Sunday the 2023 season opens for the Riders. They will be in Edmonton to face the Elks. The Riders will be looking to start 2023 on a high note with their new look team. The Elks will be looking to win at home for the first time since 2019. Think about how much last year sucked for fans in the stands at Mosaic then compound that for years. Though, if some people are to be believed, the losing streak in Edmonton is a direct result of caving and dropping the Eskimos name. Pretty sure its science… well to be fair, by Alberta standards it probably is.
There is a lot of hype surrounding this new look Riders offense under the leadership of Trevor Harris after a perfect preseason. But let me remind you that Harris threw 4 passes total against a defense missing many starters so let’s maybe pump the brakes on how much we can infer from that solitary drive. I believe in Harris and think he will do well but there will be growing pains. They will likely come as a result of the O-line. My faith in just how improved our line will be keeps slipping a bit every day. We thought Hawkins was the chosen one to lock down the tackle spot but he’s off dealing with family issues. No worries, Philip Blake can hold things down until he’s back… but now he’s hurt. That brings us to Plan C which is Colin Kelly… who is currently suspended for 2 games. Brandon Council represents Plan D (the D stands for desperate). Blake’s presumed absence also means that Evan Johnson still gets to play (that is not a good thing for anyone but opposing pass rushers). Look, I believe better days are coming for the Riders OL. But I just may not be in game 1.
Two ways to help that line out. 1 is run the ball. Elks will be tough to run on Their front 4 is pretty solid and Nyles Morgan at MLB is an effective run stopper. Still we gotta get touches to Morrow/Hickson in every single quarter (that part should go without saying but after 2 years of Maas, it does not). The other way is to get the ball out of Harris’ hands quickly. Small sample size but we saw some nice crossers in preseason and a long pass that resulted off Harris reading the blitz and getting it off. At least Harris appears to be aware of how to step up into the pocket and not spin left into D-lineman. That will help. If I’m Jones I try and see if 3 man pressure can be as deadly to the Riders OL as it was last year and drop the rest into coverage.
Defensively I think we face the most formidable set of offensive weapons in the CFL. Kevin Brown is a dangerous runner who averaged a league high 6.6 yds per rush. Only 3 players had more 20+ yard runs than him and he only played 7 games. Geno Lewis is the best receiver in the CFL in my opinion. Dillon Mitchell put up 600 yards and 4 TDs in half a season. And their 3rd/4th option are Steven Dunbar (who had 1000 yards last season) and Kyran Moore (who we know well). At least until Kenny Lawler is allowed back in the country that is best WR/RB group in the CFL.
The issue is their QB. I had written Cornelius off early because he never really showed me anything to make me believe he was a legit starter. That changed in the last half of last season. He looked ok. And honestly with those weapons around him and a Chris Jones defense, ok should be good enough. But even an “improved” Cornelius is still a QB who completed just 57% of his passes and had 9 INTs to 11 TDs. He was less accurate on deep balls than Cody Fajardo (let that sink in). So Cornelius is progressing but he’s not yet a top end QB.
I really like our front 4. Lanier, Michah, Robertson and the rotation of Christmas/Cox should be disruptive. We need them to win the line of scrimmage. That will allow us to pressure Cornelius into bad throws and limit the run. If he gets time (or room to run) then even a so-so QB like Cornelius will make us pay. Obviously the lack of Moncrief is not ideal but his longterm health is obviously more important.
I’ve waffled a lot on this one. I think there is good reason for hope with this team and I think this is a winnable game. But no Blake, no Moncrief are big hits on both sides of the ball. Plus I think people are way too down on Edmonton. This is year 2 of the Chris Jones rebuild. They will be better. But how quickly is the question. 2017 ended ok for us but remember that we started that year 0-2.
I am going to believe in the power of tequila (which I will dutifully consume that utter garbage as long as we keep winning) and say that we narrowly escape Commonwealth with a win.
Riders by a Lauther FG.