June 30, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: A golden age of Canadian backs?

The Canadian Press

We’re in a golden age of Canadian running backs and there’s a new kid on the block. Hamilton’s Sean Thomas-Erlington is off to an outstanding start in 2019 and seems poised to join a pretty elite club. As we celebrate this country’s 152nd birthday today, I thought highlighting an exciting Canadian tailback on the league’s only 3-0 team was an appropriate way to start.

We’ve seen a great run of high-end running backs from Canada over the last decade, starting with Jon Cornish’s breakout with Calgary in 2011 and 2012. Just behind Cornish was Andrew Harris, first with the Lions and now with his hometown Bombers. And don’t forget Jerome Messam and his three straight seasons with 1,000 yards between 2015 and 2017.

Now you can add Thomas-Erlington to the party now that he’s been given his first shot to carry the load in his third CFL season. The Montreal product carried the ball a combined 35 times in his first two seasons with the Tiger-Cats; he’s up to 32 in three games already this year. With Cameron Marshall on the shelf, Hamilton’s backfield belongs to Thomas-Erlington right now and he’s embracing that opportunity in a big way.

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Thomas-Erlington touched the ball 14 times in Hamilton’s 41-10 win over Montreal on Friday night to the tune of 149 total offensive yards. That included a 75-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter when he decided to audition as a receiver. Thomas-Erlington slipped behind coverage and caught a perfectly threaded pass from Jeremiah Masoli to bust the game wide open.

My CFL Fantasy Podcast cohort Jeff Krever called Thomas-Erlington “Harris light” a couple weeks ago, which is a pretty astute observation. Like Harris, Thomas-Erlington is effective when used as a traditional tailback. But, also like Harris, he’s dangerous catching receiving out of the backfield, which makes Thomas-Erlington a threat on any down anywhere on the field.

This breakout isn’t happening solely because Thomas-Erlington is alone atop the depth chart for the Ticats. What we’ve seen in three games thus far is an extremely elusive back with impressive separation speed. In three games, all wins, Thomas-Erlington has racked up more than 400 total offensive yards and is averaging 7.0 yards per carry on the ground. You don’t do things like that just because you’re getting all the touches.

As it stands right now, I don’t see Thomas-Erlington going away anytime soon. This Hamilton offence is scary good and boasts elite players like Masoli, Brandon Banks, and Luke Tasker. Even when Marshall returns, STE has a firm grip on the feature back role. The way he’s playing right now, I’m seeing no signs of him relinquishing.

Opportunity knocks

When Marshall Ferguson and I wrote about the most intriguing backup quarterbacks a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect my pick to be thrust into action so quickly. Calgary’s Nick Arbuckle got thrown into the fire late in Saturday’s stunning comeback win over BC and got the job done. With Bo Levi Mitchell’s status uncertain, Arbuckle might be on the clock a little while longer.

When Mitchell went down with an upper body injury, the Stamps were trailing 32-21 with three minutes remaining. Sure, part of the CFL’s brand is unpredictability and no lead being safe, but I’m not sure anyone could have predicted Calgary would score 15 points in the blink of an eye. With a perfectly executed onside kick to lend an assist, Arbuckle was the driving force of that comeback.

Upon jumping in for Mitchell for two series, Arbuckle threw for 93 yards and a touchdown on 9-for-9 passing while adding another major score on a quarterback sneak. The guy had nerves of steel and fired a perfect dagger to Eric Rogers on the game winner. Now let’s see how the second year pro performs with a little more pressure on his shoulders.

The Stampeders aren’t in a position where they need to rush Mitchell back. It’s early, they’re 1-1, and no one is running away with the West Division three weeks in. With how Arbuckle performed on Saturday, and knowing how high Calgary has been on him over the last year, they can let the reigning MOP rest up and come back at 100 per cent.

 

I was really impressed with Arbuckle’s accuracy, poise, and patience against the Lions. All of those things, particularly the last two, will be put to the test if he makes his first CFL start next weekend in Saskatchewan.

Speaking of the Riders, opportunity is pounding on the door for their starting pivot tonight. Cody Fajardo will be at the helm once again tonight when Saskatchewan closes Week 3 at home to the Argos. Things are aligning pretty nicely for Fajardo: he’s playing his former team, the Roughriders are in need of a win, and it’s the home opener.

After impressing in limited work the last few seasons, including a brief stint as a starter in Toronto, Fajardo is looking at a wide open door in Saskatchewan. If he continues to be dynamic and accurate like we’ve seen against Hamilton and Ottawa, Fajardo has the chance to seize Saskatchewan’s starting job for good, or at least the rest of the season.

The thing I’ve enjoyed watching the last two weeks is Fajardo’s work in the pocket. We know how dangerous he can be scrambling and in short yardage, but this is really our first extended glimpse of Fajardo as a pocket passer. He can absolutely gun it and has made sound decisions to go along with decent accuracy.

The pressure is certainly on tonight, though. The Riders need a win and he’ll be under the Mosaic Stadium magnifying glass. Let’s see if Fajardo comes through again.

Quick hits

I know the numbers might not show it yet, but the 2-0 Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a really good group of receivers. While most might look to teams like BC, Hamilton, Edmonton, and Calgary when talking about the position, this Bombers group is as deep, talented, and explosive as any other.

From a pure talent standpoint, Darvin Adams is a top-five CFL receiver for me. Adams leads a group that also includes Lucky Whitehead (just 155 yards Thursday vs. Edmonton), Drew Wolitarsky (two TD’s already), Nic Demski, and now Chris Matthews. This group is going to be a handful all season.

 

Finally, I’ll finish with a sliver of sunshine for the BC Lions. I know Saturday’s loss to Calgary was an absolute kick in the gut, but they showed signs of getting things back on track. Mike Reilly had his best game in his return to the Lions and got all three of his primary receivers in on the action. Bryan Burnham, Lemar Durant, and Duron Carter all had five or more catches, with the first two both going over 80 yards.

Just as encouraging was what we saw from John White on the ground. After struggling to gain traction in BC’s first two games, White was solid, running for 64 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. He was even better when used in the passing game, as White caught nine balls for 87 yards and a touchdown.

Yes, the Lions are 0-3 and, yes, that loss on Saturday is going to sting for a while. But as they get set for a trip to Toronto in Week 4, the West Division is still very much wide open. That’s a good thing, because BC is showing signs they might be ready to turn the corner.