With only three weeks remaining in the regular season, the intensity in CFL games is ramping up.
After the Saskatchewan Roughriders' convincing 36-10 win over the Toronto Argonauts, few would argue that they were the hottest team heading into the final month of the season.
Jarious Jackson is no Ricky Ray, but putting up 36 points against the Argonauts defence is impressive. Yes, Toronto mailed in a lacklustre performance, but keep in mind that the Roughriders had also just beaten the Calgary Stampeders and B.C. Lions.
With a fast 3-0 start, then losing five straight, the Riders have been tough to figure out, but through it all they have proven that they can beat the best. It will be interesting to see how they respond after last week's loss to the Edmonton Eskimos when they play host this week to the Montreal Alouettes.
Similar to other teams, Saskatchewan has needed to make changes along the way. The addition of veteran linebackers Joe Lobendahn and Diamond Ferri have added needed experience to a young Riders defence that has looked solid.
Offensively, the Riders have yet to recover from the early season loss of receivers Dallas Baker and Rob Bagg to injury. Unfortunately, a Sheets and Dressler show is not going to be enough firepower get it done.
Often it doesn't take much to create the right mix of talent to improve productivity. The Lions' success late last season could be attributed to the arrival of Arland Bruce III. He forced linebackers to respect his presence, which minimized their ability to double-team fellow receiver Geroy Simon and forced them into coverage rather than having the freedom to be added to the pass rush. So what was the difference between the Riders who lost to Calgary and B.C. in Weeks 8 and 9, respectivelyk, and the team that beat them in Weeks 13 and 14?
I believe one of the changes that made a big impact was the addition of Jock Sanders during the Labour Day games.
Sanders is a 5-foot-6, multi-dimensional player that was introduced into the offence by co-ordinator Bob Dyce at a point in the evolution of the offence where they felt more comfortable to start moving players around in order confuse defences.
I believe a big reason why Saskatchewan had success against Calgary and B.C. in the second meetings was the Riders challenged the IQ of their linebackers. Against the Lions, Sanders finished with seven catches for 65 receiving yards and rushed the ball twice. Although his performance didn't make headlines the next day, his involvement forced the opposing linebackers to pay attention to him, which meant that they did not have the freedom to double Dressler or isolate Sheets.
Sheets finished the B.C. game with 103 rushing yards and Dressler had nine catches for 160 receiving yards.
Any time that you can force a linebacker to have to think about his assignment rather than pin his ears back and attack gains you the advantage as an offence. Simple movement behind the line of scrimmage with different players grabs the attention of linebackers. Often, the movement of offensive players from one side of the formation to the other will shift responsibilities between linebackers. A thinking football player is not as instinctual or aggressive as a player who understands his responsibility well in advance of the snap of the football.
Keeping a linebacker's attention at the line of scrimmage also keeps them from getting depth in their drops, which opens up space for receivers behind them: a split-second hesitation is often all you need to allow your running back to hit the seam and get into open space; a split-second longer is often all you need for your quarterback to deliver the ball downfield successfully.
Saskatchewan should be disappointed that it did not capitalize on the opportunity to secure a playoff spot this past weekend. The Riders gave a poor effort and I believe that they did not stick with an offensive game plan that had giving them success over the past few weeks.
WEST IS A WELCOME WEAPON
After watching the Toronto game two weeks ago, I was of the opinion that the Riders had the best backfield heading into the playoffs. Due to an unfortunate injury, Sanders had been placed on the nine-game injury list -- opening up a roster spot for Brandon West, the player who was expected to replace Wes Cates as the starting tailback heading into training camp.
Although I am a big fan of Kory Sheets, West is really good and potentially the offensive weapon the Riders have been desperately looking for. With great quickness and balance, West and Sheets make a dangerous 1-2 punch.
Similar to Sanders, West's stats in the Toronto game weren't headline news, but his presence opened up space for Sheets and Dressler.
The involvement of Sheets, West, Hughes and Dressler behind the line of scrimmage against the Argos had an obvious effect on Toronto's pass rush.
The Riders offensive line has come together nicely this season. However, if the offensive scheme doesn't challenge opposing linebackers, quarterback Darian Durant will have a hard time finding the necessary time to be productive.
After looking so good against Toronto, West was limited to only kick-return duties during the Edmonton game. I believe that the short prep week may have played into this decision. The result? Durant was sacked three times and the Eskimos defence was in his face all game. Edmonton's defence is too good to play them straight up. The Riders made it easy on the Eskimos and paid the price.
If West can stay healthy, I believe that he could be the X-factor that takes the Riders offence where it needs to be.
Hopefully, we will see him more involved against the Alouettes this week.
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