August 11, 2014

Steinberg’s MMQB: How the West has won

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s plain for everyone to see the dominant trend of the 2014 Canadian Football League season: the West Division is vastly superior to the East Division.  

One look at the standings is all you need to come to that conclusion.  Watching the 28 games we’ve seen so far this season would only further your position.  

This week’s Monday Morning Quarterback focuses in on this disparity, while also giving some others observations on some impressive western performances.

Related: Week 7 Action

BC vs. Hamilton
» Lions outlast Ticats
» Video: Glenn Leads BC by Ticats
» View Game Stats
» Images: Hamilton at BC

Montreal vs. Edmonton
» Esks roll by Alouettes
» Video: Edmonton buries Als
» View Game Stats
» Images: Edmonton at Montreal
» Video: White Opens Scoring for Esks
» Video: White’s 58-Yard TD

Winnipeg vs. Saskatchewan
» Riders stage late-game heroics
» Video: Riders Win over Rivals
» View Game Stats
» Images: Winnipeg at Hamilton
» Video: Maze’s Pick-Six
» Video: Lee Returns Fumble for TD

Calgary vs. Ottawa
» Mitchell guides Stamps past Ottawa
» Video: Mitchell Scores 4 TDs in Win
» View Game Stats
» Images: Ottawa at Calgary
» Video: Mitchell Takes Fake FG for Six
» Video: Burris Hits Miles for TD

Western Prominence

Over the last number of years, we’ve seen the balance of power slowly shift to the western part of the country.  But it’s been more prominent than ever in 2014, and the head-to-head numbers do all the talking.  

So far this season, 18 of the 28 games played have been East-West battles.  Of those 18 games, the West Division has won an astounding 16 times by a combined score of 524-280.
This week, the West Division went 3-0 in head-to-head meetings with the East, and it was a microcosm of what we’ve seen all season.  The three games saw three different narratives.  

One team (Hamilton) went toe-to-toe and came up just short while another (Montreal) showed mass improvement but still found themselves down by double digits for most of the contest.  

The final team (Ottawa) wasn’t even close.  In the end, though, all three of those East Division teams just weren’t as good as their western opponents.
The Tiger-Cats gave it more than their best shot, and for a time it looked like they might come out victorious.  Hamilton threw everything but the kitchen sink at the BC Lions in their 36-29 setback.  

Included in that arsenal were two interceptions, a special teams touchdown, a 63-yard run from a quarterback, and a recovered onside kick.  All of that wasn’t enough, though, as the Ticats came up short in Vancouver.
In Montreal’s 33-23 setback to Edmonton on Friday night, there were lots of things to feel optimistic about.  Quarterback Troy Smith had his best game of the season, showing far more poise and patience while throwing for 231 yards.  

Smith was helped greatly by an outstanding Brandon Whitaker outing, as the Als running back finished with a touchdown and 127 yards of total offence.  Their offence looked far more capable as they snapped a long streak without a touchdown.  

Heck, Montreal even got tons of help from the Eskimos, who took a number of undisciplined penalties.  For the Als, though, it was a lack of execution in the red zone that did them in, as they weren’t able to take advantage of their opportunities to make things closer.
Then there was Ottawa, who just were no match for Calgary.  For the second straight week, the REDBLACKS were out of a game before halftime, this time allowing 28 first half points en route to a 38-17 defeat.
We can get into a conversation about why this left coast slant is dramatic at a later date, because the MMQB has some ideas.  We can also throw around some ideas in the comments section.  

And look, this isn’t a permanent thing; we’ve seen periods in recent history when it’s been the other way around.  It’s not that long ago that Hamilton, Toronto, and Montreal were all pretty high-end teams simultaneously.

But, right now, I can tell you this: West Division teams are looking at their matchups with East Division teams as must-win games.  Why? Because they know there’s a very good chance their in-division foes are going to take care of business in their inter-conference games.  

If you slip up against the East, you won’t be in as good a spot post-Labour Day when the intra-conference schedule really heats up.

Part of the process

Switching gears a bit here.

It would be easy to knock Drew Willy.  It’s true that Winnipeg’s quarterback hasn’t live up to expectations in his two highest profile games this season.  The first of those contests was a 26-3 loss to Edmonton in Week 4; a meeting that had both teams 3-0 going in.  

Then there was Thursday night’s 23-17 setback to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where Willy also had some trouble.  

I won’t knock the first year starter though, because I believe games like these are part of the learning process.
In front of 33,234 fans (the largest crowd at Investor’s Group Field), there was every reason for the Bombers to be fired up.  They were playing their arch, and now division, rivals, who happened to be the defending Grey Cup champions.  

And for Willy, he was playing the team that gave him his CFL start.  The hype machine was very much in fine form.
It’s not as if Willy played horribly against his former team.  He still threw for 303 yards and had a nice scamper for a second quarter touchdown.

But Willy seemed far more tentative than he has in other games.  He was double clutching far more than he has in recent weeks, and he seemed to rely on the pump fake more frequently as well.  
On top of that, his usual lightning quick progression cycles weren’t on display.  These are typically signs of a quarterback not in his comfort zone, and it contributed to him throwing three interceptions.

So chalk it up as a learning experience for Willy.  The last rough outing he had, he bounced back with a really solid performance as part of a 26-3 win in BC.  In the face of all the hype this past week, Willy wasn’t as good as we’ve seen at other points this season.  

That’s okay, because if he bounces back like he did last time, he can draw on his week seven performance the next time the 5-2 Bombers have a marquee game.

Eye of the beholder

I think most CFL teams would love a quarterback who has “struggled” like Bo Levi Mitchell.  Heading into Week 7, the Calgary pivot had been questioned about some of his recent performances.  

Now, don’t get me wrong, the questions weren’t completely without unfounded.  The Calgary offence hadn’t been firing on all cylinders, and the team was coming off their first loss of the season.  
But a look at the facts certainly made you think about things slightly differently.
Prior to a 38-17 Stamps win over Ottawa on Saturday night, Mitchell had the league’s best quarterback rating and boasted an 8-1 touchdown to interceptions ratio.  If you’re going to have a quarterback struggle, that’s probably the way you want him to do it!

Well, no matter what you thought of Mitchell’s recent performances prior to Saturday, you had to be impressed following his Week 7 performance.  

The Calgary pivot threw for three touchdowns and 289 yards, helping the Stamps to a 5-1 record.  Those totals could have been higher, as Mitchell was slinging the ball around with accurately and confidently.  

However, the game was so far out of reach in the first half, toning down the game plan was the smart thing to do.
Much like Willy is going through the learning process in his first year as a starter, so is Mitchell.  With a league-best 103.0 quarterback rating and a still-impressive 11-2 TD/INT ratio, it might be pretty scary when he stops “struggling”.

Coming together

Whenever Travis Lulay returns to the BC Lions lineup, he’s going to have a pretty impressive offensive unit to rejoin. After a rough start to the season, the Lions have settled into a nice groove, and that continued Friday night with a 36-29 win at home to Hamilton.

BC now has wins in four of their last five games, and it’s that offensive group that looks more and more scary each passing week.
Consider for a moment all the weapons the Lions have at their disposal.  Then think about how scary this offensive group could be when all of those weapons are firing at the same time.  It looks like BC is moving in that direction, and Friday’s win was indication of that.
Andrew Harris has been on all season long, and he added another major to his 2014 haul against the Tiger-Cats.  Right now, he has to lead the way on early season Most Outstanding Player ballots, as he leads the CFL in rushing yards and sits fourth overall in receiving yards.  

Having him as a constant threat is a great treat to have.
But we’re starting to see this receiving group start to settle in, as well.  Both Shawn Gore (117) and Emmanuel Arceneaux (103) had triple digit days on Friday.  Courtney Taylor is very quietly the league’s fifth leading receiver.  

When you throw in nice secondary targets like Rolly Lumbala, Ernest Jackson, and Stefan Logan, you start to get the picture of what this BC aerial attack is all about.
Right now, Kevin Glenn is spreading the ball around nicely, and letting his playmakers do the jobs their paid to do.  If Lulay comes back like the guy we’re used to, he’ll add another dynamic playmaker to this Lions attack.  

That’s no knock on Glenn, but I don’t think there will be many who will argue the assertion that Lulay plays at a different level.
BC currently sits last in the West Division at 4-3, but they’re starting to get on a roll.  The way they look right now, that roll looks to be gaining more and more momentum.