July 17, 2017

Steinberg’s MMQB: Who needs home field?

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Thanks to their 41-26 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday, the BC Lions went perfect on a three-game road swing through the East Division. As impressive a feat as that is, we probably shouldn’t be surprised. Dating back to 2015, all the Lions have done is own the East, and that trend has continued the last three weeks.

The East’s number

By topping winless Hamilton to close out Week 4, the Lions have now won nine straight East Division road games dating back to September of 2015. That’s a pretty solid number, especially knowing the difficulty BC had playing out east in the years prior. Before rattling off these nine straight wins, the Lions had lost seven of nine road games against the East Division, so there’s no doubting this is a solid reversal of fortune.

But it’s not just the fact the Lions are beating teams in the other division on regular basis. It’s as much about how they’ve won their last three games. After dropping a close affair to Edmonton in the season opener, BC has beaten Toronto, Montreal, and Hamilton by a combined score of 92-57. In short, these wins are coming by an average of two scores per game.

» Lulay leads Lions over Ticats
» O’Leary: A night to remember for Lulay
» Jonathon Jennings leaves game against Ticats

Travis Lulay holds up the game ball following Saturday’s win over the Ticats (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The Lions were my CFL.ca pre-season Grey Cup pick, so I certainly already had a high opinion of them, but that doesn’t make their 3-1 start to the season any less impressive. BC fell 30-27 in a hard fought opening weekend loss to a very good Eskimos team and they really haven’t looked back since. That shouldn’t come as a massive surprise though, and not just because of their recent success against the East. In the end, we’re talking about a really good team.

What has struck me most about the Lions is their balance. Saturday saw a record-setting performance from Travis Lulay and a great night from Nick Moore lead the charge to victory. But we’ve seen different players take the offensive load through four weeks. Whether it be Bryan Burnham (catch of the year on Saturday, by the way), Jeremiah Johnson or Jonathon Jennings, BC has shown it can get the job done with varying contributions.

What’s even scarier is the fact neither Emmanuel Arceneaux nor Chris Williams have had breakout performances yet. Of course the latter is still recovering from injury, but when Williams is ready to return, the Lions will boast yet another game breaking weapon.

As for Arceneaux, he hasn’t had to shoulder a massive share of the load, which is a good thing. One night very soon, it’ll be Moore or Burnham smothered and we’ll see Arceneaux go for triple digit yards and a couple of majors. That’s what happens with a stacked aerial arsenal.

In the run game, Johnson has arrived as a legitimate force. He leads the league with 415 total yards to go along with five touchdowns in four games and adds such a dynamic element to BC’s attack. It’s pretty amazing this guy bounced around Ontario his first couple season before landing with the Lions after watching what he’s done the last two seasons.

Jeremiah Johnson has enjoyed a strong start, leading the Lions’ rushing attack (The Canadian Press)

And we’ve talked glowingly about BC without even mentioning its impressive defensive unit. In a development that will shock no one, Solomon Elimimian leads the league with 34 defensive tackles while guys like T.J. Lee and Ronnie Yell give the Lions one of the CFL’s scariest defensive backfields. For all the praise their offence is getting, BC looks just as balanced on the other side of the ball.

Of course, there are some unanswered questions the Lions still have to answer. Is Jennings going to be out for an extended period of time? It doesn’t sound like it, but when a shoulder is involved, it’s always a concern. And how will the Lions stack up when they get into their West Division schedule? Their next five games are inside their division, a grouping that looks the better of the two for a second straight year, so those games will be important tests.

Even with those questions, though, this Lions team looks formidable, because it really doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. That’s why the Lions should be fighting near the top of the West Division all season long.

Incumbent gains

We mentioned above how strange it is how Johnson bounced around in his first two CFL years before catching on with BC in 2016 knowing how good he’s looked the last two seasons. Well, he’s not the only running back coming into his own a little bit later into his time north of the border. Enter Montreal’s Tyrell Sutton, who just happens to be the league’s leading rusher through four weeks.

Now, it’s probably not accurate to say that Sutton has “come into his own” in 2017, seeing as how he was the CFL’s top rusher in 2015 with 1,059 yards. But even with that being said, I still think Sutton is a guy who flies under the radar with the Alouettes and isn’t always mentioned right away when talking about impact offensive players. That should probably change.

With 107 total yards, including 85 on the ground, and a crucial fourth quarter touchdown, Sutton was key in Montreal’s 30-23 win over Calgary on Friday night. He now leads the league with 295 yards through four games and, at 5.8 per carry, only the aforementioned Johnson is averaging more yards on each touch (6.0).

Veteran running back Tyrell Sutton leads the CFL in rushing through five weeks (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

For me, Sutton has been the Alouettes’ most important offensive player thus far, which is somewhat ironic. New general manager Kavis Reed transformed Montreal’s attack during the off-season, bringing in the likes of Darian Durant, Ernest Jackson and Jovan Olafioye, among others, to help solve their offensive struggles in recent years. It’s one of the incumbents, however, leading the way through four weeks.

This is Sutton’s fifth CFL season and fifth with Montreal, and he’s seen his team go through a number of different incarnations. Sutton’s first season just happened to be Anthony Calvillo’s last, so he’s been around for the team’s full quarterback carousel since mid-2013. For reference, Sutton has played for four head coaches and taken snaps with 11 different quarterbacks since joining the Alouettes.

And yet, here he is getting the job done in 2017. Montreal is 2-2 to start the season but has been close in both losses. Sutton is a big part of that but because of how many big moves made by the Als over the winter, you get the feeling he still flies under the radar for some. You can bet that’s not the case for opposing defensive coordinators, though.

Sleeping giant?

Riding a three game skid and with an 0-3-1 record to start the season, you could make a salient argument for a very disappointing start to the season for the defending Grey Cup Champs. But the Ottawa REDBLACKS have played some pretty good football, especially offensively, and I think we’re talking about a better team than its record suggests.

Since their 31-31 tie with Calgary to start the season, the REDBLACKS have lost three straight games by a combined margin of just six points. For them to be winless knowing they’ve been in a position to win every game they’ve played must be hard to swallow. But, if certain trends continue, I honestly don’t think they’ll be winless for long.

That’s mainly because this Ottawa offence looks too strong to keep on losing games. First off, Trevor Harris has been lights out through four starts. With 1,379 passing yards, a 109.7 efficiency rating and an 8-2 touchdown to interception ratio, Harris has been at an elite level to start a season once again.

Despite a winless start, Trevor Harris has been nothing short of elite for the REDBLACKS (The Canadian Press)

Even with departures like Ernest Jackson and Chris Williams, the REDBLACKS still have more than enough passing options to go around. Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli have led the way while newcomer Diontae Spencer has had his moments, too. On the ground, the REDBLACKS are top three in rushing yards and touchdowns despite not having a true number one tailback. Instead, they’ve worked the ground game by committee with solid results.

Based on their offensive work so far, I don’t think an 0-3-1 record is representative for the REDBLACKS. In saying that, though, they’ve got some adjustments to make defensively. At 123, Ottawa has allowed the most points in the league and they’ve manufactured just one turnover.

I know they lost some pieces over the off-season, but this defence should be better than it has been, and it’s going to need to figure things out soon. The REDBLACKS will be able to get off the schneid on the strength of their potent offence. If they can turn things around on the other side, even gradually, I’m confident in saying don’t sleep on Ottawa.

Quick hits

Travis Lulay’s record-setting performance for BC on Saturday night drove home an important CFL moral: Always make sure you’ve got a solid backup quarterback. With 436 passing yards, Lulay set a career high for himself and also broke a 30-year-old CFL record for yards off the bench, and the entire time I kept saying to myself “it’s a good thing they held onto him.”

Starting QBs go down in this league and with nine teams, there’s no excuse not to have a viable backup play. The position’s importance is why Ottawa went out and acquired Drew Tate and why Edmonton has held onto James Franklin. It’s also why the Lions haven’t said goodbye to Lulay, a decision you know they’re quite happy with.

Finally, Week 4 opened with a big win for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers over Toronto. With Andrew Harris and Weston Dressler leading the way, the Bombers took out the Argos 33-25 in a big win on home field. Winnipeg opened its home schedule the week before with a 29-10 loss to Calgary, so bouncing back on Thursday night was important.

But it was also big to underline the Bombers are still a player in the West Division. Remember, Winnipeg’s first win of the season came in overtime over Saskatchewan in a game they almost gave away. They needed a bounce back effort against the Argos and they got just that.