You can look at any number of different positions and find positive things when looking back at the four games that helped kick off the 2014 Canadian Football League season. From a stellar debut behind centre, to a couple of outstanding defensive performances, there were no shortage of topics to kick off another year.
You have to feel good for Drew Willy. In his two seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, he showed some promise in his limited playing time. But you also knew he wasn’t going to be able to show much more than that, because Darian Durant wasn’t going anywhere. So the Riders dealt from a position of strength when they sent Willy to Winnipeg in February. And now Willy is showing more than just promise.
One game into his time as a CFL starting quarterback, Willy has turned himself into the toast of the town. In a 41-25 home win for the Bombers over Toronto on Thursday night, we saw a career outing from receiver Aaron Kelly and a nice first look at running back Nic Grigsby. But it was the performance of Willy that deserves the most accolades.
He started off by completing his first four passes and never really looked back. Willy was straight up superb against the Argos, picking them apart with lightning quick decisions. It was an absolute joy to watch a quarterback comfortable in an offence see things develop like Willy did, and he had the confidence to make the bold decisions when they presented themselves.
I also really liked how quickly he cycled through his progressions. On numerous plays, we saw Willy hit a long gainer on his first option, which is great. But when you finish a game with four touchdowns, 308 yards, and only throw six incomplete passes, it means you’re doing a little bit more than connecting on your first read.
Numerous times, Willy scanned three and four different receivers before delivering the ball, and he did it with poise even when under pressure. And when Willy did deliver, boy did he do it efficiently.
There’s not a whole lot of wasted motion with this guy. Willy threw the deep ball but didn’t look like he was heaving it. He fired laser beam strikes in the short game but still made sure his passes were catchable. It was an absolute clinic and a great first game that absolutely should get and fan in Winnipeg jacked up for what might be to come.
Now, I always make sure to temper my enthusiasm when it comes to this position and this team. I think I probably reference it once a season, but I still vividly remember Ryan Dinwiddie’s regular season Bombers debut against Calgary in 2008.
He threw for 450 yards that night and never played a game anything like that ever again. Granted, I see FAR more upside in Willy’s game than Dinwiddie, and I think Willy is a legit starter in this league.
But with the lessons I’ve learned from Alex Brink, Thomas Demarco, and Max Hall in recent memory, there’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious.
Picking up where they left off
Both Darian Durant and Bo Levi Mitchell looked extremely good at quarterback for the Riders and Stampeders, respectively, this weekend. Mitchell threw for more than 300 yards against Montreal. And Durant looked to remain in perfect sync with offensive coordinator George Cortez in Saskatchewan’s home opener.
Yet, for us, the quarterbacks weren’t the story for these two teams this weekend. Nope, instead, it was all about swarming, punishing, suffocating defence. The quarterbacks were great, and there is going to be plenty of time to talk about both of these guys throughout the season. But man were those defensive units tough to play against on Saturday and Sunday.
We’ll start at McMahon Stadium where new defensive coordinator Rich Stubler certainly impressed in his Stampeders regular season debut. In a 29-8 Calgary victory, the Stamps held Montreal pivot Troy Smith to 154 yards and no touchdowns, frustrating him from start to finish. It didn’t matter what the Als did, they could not get in a rhythm, and I’d put a sizeable amount of that on what the Stamps did defensively.
It wasn’t just what Calgary did to Smith, either. It was the ferocity of the Stampeder defenders when flying to the football. They only caused one interception, but they were all over it when it was in the air all day long. And when Smith did complete one of his 18 passes, the receiver had nowhere to go. Dave Stala had a 27 yard catch on his only touch of the day, and otherwise, it was rare to see a double digit passing gain.
Why? Because Calgary wouldn’t allow it. Not only was their coverage suffocating, but their pursuit upon completion was outstanding. Juwan Simpson was as dangerous as ever patrolling the middle of the field while a very physical secondary got in on the act as well. The Stampeders were the defensive class of the league for much of last season, and they look like they’ve picked up where they left off.
In that same category are the defending Grey Cup champions. Let’s not forget that the Riders defence made Kevin Glenn and Henry Burris look like rookies during in the pre-season in the two most important games of 2013.
Prior to Sunday, the last time Saskatchewan played a meaningful game, they were making life difficult for a black and yellow quarterback. Yesterday was no different, just with a different guy.
Zach Collaros was making his Tiger-Cats regular season debut on Sunday, and it might be a debut he’d prefer to move on from rather quickly.
Eight of the 10 Saskatchewan sacks came from the Riders’ front four with Ricky Foley leading the way with three. John Chick and newcomer Derek Walker each had a pair while Tea George rounded out the group with one of his own.
Much like Calgary, the Riders made sure they limited damage the few times Collaros was able to make a connection through the air. Hamilton’s longest reception was 16 yards and YAC numbers were hard to rack up. The new starting trio at linebacker looked good, with all three guys impressing in the pursuit game upon their bumps up the depth chart.
It was an off-season of change for the Riders on both sides of the ball, and that’s going to happen in this league. But against the defending East Division champions, a bunch of new starters came to play defensively and set a pretty positive opening tone to the season.
Speaking of new faces in Regina, how could you not like the first regular season game from Anthony Allen? The 25-year-old from Tampa is in his first CFL season and, at least for one game, embraced an opportunity to be pounding the ball again.
Let’s not forget Allen finished his college career at run-heavy Georgia Tech before bouncing around the NFL and not getting an opportunity to do what he does best very often. He was back doing that on Sunday, and doing it well.
Mike Reilly was one of the stories of the 2014 pre-season, and he sure was good to start of the regular season too. He may not have been as proficient as guys like Willy and Mitchell this week, but he was still extremely effective.
Reilly ended up sacked three times, but at least through one game, he did seem better protected than he was the bulk of last year. If Reilly can stay upright more often, he can be a really dangerous quarterback, because he has the ability to find big plays that other guys can’t.
He has some big game receivers in Adarius Bowman and Fred Stamps, and he used them both very nicely in a 27-20 win over BC.
And now we look ahead, because Thursday night will be a historic one in the CFL. On that night, the Ottawa REDBLACKS will make their regular season debut on the road in Winnipeg, and I’m far more intrigued with this new team than I thought I would be. Yes, the preseason is not the world’s best evaluation tool from the outside, but it still has it’s value.
Ottawa’s first team offence showed some good things during the exhibition schedule, but I’m really curious to see how this defensive group deals with the guy who lead this column off. Looking forwad to it!