Friday, August 31, 2018

Riders vs. Bombers: Labour Day Classic 2018

It’s the most anticipated game on the regular season schedule. Even in bad years (not like we’ve had any of those in past few decades) a game with a boisterous sellout crowd. A time when an influx of visitors from the East (i.e. the only place in Canada where tooth to gum ratios hover around 1:1 and IQ levels count be counted on people’s hands) come to witness their team get pummeled in person. I’m talking of course about the Labour Day Classic!

Buckle in because this is going to be a long post. I of course must devote the first section to educating you on some facts about Manitoba. You know, so we can be more knowledgeable and gracious hosts to our visitors this weekend. Then I will get into my usual game preview. Now I pride myself on being an inclusive and non-judgmental person (stop laughing) so I decided that rather than writing out Manitoba facts as a I normally do, I would be mindful of the dreadfully low reading levels in Manitoba (and if I’m being honest pockets of Saskatchewan) and represent the facts graphically instead. Ooooh pretty pictures!

Alright with that out of the way, let’s get to the game.

With the exception of that unfortunate incident in 2016 (which we shall never speak of again), the Riders haven’t lost Labour Day in over a decade. Some of those games have been exciting. Some have featured such awe inducing QBs as Justin Goltz, Brett Smith and Michael Bishop. This one should be more of the former. We are riding a winning record and a 2 game win streak in the West. While the Bombers come in on a 2 game slide, they are still a talented team.

This will be a big test for our much beloved defense. The Bombers have the #1 scoring offense in the League and LaPolice’s playbook has more wrinkles than a naked senior citizen (how’s that for a disturbing mental image). They have one of the best O-lines and the #1 rushing attack powered by Andrew Harris. That said, they do have their shortcomings that we will need to exploit. First is Matt Nichols. I don’t know if he’s regressed or if the pre-season injury is still affecting him but the gunslinger that broke out last season is nowhere to be found this year. The Bombers are 6th in passing yards and have the second fewest completions of 30+ yards. Also they can’t seem to protect the ball with 21 giveaways (3rd most). Last season Nichols threw just 8 INTs over the whole season. This year? 7 already in just 7 games. It’s no secret that this offense revolves around Andrew Harris and that works when your QB can be counted on to keep the defense honest but lately that seems to be a struggle. Here’s some super obvious analysis for you: priority 1 is shutting down Harris.  Winnipeg has only won once when Harris fails to crack 100 yds and only lost once when he does crack 100. They are also 1-4 when Harris gets less than 18 touches. That means strong run D and tight coverage when Harris leaks out for a pass. You can bet LaPo will be throwing some wild stuff at us: Streveler passes on short yardage, reverses, WR throws. Secondary will need to stay disciplined. We likely won’t have the benefit of WRs dropping everything like we had in BC. With Winnipeg’s struggles to stretch the field we need to focus on taking away the short stuff. That O-line poses one of the biggest challenges our D-line will face but we hung 5 sacks on Calgary so I’d say they are up for the challenge. I’m setting the turnover line at 2.5 and taking the over.

The Winnipeg defense is a talent-laden group that is drastically underperforming. On the positive side they are among the league leaders in takeaways and sacks. On the negative side they are 6th in points and total yards allowed and 7th in passing yards allowed (something Bomber fans are ready to run Richie Hall out of town for. His famous bend but don’t break D has become a bend and then break defense). So it would seem the recipe for success is just don’t turn the ball over. Easier said than done of course. It goes without saying (even though I’m saying it, thus defeating the purpose of this preface) that we need to run the ball to slow down the aggressive pass rush. Hopefully having Thigpen back will add some needed speed to complement Mason’s power. In the pass game we need to establish some medium passes. Of late we seem to only have the quick screen or chuck it deep and pray in our toolbox (to be fair this is a positive step us we previously didn’t have the 2nd one in the playbook). Winnipeg has the most INTs so unless we balance our passing attack, the deep shots could start proving fatal. It would be a nice time for a big game by Roosevelt who could be that reliable underneath presence we need to string long drives together. That will require Williams-Lambert and Evans making some plays to draw coverage away from him. I would also be in favour of using Kyran Moore’s speed a bit more. Both him and Thigpen could be deadly weapons in this game.

You can bet with an O’Shea team that special teams will play into this. We obviously have a returner with the ability to flip the field. While not nearly as consistent, Kevin Fogg also has that ability. I also fully expect a punt fake from O’Shea or a reversal or some trick on a return (I’m having flashbacks to the punt return TD in the last Banjo Bowl, shudder). Need some solid play on teams to ensure this is a phase we win.

The magic number in this game is 30. Not as in the almost 30 years its been since the Bombers won a Grey Cup. Seriously the last time the Bombers won the Cup MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were the coolest thing in music, Kindergarten Cop was one of the top films (it’s not a tumor!) and people still though Bill Cosby was delightfully hilarious. No, by 30 I mean points on the board. Here’s your super interesting but probably useless tidbit of knowledge for the day. In games where the Bombers score 30 points they are 4-1, when they score under 30 they are 1-4. In games their opponents score 30 points they are 0-4, when they hold opponent under 30 they are 5-1. Now I won’t lie and say I’m banking on our offense to crack 30 but we have only allowed 30 points twice this season and just once at home.  

A quick start will be key. Score early, crank up the crowd noise and the pressure on Nichols and make them play chase. As much as I love dramatic game changing plays on Labour Day, I would be all for a super boring game where we grind out a victory. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. I expect some fireworks on both sides in this one. I see this as a game that will take a few years off my life expectancy. In the end though, I expect the Riders to win the Labour Day Classic. It’s what we do.

Riders by a Roosevelt TD

Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Grinding It Out

Riders 24 - Lions 21

The Riders' win in BC on Saturday has been described with such terms as: narrow, barely, ugly, and boring among other negative things. But when you can show me where in the rules those kinds of wins cause you to earn less points in the standings than a convincing or pretty win then I will start caring. The bottom line is this, the Riders went on the road against a team that had yet to lose at home and found a way to win despite facing a fair bit of adversity. In the process they earned 2 crucial points in the West division standings where they are now just 2 points back of second place.

Yet again the story of the game was the defense. We are a team built to grind out wins on defense and that skill came in handy. They came up big every time we needed them. Give up a massive Rainey return, no problem force a FG. Offense disappears mid-game, no problem they allowed just 3 points in the second half. Untimely interception, force a 2 and out. 3rd down gamble with game on the line, stuffed with authority. My drink needed refilling... well that may be the only time they let me down on Saturday. 2 sacks, 3 turnovers and just one TD allowed (mainly because of a long PI call). It is honestly getting repetitive to sing the praises of our D every week but I will gladly do it week in and week out if they keep stepping up like this. They came up big when we needed them and had next to no support from offense while doing so.

Offense briefly gave us hope and then quickly devolved into the no-ffense we we've grow accustomed to. Much like me on a Saturday night, they seemed to blow their load way too early in the evening and have nothing left when it really mattered. Unlike me, the good news is that they were still able to provide a happy ending. After we scored in the second quarter I foolishly let myself believe that 3 offensive TDs were a possibility. I know, I know it was a pipe dream in retrospect. It was crazy to see how quickly we went from Collaros moving the ball at will while involving many different players to "please god just fall forward because you'd at least gain 3 yards then". Not sure why we got away from using Kyran Moore's speed which seemed to be effective early. Collaros' passing yards were overly inflated by receivers bailing him out on two long passes. Evans just willed that ball into his possession and Bailey made an unbelievable catch on a pass that never should have been thrown. At least the Evans pass was single coverage. That Bailey pass was into double coverage and at no point was he open. Look, I like that we have the confidence to stretch the field but reckless passes like that will catch up with us. As bad as they were, I will give them credit for that 4th quarter drive. We got the ball on our 13 yard line with 4 mins to go and managed to drive the ball to mid-field while killing 3 mins. No points but huge drive. I realize that's like congratulating your dog for pooping on the laminate instead of the carpet because its easier to clean up but hey, you take good news when you can get it.

Here's the thing for me... we won without a score on D or special teams. We won while giving up sacks and interceptions. Neither of which we have done thus far. Yeah it was ugly but I'm super happy we have a team with the toughness to grind out an ugly win because it damn sure won't be our last.

These last 2 weeks have been about as perfect as possible for the Riders. 3 West teams lost both last week and this week and we won twice. We have catapulted ourselves from the West cellar to in the mix for a home playoff game. Stock up on purell and hide your attractive barn animals because next up is Labour Day!!!!
Other random thoughts:
- Making Nick Marshall our short yardage QB has turned our scary awful short yardage group into fairly competent. Don't ever put Bridge back in there.

- Speaking of Marshall. I'm curious just how screwed his wrist is.

- One of the 2 sacks we gave up was a rare complete F-up by Labatte. The hole left was so huge I just naturally assumed it was Dan Clark's fault but the replay showed otherwise.

- Speaking of Labatte, dude is as tough as they come and I'm sure by this point his ankles are more pain killer than actual flesh.

- Nice to see Christion Jones get a couple big returns again.

- Alex Chevrier is quietly turning into quite the solid special teamer. When we drafted him Coach Jones said he was the fastest special teamer in the draft class. Turns out it was one of the few draft occasions where Jones was right. See, even a broken clock is right twice a day.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Riders vs. BC Lions: Keep It Rolling

Saturday the Riders travel to BC to face the 3-5 Lions. The Riders are riding high after taking down the previously undefeated Stamps. The Lions are in a rough patch, going 1-3 over their past 4 games.

What makes me confident about this game is also what worries me. On paper, this is a game that the Riders should win. This is also a game that has trap written all over it. After a big home win against the top team in the league it would be easy to get overconfident and go on the road and lay an egg against a far weaker team. This will be a big test of the players’ mental toughness and the coaching staff’s ability to keep the team focused.

BC is a weird team. They are led by the best coach in CFL history and have a talent laden roster but have been a bottom feeding team for the past year and a half. Some of that can be pinned on Jennings’ regression as a QB but they are still only 2-3 with Lulay back at the helm. Despite their record there are a number of reasons why this team should not be taken lightly. 1 - They are undefeated at home. All of their loses have come on the road. BC Place seems to give them a boost. 2 – They have beaten the Esks and Bombers already. 3 – Their schedule through the first 8 games has been as tough as they come. 6 of their 8 games have been against teams with a winning record. Wally has turned teams around before so it would be perilous to view this as an easy win.

Offensively we need to keep building on the progress we’ve made since Collaros returned. He has not been sacked since his return (a stat I found amazing) and he has not thrown a pick. I know people are throwing cold water on the Collaros train by pointing out that 270 passing yards and 1 solitary offensive TD last week are not that impressive but a) that was against the best defense in the CFL and b) we are a team that is built to win on D and Special Team so all we need is decent offensive play to win (as evidenced by last game). In order for our offense to keep rolling we need to stay committed to the run. For all my criticisms of McAdoo (of which there are many… many, many, many) we currently have the #2 rushing attack in the CFL. BC is #6 in defending the run (clearly missing Elimimian) so that’s where our attack needs to start. We also need to keep working the Williams-Lambert connection. We need a non-Roosevelt WR to be productive for our pass game to work and he is the man for the job. Lee and Rose are playmakers in the BC secondary but Orange and Peters don’t scare me. Spread the ball around and don’t turn the ball over. We need multiple TDs in this one not just a million FGs. Though the way our defense is playing I have a feeling 2 TDs on O will be enough.

Defensively priority #1 is stopping the run. Jeremiah Johnson is a very good RB and he will certainly be leaned on to help the BC O-line deal with our pass rush. I don’t think BC has ran the ball near enough this year… but then again you are probably sick of me complaining about a lack of running by now. I know Lulay is a good QB and he’s throwing to all-stars like Arceneaux and Burnham but if we shut down the run and make them one dimensional then I like our chances. BC’s O-line has not been great so I expect our D-line to be disruptive. BC has also turned the ball over 3rd most in the league. We need to feast on that. I say it’s a 3 turnover minimum on Saturday.

Any game where you are facing Chris Rainey, special teams immediately become very important. He has the ability to change a game at any point. We need to contain him. Add in Christion Jones and you have a game with the top 2 returners in the League right now. If one of the 2 manages to score I think that team will win.

As much as logic would dictate the Riders continue to roll after just beating a much better team, logic is not something the Riders have ever been big on… particularly in the Chris Jones era. BC plays tough as home so I expect a tightly contested, low scoring game. BC has allowed just 17 points per game at home and that includes facing Edmonton and Winnipeg who have much more potent offenses than we do. I also expect a far more stressful and frustrating contest as BC will hold the lead at some point and we will need to claw our way back into things. The game will be closer than it should but a late turnover will swing momentum back our way and lead to a game winning FG by Lauther

Riders by 3

Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Green Is The Colour For Chris Jones

Riders 40 - Stampeders 27

So the Riders who were unable to beat the gong-show Alouettes, whose offense could best be described by poop emoji and whose off-field drama has consumed the media for the past week plus managed to hang 40 points on an undefeated team while their head coach (a man who hasn't been seen not wearing black in years) wore a green t-shirt on the sidelines... the CFL is a wild and whacky league man.

The Stamps were undefeated coming into this game because they play solid in all 3 phases and make very few mistakes. So how do you go about beating that? Play solid in all 3 phases and make very few mistakes. It may not always be easy to do but its not rocket science. The Riders turned in a full team effort AND gave that effort for a full 60 minutes. The result was a convincing win over the best team in the league. 

One of the biggest keys to the victory was starting strong. Coming into this game the team had 1 total first quarter point at home this season and most will recall the 24 point deficit they incurred last time the Stamps were in town. They flipped that script on Sunday, scoring on their first 2 offensive drives and adding a pick 6 to build up 14-0 lead after the first quarter. Actually if you ignore the part where I predicted the Riders to lose, my pre-game analysis was pretty solid. Called the need to start strong, called the need for a couple turnovers, mentioned Nick Marshall being important, nailed Williams-Lambert needing a 100 yard game. Also nailed this one: "I expect them to come out guns a blazing (and by that I mean defense will be awesome and offense will score 2 FGs" All in all it was a good week for Prophet.

But enough blatant tooting of my own horn, let's talk more about that great game.

We have an offense people! Zach Collaros was dialed in. Read the D well. Hung in the pocket to make some tough throws. Protected the ball. Pushed things down field. Its amazing how much having a competent QB can change this. Don't often hear me say this but credit to McAdoo. Game plan was pass heavy early was balanced overall. Found a way to rely on a WR not named Roosevelt. O-line wasn't always pretty but they once again allowed 0 sacks and kept Collaros pretty clean. Cofield had his struggles but wasn't the train wreck I was expecting (he's also built more like one of our receivers than OL). We will still need to turn more of those FGs into TDs if we want the wins to keep coming but when you put up 26 offensive points against the best defense in the CFL you had a damn good night.

Defense was yet again outstanding. 5 sacks, 5 turnovers, 1 TD. Interesting stat for you. In 6 non-Rider games the Stamps have turned the ball over 5 times. In 2 Rider games they have done so 8 times!! Chris Jones may have them figured out. There are few feelings more satisfying than seeing Bo Levi Mitchell look confused and panicked. He's used to damn near impenetrable protection from his line and time to calmly pick apart opposing defenses. We had him under siege all night and he looked lost at times trying to figure out what the D was doing. Granted he still threw for 4 TDs but the played things perfectly while protecting a sizable lead. Charleston Hughes is an amazing player to watch. 11 sacks in 8 games (putting him on pace for 24 sacks). Remember that this is a guy that 2 teams deemed expendable this offseason. Seems Matt Elam's main weaknesses is not being allowed to dress due to a roster error. When we overcome that he's a pretty good player. He's very strong. On his one sack he just blew through the RB like he was a piece of cardboard. Yet another solid outing by the defensive unit.

One of the most telling parts of the game was when the Stamps had that strong 3rd quarter and pulled within 11 points. Rather than crumble and find ways to lose. The Riders stayed clam and grinded out the W. That's the character of a winning team.

This was the first time this year that the Riders put in a full 60 minute game in all 3 phases. If they can find a way to continue that then things could be looking very bright in the second half of the season. That said, just like the world wasn't ending when we lost to the Als, we are not suddenly destined for the Grey Cup after 1 win (no matter how impressive). Lots of season left to go but certainly lots of reasons to be excited going forward.

Other random thoughts:
- I'm not a big live mic fan but one of the benefits has been TSN capturing some great Chris Jones moments. There was the clip of him having Thiggy and Christion Jones stand beside him to make him look tall a few weeks back and yesterday the mics caught Collaros pre-game asking Jones "What? They didn't have a black one for you?" to which Jones replied "Its coming next week". I love those reminders that Jones does indeed have a soul.

- Seriously, he can now not take off that green shirt until we lose right? He's undefeated in green shirt games

- I get that Marshall was a QB so you have to respect the pass but anyone who has watched film on McAdoo should know that if a QB other than Bridge or Collaros goes in there is a 99.9% chance that its a QB run. 

- Big props to the crowd for being loud and disrupting the Stamps O. Rare to see them take 1 let alone 2 time counts.

- Weekly reminded that Brett Lauther is a stud.


Friday, August 17, 2018

Riders vs. Stampeders: The Rematch

Sunday the much hated Stamps are back in town for the 2nd of 3 meetings this year. The Stamps are undefeated (though for context they have only beaten 1 team that currently has a winning record). The Riders are looking to end a 2 game slide and to prove that life can go on without Duron (that’s the last you’ll hear me mention Duron as I’m already sick of talking about it). The Stamps are about the most well rounded team there is. They have few weaknesses and have been dominating most opponents… there has however been one exception.

The Stamps and their #1 D have not allowed more than 18 points to any team… except the Riders. The Stamps and their #2 ranked O rarely turn the ball over. In 7 games they have a league low 8 giveaways… 3 of those came against the Riders. While there’s no bonus points for coming close, the fact is that the Riders have been the only team thus far to put up a respectable fight against the much vaunted Stamps. Now to be fair that fight came after spotting them a 20+ point lead in one of the worst quarters of football I’ve witnessed but the Riders played the Stamps hard and hopefully that’s something that can be built on.

This goes without saying for anyone who witnessed the 1st quarter massacre a few weeks back but if we hope to have any chance of beating the Stamps, we need to start strong. Slow starts have plagued this team, particularly at home. Trivia question for you… in 4 homes games, how many first quarter points have the Riders scored? Then answer is 1, 1 solitary freaking point! We are not exactly built to come from behind so maybe not starting the game like were half asleep would be a good idea. Interestingly enough we also average just 3.8 points in the 3rd quarter at home. Seems it takes us a while to get going out of the tunnel. Problem is Calgary isn’t a team that will give you that time. Calgary has never trailed after half time this season, we will need to change that narrative if we want an upset.

On defense, provided we can manage to put every player we intend to play on the game day roster, we should be good. A big change from last game is that Don Jackson is likely to return at RB which will be a big upgrade from Morris who we saw last time. Still our run D has been rock solid so not overly worried. The big concern is limiting the big plays (I realized I just used the word big 4 times in 2 sentences, I should maybe look into a thesaurus). Mitchell leads the league in passes over 30 yards. Having Marshall in the secondary again should help in that regard. While the Stamps rarely turn the ball over, we will need our D to force a couple turnovers in this. They got 3 last time so there’s hope.

Offensively Collaros should give us a boost from the non-existent O we had in the first meeting. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Terran Vaughn is injured so Takoby Cofield will be manning the left tackle spot. Our O-line is not great but have been holding their own not bad of late. From what I remember of Cofield in the preseason he made Charles Thomas look like an impenetrable wall by comparison. Definite concern here. We will need to establish a run game to save our line and Collaros. We managed 100 yards rushing last time we played… though that was more a quantity than a quality thing. But running alone will only lead to the chorus of boos we heard last time. We need to throw. Provided he is given time Collaros should be able to move the ball. We will probably need to use Spencer Moore at TE to help Cofield with blocking. With that WR who use to wear #89 gone and Roosevelt likely facing quadruple coverage someone is going to need to step up. Based on what I’ve seen I would say the most likely candidate is Williams-Lambert. He’ll need 100 yard game. As for Rob Bagg, if he dresses I expect he will make a max of 2 catches. Each will be for 5 yards of less and lead to a thunderous standing ovation (He’s the new/old Chris Szarka). Above all we need to limit turnovers. We remain undefeated when winning the turnover battler and winless when losing it.

Special teams is going to be a factor in this one. Last time we gave up a punt return TD and we can’t do that again. Christion Jones has been consistently good but it would sure be an opportune time for him to make a huge impact on a game again.

Our next 4 games are against western opponents and we need to win at least 2 of those to stay relevant in the division. BC suddenly has some life again so we can’t even coast into the crossover anymore. Both logic and my gut tell me that this will not be one of those 2 needed wins.

I do expect a tight game like we saw in quarters 2 through 4 last time. After the loss in Edmonton and all the drama of the bye I think this team is ready to blow off some steam. With the home crowd on their side I expect them to come out guns a blazing (and by that I mean defense will be awesome and offense will score 2 FGs… that’s guns a blazing by our current standards). The game will be closely contested. I will even go so far as to say the Riders will lead at some point in the second half. That said in the end I think the team that is excelling in all 3 phases will overcome the team that is excelling in 1 phase, doing pretty good in 1 phase and doing not even good enough to earn a participant ribbon in the other. Just because it sucks to hear, doesn’t make it any less true.

Stamps by a DaVaris Daniels TD

If there’s any consolation, it’s that generally when I write the Riders off, they play really well to spite me. Hopefully that means both me and the Stamps will be smoten.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Bonus Tuesday Sentimonies: Where are we at?

*** I originally had this typed up and ready to go for Monday thinking this would be a great bye week post but then the damn Riders had to go and make headlines and force me to do work and type up a whole other post. Anywho, the end result is you get a bonus post***

Last year around this time I did a comparison of where the 2017 Riders were at in comparison to the 2016Riders after 7 games . Given the bye week, I thought I would take the opportunity to do something similar and compare where the Riders are at this season after 7 games in comparison to where we were last year at this time.

After 7 2017 2018 Difference % Change
Wins 3 3 0
Points 197 151 -46 -23%
Offensive TDs 20 8 -12 -60%
Passing Yards 2228 1407 -821 -37%
Rushing Yards 514 823 +309 +60%
Sacks allowed 16 10 -6 -38%
Turnovers 9 16 +7 +78%
Points allowed 172 175 +3 +2%
Passing Yds allowed 2041 1796 -245 -12%
Rushing Yds allowed 678 536 -142 -21%
Sacks 15 16 +1 +7%
Turnovers 12 15 +3 +25%
Special Teams
Punt Return Avg 11.1 11.7 +1 +5%
Opponent Punt Ret Avg 9.4 10.6 +1 +13%
Kickoff return avg 25.5 23.1 -2 -9%
Opponent Kickoff Ret Avg 20.6 19.6 -1 -5%
Net punt avg 35.7 34 -2 -5%
Penalties 50 57 +7 +14%
Players Dressed 60 55 -5 -8%

The results should not be overly surprising. In very general terms, the defense is playing much better and the offense… well they are offensive. While we have the same number of wins as last season, I would say we got there in very different ways. We started very slow in 2017 losing our first 2 and going 2-4 before starting to right the ship. In many respects our offense had to compensate for our defense, which struggled out of the gate. This year we have essentially been playing .500 ball all season and it’s our defense compensating for our offense.

Let’s dig deeper into the numbers…

Offensively the thing that stands out (other than the fact that touchdowns have become an endangered specifies) is that we have actually improved in 2 surprising areas. Our run game is vastly improved. As someone who has devoted more space on this blog to bemoaning McAdoo’s staunch opposition to running the ball than pretty much any other non-ostrich related topic, I do have to acknowledge that he’s changed this year. And while the “run up the middle a million times” philosophy is not what I had in mind, we are running more and we are gaining more yards per run than last year. The second surprising area is that sacks are down. Our O-line scared the crap out of me coming into the season (and for the first few games they proved me right). But they have been steadily improving and as a unit are ahead of last year. Obviously running the ball a lot more plays into this as you can’t give up a sack on a run play… well I’m pretty sure I have some teams that could but it is a lot harder.

The bad news (and more important news) is that scoring in down, TDs are way down, passing is down (in a league that now revolves around passing) and turnovers are up. Hopefully with a healthy Collaros and all our receivers actually playing receiver we can build on our run game and improved protection as the season progresses.

Defense is unsurprisingly better across the board. Points allowed is up a tiny bit but when you consider that the offense is turning the ball over more (creating short fields) and offering next to no offensive support, I would argue that even holding points allowed consistent is an accomplishment. Biggest improvement is in our run defense and to me that is clearly a product of the emphasis we put on improving our front 4… particularly the interior of the line. Last year Steele was our best DT. This year he is our 3rd best DT. That’s helping stuff the run and helping keep Hughes and Jefferson free to pressure the QB. The fact that the D is generating more turnovers is a big reasons we have 3 wins, as is their ability to contribute to scoring. Last season the D scored 5 TDs all season… we have 3 in just 7 games so far. Just imagine how much better this D could be if they got some offensive support?

Special teams is a bit of a mixed bag, though we are generally around where we were last year. When you consider that we are without our top 2 special teams tacklers from last season (Denzel Radford and Glen Love) and guys like Francis have missed time, it’s not entirely surprising to see some struggles here. Young guys like Gagne and Chevrier are being leaned on in their place. One area that’s not on my table that I do want to note is our surprising improvement in the kicking department. I think we were all expecting a drop off from Crapigna to Lauther but thus far he’s been 5% more accurate on his kicks and (in an underappreciated but important category) averaging close to 5 yards more on kickoffs.

Looking at the last 2 lines we see that penalties are up, which is not a good trend. We also see that our roster is continually getting more stable. In year 1 Jones swapped players in and out like they were playing cards en route to dressing a record number of players. Last season we got more stable and this season we are even better. It shows that Jones has pretty much identified his core group and is now making changes mostly for injury sake.

While our offense has been hot garbage, I would argue that as a whole team we are likely slightly ahead of last season. Remember that we got hot in the second half. Jones may be unconventional (to put it lightly) but he's been winning games. With Calgary, BC and Winnipeg x2 on deck,it would be a great time to start that second half surge.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Bye Bye Duron

In a rare act of proactiveness I had actually typed a blog post in advance of going away this weekend. I figured it was the bye week, I wouldn't feel like doing it when I got home (I was at a wedding after all) and there wouldn't be any news anyway. Well... in the continuing theme of the Riders doing things to spite me, they made some big headlines late Saturday. So here I am typing up a new post to make myself seem at least remotely current.  Feel sorry for me dammit.

I will post my original post for today tomorrow so as not to let it go completely to waste.

On to Duron...

The Riders dropped a bombshell Saturday when they confirmed that Duron Carter had been released. Fortunately I was at a wedding and had access to ample coping mechanisms. In a recurring theme with Duron, his release was a very divisive issue. Some were happy to see a diva receiver who runs his mouth finally out of the picture. Others bemoaned the release of an elite offensive weapon at a time where our offense doesn't seem like it could score even if it ruffied the opposing defense. Then there were those outside of Saskatchewan that just laughed. If you could bottle the misery of Rider fans and sell it across Canada you would be very rich. Also, when you look at this history of this franchise, its not like you would ever be lacking in supply.

Lots of people have asked me what I think about the move. Straight up, I don't like it. Look I can buy that Duron was a shit head that likely wore on teammates and coaches. College through the pros, Duron has never lasted anywhere more than 2 years. There's a reason for that. But here's the thing, we knew what we were getting into. Its not like its a big secret what kind of guy Duron is. We knew what we were getting last year when we originally signed him and we knew even better when we re-signed him this offseason. Despite that knowledge we knowingly took on the risk. If we had any doubts about our ability to cope with him in the locker room we should not have re-signed him. We should have used the close to $200K to instead pursue another receiver that would better fit our plans or at least more permanently fit in them. But we did not. We chose Duron and now 7 games into the season have to jettison him. Its a waste and its another case of the roster mis-management which has plagued Chris Jones.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't have a problem with Jones the coach not putting up with a player who puts himself before the team but I do have a problem with Jones the GM investing so heavily in a guy who knew would be high maintenance and then giving up when it came time to putting in the required maintenance work. It really makes me wonder how much gutting all the veterans from offense had to do with this falling out. Maybe last season Bagg, Grant, Roosevelt, Owens and Glenn we're able to exert their veteran majority to keep things functional. Now the offense is full of young/new guys and Carter's antics become harder to keep in check as a result. Just speculation on my part but it would make sense.

While this isn't going to doom our team, this is a blow to an already struggling offense. It leaves our team down a top end player in the middle of the season. There's a chance ridding him from the locker room could give the team a needed boost and that would seem to be what Jones is banking on. It could just as easily go the other way and be one more form of adversity for a team already struggling to keep pace in a very competitive division. 

As long as Jones delivers wins then we are going to have to learn to live with his methods no matter how crazy they may seem... and quite frankly I'm fine with that. The man is paid to win. But when you look at the growing list of questionable roster moves I think it's fair to start pondering Jones' future if those wins don't keep coming. Its far too early in the season to considering that now but should the Riders not make the playoffs it suddenly becomes a very fair question.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Close But No Cigar

Riders 19 - Eskimos 26

Just like much of my love life, the Riders' performance on Thursday can be best described as coming up inches short. Well if I'm being honest, in my case it would be many inches short and early as well... but I digress. In what seems to be becoming a theme this season, the Riders hung with one of the top teams in the league but ultimately come up short. If effort and coming close without actually accomplishing anything were worth anything we would surely be in first place... I mean sure the Stamps would be the undisputed champs of that mystical league... but yet again I digress. 

The frustrating thing about that loss is that despite playing one of the best teams in the league, most of the things that contributed to the loss were self inflicted wounds. We just can't seem to get out of our own way. We had to play 1 man short because we submitted a roster with an error on it. We have an almost comical inability to convert from the 1 yard line. We went 1 for 5 in that game and even the one that succeeded was more dumb luck than good execution. We continue to deploy our players in some very curious ways (more on that later). I honestly don't think the talent gap between us and the top teams is very wide at all. The difference is that the good teams find ways to help themselves win rather than find ways to make life more difficult for themselves. 

Yet again our defense put in a herculean effort (and this was despite essentially playing 2 men down for the entire game: Elam and Brouilette). They held the best player in the CFL to 250 yards passing (107 of which came off 2 passes) and a 48% completion rate. For the bulk of the game they managed to neutralize him which is no small feat. The got 4 sacks on a team that had only given up 4 total sacks all season (and could have had more if Reilly wasn't slipping away like a greased up Scotsman). They force a turnover. Sure we ultimately needed one more stop from them but I credit this unit who has done their job every single game except the Ottawa one. Nick Marshall came back with authority. Noticed him holding his hand after the Reilly TD, hopefully its nothing serious.

Offense was definitely better... not good but a big step forward. Our playbook actually appeared like it contained a second page, possibly even double sided. Collaros was poised, did not turn the football over and was apparently aware that throwing more than 10 yards downfield is legal. Duron made his presence felt... both on the scoreboard and the penalty sheet. So life's back to normal there. O-line held up alright yet again. Williams-Lambert finally stepped up amongst the non-Duron/Roosevelt WRs (I think I may have called that in my game preview). So there's hope and hopefully it will continue to improve as Collaros gets more rhythm with the group. That said we still don't have a good offense. Plays were still too often predictable. That first series could not have been more predictable if we announced it over the PA system. As previously mentioned we are just all kinds of awful when try to punch it in from the 1. No push, no effort, sloppy play, just bad. We very curiously gave Thiggy next to no reps in the second half despite the fact that he's one of our best offensive weapons. Instead it was the Mason show. He's ok but very odd not to lean on one of the only 2 offensive guys to actually locate the endzone more than once this season. And as much as it was desperation time, that last series was infuriating to watch. We need 70 yards and a TD so what do we do? 3 straight check-downs. We don't even attempt 1 deep shot. Why employ a bunch of big bodies receivers if you don't intend to use their size or even attempt to?

The lack of Thiggy wasn't the only curious personnel move we made. Why was Duron returning punts? I get that he's done it successfully before but we have a guy whose sole job that is. In fact, Coach recently said they intentionally don't involve him on O to save him for kicks. He also happens to be one of the top returners in the CFL. I'm also about done with Mason on returns. He seems to mishandle a lot of them. Plus he is at best our 4th best returner behind Jones, Thigpen and Duron.

We have now progressed to a team with an Elite D and a not completely awful O. We know we can compete with the best teams in the West. But if we don't start actually turning that into wins we will quickly find ourselves out of the picture in the West. 

Other random thoughts:
- TSN caught some great footage of both coaches in a very candid moment on the sidelines. They showed that Jones does indeed smile and have a personality with this hilarious exchange. And also showed further proof that Maas is a childish, snap case who has an odd hatred of Gatorade jugs with this even more hilarious encounter.

- Now that Caleb Holley isn't around to hate on, I find myself not liking Shaq Evans very much. Is it just me?

- I had to Google the origins of the "close but no cigar" expression after using it in the title. Turns out carnivals used to give out cigars as prizes in the 19th Century. There's your useless piece of knowledge for the day.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Riders vs. Eskimos: Dare We Get Our Hopes Up?

Thursday the Riders are in Edmonton for their first road game against a western opponent. The Riders will be looking to right the ship after a disappointing outing against Calgary. The 4-2 Esks will be looking to keep their 2 game win streak going. Edmonton’s 2 loses have come against teams that we have beaten this season. Then again they also pounded the Als, something we failed to do so I’m not sure how much inferring you can do.

To me this is a very interesting match-up of contrasts. The Esks have a powerful (though at times inconsistent) offense and an underperforming D. The Riders have an over-performing D and no offense to speak of. So in a sense this will be their strength vs. our strength and their weakness vs. our… well weakness seems like too flattering of a word for our offense, let’s go with glaring lack.

After a frustrating game last week where more boos were hurled at the Riders than the much hated Stamps (I was saying McAdoooooooooooo), the stars seem to be aligning for the Riders. Collaros is healthy and will play, Roosevelt seems unscathed after bouncing his head off the turf like a pogo stick and Carter will to return to O with Nick Marshall healthy. While on the surface it would seem like a negative, I would add the release of Jerome Messam to that list. Look Messam wasn’t playing that well or holding onto the ball. Turning our 3 man RB rotation into a 2 man should help with consistency and production for the remaining 2.

Edmonton is averaging 28 points per game and given that we have no offense, keeping them under that mark will be key. So, like every week, it’s all on our defense. And it’s a tough task. Reilly is the best QB in the league. His O-line has allowed the least sacks. He’s got a strong running back and many talented receivers at his disposal (Williams, Walker, Stafford, Behar). D-line will need to get to Reilly. If he has time he will pick us apart. They also need to stay disciplined in their rush to not let him escape and run for first downs. Gable is a good runner but overall the Edmonton rushing attack is not that worrisome. They have the second lowest yards per carry in the league. We have the #1 run D so we should be OK there. That leaves our secondary to limit the big plays to receivers (Williams in particular). We will need a turnover or 2 in this one and for the love of god return it for 6 because that’s our best chance for a major.

Offensively it’s hard to know what to expect. Collaros will be the primary QB but Bridge will also play (and possibly Watford) so get ready for a confusing QB rotation. I don’t suddenly expect our offense to magically turn into a juggernaut with Collaros back. Jones wasn’t lying when he said our offensive game plan is run and short passes. Edmonton allows the second most rushing yards so staying committed to the ground is a good idea. I would prefer if we add in a run or 2 that isn’t just up the middle just to spice things up a bit. That said, that secondary does not scare me. Grymes is as good as they get but the others can be beat. I would lean heavy and often on Duron in this game. He’s been away from O for so long and you know would love nothing more than a monster game so we need to get him involved early and keep riding him. Caleb Holley’s struggles this season have landed him on the bench. Duron is so dangerous and Roosevelt is so reliable that Collaros will need to lean heavy on them (Bridge too when he’s in though that means neither could run a route over 10 yards). While the opportunities will be less for Williams-Lambert in that #3 spot (the one Bakari was so productive in last season) he should be open for a few big plays and needs to capitalize on those chances.  The biggest challenge though, starts up front. Esks lead the CFL in sacks and you can bet they will be sending pressure given that our O-line is improving but not great and stuffing the middle eliminates 80% of our playbook. Keeping the recently over a concussion Collaros from having a relapse will be important. Move the pocket add in some screens. I get that I may sound hypocritical for advocating screens after blasting our OC for using them that week. To clarify, there is nothing wrong with screens and runs up the middle as your base offense. But you need to build off those into other plays in order to not become predictable and ineffective. We also need to control the ball. Turnovers are killers. We are winless in games where we lose the turnover battle and undefeated in games where we win.

Two other things that I think could play into this game. First is penalties. Edmonton leads the league in penalty yards (hard to imagine why a Jason Maas led team would struggle with discipline). We need to play a clean game and not hurt ourselves. Second is big plays, particularly on kick returns. Edmonton has given up the most “big plays” which are runs of 20+, passes of 30+, kick returns of 40+ or punts of 30+. No one has allowed more passes over 30 yards. I know pushing the ball downfield is not something we are big on but we need to try in this game. They have also allowed the second most kickoff return yards. Blair Smith is their best special teams player and will miss the game due to injury. Paging Christion Jones.

Another thing to watch will be the first quarter. To put it bluntly, both teams suck in the first quarter. Edmonton has trailed after the first quarter in their last 5 games. We have scored a total of 11 points in all our first quarters combined (failing to score at all in 3 of them). If one of the teams can overcome their early game blahs it would give an edge.

Bold prediction time. I think we manage 2 offensive TDs (bold indeed) and add a defensive or special team TD. That means if we can hold the Esks under 20 points we can win. Toronto managed to do it twice and I think we have a better defense than Toronto. This is another game where logic says bet against the Riders. Comparing Mike Reilly to whatever we will be serving up at QB should be enough to settle that for you. But I have another gut feeling about this game. With the exception of Moncrief we are essentially as healthy as we will get this season. The Esks are a good team and certainly better than us on paper but their O has shown a lot of inconsistency this season and their defense hasn’t been all that great (yet again injuries play a role in this). Provided our defense plays like they can this will be a very close game. I know I am seeing things through green tinted glasses but I think our O can do just enough in this game to squeak out a narrow victory.

Riders by a Lauther FG of 45+ yards.