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.
You covered everything. The hope is the young group @ OL can grow. If you watched the Bombers take apart the young TiCat OL last night, you have to be nervous. Hamilton dressed 11 (that's right - see the depth chart) on OL & at times lined up 7 or 8 to handle the front 4. That included 5 tackles on hand. And they were manhandled all night.
You're bang on about the tackles. A guy to "watch" on BC is the appropriately named Gwatcham. I'm never big on home town hype on new guys but Lalji says he looks like a younger Jefferson. I don't know much about him but Tavai on the other end is pretty good. That's the battle I'll be watching.
With Maas you don't know what he'll do. When he had Reilly they played a lot of long ball with guys like Duke Williams most recently. Same with Bowman & Zylstra. Reilly, given time, is really good at it. When Harris came in his strength is quick reads, get the ball out quick so the game plan was adapted for him. Cody is more of a hybrid. I do know both Maas & Dickenson have said they want him running less, something Maas did with Reilly. I expect a lot of play action to help out the OL, as you said.
The BC OL wasn't bad when Bates took over. Don't quote me but I think they allowed only 15 sacks the last 8 games, a pace that would have tied them for 2nd in 2019. They landed East all-star Matthews @ RT replacing Boyko. Figueroa, Chungh, Steward are all good. Godber, the centre, has played before a bit. With that elbow we might not see much long ball but have to be aware of it. Rhymes was 2nd to Evans in avg yds/catch.
It's going to be an interesting game. Strength vs weakness. Both teams have really good weapons on offence. Both have serious issues & question marks on the front 7. As you said, having watched last night's contest, this isn't supposed to be the big test. In the West there are premium rush ends like Lemon in Calgary, Boateng plus the beasts in Winnipeg. Hamilton is going to be snarly & with Wynn & Davis, likely Laurent, Ferland is going to be tested as willBoyko. But that's for another time. Should be a good game.
One more thing. I don't know about you, RP, but I'm getting a bit tired of Fajardo - or at least the things scribes are putting out there. 3DNation with "Tears of Jesus" Cody cries with Joy. C'Mon. On the CFL website Fajardo talking about the "character" win. When you blow a big lead in the 2nd half & manage, what, 1 first down until late in the game, that's a character win? The off season musings of the Grey Cup lost in 2020, the undefeated season lost, it's just becoming a bit much. As one guy said - hokey.
I like Cody & his honesty can be refreshing but some of this stuff is a bit over the top. Just my opinion. Maybe it's what endears him to Regina.
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