Is this for real?

September 6, 2018 - 8:18am

The CFL turned into the second half of its schedule with a few teams tottering on the abyss. Meanwhile others are looking around and like the Talking Heads are asking themselves…well, how did I get here?

The Saskatchewan Roughriders in second place was something few Rider fans would have thought possible a month ago, but three things seem to have led the Riders to this point. Besides the wins over Calgary, BC and Winnipeg – consider what happened when Zach Collaros has been able to do when healthy; how the Riders offensive line has suddenly become one of the league’s best; and how the departure of Duron Carter has seemingly led to a three game winning streak.

In the first half of the Riders-Bombers Labour Day clash, it seemed like the Bombers were on their way to ending the Riders streak and in the process rightening their ship which was listing to the left following implosions against Ottawa and Calgary. Bomber quarterback Matt Nichol, who was booed or not booed in the home loss against Ottawa, seemed to throw his receivers under the bus in the loss against Calgary and opened the Labour Day Classic with an interception that put the Riders on Winnipeg’s one yard line to start their drive.

After that Nichols used Andrew Harris to devastating effect and it seemed to some, OK. It may be just me, but I thought that Winnpeg was following what Ottawa tried a year ago against the Riders and then had William Powell run for a team record, only to choke in the fourth quarter because of either A) getting away from the game plan or B) the Riders made adjustments and Ottawa didn’t. 

Except this time Harris got sandwiched in the second half and despite running for 158 yards, injury forced him from the game where he was replaced by Kienan LaFrance who fumbled the ball awayand helped the Riders get back into the game.

I was in the Pil Country section in the end zone where you could watch the plays unfold and at half-time I got a text from Darren Olekysn, former sports reporter at the PA Herald, asking what the hell was going on because Winnipeg was dominating the Riders despite being just three points ahead.

The answer to that seemed to start with the insertion of Curt Maggit on the defensive line.

Maggit was inserted in place of Mi’Chael Brooks, the former BC Lion who since his return to the CFL seems to have curbed his tendency to take goon penalties on the field.

If you wonder how this might have helped the Winnipeg running game, consider this – Maggit is listed as 6’3” and 250 lbs, while Brooks is listed at 6’3” and 295 lbs, which makes a difference in handling a big offensive lineman or being handled. It would not be fair to point to this insertion, made because Brooks was placed on the one game injury list, as the sole cause of the Winnipeg running attack.

The Rider defense has started to baffle teams by using a lot of motion before the snap of the ball. Usually a quarterback will break the huddle and as he goes to the line of scrimmage, will look over the defensive alignment and then maybe audible a play at the line of scrimmage. The Riders move their defensive players all ove the place right up to the snap of the ball making it nearly impossible for a quarterback to figure out who might be covering who or whether or not the defense is blitzing.

So what Winnipeg did, not just in response to the Riders use of motion on defense, but also to the crowd noise, was to quickly call plays on the line of scrimmage before the Riders had settled their defensive shifts. Nothing wrong with that, except in the fourth quarter when Nichols tried it again, he was intercepted by Ed Gainey.

The Bombers played not bad in the Labour Day game and their problems on defense seem to come from the lack of help from the receiving position. The absence of Weston Dressler seems to have deprived Winnipeg of a receiver who can be counted on to know how to run routes and how to bail out their quarterback when he is in trouble.

That wasn’t a problem in the first half of the Labour Day game as Winnipeg responded to Saskatchewan scores by running Andrew Harris successfully, but when Harris went out, then the Bomber receivers did their quarterbacks no favors.

For the Riders, it was a win, but with a few red flags. The inability to stop the Winnipeg running game until Harris got injured seems to have been both  schematic and a physical failing by the Riders. The Rider offense is still a work in progress, but having gutted their receiving corps for younger receivers who are still learning their trade, the degree of familiarity one wants between a quarterback and receiving corps is not there yet, but it is coming.

The addition of Kyrian Moore, an under-sized by Chris Jones standards at wide receiver paid off big time for the Riders with a punt return for a touchdown and one reception in particular that featured some nifty moves that will break opposing ankles in the future.

If Brooks is back in the lineup for the Banjo Bowl, then the Riders will have taken a major step towards dealing with the Winnipeg running game, but before we get to that point, the rest of the CFL got more interesting.

The Montreal Alouettes won their third game of the season in convincing style over Ottawa, which is becoming consistently inconsistent. Ottawa was 6-3 heading into this game and made the same mistake as the Riders did when they faced Montreal and figured all they had to do was show up and the win was theirs by default.

Instead Ottawa was part of the Antonio (Football) Pipkin coming out party which has somehow managed to take advantage of the Johnny Manziel concussion protocol to step in and led Montreal to two straight wins. This is Pipkin’s second kick at the can so to speak and his familiarity with the Montreal offense has made him more effective than Manziel at quarterback which raises an interesting question – If Pipkin continues to show well and Montreal wins, will Kavis Reed attempt to move Manziel in order to try to recoup some of the draft picks he gave up to get him?

Montreal is on a bye week this week so Montreal Coach Mike Sherman is spared te immediate decision of who starts next week, but with Pipkin leading the team to two straight wins this might give Manziel, who has not shown much inclination to hit a playbook, to actually hit a playbook and try to develop moves beyond just scrambling around and hope to hit someone who gets open.

Ottawa got hit by Kyries Hebert getting suspended for two games for an illegal hit on BJ Cunningham of Montreal. It’s a move that may hurt Ottawa as they travel to BC to kick off this week’s slate of games, but considering Hebert’s age and the only value he shows as someone who is familiar with defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe’s schemes, I would have to think that if Ottawa doesn’t have someone else on the roster who understands what is going on, then they have more problems than are evident on the field.

Ottawa going to BC is never a good thing for an easten team, especially on a Friday night game, especially when the game will be starting when Ottawa’s body clock says it is 11 pm. BC for its’ part realizes that this is now or never on Wally’s last hurrah and it started with news that Emmanuel Arceneaux is planning to delay surgery until after November on a torn ACL.

Arceneaux is planning to return to the Lions, assuming everything goes well, on October 19th against the Edmonton Eskimos. At first glance this sounds a bit delusional, but apparently the injury Arceneaux suffered was to the same knee that was injured in 2014 and Arceneaux only missed three games when that injury happened.

So while the Lions ponder the return of Arceneaux, and the news that Solomon Eliminion is having his injured wrist reassessed on September 11 and might be back, maybe not, the Lions have at least a bit of hope in the future. In the meantime, Micah Awe will line up in the middle for the Lions as they try to prevent teams from using the middle of their defense as an off-ramp to the end zone.

But on Friday the Lions have signed former Calgary Stampeder Anthony Parker to fill out the receiving ranks and it looks like former Rider Ricky Collins Jr. will be in the lineup again to help the team. A big question mark is the status of Chris Rainey, the running back/receiver  whose play has been, well, uninspired. Apparently Rainey is being shopped around but wherever he goes will have to try to figure out how to best use him in their offense.

So BC is coming off a bye week, added Parker to the mix and might be getting ready for a stretch run. Ottawa is hampered by its cross country trip and its’ inconsistency which may topple it out of first place if it isn’t careful. BC needs this game to stay alive in the playoff hunt and so it might appear BC should be favored in this.

Ya but…while Ed Hervey has assembled an Eskimo alumni group to try to show the character needed to make the playoffs, the BC Lions are too thin, too old and not talented enough to make the playoffs, even with the many time zones between them and Ottawa. BC will make this close because they’ve had two weeks to prepare and have the time zone advantage, but in the end, assuming after Ottawa imploded against Montreal they rebound this week – Ottawa will win this one 28-21.

Hamilton goes to Toronto on Saturday looking to bury the Argonauts who are now facing one of life’s existential questions – to start Duron Carter and perhaps the clock ticking on his implosion on that team, or maybe risk bombing in front of the potentially largest Argo crowd of the year  and reducing their attendance for the rest of the season to scattered homeless and City of Toronto workers looking to take a break from lawn maintenance.

The Carter question comes down to an interesting brewing conflict between Jim Popp and Marc Trestman. Popp brought in Carter in Montreal and likes the talent Carter has shown and which could ignite the team and perhaps the casual Toronto sports fan mourning the demise of the Toronto soccer idiots.

Trestman though has been quite clear that building a locker room culture that develops the resilience to handle downswings in a season is his priority and unless all players are pulling together for a common goal, there will be no success on the field. For Trestman, the choice is trying to maintain the integrity of the locker room or accepting a Faustian bargain and bringing Carter in to provide Toronto with a credible deep threat, but in the process perhaps starting the clock on a locker room distraction that may hurt the team.

If Carter starts against Hamilton, it will be because Toronto has no credible deep threat and teams can just load on Toronto’s offense and allow them to nickle and dime them down the field with no fears of a sudden deep pass – something that Carter can address by stepping out onto the field. The other factor is Carter is a lightening rod for fan interest and discussion and Toronto needs some sort of engagement with their fans considering how much they have bombed playing at home this season.

Toronto cannot allow the season to start slipping away because of a matter of sticking to a principle of trying to keep the locker room on the same page. The team needs to win to be noticed on the field, and if it can’t win, it has to be entertaining. Carter is entertaining so this may be a short term gain for potentially long term pain.

Toronto has already started loading up on other ex-Saskatchewan Roughriders by signing Jeff Knox Jr., who was released by Tennessee. Knox will replace Marcus Ball who is out with a hamstring. Whatever Toronto decides to do about Carter, it will have to feature more of James Wilder Jr., who whined about how he was under appreciated and under-paid and when he got an increase, promptly became a middle of pack runner.

There are a lot of ifs here, and if Carter starts, there is no guarantee he will pay off immediately for the Argos. Hamilton has an opportunity to bury Toronto despite being as inconsistent as Ottawa and that along with many Hamilton fans making the jaunt into the big city, will be enough to see Hamilton sweep the double header from the Argos by a score of 30-23.

Calgary goes to Edmonton to complete the other half of the Battle of Alberta opus, with the first game marked by major injuries suffered by both teams. Kemar Jorden of Calgary went out for perhaps the season with a leg injury while Bo Levi Mitchell was practicing Wednesday with a knee brace on.

Edmonton said goodbye to Derel Walker with an injury and while the extent has yet to be announced, that and the trend of discipline penalities Edmonton maanaged to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory. Edmonton has been continuing an interesting trend of being a very good first half team to one that collpases in the second half.

Walker will not be back for the rematch on Saturday so Duke Williams can expect to be multiple teamed as the big Edmonton deep threat. That takes some of the pressure off of Calgary’s defense who might not have defensive end James Vaughters and defensive back Ciante Evans back for this game, although as I write the week is just half over.

The usual theory is to bet the split on the home and home series, especially taking the respective home teams. While Edmonton is officially not pushing the panic button after sliding on win percentage to third behind Calgary and Saskatchewan, the way Edmonton has been losing games, especially in a year when they are hosting a Grey Cup, cannot be filling their fans with anything resembling confidence.

So while Calgary is beat up, they are also looking at clinching a playoff spot and perhaps even lapping other teams in a race for first in the west. For Calgary being able to bury Edmonton may allow them to rest some of their regulars and not expose them to injury in games where it might not be that important.

That’s a luxury that a front-runner can enjoy and despite Calgary being extremely vulnerable here, Edmonton has showed an unfailing accuracy in shooting itself in the foot and there is no reason why that cannot continue to be the case in this game 27-23 Calgary.

Finally we have the Banjo Bowl and one thing about this game, along with the other two rematches going on Saturday to keep in mind. It will not be the game plan that decides the outcome, but how well each team executes its game plan.

Winnipeg should be bolstered by the return of Maurice Leggett on defense while it seems Patrick Neufeld will be coming back to the Winnipeg offensive line. This will be significant because not only does it take an American off the offensive line, but that removal will allow for the Bombers to bring in running back Tim Flanders, who will be more effective than Kienan LaFrance will be in spelling Andrew Harris.

Harris went out with a shoulder injury, which might have been a stinger, and while he is on the verge of 1000 yards rushing for the season, his pace seems to indicate he is not in danger of burning out just yet. The uncertainty of Harris’ injury was played up when he sat out Winnipeg’s Wednesday practice but that could have been part of the gamesmanship for which Mike (smirk) O’Shea has become noted for.

For Winnipeg to win, Nichols needs to have some sort of receiving corps that will help him out, otherwise the booing and pressure to bring in Chris Streveler will be pretty overwhelming. If Weston Dressler returns, that may help, but again, until he actually steps out onto the field, all of this is smoke and mirrors.

The Riders will have to try some stuff out of character for them these last few weeks because the defensive pressure by Winnipeg, especially on the young Rider receiving corps, will be pretty suffocating. The Riders might bring out Rob Bagg to lend some experience and provide Collaros with a safer safety net than what the Rider receiver corps has done so far.

Winnipeg will look to run the ball down the Riders throat with Harris and likely Flanders and this time they will continue until the Riders show they can actually stop this.If Brooks comes back, that might got a long way to eliminating the mismatches that frustrated the Riders the last time.

I had Winnipeg favored in this, mostly because of my thought that sweeping a home and home is pretty difficult, but I think the addition of Neufeld opens the doors for the Riders to put some pressure on Winnipeg, even with Harris and Flanders in the backfield. Like Calgary, the Riders have a chance to bury Winnipeg and while a Winnipeg win would not surprise me, I think the Riders come out with the sweep, 27-24



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