September 2, 2014

Steinberg’s MMQB: Living up the hype

For a number of different reasons, football fans across the country have been waiting for the 2014 Labour Day weekend for quite some time.  It’s always a great few days for the Canadian Football League, but this year’s matchups gave the weekend some added oomph.  

Now that the games are in the books, I think you can say the 2014 Labour Day weekend lived up to the hype.

Western redemption

If you’re the Edmonton Eskimos or Winnipeg Blue Bombers, you’re licking your wounds right now.  The Eskimos fell 28-13 at the Labour Day Classic in Calgary, while Winnipeg dropped a 35-30 decision to the Riders one day prior in Regina.  

Those losses are going to sting at the best of times, because they came at the hands of an archrival.  Knowing that very same archrival is now 2-0 against you with the season series in the bag makes the pain even worse.  

But there is hope!

First off, all credit where it’s due this weekend. The Stampeders got a MOP-like performance from Jon Cornish on the ground and put things away in the fourth quarter like a championship contending team should.  

The Riders, meanwhile, limited damage when they needed to and executed when the game mattered most, taking a buzzer beating win for their seventh of the season.  
But if you’re the Bombers or the Eskimos, you’re staring immediate rematches in the face this coming weekend. And I believe both teams should feel fairly confident they can take what would be an extremely important win to close out the 2014 season series.
Let’s start with the Bombers, who have to be feeling pretty heartbroken the way things went on Sunday afternoon.  Just like in their first meeting with the Riders this season, Winnipeg came out flying and opened the scoring.  

Despite falling down in the middle stages of the game, the Bombers kept fighting back and had a fourth quarter lead before having the defending Grey Cup champs put together a very nice game winning final drive.

Winnipeg has been very close to taking wins over Saskatchewan twice this season, and that has to be their motivation heading into this weekend.  The Bombers are just getting used to playing in big hype football games like these, while the Riders are well versed.  

I really think the moment got to Winnipeg on a few occasions on Sunday, specifically on a couple blown fourth quarter coverages (one that ended up in a touchdown).  As they return home for the return meeting, there’s a good chance the Bombers are much better prepared for another huge, hyped up game.

As for the Eskimos, they were right there with Calgary for most of Monday’s tilt, despite a more lopsided final score.  

Remember, this was a one-possession game heading into the fourth quarter before the Stamps pulled away.  The first game these two teams played was very much the same.  In the end, Edmonton has to know they are right there with their provincial rival.
More than anything else, the Eskimos left too many points on the field on Monday.  Matt Nichols looked pretty good for the most part, subbing for injured Mike Reilly at quarterback.  

The whole offence clicked pretty nicely, but things really ground to a halt as soon as they moved close to the red zone.  It’s easier said than done (especially against Calgary), but a little better execution inside the 20’s, and the result could have been a different one.

As we conclude this portion of the column, it’s important to point out that Calgary and Saskatchewan are 100% deserving to be 2-0 against Edmonton and Winnipeg this season, respectively.  

But, the best part of rivalries like these, especially right now, is that there are more chapters to be written.  Thanks to two pretty solid performances in losing efforts, the Eskimos and Bombers have legit shots at coming away victorious in rematches this weekend.  

That’s a good thing, because it gives us even more intrigue to two red-hot feuds.

Balancing act

The six-game losing skid is finally done for the Montreal Alouettes.  Their 20-10 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS on Friday night was helped along thanks to a variety of different factors, of course.  

But seeing Brandon Whitaker put up triple digits on the ground was a huge reason why the Als were able to earn their second win of the season.  And maybe that can be a sign of things to come.

In six straight losses, Montreal was lacking one thing more than anything else offensively: balance.  It was easy for opposing teams to stack the box defensively because there was no reason to be afraid of Troy Smith or Alex Brink at quarterback.  

As such, Whitaker and the Alouettes run game really suffered.
During that rough stretch, it wasn’t as if Montreal wasn’t trying to use Whitaker on a regular basis.  He touched the ball at least 13 times in all seven of those games.  But how can you establish any type of traction on the ground when the passing game was as dismal as it was?
I’m not saying Jonathan Crompton is the answer, because he’s got a long way to go before we can even be entertaining a conversation like that.  What Crompton has done, however, is make opposing defences respect his ability to stretch the field.  He’s still looking for his first touchdown of the season, but Crompton has an arm and he can make plays.  In just under two games thus far, he’s shown he can put up decent yardage.
That fact is important, because it’s something Smith and, on a smaller scale, Brink failed to do with any real consistency.  As such, it never allowed Montreal to establish any sort of ground attack, which was a shame.  

Having a weapon like Whitaker on your roster is nice, but it’s tough for any tailback to do much when he’s facing keyed-in linebackers and defensive backs on every touch.  

Crompton has kept opposing defences a little more honest, and on Friday at least, that helped Whitaker be a much larger factor.

Quick hits

Speaking of runnig backs, how can we not mention what the previously mentioned Riders did against Winnipeg? Last week we talked about all the options Saskatchewan had at their disposal, after Will Ford and Anthony Allen tore apart the BC Lions in Vancouver.  That was taken to a different level on Sunday.
Ford, Allen, and Jerome Messam each touched the ball at seven times, and all three of them were huge in a Riders win.  Allen ran for a pair of majors while Ford rushed for his sixth touchdown of the year, one off the CFL lead.  

And even though Messam didn’t end up on the score sheet, a couple of big plays (one catch and one run) lead directly to Saskatchewan majors.
What the Riders boast in their backfield right now is scary.  Darian Durant doesn’t need a ton of pressure taken off his shoulders, but right now, his life is being made a whole lot easier.  George Cortez has so many options right now, it’s tough to forecast what he’ll do next.  

And half the time, the offence takes a back seat to what is going on defensively.  Scary stuff.
It was nice for Hamilton to get Zach Collaros back at quarterback, and he put up some impressive totals in his return to action.  

The Tiger-Cats got some good productivity out of Dan LeFevour before he went down with injury, but Collaros was always the guy this offence was designed for.  He threw for over 300 yards and a touchdown against Toronto on Monday, helping Hamilton to a huge 13-12 win.
But you know what else that win did? It gave us some real intrigue in the East Division.  Yes, yes, I know: the records are all bad and there are no impressive teams right now.  But the fact is, there are four teams separated by just two wins overall.  

Whether it’s the highest end stuff or not right now, the fight for the two (and yes, I think we can say two) playoff spots in the east is going to be extremely hard fought.