On the surface, it's hard to imagine a loss more acceptable than Friday night's defeat in Montreal. On the road against the top team in the CFL, with a quarterback who'd been unable to practice most of the week, the 'Riders managed to keep the game close even with most of the breaks going against them - and came up just one big play short of emerging with a win. But while there's plenty to praise in the team's performance, a couple of odd choices do deserve some discussion this week.
Let's start with what looked to me to be the high point of the game. After a fairly rough first half marked by a number of quick-strike passes, the defence played what may have been the best shutdown half I've ever seen from the 'Riders. And it wasn't just in the fact that the vaunted Montreal offence suffered five two-and-outs in six drives, but in the fact that it took a total defensive effort to produce that remarkable result.
Rather than relying on a lot of dropped passes or other factors beyond the defence's control, the 'Riders spent the entire second half blanketing receivers so Anthony Calvillo couldn't find his preferred receivers downfield, collapsing the pocket before Calvillo could look to additional options or take the ball for himself, and wrapping up anybody who managed to take a handoff or a short pass. And that performance against the league's best-established offence is why the 'Riders were able to stay in the game despite everything else that went wrong.
Unfortunately, the offence couldn't quite finish the job at the end. But it's worth noting how close they came: a couple of extra yards on Darien Durant's pass to Prechae Rodriguez on the second-last play of the game, and we'd be celebrating another unlikely comeback against the Als. That said, though, there's again some question as to the 'Riders' play selection.
In particular, one would have expected the 'Riders to look for extra ways to make the running game work in light of Durant's health problems throughout the week. But instead, they went to a pass-heavy offence the likes of which we haven't seen since the early '90s, having Wes Cates carry the ball only five times despite his being moderately successful when he got the chance. And that tendency was just as marked when the game was close as when the 'Riders were in comeback mode.
As for the choice of passes, the 'Riders did fairly well in the first three quarters with the type of quick-passing game I'd discussed last week, moving the ball fairly effectively even if it didn't lead to a lot of points. If there was a signficant area of concern in the passing game early on, it was in the fact that the 'Riders' protection of Durant was abominable at times - leading to his having to shed tackles or take big hits on far more plays than a team should expect from a quarterback even at the best of times.
Late in the game, though, the 'Riders went back to looking deep on what seemed like the majority of its plays. And it's not hard to see the link between that choice and the fact that Durant ended up with as many incompletions as Montreal had passing attempts (to go with his two damaging interceptions).
So while the 'Riders' gaudy passing numbers reflected some obvious success letting Durant put up a gutty performance, they may have been as much a reflection of some curious offensive choices as they were evidence that the team was actually firing on all cylinders. Which means that for next week, the goal needs to be to make sure that the running game gets in gear, rather than forcing the team to count entirely on Durant's arm.
As for the special teams, the game was another litany of blown coverages, bad penalties and weak returns. But the most significant moment which seems to have slipped under the radar was the one chance to get a big play in the 'Riders' favour: that being the overturning of a Tim Maypray fumble over a weak no-yards penalty, leading to the Als' lone field goal of the second half instead of the 'Riders starting with their best field position of the game. And while Saskatchewan nonetheless managed to make it most of the way back in the rest of the game, it may have had a far easier time if it had been able to convert that opportunity.
For next week, the 'Riders are back home against a reeling Lions team. And hopefully this time, Saskatchewan won't need 445 passing yards and a near-perfect defensive half to make up for its difficulties in other phases of the game.