Monday, August 30, 2021

Monday Morning Sentimonies: The Elephant In The Room

Pre-warning, this post is a lot more serious in nature than my normal drivel.

I have hemmed and hawed a lot over the bye week about whether or not to wade into this discussion… well actually the concept of a discussion is extinct in today’s society and all we really do now is yell louder at each other and get frustrated when our increased volume doesn’t immediately change someone’s deeply held convictions. But I digress. There is one topic that has filled the football-less void of our conveniently timed by week… vaccine passports.

Believe me, I would much rather talk about football. We are all sick of talking about this pandemic stuff and I have consciously avoided it because I know many of you come here for content to help you escape the rest of the doom and gloom media you are bombarded with. So I’m sorry and I promise that come Friday I will be back to me normal goofball self (I mean I do have epically bash the province of Manitoba heading into the always heated Labour Day Classic). But for one day only Prophet is going to get serious and talk vaccine passports.

First a clarification. Anyone who uses the term vaccine “requirement” or “mandate” is wrong and intentionally trying to create false outrage. There is no vaccine requirement being contemplated.  Getting vaccinated is a personal choice and vaccine passports will not infringe on your choice in that matter. Vaccine passports are just saying that those who choose not to vaccinate may not be able to do certain things (like attend mass gatherings). No different than those who chose not to get a driver’s license can’t drive and those who choose become certified journey persons can’t do certain trade work because of safety concerns for the larger population. So if you are going to get outraged over vaccine passports then at least get outraged at the right thing (i.e. what you can't do) as opposed to falsehoods (that this is forcing people to get vaccinated).

By now you have probably guessed that I am in favour of vaccine passports. I understand the sentiment of “if people don’t want to get the vaccine then let them get sick” point of view but I currently have 2 major issues with it. 1 – I have a child who is not eligible to get vaccinated so that mentality basically says screw you to him and all kids (at least until they can get vaccinated). 2 – I have family members who work in the health care system and despite being already overworked over the past year they now have to take on additional strain for these “let them get sick” folks (who suddenly want science’s help when they get a disease that they refused to let science help prevent). That doesn’t even get into the higher cost of healthcare we as tax payers all have to burden, a large chunk of which is completely preventable. So if the unvaccinated a driving this new wave then placing restrictions on them that would prevent this from spreading makes a fair bit of sense… just not to our government apparently.

So far 7 of 9 CFL teams have instituted a vaccine requirement to attend games as have many other pro sports teams. Though they are staunchly refusing now, I guarantee that eventually Saskatchewan will too but they will be dragged kicking and screaming and use every stall tactic they can think of to delay the inevitable. Its sad that we are behind Calgary (i.e. the Texas of Canada) and Manitoba (just being behind Manitoba in anything is embarrassing) on this. My guess is that they announce it after Labour Day and that it takes effect October 1 so it only impacts 2 games that were destined not to sell out anyway. Better late than never I guess.

We are at a point where we can’t close our eyes and hope this is all gone when we open them (the prevailing policy direction for politicians on the prairies). But if restricting where the unvaccinated can go will help end this and keep more people from getting sick and get us back to normal at some point, then why wouldn’t we? The alternative is willingly accepting preventable illness, death, strain on our healthcare system and risk of the need of broader lockdowns again. Seems an odd stance to take to me.

Ok. That’s it for the seriousness. I’ll back Friday to talk about how awful Winnipeg is… better start typing now because the list of reasons is a long one.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Monday Morning Sentimonies: As Expected

Riders 23 – RedBlacks 10

Saturday’s game was a lot like watching a rerun of a show you love: predictable, rather uneventful, kinda boring but satisfying in the end. It started a lot slower than I would have liked but slowly but steadily the Riders damn near built up the 14 point margin of victory I predicted. Given that I seem to know nothing about who was going to win the other games I am going to milk the few times I’m right this season for all I can get.

Coming into the game I said Ottawa had a decent defense and awful offense… well that’s exactly what we saw. Their defense kept our offense to our lowest output of the season (rough life when 23 point is a down game) and really made us grind it out. Their offense (if you can call it that) could be marketed as a sleeping aid.

Let’s start with the defense who carried us in that one. Six sacks, 4 turnovers, no run game to speak of. Outside of that one long pass to Harris, they didn’t allow much in the pass game. They were dominant. On that Gainey INT is was clear from the moment that pass went up that it was being picked. Remember that Ottawa intentionally let Nick Arbuckle go so they could have Matt Nichols backed up by Dominque Davis (by far the worst QB room in the league). The only reason Ottawa was able to get their lone TD was because we gifted them 30 yards in penalties on the drive. Penalties remain one of the few negatives to find on the team as we are still taking too many. For all the worry about our D-line coming into the season they have really come to play in the last 2. We are getting great push up the middle and its letting our ends feast. Now take Saturday with a grain of salt because Ottawa doesn’t have a very good OL to begin with and were missing MacMillan (one of their few good linemen) but I love seeing them seize the opportunities they are given. Both Marino and Woodward are making their presence known. I am really interested to see how we fare against Winnipeg. If they can get anywhere close to the pressure we have got in the past 2 games against an OL that good then look out. 4 people in the CFL have 3 or more sacks on the season… 3 of those are Riders. The one negative for me is Micah Teitz. He is clearly the weak link out there. Not awful but weak. So far the strong play of the other 11 is managing to mostly hide it. Better offenses than Ottawa will know how to exploit that.

Offense had to earn it against a decent Ottawa D. But what I like is that they ground it out. Most important thing was zero turnovers. One of the best way to win the games you are supposed to is not give the ball to the weaker team. Yards were harder to come by but we did move the ball. Very few 2 and outs and managing to get points even if it was just field goals on most drives. It didn’t seem like it watching the game but quietly Fajardo managed over 300 yards completing over 85% of his passes. And what makes that even more impressive is how he’s doing it. He’s without his #1 receiver and Lambert went out to injury and he just keeps producing. He hit 8 different receivers. One of the receivers was Kian Schaefer-Baker who made an impressive CFL debut catching 4 passes for 64 including some big important catches. Yet another big bodied receiver for Fajardo to pass to.  Duane Forde raved about Schaefer-Baker in his draft year and we got a glimpse of what he was talking about. Really tough to shut down an offense when we can rely on this many different receivers to make plays. Ground game was a non-factor (except for Fajardo who managed to run a lot smarter and take far fewer hits this week) but we made up for it. Still not completely sold on our OL but they are getting it done for now.

One thing a feel I need to comment on is special teams. Not only has Lauther been automatic on the year. I am also hating Jon Ryan less week by week. And our cover teams played so solid you wouldn’t even have known that 3 regular starters were out with injury and being replaced by practice roster players.

The win surprisingly leaves us alone atop the CFL standings as the only unbeaten team left. We haven’t exactly been dominating teams along the way but we keep finding ways to win and that is a recipe for success going forward. We now get a much needed bye week. Just 3 weeks in and the injuries are piling up quick. Hopefully the bye will allow us to heal up and be rearing to go for the next game… which just happens to be the Labour Day Classic.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Riders vs. RedBlacks: Don’t Screw This Up

Saturday the Riders are back at it looking to stay undefeated against the visiting RedBlacks. Coming into the season, it was pretty much universally concluded that the RedBlacks would be the worst team in the league. So its not super surprising that their supporters are basking in their week 1 win and calling out their detractors for writing them off too early. As someone who actually watched that game, I remain steadfast in my belief that they are not a good team (for reasons I will detail below). I hate being overconfident but there is no reason we should lose this game. But… there is one memory in my brain haunting me and holding me back from being as cocky as I should about this game.

Flashback, June 20, 2019. It was another early season match-up between he Riders and the used to be Riders. An objective assessment of that RedBlack roster showed no reason the Riders should lose that game either. We were right, the RedBlacks were awful and won only 1 more game the entire season. But on that day (shudder), Dominque Davis clearly sold his soul to the devil for one day of superhuman ability. Two years of pondering that game and that is the only plausible explanation I have come up with. He shredded our D in a performance he would never recreate. So every ounce of me wants to scream from the rooftops how terrible Ottawa is but the ghost of bad defeats past is keeping me somewhat reserved.

So let’s get into this. Why do I still think the RedBlacks suck despite an opening week win? Look closer that the result. They produced 94 net yards on offense. Allowed 423 yards on defense and won by 4 points thanks to a pick 6 that resulted not from great defensive play but rather from the receiver accidently bobbling the ball into the defender’s hands. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable recipe for success. I will admit their defense played better than I expected but given that I expected awfulness, that’s not exactly saying much.

Here’s how we go about ensuring we don’t repeat 2019.

Defensively we need to keep a terrible Ottawa O down. Some stats from Ottawa’s week 1 win for your consideration: 71 passing yards (that is not a typo), 5 sacks allowed, 16% on second down conversions (20% lower than the next worst team), 7 first downs (again NOT a typo). The issue is not coaching. LaPo is a great offensive mind. The issue is that his GM has essentially provided him with spam and expects him to prepare a gourmet meal. Sure when you have the best OL and talent like Harris, Demksi and Adams, you can lead a competent attack with Matt Nichols. But an unproven OL, talent level at WR that would embarrass a U-Sports team and a decent but not great RB… well that’s another story.

Another strong game from our front 4 will go a long way to keeping Ottawa down. Take away the run game and make Nichols’ life miserable. Small sample size but we have the best run D so far in the CFL averaging just 39.5 yards allowed per game. While Ottawa has no real receiving threats outside of RJ Harris our DB’s can’t take this too lightly. Hopefully Marshall remembers how many yards he gave up in that 2019 game. Expect LaPo to compensate for a lack of offensive fire power by getting creative (reverses, misdirections, maybe even a trick play). I’d be looking to get Coombs or Devonte Dedmon involved (similar to how he used Demski in Winnipeg).  Stay aggressive, force turnovers, don’t play down to the opponent’s level.

Much is being made of Ottawa’s defense after Week 1 but I think it’s a bit overblown. They looked good and actually earned 2 of the 3 turnovers they got. But they also allowed 426 yards and a league high 75% completion rate against an offense that we are finding out just might not be very good. So while their defense isn’t a complete joke (like their offense it) they aren’t world beaters just yet.  They have solid LBs and a mostly decent secondary.

We come in firing on all cylinders. We are averaging a league high 28.5 offensive points per game and completing 75% of our passes (conveniently, exactly what Ottawa allowed in week 1). How we are doing it is the interesting thing to me. We have no passing plays of over 30 yards (we 0 for in that department so far… though I like our odds of breaking that this week). Where we are thriving is the short-medium stuff. Fajardo is completing 84.6% of his passes 10-19 yards. We just need to stick with the game plan. Strong run game. Spread the ball around and get it out quick. All of that will keep Fajardo upright. Losing Shaq hurts a lot but I think we are well built to survive his absence. Lambert can step into his spot and provide us with a big bodied reliable receiver. We spread the ball around so much that we weren’t overly reliant on Evans in the first place. Moore is now the go to and we will need guys like Lenius to continue to step up. Also it finally gives us a chance to see Paul McRoberts. After 2 years of hype I would like it settled once and for all whether he is the next Terrence Nunn or the next Namaan Roosevelt (who was also stuck on the bench for the start of his Rider career).

The one thing that legitimately worries me about Ottawa is DeVonte Dedmon on returns. He’s dangerous and we can’t let him be a spark to another improbable win. Add to that the fact that Nigel Harris, Gary Johnson and one of the Herdmans are hurt and potentially 25% of our stating cover team is out. The other thing that worries me is our discipline. In a winnable game you can’t give your opponent free yards. We were handing those out against Hamilton like it was an STD at Craven. We are the most penalized team this year (apparently the Jason Maas influence is extending beyond the offense). Gotta cut that down.

If we want to keep pace with Winnipeg in the race for tops in the West and continue to widen the gap between us and the bottom feeding Alberta teams, we need to win this game. The team can’t afford to get overconfident but as long as they play at the level they have been (and not down to their opponent) there is no reason they should lose. Please, please, please no repeats of 2019.

Riders by 14

Monday, August 16, 2021

Monday Morning Sentimonies: 2 and 0

Riders 30 – Hamilton 8

Now that is a game! It was about the polar opposite of last week. We started slow but finished strong. That game had everything. Strong play in all 3 phases. Big plays on both sides. Even a big brawl. The crowd may have been small but those that came were into it and loud. Great night of football all around.

Gotta start with the defense. They won us that game. I was pretty critical of them after Game 1 but they dominated this week. They allowed 1 TD, forced 6 turnovers and didn’t allow a point after the 8 minute mark of the opening quarter (on one of the most infuriating series of plays I have ever seen… more on that in a second). The front 4 came to play in a big way. Consistent pressure all night with very little blitzing. That was one of the best games I have seen from Micah in a while. Stat sheet won’t reflect it but he was fired up and made a huge impact up front. Gates looked a lot better and Woodward stepped up out of nowhere (even though his 3rd sack was a ridiculously early call that made we wonder if the ref had money riding on the Riders going over 5 sacks). Hamilton had no run game and seemed to base their entire offense on those swing passes/screens that we shut down pretty consistently. Middle of the line looks pretty solid 2 games into the season. Secondary was making plays including that outstanding pick by Blace Brown and the other by Hendy. Hamilton clearly has protection issues so take the results with a grain of salt but its nice to see us take advantage of the opportunities presented.  

The only fault with our defense was the penalties. The biggest example of that ridiculous goal line series where we lined up offside 3 times. Goal line is the simplest alignment in the CFL for the defense. If your hand is touching anything but white you are offside. One time? fine rookie mistake by Adams. Twice? It was a borderline call but common guys. Three times? Like 3 people were offside. What in the blue hell is wrong with you dummies?!? Add in a needless earhole hit by Henry and a hilariously blatant Marshall PI late in the 4th. He made no attempt to play the ball and just overtly shoved his guy out of bounds. Given the time and the score it was entertaining but it was another reminder that you take the good and the bad with Marshall. Gotta clean up those mistakes going forward.

Offensively I was pleasantly surprised by our O-line. They were not a liability. I specifically watched Lauderdale and while he was not perfect he held his own a lot better than I thought Boyko did in week 1. Hopefully we have something in him. Yet again Maas called a great game. Teams have cracked 30 points just 3 times this season and 2 of those are us. You can just tell that he and Fajardo are on the same page. Reads a quick, passes are accurate, ball is being spread around. We lost our best WR and didn’t lose a beat offensively. We just have so many weapons with Moore, Lambert, an emerging Lenius and now Picton is suddenly a factor. And Fajardo even missed a couple open seam routes that could have led to a bigger night. We also remembered to run with the lead. My favourite offensive series was in the 4th when everyone in the province knew we were running down their throat and Powell (with that O-line opening things up for him up front) run for 8, 8, 9, 3 and 12.

My only problem with our O was the needless hits that Fajardo took. Look, I know his legs are a big part of what make him effective and I have no problem with him running but both he and the team need to be smarter about how and when. There was a play where he took off and got the first down. He could have stepped out untouched for an 11 yard gain but cut in and took a hit to gain 2 more yards. Those extra hits will add up over a season and he can’t have him crippled come the playoffs (see how well 2019 went). Then with a 3 score lead and 4 minutes left in the game he shockingly was not glued to the bench. He was clearly banged up during the game. Not bad but he’ll be sore today. Any chance to cut down on the wear and tear on his body without impacting the outcome of a game we gotta take. But overall this is a versatile offense that can beat you many ways and is well coached.

I also need to comment on special teams. If you have followed me for any length of time you know how painful these next few words are for me to type… That was Jon Ryan’s best game as a Rider. Every single kick was great. All placed outside the hash marks. Credit where credit is due. That is a game where I have no problem with people cheering loudly for our punter. Quietly Lauther has been perfect on the season as well. Coverage is good. My only knock is that I don’t like Murphy on returns. Too many mistakes and even when he has the ball he doesn’t look like a guy who is a risk to break one anytime soon. Maybe he will improve with more experience but with Ryan suddenly learning how to directional kick Murphy is climbing up my hatred rankings quickly.

It was an emphatic win that instilled confidence in the team and the fans. Riders need to make good use of the home game heavy from half of the session and so far they are. Realistically a win over Ottawa and a split with Winnipeg could have us sitting very pretty early in the year. Especially with Alberta seemingly having outlawed winning for their football teams (hockey as well).  

Other random thoughts:

·        I love that when the players come out Nick Marshall goes to the mid-field logo to chirp the other team. That mentality of “this is our house” has been lacking in recent years. A couple years ago we let opposing kickers practice on our logo while we were coming out with no pushback. That attitude and swagger from the days of Tad Kornegay and Kitwana Jones defending our turf is back and I love it.

·        TV did not do justice to that brawl. It was heated. Harty really got into it (and totally earned his ejection). It was a big melee and even the practice roster players broke from behind their velvet rope enclosure to get into the action.

·        Gary Johnson had a solid day on kick coverage and even made plays when he saw some reps on defense. Riders were very high on him coming into the season and we are starting to see why.

·        The Riders actually went with Jay Onrait’s idea to play Abba’s Fernando and yell out Fajardo instead of Fernando… Gold!

·       Last week it was Yamasucky. This week it was Bertoilet.  We have faced some bad kickers so far. Yes awful word play with opposing kicker names is about the best the comedy will get around here. Might as well get used to it. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Riders vs. Ti-Cats: Let’s Try This Again

Saturday night the Ti-Cats are in town looking for their first win of the season. This marks a time of the year that always entertains me to no end. Week 2, people when people ridiculously overreact to what happened in week 1. The Ti-Cats have gone from potentially going undefeated to in deep trouble. Ottawa has gone from laughing stock to people wondering if we undervalued them (they produced 70 yards of offense and won on a fluke pick 6!). Bethel Thompson is on pace to throw 5000 yards in a shortened season. Collaros is an unstoppable force (absolutely… until he gets hurt). So many things to overreact to. The great part about the Riders is that people aren’t sure what to overreact to. Do we overreact to the unstoppable first half? Do we overreact to the nightmare inducing second half?

While we did learn some things in Week 1, I generally do not put much stock in Week 1 results. It’s a small sample size for one. Remember that last season Ottawa started 2 and 0 by knocking off Calgary and Saskatchewan… how did that turn out for them? Also, given that no one played football for close to 2 years, we all expected some growing pains as teams learned how to play football again.

So where does that leave us for the upcoming game?

Well both the Riders and Ti-Cats took similar approaches offensively to game 1. They both came out firing early and looked unstoppable and proceeded to do nothing afterwards. The difference is while the Riders built up a big enough lead before shutting it down, Hamilton was content with just 1 drive. Both will be looking for a bit more sustained production.

Offensively we will be facing a far bigger challenge up front. Last week we played a line of Tavai and 3 rookies and survived ok. This week we play what I consider to be one of the top lines in the league Davis/Laurent/Wynn/Howsare. Considering what I saw out of Jefferson and Boyko that’s concerning. Even without Laurent, that D-line got 3 sacks against a very solid Winnipeg OL. Very solid we are not. As of writing this Dylan Wynn is questionable to play which would be some welcome relief. We will need Maas to draw up a game plan to once again compensate for that weakness. We need to run, and not just in the first half. If Powell gets anything less than 15 carries we have failed. You can bet we will once again be looking to use short passes (hooks, crossers, outs) to get the ball out quick. But with the benefit of game film, I would expect the Ti-Cats to adjust up to take those away. We are going to need to push the ball further down field once in a while to keep that D on their toes (like we saw early against BC). Obviously deep shots to Shaq come to mind but I think we also need to look at deep posts to Moore/Lenius or even 10-15 yards to passes to Picton on the wide side. Also, the next evolution of an offense heavy on hooks and slants is double moves and turning those short routes deep.

Defensively we have to play a QB who is neither a raw rookie or legally eligible for disability payments (though given how the latter carved us up maybe that’s OK). Much has been made about Hamilton’s offensive struggles but remember that they are missing Posey and Addison (you add that to Banks and Acklin and good luck) and were missing Van Zeyl. Winnipeg (who has one of the top D-line out there) utterly embarrassed the Hamilton pass protection. That was the difference in the game. And it shows us the blue print of how to win this game. We unfortunately don’t have a Willie Jefferson and Jeffcoat to do that with. Leonard had a solid game 1 so he will be fine but other than that 1 run stuff I will say I was underwhelmed with Adams. He needs to pick up his play and we need a more consistent push from the interior. If we had had more pressure I don’t think our secondary would have looked as bad as they did in the second half. I expect them to try and get Banks involved early so we need to look to contain him.  Also no cheating up and looking for easy picks (looking at you Marshall).  Acklin and Banks can kill you if they get behind coverage. Masoli is a very hot and cold QB. At his best he can surgically cut you up. At his worst he churns out turnovers like he’s trying to start a bakery. We want the latter and pressure is key to that.

Now that they have an actual game under their belt, I expect a better performance from the Riders… at least a most sustained performance (not sure you can get better than that first quarter). But balance that with the fact that Hamilton is a better team than BC and will also be playing better now that they have a game under their belt. I have faith in Maas to call a solid game plan. I’m less confident in whether our front 4 can get the push we need to be solid on D. Its possible, but I’m not betting on it at this point.

Expect a much closer game. I doubt Hamilton we will be so kind as to spot us a 4 score lead. I think offense will need to win us this one.

Riders by a Lauther FG.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Monday Morning Sentimonies: Rider Football Is Back

It was the best of time, it was the blurst of times.

I have been trying to encapsule what went on Friday and that was the by far the most fitting thing I could think of. Yes Rider football is back. The euphoric highs, the soul crushing lows, the unhealthy heart palpitations and stress levels. Its all back it we managed to cram in all into the first game.

It was pretty awesome to hear that stadium roar again.  

Offensively the first 3 drives were perfection. Balanced attack, spread the ball around, quick strikes. All of it left the BC defense just helpless. If that’s what a Mass/Fajardo offense can be then there is very good reason for excitement. Unfortunately the O was apparently so pleased with their effort in the first quarter and half that they took the remainder of the game off. They did nothing, literally. There are many reasons you could point to: fatigue, getting complacent with a big lead but the concerning one for me was our absolute refusal to run the ball. In those first few drives we had the right mix of the run game and Powell was chewing up yards. It looked really good. Now most people who know anything about football would know that a good way to nurse a big lead is to run the ball. Apparently that concept is as foreign around here as imposing any kind of health restrictions. We ran 18 times in the first half. Great! Do you know how many times we ran the ball in the second half? I’ll give you a hint, I could count it on my wang (I won't, but I could). One! One solitary run in the second half and it came with under 2 minutes left in the game. We abandoned the run for all of the 3rd and most of the 4th. BC clearly adjusted to our short passing game and we couldn’t adjust. My guess is that our offense will settle into the middle somewhere. Not quite as good as the first quarter. Not quite as bad as the second half. I do love how we are using all our receivers. If we can get some more consistency it will make us difficult to stop.

The one thing I will give Maas credit for is calling the perfect game to hide 2 very mediocre tackles. I went back and watched the game focusing on the tackles and neither looked all that good (no surprise there). But fortunately they didn’t have to be good because the game plan didn’t ask them to do a whole lot. We saw lots of St John as an extra blocker. Lots of quick passes. Lots of motion. Maas hid our weakness well. The key going forward will be to progress because if we try and run the exact same offense next week, Hamilton (with the benefit of film) will make us pay.

Defensively, there was some things I liked and some I did not. It was tough to get a good read on our front 4 as we blitzed Rourke a ton early in the game (which was the right call). As the game wore on I was not impressed with our ability to get pressure with just 4. It was there sporadically but we need way more consistency. I thought Henry and Leonard had the best games of that group. In addition to his knockdowns and INT, Leonard got good pressure a number of times. He also was the victim of a blatant uncalled holding penalty in the 4th that led to a 26 yard gain for Lemar Durant and ultimately a TD. I also thought Lacey did good manning the middle. Run game really wasn’t a factor and he damn near had an INT.

Our secondary of all places had its struggles (when it should have been the most solid aspect of a new look D). We let Reilly dice us apart completing 70% of his passes while throwing the ugliest balls I’ve seen since that time accidentally clicked on the wrong link on the internet with his elbow that is clearly being held together with duct tape and prayers. Credit where credit is due, some of the catches by BC were just great plays by the receiver but overall the secondary underwhelmed me. Noticed Gainey in a bad way a couple times.

Fortunately for us even though we peaked way to early leading to disappointment (something I know a fair bit about), we were bailed out by the unluckiest of heroes.  The first was that lucky for us the kicker Yamasaki was more like Yamasucky. A more consistent kicker could have changed the outcome of that game. The other hero, was someone I have heavily criticized over the years. Now I hate Jon Ryan singles more than probably anyone in the stadium and the fact that they get standing ovations from uneducated people who know nothing about what a punter is supposed to accomplish bothers me to no end but we needed his booming kicks and his singles in that one. (I pray this is the only time I have to write that as it makes me feel so dirty). He does seem to be aware that kicking towards the sideline is an option this year which is a big step forward. If you want something to cheer about cheer his last punt of the game where he pinned them deep.

I told you in my game preview that this would be ugly and boy was I right. But an ugly win counts the same as a decisive win so I will take it. Just please don’t get cocky. We almost blew a 31 point lead to the worst team in the West. Upcoming opponents will have better offense, better defenses, better kickers, possibly even an actual starting QB who doesn’t have a debilitating injury. We need to learn from this and continue to improve or the next game might not have a happy ending.

My voice is shot. My heart took some damage. I got to celebrate a win. I am openly criticizing our team again… man it feels good to have football back!

Friday, August 6, 2021

Riders vs. Lions: Bring Em Out

It’s been so long since I’ve written one of these previews that I almost forgot how… but damn if it doesn’t feel good to be doing it again!

Friday night under the Mosaic lights, the Riders are back. The Lions come to town to open the 2021 season. It’s a sellout crowd, on a Friday night, in the largest gathering in the province in close to 2 years… it’s gonna be loud! Also probably drunk.

The last time we saw the Lions they managed just a 5 win season and missed the playoffs. Rookie head coach DeVone Claybrooks and his OC Jarious Jackson managed the 7th best offense in the CFL with Michael Reilly (side note: Really wish I could make fun about the whole name change thing but its honouring his mom, and while I’m ok with some degree of being an awful person, even I have my limits.) It’s a leading reason why both are not back. They were replaced with Rick Campbell and Jordan Maksymic (who served as the OC under Jason Maas in Edmonton). They have their work cut out for them to turn this team around.

Riders have undergone changes of our their own with the oft-maligned Steve McAdoo being let go for Jason Maas (also oft-maligned but for very different reasons). Plus injuries and retirements have taken a big toll the a roster. 

Offensively the Riders bring a great OC, a burgeoning star QB, 2 young stud receivers, and an oldie but goldie RB. Lots to love here. But there’s a but… but its dependent on the most questionable OL I’ve seen in a while in Saskatchewan. The interior will be fine. I seem to be hating Dan Clark less year by year (didn’t see that coming). Evan Johnson will be solid. Logan Ferland is an unknown but he earned this spot. It would be easy to give it to a first round pick like St John or Riley but for a pure junior player to get it, tells me he outright earned it. The edges scare the crap out of me. I was scared when Terran Vaughn and his bum shoulder were still a possibility. Now we get Jefferson and his zero career CFL games. On the opposite side you have Brett Boyko who was responsible for a number of the league high sacks allowed by BC last season. Pray for Cody! 

Fortunately, the first game could not have worked out better in terms of match-ups. This should be a very manageable test (at least compared to some of the more imposing D-line’s in the West). Only 1 solitary BC D-line has played a CFL game before. The rest are raw rookies. Bold strategy for a team looking to rebound from amongst the league basement in sacks in 2019. (What would improve our sacking ability? An entire group of guys who have never done it before!) I think Maas can use his game plan to help his O-line and take advantage of the BC D-line. Starts with a strong run game with Powell. Get those hoagies firing forward so we don’t have to worry about their pass blocking abilities. Tight end sets, Awachie/LaFrance/Powell blocking on pass plays to give those shaky tackles some support. Also use crossers (like Shaq was so deadly on last season) and other short passes to get the ball out quick. Edmonton led the league in pass attempts under 9 yards under Maas so this is right up his alley. Also with rookies on that D-line I would be testing how well they can play contain. Run pass options, play action boot legs, etc... Test that edge all day. My guess is that there will be breakdowns in contain and Fajardo is well primed to take advantage. Moore and Evans will be the go to guys but spreading it around to Lambert, Lenius and Picton will be important. BC has a decent secondary but nothing to overly fear.

Defensively its all about slowing Reilly down. I assume Maksymic will run a similar offense to Maas who groomed him. That means pass heavy, but not deep bombs like we saw in 2019. Lots of short to medium stuff. The addition of Rykar Matthews is huge in helping protect Reilly (who they can’t let take another 58 sacks this season). Even with Shaq Cooper resting in favour of rookie James Butler at RB, facing a relatively experienced LB group I would be testing that early with the run if I were BC. It will be important for our front 7 to shut that down. Burnham will be the most dangerous weapon as always. Can’t hope to shut down a guy that talented but need to limit him. I think the difference maker will be Micah Johnson. We need a disruptor along the D-line to create space for our other guys to harass Reilly. He’s going to be healthy and raring to go so a big game from him would boost the performance of the whole D. Also need Deon Lacey to anchor the LBs and solidify that middle. As good as our secondary is, if we can’t get pressure on Reilly he will carve them up if given time. Normally Reilly passing a whole lot would be counter to what you want but with reports of him having a sore throwing arm let’s make him use it (both to throw and hopefully brace himself as he’s taken to the ground). 

Honestly not sure what to expect here. By virtue of coaching alone, BC should be a better team than 2019 but while they have made gains, I’m not sure they have upgraded their on-field talent enough yet. For the Riders, a few retirements and injuries took us from West favourite to big time question mark. Have I mentioned how much the O-line scares me or that you should pray for Cody? My hope is that the crowd can be the difference maker. Make the stadium shake (this should go without saying but only on defense please) and let’s amp the team up.

I predict we start hot but quickly cool off and trail come half time. A big second half defensive play (let’s say by AJ Hendy) flips the momentum and we come back in the end. I’m honestly not super confident about this but my logic goes that if our O-line can’t hold up to BC and their rookie DL then we are right screwed with teams like Hamilton and Winnipeg coming. I’m sure it will be uglier than last call at JD’s (that’s a dated reference for any young people reading this, but trust me its accurate) but we gotta find a way to win this game because it gets harder from here. 

Riders by a Williams-Lambert TD.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Monday Morning Sentimonies: The Roster and the Season

Friday the Riders made their final roster cuts in advance of the 2021 season. I know that the iconic Simpsons episode is what first comes to mind when you think of cuts (and I have used that many times in this space) but a far more obscure pop-culture reference that always pops into my head is one of that most of you won’t get (though I know at least a couple of you are avid wrestling fans so I won’t be completely alone). Cuts just makes me think of that time that Kaientaitold Val Venis that they would “choppy choppy” a certain piece of his anatomy. I often imagine what I could accomplish in life if I replaced the extensive 90s wrestling and TV knowledge I have with something useful.

Back to football…

For the most part none of the actual cuts surprised me. The only 2 that were quasi surprising to me was Lorenzo Jerome and Antonio Garcia. Jerome was a free agent signing from Calgary with actual game experience in a good defense at cover LB. I’m hopeful this means that AJ Hendy (who won the spot) is that good. Garcia is surprising in that he was recently playing tackle with the starting OL with Terran Vaughn nursing a dinged up shoulder. Cameron Jefferson was kept on the PR for depth here and apparently Brett Boyko won the job (more on that later) but still a bit surprising.

In terms of the practice roster, Cameron Jefferson was a surprise (for reasons mentioned above) and the other surprise was Charbel Dabire. You know I’m high on him and I think ultimately he works he way back with the starters. Otherwise the PR pretty much makes sense to me.

We currently have 49 on the roster which means that 4 people will are hurt or will be “hurt” next week. We have 5 Canadian receivers on the roster so expect 1 or 2 of them not to dress.

So let’s get to our roster and where we sit. Starting with the positives.

I’ve been saying all along that keeping the offensive core of Fajardo, Powell, Evans and Moore together will be huge (as will having an OC that knows what to do with them… in addition to cursing at them). Whether its JWL (who I think has a good season if he can stay healthy) or McRoberts, I think we are good at American WR. We may not have a Fantuz-like stud amongst our Canadians but with the stable of Lenius (my pick for biggest step forward in year 2), McInnis, Picton (who I am genuinely happy to see crack the roster after spending the past 8 years on the practice roster, patiently waiting) Harty or Jana. I think that we will get production by committee from that group.

I also like our secondary. Everyone is returning but McCray and continuity is important in a unit like that. I really like Blace Brown who won the other corner spot. He played well in limited time in 2019 as a rookie and should take a step forward now. Oneyka is the perfect depth guy because he can play multiple positions as a Canadian.

Special teams should be solid. Hus is quietly the model of rock solid consistency. Lauther is good. I’m hopeful that all the ooing and ahing over Ryan’s leg strength also mean he’s been working on placing the ball anywhere but the middle of the field. I’ve resigned myself to another year of yelling at people who claim he is the best punter because he gets the most singles. I don’t understand why we are using our mandated global position on a kicker. I guess it’s a good a place as any if you don’t actually have a global that can contribute meaningfully. Wish we did, but oh well. I wonder if he will cover punts?

Now the bad… and it starts in a really important spot: the O-line. The middle looks fine. Clark, white Johnson, and another pleasant surprise in Logan Ferland (two starting juniors on the same line, that’s gotta be unprecedented) with St John and Riley for depth (and mark my word, Labatte will play at some point this season). But the edges are the thing of nightmares. On one side you have a great young tackle with a questionable shoulder. On the other you have a Canadian who was personally responsible for a number of the near record sacks on Michael Riley in BC before being benched for performance reasons. Pray for Cody! I agree with one of the commenters who said that if Boyko won the spot it means we did a poor job of recruiting import tackles. It will be on Maas to run an offense that helps hide that glaring concern (TE sets, strong run games, quick slants, etc…).

D-line is half good (Micah and Leonard) and half completely unknown. Guys like Gates and Marino (who I can only assume is Dan’s brother) have great reviews out of camp but so did Joe Sykes… remember him? No you don’t! He also looked great in camp against O-lineman we would soon cut and was about as effective as a Scott Gordon safety blitz when facing an actual opponent. I’m cautiously optimistic here but can’t be overly confident at this point.

Linebackers seem to be shaping up to be Teitz/Lacey/Hendy (though they haven’t said for sure). I think Lacey will be fine but that leaves one career start between the remaining starting LBs. Much like our D-line, we are putting a lot of faith in our recruiting.

So where does that leave us with the season starting on Friday? If I’m being honest, a lot lest confident than I was just 4 weeks ago. I think we have the talent to compete in the West but to call us a favourite in the West would require the thickest of green lensed glasses. Fortunately those are in abundance in this province.

Can’t wait for Thursday when I get to do my first game preview since 2019!