Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

After yesterday's bludgeoning at the hands of Montreal, there isn't too much room for doubt that the 'Riders have a long way to go this season. But while some of the weaknesses exposed by the Alouettes are ones which figure to be fixed only with time and practice (Durant's decision-making) or better health (the offensive line in particular), there are a few areas where the solutions might be a lot less complicated.

To start with, the main issue on the defensive side of the ball continued to be a problem finishing off tackles. And once again, as pointed out last week by non sequitur in comments, the main culprit was Tad Kornegay - who seems to combine excellent instincts to sniff out the ball on running plays with a fundamental weakness in bringing down the ball carrier. And with the same problem surfacing in consecutive games against a power back in Jamal Robertson and a small but elusive runner in Avon Cobourne, there doesn't even seem to be much prospect of avoiding the problem by spotting Kornegay against particular types of players.

Which isn't to say that Kornegay's cover skills and versatility can't make him a useful part of the team. But his current starting linebacker role doesn't seem to be the right one - and it remains to be seen how many more big rushing games the 'Riders will give up before deciding to put another more sure tackler in the linebacking corps.

Otherwise, the defence played roughly to expectations. Granted, there were a couple of breakdowns on the Als' two passing touchdowns, but it's probably inevitable that a scheme built on confusion and misdirection will sometimes backfire. And against the Montreal in particular, the exchange of big plays resulting from the 'Riders' risk-taking probably kept the team in the game about a quarter longer than would have been possible if Calvillo had been allowed to pick apart a vanilla defence from the game's first drive.

Unfortunately, the offence looked to be generally unprepared either to strike when the Als were vulnerable, or to get Saskatchewan back in the game once Montreal started piling up points in the second half. And much of the problem seemed to revolve around Durant, who seemed hesitant to commit to running the ball even when that was the one apparent opening left by a well-balanced Montreal defence.

That said, replacing Durant with another quarterback wouldn't figure to improve matters any: in his case, better to let him play through the rough spots and hopefully learn for future games. But there was one position where the 'Riders' choice to stick with a starter seemed like a curious one.

For all his strengths as a running back, Wes Cates is seldom one to makes plays on his own. While he's a star-calibre player thanks to his blocking, pass-catching and ability to make use of blocks in front of him, he doesn't have either the speed or the shiftiness to make plays on the ground when his offensive line isn't up to par. And in a game where Cates was bound to be facing some rust and the 'Riders' line was overmatched from the start, it might have made sense to give Hugh Charles some opportunities to try to change the pace of the running game.

In fairness, though, one of the major issues for the offence in the first half was a problem with field position. But there too, I'd think there's a fairly obvious internal fix to be made.

In evaluating punt and kick returners, I'd tend to see three main issues: ball control, raw speed, and instincts to turn that speed in the right direction. And most of the 'Riders' returners this season have had trouble in at least one of those areas: Casey McGahee fumbled away the job in the preseason, Eric Morris has shown a tendency to start off returns effectively but then spin himself into the ground without reaching top speed, and Johnny Quinn's first game was marked by ill-fated attempts to run sideways or backwards which failed to generate him any space to turn upfield.

Of course, Weston Dressler showed plenty of ability in all three areas last year. But I'd agree with Ken Miller's decision that Dressler is best off focusing on his duties as a receiver - and indeed I'm not sure that it does either Dressler or the team much good to put him back on special teams when the team is struggling as seems to have been the plan so far.

Fortunately, there's another option who ranks near the top of the CFL in the few kickoff return opportunities he's received as the second returner back. And particularly given that an opportunity for Stu Foord to work on reading blocks on special teams would seem to serve him well in his development as a ratio-busting running back, I'd have to wonder if the 'Riders would be better off in both the short term and the long term giving him the role of primary returner.

Now, a few yards of field position or a couple of more sure tackles may not have made a huge amount of difference in yesterday's game. And indeed it may be that the 'Riders' best strategy for next week is to avoid overreacting and work with the lineup they have. But after a game where the team seemed to lose far too many of the small battles, I'd have to think there's reason to look for any possible source of improvement - particularly given the danger that the team might get pushed to far bigger changes if it can't make the adjustments needed to win with Durant at the helm.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

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