In some ways, CFL wins don't get much uglier than the Saskatchewan Roughriders' narrow victory over Edmonton on Saturday. But while a 14-9 slugfest may have continued to emphasize the 'Riders' weaknesses as the regular season draws to a close, it also allowed plenty of room to notice the team's strengths.
Through most of the 2013 season the 'Riders' defence has ranked among the CFL's best. But few games have seen a performance as strong as this one.
The 'Riders' updated defensive line showed it could simultaneously keep Mike Reilly contained and shut down any running attack. And when Reilly responded with a steady stream of long-shot passes, the secondary was up to the task - consistently blanketing the Eskimos' receivers when they tried to go deep (note that the Esks' only two big plays of the game came on a tipped pass and a short catch-and-run play), while mostly containing receivers who caught shorter throws.
And after the first drive of the game where the Eskimos managed some sustained success, the defence's final goal-line stand put the focus where it belonged.
It doesn't take a great deal of offence and special teams dominance to win a game when a team's defence is that effective. But the 'Riders fell dangerously close to the line on Saturday.
A shrewd fake punt to keep a touchdown drive going just barely made up for the points lost on yet another failed third-down gamble along with a botched punt. And Kory Sheets' return to triple-digit yardage was about the only sustained highlight on offence: the 'Riders managed exactly zero big plays of their own, while managing at best a modest ball-control strategy throughout the game.
There may not be much opportunity for the 'Riders to upgrade offensively at this point. But as long as the defence can keep hounding opponents into turnovers without conceding scores as a result, a couple of long drives per game and a return to a low-turnover attack might well be enough to get Saskatchewan through the West. And we'll hopefully find out next week that home field will be part of the mix for the postseason.