An injury to Bo Levi Mitchell in the second game of the season focused a lot of attention on the Calgary Stampeders’ quarterback position.
Nick Arbuckle stepped in and proved he could be the answer. But questions still swirl around the defending Grey Cup champions anemic running attack.
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Montreal Alouettes, the Stampeders are eighth in the CFL with just 548 rushing yards and are last in the league averaging 4.2 yards a rush.
“I’m not sure we’ve seen the Calgary Stampeders be eighth in the league in rushing at this point of the season,” said Jon Cornish, the former Calgary running back who recently was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. “That’s not normally how it goes.”
Calgary Stampeders running back Ka’Deem Carey takes the hand-off out of the backfield from quarterback Nick Arbuckle (Larry MacDougal/CFL.ca)
The Stampeders have gained over 100 rushing yards in a game only twice this season. They have been held to under 60 yards five times. The most any one player has collected in a game is Ka’Deem Carey’s 70 yards on nine carries against Ottawa July 25.
A chain reaction of events has left Calgary’s running game slogging through the sand.
First, injuries have devastated the Stampeder backfield.
Don Jackson, who rushed for 924 yards on 160 carries in his first year as a Stampeder last season, has missed six games with a concussion. His replacement Carey, who leads Calgary with 204 yards on 37 carries, sat out last week’s 26-24 loss to Winnipeg.
Romar Morris, who battled back from an Achilles injury suffered in last year’s West Division Final, tore the Achilles in his other leg in the loss to Winnipeg.
That forced Terry Williams, a special teams player who leads the CFL with 1,247 combined yards, to step in at running back. He finished the night with three carries for 21 yards but also had a fumble that set up a Winnipeg field goal.
“I can be better in a lot of areas,” said Williams. “It’s my job to hold onto the football.”
Plug and play is the mantra preached by coaches, but it’s not always easy to put into practice when it comes to running backs.
“Any time you have to go four deep in your running back roster, you’re going to have issues,” said Cornish, who was league’s Most Outstanding Player in 2013 and a three-time Most Outstanding Canadian. “The number of running back issues (Calgary has) had in terms of injuries is quite profound.”
To be effective, a running back needs to be in sync with his offensive line and quarterback. That’s hard to achieve when there’s a revolving door in the backfield.
“Overall, what you are seeing is a bunch of backs who honestly just don’t have the level of experience, (not) having come up through the ranks after four or five years to become a starter,” said Cornish. “I think (there is) just still a little bit of a lack of communication between the offensive line and running backs.
“When that happens, you have quarterbacks getting pressured or sacked.”
Calgary has allowed 24 sacks this season, the second-most in the league behind BC’s 29.
Sometimes tinkering with the offensive line can kickstart a running game. Cornish remembers back in 2012 when he was held to minus-1 yard rushing in a game. The Stamps made one change on the offensive line and the next week he ran for 170 yards.
“Sometimes changes need to be made because you are only as strong as your weakest link,” he said.
Jackson was back at practice this week which is good news for the Stampeders.
“It wasn’t an easy time for me or my family,” the 25-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif., said about dealing with concussion symptoms. “I think they got the worst of it.
“I’m really excited. I’m just grateful to be out here with my team. It’s been a long time off the field. I’m just ready to get back to it.”
Head coach Dave Dickenson said the return of Jackson, who also had 35 catches for 168 yards last year, makes the Stamps better overall.
“Don is our best pass protector. He’s very versatile,” said Dickenson. “I think he’s our best running back so it will be nice to have him back out there.”
Calgary Stampeders running back Don Jackson carries the ball against the BC Lions (Larry MacDougal/CFL.ca)
Cornish said the five-foot-10, 205-pound Jackson has the chance to establish himself as one of the CFL’s premier running backs.
“I think Jackson needs to really show that he deserves to be the number one guy,” he said. “Last year he put up some decent numbers but I know he can do even more than that.”
Jackson, who had 48 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the two games he played prior to his injury, said he has something to prove.
“I’ve got to earn the right to carry the football for this team,” he said. “I’ve got to earn the respect of my teammates again. I’ve got to earn the respect of my coaches again and I’ve got to earn the respect of the league again.
“I know what’s in front of me. I’m excited.”
Nearing the midpoint of the season Calgary (5-3) is a three-way tie for second place in the West. The Stampeders are third in the league with 2,290 passing yards but Cornish is concerned they are giving up too many yards on special teams and trailed in time of possession in six games.
“What (they) really, absolutely need to do is start controlling the clocker better and you do that through the run game,” he said.
“Being able to pass is great. Being able to run and pass is better. From the stats I’m seeing, this is not necessarily how it’s going.”
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