July 21, 2014

Steinberg’s MMQB: An obvious story to conquer

Valeri Wuttie

Yes, there were plenty of notable performances this weekend in the Canadian Football League, but Week 4 was all about one thing. 

The Ottawa REDBLACKS may not make the playoffs and may still have a tough season in front of them, because that’s the way things go as an expansion team in pro sports. But what they accomplished on Friday night will be something no one will forget for a long time.

A special evening

Related: Week 4 Action

BC vs. Montreal
» View Game Stats
» Images: MTL at BC
» Video: Arceneaux Hauls in First of Three
» Glenn finds form in win over Alouettes
» Preview: Lions Look to Return Favour

Ottawa vs. Toronto
» View Game Stats
» Images: Ottawa, Toronto open TD Place
» Maher plays hero in Ottawa opener
» Video: Ottawa Post-Game Reaction
» Video: Toronto Post-Game Reaction
» Video: Ottawa Bench Erupts After Win
» Argonauts search for answers after loss
» Video: Horton Levels Chevon Walker
» Video: Ray Finds Adams for Argos TD
» Open House: New Era Begins in Ottawa
» Anticipation building in Ottawa
» Video: Cohon on Ottawa’s Journey Back
» Preview: Toronto at Ottawa

Calgary vs. Hamilton
» View Game Stats
» Video: Sinopoli’s 26-yard TD run
» Images: BC vs. Saskatchewan
» Preview: Ticats, Stamps clash in Calgary

Winnipeg vs. Edmonton
» View Game Stats
» Images: Edmonton vs. Winnipeg
» Preview: Undefeated teams clash

Friday night’s home debut for the REDBLACKS really was something to behold.  TD Place was sold out, the atmosphere was electric, and we got one of the signature moments of the 2014 season. Ottawa may not have another moment quite like what we saw on Friday for a little while, but this one should stay with fans in our nation’s capital for quite some time.
It would have been a thrill to be there live.  The atmosphere came across as electric on television, and there was no doubting how much that added to the overall viewing experience.  It was also very clear how much the players thrived because of it.
It’s weird, because not much about Ottawa’s 18-17 win over Toronto was overly exceptional.  Henry Burris did what he needed to do at quarterback, but didn’t put together an incredible performance. Chevon Walker had a nice 28-yard scamper and had a solid game, but in an understated manner.  Kierrie Johnson had the longest play of the game at 43 yards, but the REDBLACKS didn’t end up converting it into six points.
So what did stand out? There were a few things, starting with the easy one: Brett Maher.  The first year product from Nebraska accounted for all the Ottawa offence, finishing six-for-six on field goal kicking.  His 23-yard try with 28 seconds left on the clock is the one that will stick with us for quite a while, and likely with him for a while as well.
It’s pretty amazing to think that was Maher’s first game-winning field goal, having never even tried one during his time as a Cornhusker.  You’d have to think that was the most pressure packed kick he’s ever made, and just like he nailed all five prior tries, he drove this one home as well.  Maher was accurate from close range and from further back, and for one night at least, brought back memories of another Nebraska kicker in his prime: Sandro DeAngilis.

There’s one other thing that needs to be highlighted when talking about the game itself, and that’s Ottawa’s defensive effort.  There’s no question they fed off the crowd, and they continually got the job done.  We’ve talked much about the value of Burris to the REDBLACKS when it comes to poise and stability offensively, and there’s a player on the other side of the ball who brings the same kind of attributes.
T.J. Hill was a quiet acquisition in March, but one that shouldn’t have flown under the radar.  The seven-year CFL veteran is coming off another great season with Edmonton Eskimos where he finished with a career high 94 tackles.  Hill lead the way against Toronto, finishing with five tackles and a sack and it reminded me just how important he’ll be this season. 

Having Hill at strong side linebacker this season not only gives Ottawa a mobile veteran, but it also gives them an experienced leader.  For a team that has just three games under their belt, a leader like that comes in handy in a big way.
The crowd was electric, the atmosphere translated well on TV, and the REDBLACKS have their first win.  So now what? Well, it’s not going to be easy to duplicate the emotion felt on Friday night.  Head Coach Rick Campbell got a postgame Gatorade shower after all! But if Ottawa can keep games close like they did against the Argos in their home debut, they’re going to be able to post a few more wins.  They’re also going to keep their fans engaged, even though they’ll have a tough time wiping the smile off their face from Friday for a good little while.

Collision course

The marquee matchup of Week 4 didn’t really give us the type of slugfest some were hoping for. In a battle of undefeated teams, the Edmonton Eskimos opened the week with an impressive 26-3 win in Winnipeg over the Bombers. That game ended with a fairly one-sided score, but it did accomplish one thing in the hype department: it got us all jacked up for this Thursday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

The now four-win Eskimos are getting set to host the three-win Calgary Stampeders as the two teams are on a collision course for one of the most anticipated early-season battles of Alberta in quite some time.

With crowds of over 30 and 31 thousand in their first two home games, you’d hope things get pushed even higher in Edmonton for this one, because there’s the potential for a really entertaining came.
The Eskimos showed us why they deserve to be unbeaten to kick off the week.  Once again, Mike Reilly was the game’s standout player.  The Edmonton quarterback threw for a touchdown and 192 yards, but it was his work on the ground that really stood out against the Bombers. 

He led all Eskimo players with 96 yards on the ground on 10 attempts, and showed us the other dangerous element of his game.  Reilly can stand in and throw if he wants to, but as we learned last season, he has no problem moving the ball forward on his own. 

In 2013 that was more by necessity.  In 2014, his dual-threat ability is going to be extremely dangerous, as the protection in front of him continues to be much better.

Edmonton frustrated Drew Willy and the Bombers, holding them to just three points.  Willy was frustrated by the Eskimos and was sacked five times, because they just wouldn’t let him get into a rhythm. 

I really liked Edmonton’s front four once again, as they allowed the defence to exert pressure even when they weren’t blitzing.  The Eskimos also added another interception to their league-leading total of nine, an empirical barometer of just how much new Head Coach Chris Jones has brought to this team.
The Stampeders weren’t as impressive as their provincial rivals on Saturday, but they still got the job done.  Consider their 10-7 home win over Hamilton a learning experience, especially for quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.  In his third start of the season, and sixth of his career, Mitchell remained unbeaten despite having his hiccups early on.
It’s been a trend in 2014 for the Eastern Washington product, as Mitchell has struggled out of the gates in Calgary’s two previous wins as well.  But he stuck with it and was able to pick up the first downs he needed, specifically as the Stamps were protecting their lead in the fourth quarter. 

Mitchell grinded this one out against some impressive Hamilton resistance, and the fact he was able to help his team come out on top is extremely valuable.  You have to learn how to win numerous ways in this league, including how to win ugly.  Mitchell did that on Friday night.
It’s been Calgary’s work defensively that’s been the story of 2014.  Yes, they were playing a Tiger-Cats team without their starting quarterback, but from what I witnessed in the press box, it wouldn’t have matter if Zach Collaros was healthy. 

The Stamps were simply dominant at the point of attack, but not just because they were able to get pressure on both Hamilton quarterbacks.    
Calgary held C.J. Gable to just six yards on eight rushing attempts, and allowed a grand total of 71 yards on the ground from five different runners.  They teed off on the line of scrimmage, their pursuit was scary, and they wrapped up and executed when Hamilton moved the ball. 

What’s most terrifying is that the Stamps were playing without two key pieces defensively in linebackers Keon Raymond and Deron Mayo, and yet they didn’t miss a beat.  Defensive coordinator Rich Stubler has these guys looking as dangerous as ever.

The term collision course really isn’t an overstatement when looking ahead to Thursday night.  Yes, the quarterback battle between Reilly and Mitchell will be fun to watch, but I’m really excited to watch these two defensive units go shot-for-shot.  Both Calgary and Edmonton have looked really strong without the ball this season, and that’s what should make their first meeting of the season a hard fought affair.

Lopsided affair

BC Lions fans sure are breathing a little easier of late.  In their 41-5 win over Montreal on Saturday night, the Lions got their best performance yet out of quarterback Kevin Glenn who looked as calm and confident as he has all season.  Is it any coincidence that it came on a night when Andrew Harris was again a difference maker? I don’t think so.
As we said last week: Harris is going to have to be the most dynamic offensive player for the Lions as they wait for Travis Lulay to return behind centre.  He was dynamic against the Als, finishing with 150 total offensive yards and a touchdown while touching the ball 16 times.  When he’s on, things open up for the BC offence, because he demands so much attention.
The Lions were also able to go to town on an exhausted Montreal defence, let’s not forget.  We’re just not used to an Alouettes offence that can’t move the ball! The defensive game plan was simple for BC: stack the box and make Brandon Whitaker beat you, because neither of Montreal’s quarterbacks were doing that.
Troy Smith and Tanner Marsh combined for eight complete passes.  62 yards total rushing would be a frustrating night for any professional football team, but 62 combined passing yards? That’s just unacceptable.  Give BC a ton of credit, but right now the Als have got to figure out a way to stay patient with Smith.
He’s their starting quarterback and I believe their best option right now, but he really has to learn how to calm down.  In Montreal losses to Calgary and now BC this season, Smith has been frustrated by strong defensive efforts on the other side.  In both those games, he truly seemed to lose focus and that has lead to all kinds of poor decisions.  When Smith is frustrated, it’s easy to tell.  He starts throwing bad balls to his first option, he doesn’t let plays unfold, and he gets happy feet.

The most important thing now for Montreal is patience with Smith, because he really is their guy.  The most important thing for Smith is simple: stay calm when things go awry.  Yes, they have one win and three losses, but no one in the East Division is above .500 right now.  If Smith can settle things down and find a little more consistency, the Als will still have plenty to play for this season.