Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Ive been meaning for some time to start translating the steady stream of news about the Saskatchewan Roughriders into some content for the blog. And with the regular season set to start next week, there's no time like the present. So here's my quick preview of where the 'Riders figure to place this year compared to their CFL competitors.

Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of reasons for concern with this year's team. While it's always tough to say how an offseason's worth of new recruits will affect the balance of power in the CFL, it surely can't be a good sign when players who couldn't make the cut as starters or roster players last year and don't figure to have developed much in the meantime are beating out the best talent a team was able to bring in. (Hello, Chris Jones, Stevie Baggs and Marc Parenteau.)

Offence: Average (4-5 out of 8 teams)

The 'Riders are obviously below the top tier of offences in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal where elite quarterbacks enjoy well-developed rapports with multiple star-calibre weapons. But the offseason looks to have been a reasonably good one on the offensive side of the ball - at least, as long as the quarterback situation is managed better than last year.

Barring another freak wave of injuries, the receiving corps includes a nice mix of speed (Dressler, Quinn and Walker) and strength (Fantuz, Clermont, Getzlaf and Bagg), and the depth cultivated last year has allowed the team to move past using roster spots and patterns on ciphers like Michael Palmer and Corey Grant. Wes Cates probably isn't an elite runner anymore after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, but he's still an All-Star caliber back thanks to his receiving and blocking skills, and shifty Hugh Charles and speedy Stu Foord offer contrasting styles which should keep defences off balance. So whoever plays quarterback will have lots of options to work with.

But there's an obvious candidate in the "what could go wrong?" department. While Darien Durant looks to be ready to take over as the starting quarterback, he's at his best when eluding defenders in the backfield and taking running lanes when they're available. But with the offensive line already having to plug the holes left by two injuries and a trade demand, it won't be at all surprising if that style of play lands Durant on the injured list himself. And at that point, all bets are off, as neither Stephen Jyles or Dalton Bell has given much indication of being ready to lead the offence.

Defence: Below-average (6-7)

I'm probably less concerned than most with the 'Riders' lost linebackers in Maurice Lloyd and Anton McKenzie - as the position always seems to be the easiest to fill with respectable talent, particularly with a Rey Williams waiting in the wings. But it's the rest of the defence that looks to be a problem going into the season.

Up front, Baggs' emergence gives the team somewhat more hope than it had before in terms of ability to get to the quarterback - which was the major defensive weakness last year. But based on the preseason, any much-needed pressure on the quarterback seems to be coming at the expense of a new scheme that makes the 'Riders extremely vulnerable to the run. And the team is still just another John Chick injury away from regularly giving opposing quarterbacks enough time to wander off for a leisurely stroll before delivering the ball on any given play.

Of course, the other way to make opposing quarterbacks less comfortable is to have a ball-hawking secondary which can turn any slightly dangerous read into a turnover. But last season's unit aside from Lance Frazier apparently wasn't up to the task, especially after James Johnson (a 2007 West All-Star still in his prime) was pulled from the lineup over a couple of botched reads on pump fakes. Meanwhile, two spots were occupied by Omarr Morgan, whose strategy was apparently to give up an 8-10 yard out anytime the quarterback wanted it in order to give himself enough of a cushion to avoid being beaten deep, and Eddie Davis, who seemed increasingly vulnerable against younger receivers and whose big plays came mostly on blitzes rather than getting the jump on passes in coverage.

Naturally, the 'Riders gave Johnson away this offseason rather than seeing whether his talent could be better harnessed. And Morgan and Davis are back with starting jobs, leading one to wonder just how much damage might result if either has lost another half-step. Mind you, there are plenty of DBs in their athletic prime around as well, and Chris McKenzie, Denatay Heard, James Patrick, Tamon George and Donovan Alexander could combine with Frazier to form a solid young unit. But we'll see how long it takes before the team lets that happen - and until it does, there are going to be a couple of spots on the field where opposing offences can count on being relatively unchallenged.

Special Teams
: Average (4-5)

The 'Riders' incumbents on the kicking teams have proven themselves to be steady presences, with Luca Congi showing the ability to be much more than that at times. But the return game once again looks to be a relative weakness for now, though hopefully with more playing time Morris will develop into what Weston Dressler was last year before he got moved toward receiver duty.

Overall: Average (5-6)

In sum, I'd expect the 'Riders to be just below average compared to their CFL competitors, with a record between about 7-11 and 9-9. That might well be enough to make the playoffs either in the West (if the Lions can't fully rebuild from their offseason losses or the Eskimos don't gel under Richie Hall) or as a crossover team. But it would be surprising if the 'Riders are able to once again challenge the Stamps for supremacy in the West - and it remains to be seen how the fan base will react to what looks to be the first real step backwards in the Tillman era.

No comments:

Post a Comment