September 12, 2011

Steinberg: Monday Morning QB for Week #11

Pat Steinberg

As week 11 of the CFL season came to an end, what struck me most is just how tight things are all of a sudden in both divisions. In the suddenly wild West, Saskatchewan has won two straight games in dominating fashion while the BC Lions have won four of their last five in smothering fashion. 

The East Division saw Winnipeg lose consecutive games for the first time this season with a little vulnerability creeping into Swaggerville. It’s also allowed Hamilton and Montreal to remain very much in reach despite no winning streaks of their own. 

With eight weeks to go, things are setting up for some crazy finishes, because no one is safe right now.

Riderville > Swaggerville

The above equation may not end up being accurate when it’s all said and done in terms of overall record, but the two head to head meetings between the Riders and Bombers were not close. After Saskatchewan’s emotional win in Ken Miller’s return to the sidelines, they overcame a somewhat slow start on Sunday afternoon to roll up Winnipeg 45-23.

Once again, there was nothing to scoff at offensively from the Riders. Darian Durant was efficient and made sure his team scored when they were given their opportunities. Andy Fantuz looked just fine in his return to the lineup, and will obviously become more of a factor as he gets a few more practices under his belt.

The running game was also able to score and remained a factor throughout. However, it was the defensive effort that set the stage for a second straight win against the Bombers.

While direct pressure on Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce didn’t directly result in all of his five interceptions, it still played a major part. The Riders were very elusive and varied in their blitz packages, which was illustrated on Craig Butler’s punishing hit in the first quarter. The Saskatchewan safety came untouched past the line because they brought too many bodies to check.

From that point on, defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall showed that front a few more times, confusing Pierce when the house didn’t come. Pierce was clearly rattled through much of the second half and the Riders strong defensive game plan have a lot to do with that.

Smothered in orange

For a third straight game, the BC Lions went through a game without allowing an offensive touchdown. When you run that through your head a couple times, it becomes even more remarkable. 

Granted, they’ve gone up against Toronto for two straight games, a team that is very much in search of an offensive identity. Nevertheless, it certainly is an impressive feat. Wally Buono has to be breathing a little easier now, as his defensive line is finally showing some push up front after searching for that for a season and a half.

In Saturday’s 28-6 win over the Argos, it was Khalif Mitchell leading the way on the sack front, racking up three as the Lions temporarily drew even with Winnipeg for the CFL lead in that category.

However, as good as Mitchell was, it was Aaron Hunt who blew me away the most, as he occupied a mass amount of interior space. With Hunt and Eric Taylor doing the job they’ve done the last couple of games so effectively, scheming becomes extremely difficult.

Remember, the BC defence boasts some veteran CFL playmakers in the backfield, and if the front four continues to wreak havoc like they’ve done, you’re going to start seeing the interception totals go up for guys like Korey Banks and Tad Kornegay.

Pivot-al problem

The Toronto release of Cleo Lemon following their Labour Day weekend loss to the Lions didn’t really surprise that many in terms of his on-field play. However, it certainly piqued my interest for two specific reasons. 

First, this was head coach Jim Barker’s guy. Barker had spent a season and a half defending Lemon and preaching patience for his inexperienced CFL pivot. Something had to have happened along the way, and many point to Lemon’s reaction to being yanked from last weekend’s game as that something. 

Whether it was the last straw or the only contributing factor, we’ll never know, but it struck me as very odd to hear Barker defend his quarterback for an extended period of time and then cut ties.

I also found Jeremaine Copeland’s comments following the move interesting. The veteran receiver is looked to as a leader in Toronto and was somewhat critical of the decision to let Lemon walk. Hearing Copeland essentially stick up for his departing quarterback made the gears in my head start turning. It’s something to chew on anyway.

Lemon or no Lemon, the Argos are still struggling mightily moving the football. I think there is some real potential in Steven Jyles at quarterback, but it’s potential that is going to take some time to be developed. 

After watching Saturday’s game, I’d like to see Jyles use his instincts a little more and move the pocket when it’s most comfortable to him. Turning him into a more traditional pocket passer is a long term goal, so in the meantime, having him use his strengths while learning isn’t an awful thing.

Battle for best

The Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos split their home-and-home set, culminating with Calgary’s 30-20 win at Commonwealth on Friday. It was exactly what the Stamps needed. Calgary won a game devoid of major fireworks, instead relying on good, fundamental football to reclaim top spot in the West Division.

Defensively, the Stamps were back to what we’re used to: an extremely annoying and difficult team to move the ball against. The defensive line had one of their strongest games of the season, turning the Edmonton ground attack into a non-factor. 

Charleston Hughes does his job very silently, but he was around the ball all night long, bested only by rush end Malik Jackson.  Jackson is such a valuable player since he’s able to use his speed and size to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, he’s even more valuable plugging the run, as he covers so much field horizontally, and he was at his most effective Friday.

It was exactly what was needed offensively as well. Instead of Calgary going out and looking to light up the scoreboard with low percentage deep throws, the Stamps mixed things up and pounded the ball for their 30 points. 

It was the most effective outing for the rushing attack, with Joffrey Reynolds terrorizing the Eskimos for long runs up the middle and Jon Cornish using the change-of-pace game very well.

A lot has to be said for the offensive line, as they really reeled things in after a dismal Labour Day Classic at McMahon. A big part of that was the addition of Edwin Harrison, who played his first game of the season after spending time on the nine game injured list. 

Taking the spot of Tony Washington, Harrison was immediately effective and the rest of the line was much more effective. Henry Burris was protected, but more importantly, running gaps were opened up.

Not much to say

It was back to what we expect from the Montreal offence in Sunday’s 43-13 rout of Hamilton, repaying the blowout favour from a week previous. 

It was Anthony Calvillo overwhelming the Tiger-Cats with his array of weapons, with his physical and gamebreaking tandem of S.J. Green and Jamel Richardson leading the way. 

When the Als offensive line is as dominant as they were, helped out of course by Brandon Whitaker’s blocking work in the backfield, this team is extremely difficult to stop.