If last Thursday’s game for Saskatchewan was a test, it’s only fitting to give them a ‘D’.
I’m sure Winnipeg quarterback Drew Willy would agree, because that Riders defence gave him headaches for much of the game and nightmares with two of his turnovers ending up in the endzone.
The Riders had the cards stacked against them. A week away from home, with one full practice between games and in hostile territory.
Add to that their number one receiver was sent home midweek and suspended by the team; it didn’t seem that a win was in the works for Saskatchewan against their renewed division rival, Winnipeg.
While the game progressed, Rider Nation grew restless. Penalties were piling up, while the points were not.
At half time it looked like the grade might end up being on the failing side, but then came the ‘D’.
When hope was fading, Tearrius George got to Drew Willy, out popped the ball and David Lee rolled his way toward the endzone for the Riders first touchdown of the day.
The game was on.
Head Coach Corey Chamblin said, "that was a game from the soul," following the 23-17 and sounded prouder of his team for all the adversity they conquered this week than he has ever in his three years.
He even went as far as calling it the "biggest of my career."
They can thank their ‘D’.
Led by John Chick, the Riders defence has found a new gear since their bye week. They held a player's only meeting after their Week 3 loss to BC, where Andrew Harris had a monster day.
Since then, they’ve allowed 15, 13 and 17 points respectively.
John Chick has tallied a league leading nine sacks, three of which came against Winnipeg, and is well on his way to becoming a two-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year and, the argument could be made, he may be the league’s most outstanding player through the first third of the season.
“Beast!” exclaimed defensive tackle Tearruis George when asked to describe the team’s top defender.
“He makes my job way easier on the inside. I’d hate playing against, he’s a beast.”
It may be off the field that impresses his team-mates more than on.
Darian Durant says Chick arrives at the Riders facility at a time usually reserved for QBs. Chick is lifting weights and doing everything physically possible to be ready each and every week.
Chick says he feels healthier than he did last season after signing the day before the 2013 training camp.
That isn’t a good thing for opposing offences, as Drew Willy found out.
As well as Chick has been playing, everyone around him is beginning to raise their game.
Tyron Brackenridge has returned to his all-star calibre play and allowing us to remember why he was voted as the league’s hardest hitter last season.
Terrell Maze’s game winning interception return for a touchdown highlighted his ability to be one of the league’s top cover guys, almost inviting Willy to throw that pass to the wide side.
Rookie DB Mark LeGree is also starting to make a name for himself as a second safety for the Riders, quietly leading the league with three interceptions.
LeGree admitted to me, before their trip to Ottawa, that this was his last shot at professional ball and, as the coaches give him more reps in the defence, he is showing he may be finding a home in Canada.
The Riders look like they’re becoming a team that could repeat as Grey Cup Champions.
Through the first third of the season, they are right where many thought they would be with a 4-2 record. Although, their 1-2 start had some doubting if they’d get there.
With two-thirds of the season ahead, work still needs to be done as the passing game and kicking game need to become more consistent.
But as long as the Riders keep grading out with a strong ‘D’, they should pass with flying colours.
Jamie Nye lives and breathes the CFL and is the host of 'The Green Zone' on 980 CJME in Regina and 650 CKOM in Saskatoon. You can find his podcasts and blogs at greenzonefootball.com and follow him on twitter @jamienye