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The Saskatchewan Roughriders head into the playoffs with a lot of expectations after finishing the season with a 9-2 run in their final 11 games, as well as winning five of their last six.
The Riders are strong but definitely aren’t perfect.
Let’s start with the strengths.
There is no doubt that the tandem of Charleston Hughes (15 sacks) and Willie Jefferson (10 sacks) keep offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches up at night trying to figure out how they’re going to contain the Riders pass rushers.
These two create havoc and it leads to tip balls, interceptions, fumbles and all around mayhem for quarterbacks to work effectively. Their constant/persistent pressure is part of the reason quarterbacks throw for low percentages and efficiency. They just don’t have time to pick apart the Riders defence.
If anyone is going to have success against the Riders in the playoffs, slowing down Hughes and Jefferson is where it will start.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders don’t have a Andrew Harris or William Powell, who you’d think of first when you think of strong run games. But the Riders do hold the No. 2 spot in the league with 111 yards rushing per game and they’ve done it by committee.
The trio of Tre Mason, Marcus Thigpen and now Cameron Marshall have all had their big games and big plays out of the Rider backfield. Only Winnipeg ran the ball more times this year.
While Tre Mason may be lost for the season after getting twisted up during a tackle in the team’s final game, Cameron Marshall has returned to the lineup and taken a big chunk of the running duties and shown tremendously well. Marshall was on pace for a near 1,000-yard season last year before getting injured himself.
In three games Marshall has ran for 220 yards, which is a pace of over 1,300 yards over 18 games.
With the cold weather coming, the Riders set up to have a good ground game for a playoff run.
The third phase of the game is an important one come playoff time. Field position is vital and the Riders special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson has the group primed and ready.
Out of the playoff teams they’re first or second in all the return categories whether it’s punt return average, kick return average or opponents punt and kick return average. The Riders break big plays and limit them all at the same time.
And there is no question Riders kicker Brett Lauther can get the job done as his 90 per cent field goal success rate has him at the top of the league and he’s got one of the strongest legs out of the kickers in the playoffs.
But as I said, it’s not all good for the Riders as we turn to the weaknesses.
The Roughriders are an aggressive defence and there are times this season where the deep man, doesn’t get deep enough or a communication issue arises allowing for the opposition to take big chunks of yards.
For the playoff teams, the Riders are near the bottom in giving up big plays in the passing game with 30 this season. Too often you see secondary members with their palms pointed skyward looking for answers on how a receiver got so wide open.
It’s those big plays that can sink a team in the playoffs and the Riders secondary has to do a better job of locking it down.
The Riders are patching things together on the offensive line and while they’re getting by there has been a drop in protection for Zach Collaros.
The team allowed 15 sacks in their first 13 games and have allowed 13 in their final five. With Collaros already gone through concussion protocol and taken out of games for precaution this season, the offensive line without Dan Clark and Dariusz Bladek have to tighten things up.
Phillip Blake was a great pickup at the trade deadline and well timed with the injuries that have piled up and Josiah St. John has been decent but they haven’t been the same since their two starters in the interior of the line have gone down.
The impressive thing is though, the run game hasn’t stalled.
It’s been the theme all season, the offence just has a hard time finding the end zone. They finished the season with the fewest offensive touchdowns of the playoff teams and it’s not really even close.
There has been a pick up in the back half of the season but the offensive numbers (aside from the run game) are still not impressive. They throw too many interceptions and the completion percentage from their quarterbacks are a league low 60 per cent.
If they need to win a shootout, do they have the horses on offence to get things done? It may be the biggest question come playoff time, though with there defence, they may not have to answer it.