Well, the ‘Riders did it. They put the boots to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Labour Day, 27 - 7. They beat the ‘Bombers in all three aspects of the game; offense, defense, and special teams. This was the first time this year that the Roughriders actually looked like the Roughriders of the past two seasons. I found myself wondering what changed from the previous game. There, of course, is the obvious change; Ken Miller as head coach and offensive coordinator, but there has to be more to it than that. Let’s take a look at the game.
First, there was certainly a different attitude amongst the players. On many occasions, scuffles broke out, and undisciplined penalties could easily have been obtained. The difference between Sunday and the previous games in the season is that no penalty was taken. When scuffles broke out, there were other ‘Rider players intervening and stopping the involved ‘Rider from continuing with the altercation. Winnipeg ended up taking single penalties in those instances. In short, the ‘Riders played disciplined and kept their cool. Two Winnipeg players were ejected due to cheap shots, but no Saskatchewan players were. There were some Saskatchewan unnecessary roughness penalties, but none without an off-setting Winnipeg penalty. Most of the altercations were due to tough, rough, hard football and I don’t consider Winnipeg to be a chippy team like B.C. or Montreal. They are a great team that played the ‘Riders at the worst possible time if they wanted to beat us.
What I mean by worst possible time, is that the ‘Riders had a lot of advantages going into the game. With Coach Miller back, his focus on discipline would be restored. The players seemed to relax under Millers guidance and concentrate on football. Every player was playing loose, but still aware that mistakes wouldn’t be tolerated, especially undisciplined mistakes. This stems from the Kent Austin regime. Austin did not tolerate anything less than the best that the players had, and those playing for him knew it. When Austin left, Miller was promoted to Head Coach, and so the same expectations were assumed by all of the returning players. With the return of Miller as Head Coach, that psychological expectation has returned again. I like it.
During the game, I was impressed by the offensive play-calling that went on. Winnipeg’s defense was often in the wrong scheme for the play that was run. I initially gave kudos to Coach Miller, but found out that it was Durant who called most of the offensive plays. He did a fantastic job of mixing it up and keeping the defense off balance. When I re-watched the game, I did notice a lot of tendencies in his play-calling, and I’m sure that the Winnipeg coaching staff has observed the same thing. I think that Coach Miller will need to take a more active role in calling the plays on Sunday. Winnipeg couldn’t properly prepare for the offense on Labour Day. The film from the previous games was almost useless because former coordinator Berry’s style would be dramatically different from the offensive style that they were to face. Even if the plays remained unchanged, the situational play calling would be unique. I don’t think that we can count on the element of surprise again against Winnipeg’s outstanding defense.
Another factor in our offense’s success is the return of Wes Cates. It was great to see him picking up blitzes and double-teaming defensive linemen during the game. It gave Durant more time, as well as decreased his anxiety as to whether he was about to be creamed by Doug Brown and company. The entire offensive line played with a great intensity, and took care of their responsibilities well.
The defense certainly came to play. Freeman and Simpson had great games shutting down anything that Winnipeg attempted to do in the mid-range zone. Buck Pierce was forced to go further downfield with his throws than he wanted to because short passes didn’t produce any additional yards after they were caught. Overall, tacklers were sure and, in some cases, devastating. Freeman had the slotbacks and running backs bracing for impact every time they caught the ball in his area. It still surprises me how quick Freeman is. He’s a big man with very exceptional acceleration.
For the first time this year, Ritchie Hall’s defense looked like the finely tuned machine that it can be. His coverages dictated the pass routes instead of the defensive backs having to alter their angle of attacks because of the receivers. It becomes a long day for the opposing offense when the ‘Riders defense dictates what plays they can run. A lot of routes were truncated during the game by Winnipeg receivers, and the primary consequence of this is that Pierce needed to hold onto the ball longer because his timing with his receivers was destroyed. He had to play sandlot football and visually locate the open receivers. Usually a quarterback at the pro level is throwing the ball where the receiver is going instead of where he currently is. A prime example of this was the end zone pass from Durant to Weston Dressler. Durant threw the pass to a spot and Dressler made a wonderful catch. That’s chemistry and timing.
The ‘Riders defense ensured that even if Pierce and his receivers had great chemistry, they wouldn’t have their timing. This allowed the defensive linemen to get consistent pressure on the Winnipeg quarterback.
Our special teams were also firing on almost all cylinders. There still is a lack of intensity when we are defending for field goals. A great many players seem to take those plays off. I don’t understand why. For a field goal to be successful, three things must be achieved with near perfect precision; the snap, the hold, and the kick. If you are able to disrupt any one of those three things, you save three points. Anyone who thinks that those three aspects are a given, obviously never tried to do any one of those things with defensive players rampaging towards you with the intent of destroying you. I just wish that the field goal defensive unit would at least attempt to disrupt the kicks instead of allowing a free, unmolested field goal attempt.
That being said, the coverage teams were great. There was hustle, intensity, and discipline. Everyone was aware of which coverage lanes they were responsible for and they controlled them. The returns were also good, except for the fumble, of course. Overall, a much better effort, and it was great to see.
The game in Winnipeg on Sunday will be a different story. The coaches now have some film to study the tendencies of Durant’s play calling. The ‘Riders need to be careful not to allow Durant to simply call his favorite plays, or the plays that he is most comfortable with. The Winnipeg defense will be ready for that. Coach Miller must inject some randomness into the offense to keep the linebackers honest. The defense needs to play error-free football. They need to take care of their assignments, and trust their teammates to do the same. Penalties will happen, but penalties due to a loss of focus or lack of discipline need to be avoided like a Rory Allen halftime show (seriously, his performance at half time made me cringe, and search for an ice pick to jab into my leg to divert the agony. Were the dogs busy?). The special teams need to play with intensity and hold the kick returns to a minimum. Field position is crucial with a quarterback like Pierce, and special teams is where that is dictated.
This article won’t be coming out until after the Winnipeg game on September 11, so maybe everything that I just wrote will be laughed at on Monday, or applauded. Either way, one thing is certain, having an Elvis Impersonator play the halftime show while show girls, who appeared to be on valium, danced around him, is never a good idea. It has finally replaced my previous most despised halftime show which was when a bunch of people who brought out green garbage bins, stood beside them, while other people picked up purposely strewn paper and placed it in the bins. This was seriously the halftime entertainment! Someone thought that showing the fans in the stands how to pick up wads of paper and put it into receptacles would be riveting. But what was I writing about again? Oh yeah, good luck ‘Riders, and enjoy the game.