That thud heard somewhere in the middle of where dreams go to die on Saturday could very well have been the Grey Cup hopes of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The 31-0 disaster in Dollarama Stadium where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dropped the Riders record to 10-6, still the second best record in the league, but which exposed the Riders as a team which relies on its defense and special teams to bail out its offense. Then there are games when the Riders offense is so bad, not even an Act of God can help them out.
It was a loss you could have seen as early as Thanksgiving when the Riders beat Edmonton 19-12 thanks to a last minute pick six touchdown from Willie Jefferson. You could have called that game a defensive struggle, but the reality was it was two incompetent offenses at work and the least incompetent offense won on that particular day.
The Riders went without an offensive touchdown on that day and they kept that streak alive against Winnipeg. The Rider offense telegraphed their passing plays directly into Richie Hall’s spotters’ booth and the Bombers made the Rider rookie receivers look like the first year players that they are.
And then there are the injuries with offensive lineman Dariusz Bladek going down for likely the season with what appears to be a knee injury, then defensive lineman Mic’heal Brooks went down with a broken leg. Zach Evans also went down with an undetermined injury and Mike Elam went down with a hand injury.
So the Riders do have Braden Schwan on the practice roster, an offensive lineman who was a second round pick by Hamilton in the 2017 draft before being released and picked up by the Riders. They also have Chris Schleuger, an offensive lineman who saw preseason action with the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. There is also Mathieu Breton, a 2018 fifth round draft pick of the Riders who was originally a defensive lineman at Bishop’s University.
Josiah St. John, the number one draft pick in the 2016 draft by Chris Jones, stepped in, for Bladek, and this being his third year, probably won’t have a bigger chance to make a case for why he should be retained.
On the defensive line, if Zach Evans is out, then Makana Henry, who was on the one game injured list, should be able to come off and fill Evans spot. Eddie Steele is still available and the Riders may want to see if Jordan Reaves is ready for more than just special teams’ duty. The Riders have been working on rotating their defensive linemen, and now the question comes whether they have enough depth to last the next two weeks of the season and hopefully use their bye week to bring back whoever is ready to come off the injury lists.
None of this matters’ though compared to the sheer incompetence of the offense. From the opening reception/fumble by Shaq Evans to the eloquent interceptions of Zach Collaros who may have a winning record as a Rider quarterback, but maybe should be buying pizzas for the defense and special teams to thank them for that, the Riders have an offense that is ripe for a first round elimination whether it is in the west or as an eastern crossover.
It is truly a team effort, not just the interceptions by Collaros, but the dropped passes by receivers, the unimaginative play calling, (which may be dictated by the lack of production by the receivers/offense), and the offensive line play which veers from competent to just uh, uninspired?
Chris Jones has put his bets on the an all-star defense, which tends to break down when on the field for too long, and a special teams that can hit the odd home run now and then. The Riders rolled the dice on Zach Collaros who has not come back to his 2015 form and whose salary may have gutted the Riders receiving corps and forced them to turn to rookies and hope Collaros could have made things happen.
Brandon Bridge made an appearance in this game, but he was no more effective than Collaros and if he was looking for a big payday this offseason, that ship may have sailed. The CFL may be looking at a fairly extensive quarterback carousel with quarterbacks like Jon Jennings moving on, maybe James Franklin, Mike Reilly, and possibly even Collaros himself. Bridge is not consistent to be a CFL starter.
Heading into the playoffs, with games against Calgary and BC to round out the Rider schedule, the offense which hasn’t learned how to score during the regular season, will be expected to figure out how to operate in colder weather. Presumably recognizing this offense has no traction, Jones had appeared a couple of months ago to float the idea the Riders would be running the football, then running it some more.
People may have thought he was exaggerating, but the Riders have surprising become the second top rushing team in the league. That’s not a bad thing heading into the playoffs, but when your passing attack lacks all credibility and opposing defenses can just sit back and wait for the Riders receivers to make their breaks on their routes and then jump those routes, then the Riders are in trouble.
There are a few things which might mitigate the sinking feeling Rider fans were left with following the game Saturday. The game was on a short week for the Riders with just one practice and a short turnaround from Monday to Saturday, including a travel day on Friday.
The Riders two best receivers, Jordan Williams-Lambert and Naaman Roosevelt were not in the game, and their presence might have forced Winnipeg to treat the passing game with a little more respect. On the other hand, Roosevelt has been subject to a number of injuries and if he takes a hard hit in the next few games, he could well be out for the rest of the season.
Helping them up is that Calgary’s receiving corps is now nearly as bad and the two teams seem to be a mirror image of each other – a tepid offense and at times a devastating defense. When you consider how BC has retooled throughout the season and beat Calgary in Calgary with a rushing game, the potential is there for the Riders to also knock off Calgary but maybe not so much BC who seem to be developing momentum.
The Riders cannot continue to rely on their defense and special teams to bail them out with scores while their offense kills time with moving the ball between the 30 yard lines and settling for field goals. If they were hoping to be a revival of the 2001 Baltimore Ravens, it’s a noble goal, but when you are shut out at this time of the season, you are not creating any confidence in your ability to achieve “sustained success.”
Winnipeg’s win may turn out to be the catalyst they need to move into the playoffs as the favorite, even if they finish third or fourth. The defense jumped on the undermanned Rider offense and dominated them while the offense threw enough wrinkles at the Riders to leave them vulnerable to big plays at opportune times.
Winnipeg has a bye week and then finish off with games against Calgary at home and Edmonton on the road. The potential is there for Winnipeg to finish second with an 11-7 record assuming the Riders lose out, which is entirely possible.
BC, who beat Calgary 26-21, hold their own playoff fates in their hands with games against Edmonton at home, then Saskatchewan in Regina and Calgary at home. BC can easily finish with an 11-7 record and BC could end up playing the Western Semi-Final in BC against the Lions while the Riders take the crossover route.
The Riders could easily finish 10-8 and then going to either Hamilton or Ottawa for the Eastern Semi-Final, the second year in a row the Riders take the crossover route. Depending on how the home and home series turns out between the two teams, the Riders could face a team they swept, but maybe shouldn’t have in Hamilton, and an team who swept them, and deserved to, in Ottawa.
It seems like the Riders might become stuck in a loop where the team is good, but has a fatal flaw that can be exploited by other teams. Unlike in other seasons, there are no easy favorites for the Grey Cup because Calgary has been devastated by the injuries to their receiving corps, Winnipeg is now surging, BC has gotten a lift by the win against Calgary, and Edmonton might have won, but face BC and Winnipeg in must win games just to stay afloat in the western conference and perhaps even the cross-over.
Edmonton has to win out and hopefully edge either BC or Winnipeg for a spot. While the Eskimos may have done well in downing the feckless Ottawa Redblacks, a loss in their remaining two games may have them on the outside looking in.
So on Friday the battle for first in the Eastern Conference continues when Hamilton visits Ottawa. Ottawa beat Hamilton 21-15 in their first meeting and if Hamilton cannot beat Ottawa in this game, Hamilton will lose the season series against Ottawa and will need an Act of God known as the Toronto Argonauts to beat Ottawa in the final game of the season if they are going to sneak into first.
Hamilton’s offense seems to have gotten on track and while they are like Ottawa, distressingly inconsistent, they appear ready to take on Ottawa and get into the playoffs on a bit of a roll and looking to clinch first to get some extra time for their receivers to make it off the injury list. Ottawa has stumbled against Winnipeg and Edmonton in their last two games and while Ottawa is capable of winning at home, Hamilton is better positioned to take a 27-24 win and first place in the east.
Then another game which will likely be the game of the week will see Edmonton go to BC. BC is coming off a gut-check win against Calgary in Calgary while Edmonton is coming off their own must win situation against Ottawa.
BC and Edmonton have both won a game against each other so far this season, so this game is crucial for both teams looking to make it to the playoffs. The game is in BC and BC is 6-1 at home while Edmonton is 2-6 on the road. This will be a game worth watching and BC should win this one 28-27 and officially eliminate the Eskimos and keep Wally Buono’s final season dream of another Grey Cup alive and well.
On Saturday the first game is Montreal at Toronto with two teams circling the drain and rumors out of Toronto that either Jim Popp or Marc Trestman will be out this season as GM and Coach. Trestman, who seems to work best with an established quarterback like Anthony Calvillo or Ricky Ray, was not the quarterback whisperer this year with James Franklin or McLeod Bethel-Thompson. That comes as a bit of a surprise, and there is talk Trestman might be lured to an offensive coordinator gig in the NFL or maybe even the new Alliance of American Football.
If MLSE, who own the Argos, decided to cut ties to both and start over, they would have no problem in paying out the two. If one or both are going to hold onto their jobs, assuming they want to, then they will have to start with this game and avoid the first to worst label by beating Montreal 27-24.
Finally we have the Riders in Calgary and the Riders limp into Calgary after getting thumped 31-0 by Winnipeg and Calgary comes in having dropped a 26-21 game to BC for their first home loss of the year. The Riders will have to figure out how they will address their injury situation, but there is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig.
Calgary is eminently beatable, but that assumes they are facing a team that can move the ball. The Riders are not that team. Calgary wins this one 28-21. And don`t ask me how the Riders come up with 21 points.
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