REGINA — The Saskatchewan Roughriders are looking to stay balanced and well grounded in the Western Final.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ run defence has been an issue for many teams in the CFL this season, allowing a league best 64.2 yards per game on the ground — the second lowest of the modern era behind the 1995 Calgary Stampeders.
On Sunday, at Mosaic Stadium, it’s a challenge the Riders aren’t running away from.
“You always want to play against the best,” said William Powell, whose 12 touchdowns doubled his previous career high in his first season with the Riders. “When you feel like you’re a good player, a great player, you want to go against the best and prove yourself against the best.”
Balance has been key to a Riders’ offence that has generated the fourth most points, the fourth best time of possession and committed the fewest turnovers in the league. Led by Powell, Saskatchewan boasts the CFL’s third ranked rushing attack (113 yards per game), and runs the football 40 per cent of the time, second only to Winnipeg.
On the contrary, the Bombers have specialized in making opponents unbalanced. On average, teams are running the ball just once every four offensive plays against Winnipeg, well under the league average of 35 per cent. The Riders know they can’t be sucked into being one dimensional.
“They do a good job of forcing you into second and long, and when they do that it’s hard to run for first downs,” said Head Coach Craig Dickenson. “I think it’s important to continue to stay with the run, even if you’re struggling, and we’ve talked about that as a staff but ultimately you want to try to call plays that allow you to get first downs.
“If you’re struggling in the run game and you feel you have a chance offensively throwing it, we’re going to do that, but one of our goals is to run the ball and run it well for this game.”
Currently in the midst of an historic season, what’s so unique about the Bombers’ run defence? It starts at defensive end, where Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat are versatile ends that can not only rush the passer but also set the edge, leaving Jake Thomas and Drake Nevis to clog up the middle.
“They’ve got some good guys, their personnel’s good and Richie does a good job of mixing stuff up,” said offensive guard Brendon LaBatte, now in his 12th CFL season and eighth with the Riders. “Keeping us off balance is what I think they do really well. They move guys around and as soon as you’re expecting them to move around, they’ll line up and hit you square in the mouth.”
“They do a great job of moving around,” added running back Marcus Thigpen. “Our reads are hard to get because they’re moving a lot of guys all over the place. Then, when you think you see a hole, it closes up so fast. They do a really good job at deceiving, we just have to make sure we read out blocks, be patient and take our time with it.”
“They have a lot of good players,” said Powell. “They’re very physical, they throw a lot of different looks at you, they come from a lot of different angles, they try to blitz both edges to have those contain guys so you can’t get outside, and they have a very stout D-line up front so they attack the middle also. It’s the fact that they throw a lot of things at you and they have a lot of good athletes.”
For the Riders, success on first down — staying ahead of the chains and setting up more manageable conversions — will be key to having success offensively. Production on first down has been a strength for the Riders this season, facing second and seven-plus yards a league low 189 times this season.
Conversely, the Bombers’ defence has kept opponents in second and long all year. Teams around the CFL have clearly taken notice, often abandoning the run altogether, with just 14 attempts per game on the ground.
“It’s about being good on first down,” said Powell. “If you’re good on first down and you’re in second and short and second and medium, you still have your entire playbook open, you can still run the ball. That puts the defence on their toes, they have to be ready for anything. That’s going to be the biggest thing for us.”
In three contests head to head, the Riders have totaled 70, 53 and 99 rushing yards against the Bombers, winning two of three matchups with 222 yards on 43 attempts. At 5.2 yards per attempt, Saskatchewan was above the league average against Winnipeg, which allowed 4.5 yards per carry on the season.
One player that could factor into Sunday’s matchup is Thigpen, who ran the ball just once against Winnipeg in the regular season. The 33-year-old has the speed to score any time he touches the ball, adding a different element to the Riders’ offence. The Riders could also look to both Thigpen and Powell to create mismatches in the passing game.
“They play a lot of man defence, so just getting us out in the open, their linebackers, softening them up,” said Thigpen. “Our point of emphasis is getting them in man on man, because I feel like our backs are better than their backers, that’ll pose a challenge for them.”
In the end, success on the ground comes down to the war of attrition. It might sound cliche, but the trenches are where the offensive and defensive lines fight to earn every yard. The Riders have an experienced group led by LaBatte, Dan Clark and Philip Blake, with 25 years of CFL experience between the three.
“It’s the front,” said Dickenson. “If your front blocks well and knocks people off the ball, you’ll be a good running team. “If you don’t, you could have Barry Sanders back there and it’s going to be a tough day. We know up front we’ve got to be good, we’ve got to be physical and we’ve challenged those guys to do just that.”
“They’ve been great all year,” Powell said of the offensive line. “We’ve had different lineups throughout the entire year but everybody stepped in and did a great job, the guys we have in now are mostly vets and those guys are really savvy and they’ll be ready to go no matter what they throw at us.”
Added LaBatte: “At this point in the season we know who they are, they know who we are and it’s just going to be line up and see who can play harder for longer.”