Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tuesday Morning 'Rider Blogging

I've held off on last year's pattern of Saskatchewan Roughriders blogging due to the impression that there's already a downright painful amount of coverage - at least, if one counts the Leader-Post holding multiple live chats every week, and seemingly posting multiple teasers and chat references every time one of its reporters speaks to a player. But apparently there's some reader interest in my continuing to add to the province's football word count. So let's look at where the 'Riders stand after their first two highly successful games of the 2010 season.

On offence, I've seen two key differences between the 2010 version of the 'Riders and the one which was far less consistent last year. I mentioned back then that the 'Riders' strategy to deal with opposing pass rushes seemed to be to find one outlet for Darian Durant to use against a particular scheme - but that the next step for Durant had to be to learn to use multiple options in the same game. And this season he's done just that, leaving opponents guessing as to whether he'll step up or retreat, take off or find a receiver while evading the rush.

Thanks to that variety, Durant looks to be controlling the game far more than last season, when even many of the 'Riders' successful plays were based on counterpunching rather than dictating the game to a helpless defence. Now, the main area for improvement looks to be for Durant to start pushing the limits in finding receivers under pressure with confidence rather than throwing the ball away - and once that happens, the 'Riders' passing offence looks to be the undisputed top air attack in the CFL.

Meanwhile, the other major offensive change has been the resurgence of Wes Cates at running back. Cates will never have the speed to outrun most defenders, but in 2009 he slowed up to the point where even gaping holes turned into 7- or 8- yard gains as defenders were able to close in from the side. So far in 2010, he's back to having just enough quickness to leg out big gains on the ground - and as long as he can keep up that level of running ability, he'll be a perfect fit for a scheme which forces defenders to focus on stopping the pass.

On defence, the 'Riders seem to have caught a bad rap from a first game where it should have been expected that the Alouettes would come out firing on all cylinders. In particular, an Anthony Calvillo-led offence seldom lets pass rushers look effective - and that led to more questions than the defensive line deserved.

Fortunately, the B.C. game (and particularly Brent Hawkins' performance) looks to have put all doubt to rest as to whether or not the 'Riders will get to the quarterback. But the larger question for any Gary Etcheverry defence will be whether his creative schemes to create pressure will open up the field for opposing rushers. There, the 'Riders' stellar performance has gone largely unnoticed: in games against two running backs who topped 1,000 yards last season, the 'Riders haven't yet allowed more than 54 yards rushing to anybody. And if that trend keeps up, offences will have little choice but to gamble on long passes in an effort to keep pace with Saskatchewan's attack - playing into the hands of a defence that's always ready to turn a mistake into a turnover.

So is there any bad news so far? Well, it has to be of some concern that the 'Riders are using an import roster spot on a punter whose average is by far the lowest in the CFL. And the return teams' middling performance looks all the worse when one of Saskatchewan's cuts has been the top returner in the CFL. But those look to be relatively minor issues when weighed against the effectiveness of the 'Riders' offence.

That leaves the most obvious danger from the beginning of the offseason: while the team is built to dominate as long as a healthy Durant is at the controls, I haven't yet seen much reason for confidence in the backup quarterbacks if he gets hurt. But while it still strikes me as odd that the 'Riders haven't done more to mitigate against that risk, it has to be for the best if an evaluation of the team involves comparing what could conceivably go wrong with what's obviously going right.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

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