- FREE AGENCY
Other than our own Chris O’Leary, I don’t know many people who were choosing the Montreal Alouettes in Week 4. With four straight losing seasons under their belt, a long stretch without a bona fide starting quarterback, and an 0-2 start to their 2019 campaign, you can understand why the Als weren’t popular favourites going up against an unbeaten Hamilton team. That didn’t matter in the end.
Led by a breakout performance from tailback William Stanback (more on him later), Montreal kicked off Week 4 in style with a 36-29 win over the Tiger-Cats. It was a nice win for a team that had modest expectations entering 2019 before everything was thrown into some slight disarray with a head coaching change less than a week before the start of the regular season.
That’s adversity if I’ve ever seen it, which is why it was nice to see Khari Jones pick up his first win as head coach of the Alouettes. This team has some nice things to build on, starting with Stanback and continuing through receiver BJ Cunningham and lockdown corners Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans. If Vernon Adams Jr. can keep his game consistent, if not spectacular, at quarterback, Montreal has a chance to be a factor in the East Division.
The Als weren’t the only team fighting through adversity in Week 4. In fact, that was the overriding theme of the weekend: all four winning squads had to stare down and overcome it. That’s why win number one this season for the BC Lions has to feel so sweet, regardless of the dramatic finish.
Expectations were sky high for the Lions entering this season, mainly due to the free agent signing of Mike Reilly in February. After a rough 0-2 start, BC looked to have things back on the rails for Week 3 in Calgary before they saw one of the most incredible late game comebacks kick them in the teeth for a third straight loss.
Thanks to a Sergio Castillo single point with time expiring, DeVone Claybrooks has his first win as head coach of the Lions, while Reilly has his first triumph in his return. With high expectations, an 0-3 start, and a heartbreaking loss to the Stampeders all rolled into one, BC had a big hill to climb. It came down to the wire, but Lions fans can breathe a little easier now.
Calgary and Winnipeg took impressive victories in Week 4, but not before both teams had to deal with some adversity at quarterback. One day ahead of a showdown with the Riders at Mosaic Stadium, the Stamps put reigning Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell on the six-game injured list. That threw Nick Arbuckle to the wolves in his first professional start.
Arbuckle turned heads upon relieving Mitchell late in last week’s stunning win over BC, but starting a game in the CFL’s most intimidating atmosphere is something totally different. It didn’t seem to bother him, however, as Arbuckle threw just three incomplete passes and two touchdowns as Calgary rolled over the Riders 37-10.
Knowing Mitchell isn’t returning imminently, that had to be an extremely encouraging sign for Stamps fans. I’m not sure it surprised those internally with Calgary, though; everyone from Mitchell to receiver Eric Rogers and Head Coach Dave Dickenson have been adamant Arbuckle is ready for this shot. He proved them right in a big way on Saturday.
It was less surprising to see Chris Streveler step in and get the job done for Winnipeg in relief of Matt Nichols, but it was impressive nonetheless. Prior to leaving in the third quarter against Ottawa, Nichols was having a really solid night and moving the ball effectively. That didn’t change when Streveler stepped in, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
Streveler looked decent when he was called upon early last year to start for the Bombers, so we know he’s capable. But I think his role in short yardage over the last year has helped him take another few steps. Winnipeg uses Streveler for multiple plays in short yardage in what could almost be described as the quarterback equivalent of a “change of pace”. As such, when he needed to finish the game in relief of Nichols, he didn’t miss a beat.
At 3-0, the Bombers are the CFL’s lone unbeaten team, so they probably had the least adversity to overcome in Week 4. In saying that, though, the degree of difficulty in Friday’s 29-14 win over the REDBLACKS shouldn’t be overlooked. Winnipeg lost their starting quarterback and was also playing without All-Star linebacker Adam Bighill. I think that qualifies them for the theme of the week.
Ground and pound
The CFL’s two previously winless teams seem to have gotten on board with a common theme: pound the ball on the ground. I don’t think it’s any coincidence both the Lions and Alouettes have started to turn the corner since leaning more heavily on tailbacks John White and William Stanback, respectively.
BC looked anemic offensively in their first two losses of the season. In their last two contests, a win and a last minute loss, things looked strikingly different. A big part of the reason is how much more the Lions relied on their running game, and specifically John White.
In their first two outings, BC ran the ball with White a combined 12 times for 28 yards. That’s in stark contrast to the last two weekends when White has ran the ball 36 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns. On the receiving end, White has 13 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown his last two games; he had just four catches for 26 yards in Weeks 1 and 2.
Right now, White looks like the star running back he was in 2014 prior to a devastating Achilles injury, and then again following recovery in 2016. Mike Reilly has a ton of intriguing options at receiver, but leaving White out of the game plan right now would be counterproductive with how effective he’s been.
The same is true of Stanback, who is coming off an incredible performance against Hamilton on Thursday. The second year back ran the ball 22 times for 203 yards and three touchdowns in one of the most dominant performances we’ll see this season. Once again, the important thing is volume for Stanback, because he needs to be a focal point of the offence.
Stanback is a big, physical runner who still has the ability to wow you with his speed, which was very much on display with a 49-yard gain against the Ticats. Even going back to last season, this guy has looked like a superstar in need of his first opportunity. What we saw on Thursday night has to be eye opening.
With a player this talented, the Alouettes would be silly not to use this guy as their focal point, regardless of what the game dictates. Sure, it’s easy for a team to get away from the run game when they’re trailing, but certain backs still need to be fed; Stanback is one of those guys.
With Vernon Adams developing as a quarterback, giving opposing defences a steady Stanback diet is the perfect recipe. He’s elusive and explosive enough to still be effective even facing stacked fronts against the run. And, by really focusing on the run, coverage starts to open up for Adams.
With what Stanback did against the Tiger-Cats, Montreal has to give more priority to their ground game. We’ll see if that’s the case Saturday when the Als visit Ottawa.