Ya, but ...

August 22, 2018 - 11:28am

It was an emotional win for a team that needed it Sunday afternoon and the Saskatchewan Roughriders bought themselves some breathing room with a 40-27 win over the previously undefeated Calgary Stampeders.

On the one hand, it was a complete team win with a pick six touchdown, a blocked punt for another touchdown and a three yard run to round out the major scoring. Add to that a defense that genuinely seemed to confuse the Calgary Stampeders and you couldn’t blame Rider fans for thinking that maybe, just maybe, the Riders have turned a corner in their 2018 season.

The key to the win was the motion Chris Jones employed on defense.

It was not so much the Riders blitzed, but they moved their players around, dropping them off into coverage when you thought they would have come in on a blitz or even lining up three defensive ends on the line of scrimmage on one play, making the job of the Stampeders offensive line nearly impossible to figure out who they were going to block.

It was kind of a mirror image of the last time Calgary came to Mosaic when they racked up a 24-0 lead on special team touchdowns, pick sixes and the like until the Riders fought their way back and fell short. This time the Riders managed to hold onto the ball except for one fumble while getting three fumble recoveries, one interception, one turnover on downs and five QB sacks.

This time the Riders added to the chaos created by their motion defense by going to no huddle offense, which is different than a hurry up offense. The no huddle offense gave Zach Collaros  a chance to check out the Stampeder defense while going up to the line of scrimmage, making the most of the opportunities presented.

The release of Duron Carter had fans wondering what would happen to the Rider offense and the answer seems to be Jordan Williams-Lambert emerging as the big target and taking the pressure off of Naaman Roosevelt. The problem came when Caleb Holley went down with an ACL injury  and suddenly the Riders offense will be undergoing another re-invention.

The signing of Rob Bagg was seen as a bit of mea culpa by Jones who released Bagg at the end of the preseason for either salary cap reasons, or maybe he was injured and the Riders couldn’t put him on the six game injury list and would have had his salary count against the cap. However now with Holley going out with his injury and the Riders sending a seventh round draft pick to Toronto for former fourth overall draft pick Mike Jones, the Riders seem to be looking at having two starting Canadian receivers in their lineup as they continue to work on their ground game.

The Rider defense with the addition of Loucheiz Purifoy and Matt Elam had a few communication problems resulting in Calgary touchdowns and Calgary Head Coach Dave Dickenson did his usual have the receivers run at defensive backs and try to draw interference calls. What happens when Derrick Moncrief comes back is an interesting question for the defense and the interesting question is how Purifoy, who tends to be aggressive in his coverage and sometimes either draws penalties or even gets beat deep, will handle the BC receiving corps, especially Manny Arceneaux who beat Purifoy a few times when Purifoy was playing with Ottawa.

The relatively short week for the Riders, who get back on the field on Wednesday  and have one public practice on Thursday before heading to BC for Saturday night’s game, means there shouldn’t be many too many non injury forced changes for the game. The identity of the Riders is still unfolding as the team figures out what it has on offense and how to best use their weapons.

The big question was how the roster changes before the Calgary game would affect the team and the answer is the team seems to be drawing closer together and getting things done by any means necessary. One of the interesting developments has been the impact of Collaros on the offensive line play.

Collaros is more of a pocket passer and seems better able to use the offensive playbook than Brandon Bridge and his tendency to scramble. Knowing where the quarterback is is a big step for the offensive line who don’t have to worry about trying to hold their blocks longer than what is typical.

By that token, the pressure is on the offensive line to keep Collaros upright and to help that, there is the quick passing game and a great emphasis on the run. Collaros using the no huddle offense has more time to process what the defense is giving him and his command of the playbook makes him more confident in checking off plays in case the defense is showing something that the play call didn’t anticipate for.

Whether or not the win over Calgary was a “statement win” or whether it was just a mathematical certainty that at some point the Stampeders were going to trip up, is something that may have to wait until after the season is over. From now until the end of the season the Riders will be playing every week with their quota of bye weeks already used up.

The Riders did not bad coming off with their bye weeks with wins over Hamilton and Calgary, but Jones seems to like the continuity of playing every week and the possibility of getting good work habits established as the team drives to the playoffs.

The win over Calgary, combined with the BC and Winnipeg losses, makes the western conference race more of a dog fight and with more inter-divisional games coming up, the teams are now in the area of the schedule where losses become even more costly to divisional opponents and momentum becomes even more important.

The addition of Jones was interesting because as a fourth overall pick, one would have thought that Jones would have shown something by now, but in retrospect it seems Jones got up to the fourth overall pick just because teams passed on players who had declared they would be trying out the NFL. Jones didn’t see much action until Toronto jettisoned their receiving corps two years ago and Jones saw some time filling in and got into some special teams activity.

He played for three games last year and got his Grey Cup ring, but sending a seventh round pick for a former fourth overall pick means the Riders really were looking for Canadian depth and at the very least, someone to take in some special teams work.

So this week the stakes are raised yet again with the CFL schedule as the surprising Ottawa Redblacks get the week off and the Matt Nicholls support group will be meeting in Calgary as Bo Levi Mitchell attempts to help Nicholls handle the crushing blows of being booed by a Winnipeg audience.

Edmonton goes to Hamilton on Thursday night and for Edmonton it is a short week after a 40-24 win over Montreal on guaranteed win night. Hamilton beat Edmonton 38-21 back in week 2 when Jeremiah Masoli was in the midst of his 300 yards per game streak and Edmonton was trying to cope with losing their starting cornerbacks to injury.

So while Hamilton is coming off the bye, Edmonton could also be argued is coming off a bye by beating Montreal. The game is in Hamilton and the big question is which Hamilton team is going to show up. The Cats seem to be a team that is well put together offensively but suffers from poor decision making and mental errors, leading it to a 3-5 record that includes two losses to Saskatchewan that it really shouldn’t have lost.

So until Hamilton went off the rails against the Riders, they were said to be improved from the 6-12 team of last year, but maybe the addition and then subtraction of Johnny Manziel distracted people from the obvious. Maybe Hamilton is just an entertaining 6-12 or likely 8-10 team.

Hamilton has done  a good job of stockpiling draft picks, but continues to suffer with a defense that gives up the big play or penalty at the most inopportune time. Hamilton should have some confidence after beating Edmonton in Edmonton, but until Hamilton learns how to be consistent, the odds are the team with the MVP quarterback should be favored to win and until Masoli wins a Grey Cup, that means Mike Reilly and the Eskimos win a close 27-26 win and maybe Hamilton will get to see Edmonton coach Jason Maas assault a box of Tim Bits in frustration over the grounds crew Gorilla glueing the Gatorade bucket to the bench to prevent another all out assault by Maas, a graduate of the Angelo Mosca anger management school.

Then we have Toronto at Montreal in what will be another likely appearance by Antonio Pipkin as the starting quarterback of the Montreal Alouettes. Pipkin went in for the apparently concussed Johnny Manziel and actually acquitted himself nicely against the Edmonton Eskimos.

Pipkin seems to have the mobility and ability to throw that apparently Manziel has, but without the headlines about off-field behaviour. The interesting thing is while now Montreal seems to have a stabilized quarterback situation, their defense has driven off the cliff and is not coming back.

Montreal’s defense has been on the field for 35 minutes a game in six games so far this season and is on pace to set new team records for futility. Which begs the question of what happens to Rich Stubler, who was brought in as a steady veteran hand.

Kavis Reed has made an art of churning through personnel and with most of his draft picks traded off for bags of magic beans, his next and probably sole remaining hope is NFL camps and potential players shaking loose after cuts are made in the next couple of weeks. Reed might be able to save his job for a little bit by firing Stubler, but sooner or later someone has to ask who is running this tire fire and why do things stink so bad.

Montreal has a glimmer in that Toronto comes to town, but Toronto has also come out with two last minute victories under their quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was is making James Franklin looking more and more like trade bait if he continues coming up with miracle finishes. Cosnidering the two were neck and neck for the back up role in training camp,, this is a nice position for Trestman to be in, especially after losing Ricky Ray.

So if Toronto can get into the game earlier instead of spotting Montreal a lead, Toronto may be in better shape to avoid a third straight come from behind win. The reappearance of Bear Woods in the Toronto lineup should help in that respect, but I suspect Toronto’s offense will continue to go through some growing pains, especially in the first half, and Toronto comes from behind for a third straight game to win 27-23 and set themselves up for a second place battle with Hamilton over the Labour Day series.

Then we have Winnipeg going to Calgary, which is like debating the merits of Ebola versus Bubonic Plague and asking which one would you rather be a fan of? Ebola, or for the sake of argument, Winnipeg, is coming off an implosion against Ottawa while Calgary, or Bubonic, stubbed their collective toe against the Riders.

What made the Winnipeg loss fascinating in retrospect was the sight of Bomber fans booing as Matt Nichols left the game, then came back in garbage time. The debate has raged in the City Where Dreams Go To Die whether the booing was of Nichols or perhaps Mike O’ Shea, smirkmaster extraordinaire, for putting Nichols back into a no win situation.

Or maybe, as Smithers once said on the Simpsons, they were not booing or saying Boo Urns for Mr. Burns.

Nichols expressed his disappointment with fans seemingly booing him,considering how he bought into the idea of Winnipeg as well, a place where Dreams Go To Die, which is an honest and naïve as it gets. Fans, even those in Dollarama Field, pay to do whatever the hell they want and with the heightened expectations of this Bomber team, anything other than a thumping of the other team is simply not acceptable – this is what #1990 tends to do to a fan base.

If Nichols was truly bothered, he should have just shut up and said nothing. As Dieter Brock said in an interview, he was  booed for being a contract holdout in 1983 and then after he hit someone for a big gain or touchdown, the boos turned to cheers.

As it is, Nichols may have given other teams a club for them to beat him with. If they can fluster Nichols, as apparently an easy a task as Ottawa managed, it will throw Winnipeg’s carefully crafted offense completely off the rails, especially at home. The Bombers next home game is against the Riders and if the Bombers comes back to Dollarama Field at 5-6 while the Riders are say, 5-4, then the Riders could confuse Nichols as easily as they did Bo Levi Mitchell and then Winnipeg’s season will be over after winning the June, July and half of August Grey Cup titles.

So now Winnipeg goes to Calgary and they will like to point out they beat Calgary last year at the end of the season, when Calgary was putting up Andrew Buckley as a starting quarterback and sitting anyone who wanted against the Bombers. This time it’s August and while Calgary shrugged off the Rider loss by pointing out they are still in first place, the Calgary braintrust does not want to let losing become a habit, especially at home.

So Winnipeg will fight like hell to try to win back their fickle fans and give a good accounting of themselves before the Labour Day series with the Riders, while Calgary will attempt to toy with the psyche of Matt Nichols and and plant further seeds of doubt in how much they really love him in Winnipeg. Calgary wins a relatively close one 27-24.

Finally we have the Riders go to BC for the battle for fourth place. The Riders hold the crucial fourth spot for a crossover but have a change to make inroads on Winnipeg and perhaps Edmonton with another win here against BC.

BC for their part have tinkered yet again with their defence by bringing in Micah Awe back and cutting Gabe Knapton, who they got from Montreal in the Chris Williams trade. Awe brings a definite physical presence along with a tendency to get roughing penalties, but an interesting story in the Vancouver papers talked about Awe getting cut by the NFL after getting an early release from the Lions, then working as an Uber driver before getting back to the Lions.

So maybe Awe learned some humility and that maybe team success is just as crucial as putting together enough film for an NFL tryout so his tendency to take stupid penalties will be curtailed. Whethe Awe is in game shape for Saturday is an interesting question,  but I think defensive coordinator Mark Washington will roll the dice on Awe in an effort to disrupt Zach Collaros and a Rider offense line that may or may not be coming into its own.

The Riders for their part will be looking at the hole where Solomon Eliminion used to roam before being injured and maybe ask themselves, why can’t Tre Mason and Marcus Thigpen run wild through that hole? So we will likely see BC trying to control the line of scrimmage by any means necessary to prevent the Riders from controlling the clock and subsequently the game.

The other match-up that will be interesting is seeing how Purifoy does against Arceneaux and the rest of the BC receiving corps. When Purifoy was with Ottawa, he did not do well against the Lions when those two teams met but whether that was a result of being physically overmatched or whether it was due to the coverages called by defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe. This will be interesting to see if Jones can harness the aggression of Purifoy without incurring the penalities.

This should be another close game because BC is undefeated at home and winless on the road, while the Riders at least won once on the road. BC being competitive at home keeps this close, but a lack of discipline will lead to mistakes in the fourth quarter and the Riders will come away with a 27-24 win and a tighter hold on fourth place and a cross over berth to the east.

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