On A Wing and A Prayer

July 18, 2018 - 11:36am

After an abbreviated work week featuring the Winnipeg Blue Bombers blowing their march to claim the July Grey Cup with a 20-17 loss to the BC Lions, the CFL comes back on stream with a full contingent of games.

Last week the Bombers blew a 17-0 lead over the Lions through a combination of excessive confidence in their ability to pull off short yardage situations with Chris (The Shriveller) Shreveler and turning the ball over in inopportune moments. That combination gave the BC Lions who turned to Travis Lulay, the spark they needed to salvage a win and keep their “Win One for Wally” campaign alive and well.

While the win was much needed by the Lions, it may have been a bit more expensive than anticipated with linebacker Solomon Eliminian out for six weeks with a wrist injury. The Lions defense played particularly well, dominating the line of scrimmage in crucial third down goal line situations, but also benefiting from the ability to quarterback a defense that Eliminian brought to the team.

The Lions now take their show on the road where they are 0-2 for the season to date and go to Ottawa who fell the flattest of the three losing teams last week in a 27-3 loss to the Calgary Stampeders. The Redblacks wanted to use the game as a measuring step for taking steps forward as a franchise and perhaps shaking off their 500 and sub 500 season record the last few seasons.

For BC, this is an opportunity to see if Lulay can stay upright and get the team to respond to him on the road. No one doubts Lulay’s leadership qualities or his value as a teammate in the Lions locker room. It is his ability to avoid devastating injury that may spell the difference between BC mounting a credible last hurrah for Wally Buono’s final season as head coach, or perhaps being good, but not good enough to be a playoff contender.

The jury is still out on that question and the Lions win demonstrates no one, especially in the competitive western conference, can afford to take a game off against the competition. There are no free spots on the bingo card for western teams, and even Montreal has demonstrated an ability to manage to hang in and steal a win if a team goes into a game with less than full dedication to winning.

That mental discipline and toughness is something that may define whether or not a team like the Saskatchewan Roughriders can move into the realm of playoff contender, or pretender. The Riders win against Hamilton two weeks ago was a gutsy defensive win punctuated by an offense that misfired and was aided and abetted by swapping out quarterbacks like old spark plugs by a coach hoping to finding a spark in his offense.

One of the surprising things of the Riders bye week was the inactivity on the player front. One might have expected the Riders to bring in an offensive lineman or perhaps even a defensive back.

Instead the Riders served notice they would be standing pat with their lineup, seemingly convinced that their coaching would be able to address any problems that arose when Nick Marshall went down at cornerback, forcing the team to insert Duron Carter, and then when Zach Collaros went down at quarterback with an apparent concussion.

 While Collaros is out for six weeks, and perhaps longer as talk grows that his medical condition is the result of a number of hits and collisions he has sustained over the last few years. For Brandon Bridge, this is the opportunity for him to show he is ready to move on as a potential starter, and considering his success in coming off the bench last season, one might have been relatively optimistic that if Bridge could manage the offense without turning it over, it would increase his value as he becomes a free agent next season and with a new collective bargaining agreement likely to have Canadian quarterbacks count towards the ratio, he would be a rich young man.

Instead in the last three games, three quarters against Ottawa and full games against Montreal and Hamilton, Bridge has reverted to a rookie who reminds me of former Rider QB Brett Smith, who also liked to scramble around, but occasionally threw the ill-advised interception and didn’t seem to be able to make reads on offense.

That sandlot style of quarterbacking is entertaining, but it is not a formula for winning. Bridge spent the bye week watching film with former CFL receiver Nik Lewis and says the right things about being consistent and making his reads, but being able to say the right things is no guarantee for success. Bridge has to demonstrate he can actually learn and apply his learning on the field.

So while Chris Jones has taken a lot of heat for swapping out quarterbacks, he has decided to send a message to Bridge that on offense, he plans to stick with Bridge and David Watford for the foreseeable future and has confidence in their ability to exploit the Rider offense which is based on getting the ball out quickly to defeat the pass rush and to do that, you have to know what the defense is doing and what the offense will do to respond.

While the way the Riders have handled the offense is open to debate, the performance of the defense is so far beyond much criticism. The decision to insert Carter at cornerback has been altered by moving Carter around the field so that opposing offenses are unable to isolate and exploit his relative lack of experience.

The result against Calgary was a defense that featured a variety of looks that gave up yardage, but crucially did not give up a touchdown to Hamilton. The Duron Carter experience will continue to defense, likely a result of Jones attempting to keep Carter from being disruptive on offense with an offense that is unable at this time to deliver the ball consistently to its wide receivers.

Carter did see some snaps on offense towards the end of the game as Jones looked to provide the Riders with an offense that has a bit of big play potential. So what will happen on Thursday as both Hamilton and Saskatchewan are coming off of a bye week.

The first question is how Hamilton will respond to the Riders multiple look defense. Hamilton started off their last game with an emphasis on the running game and with Jeremiah Masoli providing a threat with his legs, along with his arm, Hamilton would be advised to try a double tight end formation to push the run and force the Riders to respond.

The problem for Hamilton is that the Riders responded to the Hamilton running threat in the last game by adjusting their defensive front and adding an element of unpredictability by sending various players on players and dropping players like Tobi Antigha, a converted wide receiver turned defensive lineman into coverage which resulted in an interception.

The Riders lack of mental focus came up this week when Rider GM/Head Coach stopped practice to read them the Riot Act about sloppy practices and how with a 2-2 record, the Riders are in no position to get sloppy in practice. Whether the message got through is something that will be seen when the Riders take the field against Hamilton.

In contrast to the Riders, Hamilton has been walking through their adjustments on the practice field prior to practice starting up. Steve Milton of the Hamilton Spectator reports the “outside meetings” are a way of shaking up the tedium of team meetings by having players on offense and defense walk through the proposed changes.

The intent is to have players better understand the changes the coaches are implementing by using what could be best described as muscle memory in teaching the players what changes are coming in the playbook for the upcoming week.

With the Riders having Carter cover receiver Terrence Tolliver directly and having Ed Gainey cover Brandon Banks, instead of players having specific areas of coverage, Hamilton will be looking to adjust their playbook to adapt to the new Rider defensive philosophy. The problem is whether the Riders will continue to use that defensive approach. Adding to the uncertainty is the absence of Luke Tasker from practice this week. His appearance is expected to be a game time decision, but his absence will take a valuable possession receiver away from the Cats offence.

So on Thursday expect the rematch to be another defensive struggle, with the X Factor being whether the Rider offense can operate on a more than high school level as they did in the last game against Hamilton. Whether the Rider defense can rise to the same level of play as it did against Hamilton is the new X Factor and therefore with that seemingly unlikely possibility, look for Hamilton to win a close game 23-20.

On Friday BC goes to Ottawa in a crucial test for both teams. The Lions are feeling better about themselves by beating Winnipeg, but losing Elimimian has to hurt and Jeremiah Johnson is doubtful at running back. So losing two critical parts of the Lions offense and defense has to be evaluated in light of the psychological benefit of coming from behind to win against a western rival.

Ottawa for their part released Sam Linebacker/DB Josh Johnson who was described by Ottawa Head Coach Rich Campbell as not a good fit for the team. Anthony Cioffi was playing SAM in practice and Antoine Pruneau has also played the position while Ottawa has DB’s Dejaun Butler and Tafon Mainsah who came in this week.

So while BC is looking to sustain the excellence demonstrated by the comeback over Winnipeg, Ottawa is trying to find some consistency, which is something this team has lacked for three years. The absence of Elimimian will probably mean Ottawa running back William Powell should expect to see significant touches as Ottawa explores whether BC’s middle of its defense will be as imposing as it was against Winnipeg.

My guess is that BC keeps it close, but the loss of Elimimian means BC will need at least a week to figure out how its defense will respond to the loss of one of the best defensive players in the league. Ottawa wins this one 24-20.

On Saturday there is a double header as the feckless Winnipeg Blue Bombers go to Toronto to take on the Argos. After doing better than expected with Chris (the Shriveller) Shreveler in the first three games, Matt Nichols returned and led the Bombers to a win on his first try.

And then came the debacle in BC. The Winnipeg coaching staff has been fielding calls for some sort of shakeup after blowing third down gambles by not giving the ball to running back Andrew Harris and for the defense showing Winnipeg’s traditional lack of discipline by taking penalties at crucial times to extend drives.

On the face of it, it is an 18 game season and these things happen. But for Winnipeg, which pictures itself as a team on the verge of winning it all after 27 years of rebuilding, if things don’t go their way, then they tend to think the sky is falling, or as they call it in Manitoba…Tuesday.

One of the interesting things is the relative non-appearance of Adarius Bowman who signed in Winnipeg, thinking it was a better fit for him than say, Saskatchewan. Bowman has been a relative non factor with nine catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns. It may be that Winnipeg is attempting to avoid focusing on one player so everyone contributes, but Bowman’s stats makes one think that maybe Edmonton knew it was doing when it released Bowman, thinking that salary and stats were not matching up.

Winnipeg and Bowman will be facing TJ Heath, who is facing his former team since signing as a free agent. Toronto had its problems dealing with the rain in a 16-15 loss to Edmonton that was notable for some questionable coaching decisions and the ongoing lack of a running game.

For a player who whined about how he was being ripped off by the Argos last season, James Wilder Jr. has not demonstrated he deserved an increase in salary this season. The absence of Wilder and a running game is offset by the play of James Franklin who is starting to feel more comfortable as a starter and will actually be interesting assuming Toronto can come up with some receivers who can complement SJ Green.

So in theory, Winnipeg has fewer question marks on the roster than Toronto, but perhaps the biggest question mark will be how the loss in BC has affected them. If Toronto keeps it close, then the thought will enter what Winnipeg has been informed is a head, that maybe another choke is in the making.

But as Toronto performs in front of 14,261 people, begging the question of what MLSE is doing to market the game to a younger, perhaps non-white audience, to replace the aging die hard fans who are currently showing up, the lack of a running game means in the end, Toronto loses this game 28-18 to Winnipeg.

Finally, we have Montreal going to Calgary and Bo Levi Mitchell takes what could be described as a veterans’ day following a low hit from Ottawa in the last game. If Mitchell doesn’t play, then Montreal in theory has a shot, even though quarterback Jeff Mitchell is out with an injury.

That means Drew Willy draws the start, and considering the pass rush the Stampeders have put together, it is a good bet that at halftime Willy might be found beating his head or maybe just being beaten behind a Montreal offensive line that rivals Saskatchewan’s for being offensive.

Montreal apparently felt cutting offensive lineman Xavier Fulton was necessary while signing Tyler Johnstone, a supplemental draft pick with an impressive injury history. This game pits the leagues best pass rush against the league’s more porous offensive line who have already given up 14 sacks. The Stampeders could probably field the University of Calgary Dinosaurs football team and still win easily. Color this one Calgary 30-12 over Montreal.



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