted passes... even on 2nd and 10. Now by no means am I putting our offensive issues all on Glenn. It would help if our receivers could catch the ball and maintain possession. It would help if we had better protection. It would also help if our offensive game plan wasn't devised by a 4 year old on a etch a sketch. Glenn was getting killed in the pocket. Everyone could see that. Should we run the ball to ease the pressure? Nope. Should we stretch the defense by throwing it up to our playmakers? Nope. Should we move Glenn's launch point by rolling him out away from pressure? Nope. The best offensive plan is keeping him stationary and attempting the same passes that didn't work all night. Genius. 

Since the QB controversy is already raging in this province. Allow me to address Bridge... he threw up a couple hail mary's in garbage time that panned out. Had BC's defense not been nursing a 30 point lead he doesn't score that easy. Though to his credit, Bridge seemed to be the only guy to think that maybe toss it up to Duron was a good play.  Glenn is the guy until Banjo Bowl... if the playoffs are a pipe dream by then, then play Bridge and return Glenn to his annual place on the trading block.

The defense was weird to me. They were softer than 3 ply toilet paper (allowing 500 yards and an embarrassing 200+ rushing yards). I mean they couldn't stop anything. But as if in homage to Richie Hall to mostly kept the Lions out of endzone (when they weren't bouncing off goal posts). Did they play good? No but with all the field goals they forced they would have given us a chance if we had a competent offense. I don't like the fact that we made a porous BC O-line look like an impenetrable wall. Instead of attacking one of their few weak points we were content to rush 3 maybe 4 if we were lucky. Those rare times we dialed up the pressure I swear our players were doing a Scott Gordon homage and running directly at opposing blockers rather than towards a gap. 

The end result is something that probably hurts us to admit but at this point we are unquestionably the 5th best team in the West. Playoffs require us to be at least the 4th best team  and we have a long way to go before that is a possibility.

Other random thoughts:
- Christion Jones showed a little bit of spark on his few returns. 

- Butler (an NFL vet) had much to adjust to in coming to the CFL, count "goal post in different place" among those lessons

- Part of me did enjoy Kevin Glenn calling out TSN for talking about a QB controversy. The other part of me wanted him to shut up and quit smiling until he did something productive.  

- Rob Bagg looked like Getzlaf out there. Dropping the routine passes and snagging one he probably should not have. 

- At first the illegal kickoff call confused me but then I read up on it (you should try that as an alternative to outrage). To get possession the player who knocks the ball out must have his feet in bounds. Roosevelt was in the air and did not land in bounds, therefore no possession.

- Van Gylswyk will probably be looking to Tonya Harding Crapigna after getting next to no actual kicking attempts in that game after waiting all this time for a chance.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Riders vs. Lions: Road Test


As much as I have enjoyed basking in the warm fuzzy feelings of last week’s win, here’s a hard dose of reality. After a relatively soft opening schedule, we now enter 5 straight games against Western rivals. To legitimately have a shot at the playoffs we need to go at least 3-2 over these 5 games. To accomplish that we will need to do 2 things we haven’t done this season. 1) Beat a west team. 2) Win on the road. First chance to accomplish that comes Saturday as we travel to BC for an evening game against the 4-2 Lions.

At first blush this game is concerning. BC is 4 and 2 and their only loses have come against Edmonton. They have a full arsenal of offensive weapons that has scored more offensive TDs than anyone. On defense they boast a number of big name playmakers. And they are coached by the all-time winningest coach in CFL history (who is already standing halfway on the field in anticipation of the game). We also haven’t won in BC since 2014 (though I guess you could say that about a lot of places).  But while I’m not going into this game with a ton of confidence, based on what I’ve seen from BC this year I do think we have a chance (and not just if the Lions forget the game is on Saturday and have to forfeit).

A big key is this game will be the Riders’ offense not playing like crap on the road (that’s some top notch analysis I know). At home we are lighting up the score sheet averaging 38 points per game… on the road we are averaging just 13. We have just 2 totals TDs on the road this season… 2. We also have been starting super slow on the road with just 10 first half points over 2 games. That kind of output simply will not cut it (unless we convince the league to let us play Hamilton every week).  BC is beat up in the secondary (with TJ Lee out long-term) so there will be favourable match-ups to be had with our receivers. The tendency would be to want to keep Carter’s monstrous momentum going and I agree with keeping him involved but if BC is keying on Carter we need to be prepared to attack with Roosevelt, Carter, Holley or even one of the Canadians. Glenn needs to be effective early and not create turnovers. We need another strong week from Marshall. Elimimian always makes running tough but the Lions are allowing 5.3 yards per carry (top in the CFL) so a strong runner like Marshall should be able to chew up the yards and take pressure off Glenn. Much like last week I don’t see our defense winning us this game so the offense will likely need 25 points minimum to give us a chance.

Defensively I think this will be our toughest challenge to date. There are just so many legit weapons to have to contain. Jeremiah Johnson has a TD in every game this season. Arceneaux is one of the top WRs in the league (though he has been slowed by a knee injury of late). If you manage to keep both of those in check then they can hit you with Moore, Rainey and Burnham. And as if that isn’t enough, all signs point to Chris Williams making his BC debut. I recommend starting to pray to the deity of your choosing as divine intervention may be needed. But BC has 2 weaknesses that we can hopefully exploit. The first and most glaring is that their O-line couldn’t block an inanimate bowl of fruit, let alone a living breathing defender. It seems the Lions have finally clued into the fact that David Foucault is a train wreck at guard and they will be sitting him. Even so, the BC O-line is not very good. All the great receivers in the world won’t help you if you’re on your ass. If there was ever a game not to bother with 3 man rush, this is it. Attack that line and make life miserable for Lulay. Last week the BC offense sputtered until finally gave into the fact that they could not block and started calling plays where blocking wasn’t required (i.e. screens) so we need to watch for that adjustment. The other weakness is Lulay himself. While he has admittedly been playing great, he’s throwing a ton of picks. He has 6 in just 3 games. Now the issue here is that we have the least takeaways in the league. We have just 2 INTs this season and one was essentially by accident. That needs to change. I see us struggling to defend so a turnover or 2 will be needed if we want to give our offense a chance. Odd stat for you: the Riders have allowed the 2nd least passing yards this year (I would have bet money against this being true). Though we have allowed the most passing TDs. I guess it means we play reasonably well but when we screw up it’s a big screw up.

The last thing worth mentioning is kicking. Tyler Crapigna is out so Quinn van Gylswyk draws in for his second career game. He went 1 for 3 in his lone appearance last year so let’s hope he fares better this time around.

If you had asked me 2 weeks ago I would have placed our odds of victory at “laughable” but between BC’s injuries and crap O-line, I now upgrade our odds of victory to “in the realm of possibilities”. I expect a close game but honestly until I see evidence that we can play well on the road and contend with a West top end West team, I’m not about to expect us to win.

BC by a long passing TD to Burnham late in the fourth.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Explaining How Chris Jones Uses the 6 Game IR


You’ve probably noticed that Chris Jones is quick to put players on the 6 game injury list. It’s always concerning to see people placed on the 6 game, particularly when the fans aren’t clear on what the injury was (i.e. Crapigna and Love today). But… Jones also pulls many of them of the 6 game IR early (i.e. Muamba, Holley, Rodgers and now Mrabure). While many of the things Jones has done in his tenure are sketchy/questionable at best, this is something that I actually think makes a ton of sense. Here’s why:
Quick rules summary: Players on the 1 game IR have their salary count against the cap but are allowed to practice. Players on the 6 game IR do not have their salary count against the cap but are not allowed to practice until 2 weeks before there are eligible to return. Players can be pulled from the 6 game early but then their salary counts towards the cap retroactively. Teams get 2 exceptions that allow them to pull people from the 6 game early and not have the salary count. Such players must have been on the 6 game for more than 6 games (i.e. players spends 6 games on the IR, and then is placed on the IR for 6 more games, they can be pulled after game 8 for example, penalty free).
So salary-wise, there is no difference between having a player on the 1 Game IR for 3 games or placing them on the 6 game IR and pulling them early. The only difference is that on the 6 game a player can’t practice (which is a non-issue if the player is legitimately hurt). So by placing a legitimately hurt player on the 6 game Jones is actually preparing for a worst case scenario. If all goes well and the player recovers quickly, they get pulled early. Salary-wise it’s as if they spent the time on the 1 game. No harm no foul. So you might ask why bother if there’s no difference?
Well, what if the injury is expected to take 2 weeks to heal but actually takes 6 or the player suffers a setback? If the player were on the 1 game, you would have to eat the salary. Under Jones’ set up, if the injury takes longer, he’s covered and the salary does not count to the cap.  Salary-wise, it’s better to put them on the 6 game and pull early than it is to put them on the 1 game and find out later it’s a longer term injury. It makes a ton of sense and I think all coaches should do the same.
So our 1 game IR isn’t actually for injured people (I’m sure you’re all shocked). It’s for people we want to pay full salary and be able to practice but we can’t fit them on the roster (i.e. Zver, van Gylswyk). The 6 game (previously 9 game) used to be where you’d stash players but now with the rule tweak that they can’t practice (at least not when league officials are looking wink wink) it’s tough to develop players stashed there. That is why Zver, a player we want to develop, is not on the 6 game even though I doubt he plays this season. We need him to practice to develop.
So what may seem like roster shenanigans by Jones is actually just him maximizing the teams benefit from the existing rules (though I’m sure some shenanigans are mixed in there too).