Sitting on the west side of Mosaic Stadium on Saturday night, watching the Riders huddled around the heater, you could see the thoughts go through their heads – the forecast is warmer in Ottawa this upcoming weekend.
When you have a game where the winner gets a plane ticket to Winnipeg, you can’t really lose when you end up going to Ottawa, but the Riders lack of discipline and some disturbing injuries raise the question of yes, the Riders can go to the Grey Cup, or they can go one and out against Ottawa.
The Riders game against Edmonton took on a little less importance when Winnipeg beat Calgary the night before to clinch second place in the west. So the question was who would win this one and go through the west, which doesn’t seem as daunting as it did a month ago.
So while Regina was digging out from the first real snow dump of the season, which also forced the city to move two sections of fans on the west side from their seats because of concerns about snow on the roof over them, the weather was cold, but not as cold as some games in the past.
What was different from the first time the Riders played Edmonton was Edmonton had more of their injured players back in the lineup and exerted more defensive pressure on Kevin Glenn and then Brandon Bridge. The constant pressure, which got worse when Brendon LaBatte went down with a leg injury, forced a change to Brandon Bridge who got a touchdown, but also got stymied more times than not.
So in terms of a measuring stick, the Riders fell short against a surging Edmonton team and now face the prospect of playing a surging Ottawa team, and if they beat them, then a surging Toronto team. There are no easy outs for the next three games and the Riders can’t think all they have to do is show up, or rely on the results of past games, to get them through.
That being said, going from five wins to 10 in one season is pretty good and a sign of progress, even with a mess of free agents coming loose from the team in February. However the Riders play the second half of the season has raised the possibility they could well be in the Grey Cup if they play to their potential.
The other thing to note is injuries forced the Riders to adjust their roster and keep players out until next week when the games take on more importance. Having Duron Carter on cornerback did not result in any pick sixes like they did against Calgary, which means if the Riders play Edmonton in the Grey Cup, they better have as close to a full complement of defensive players as possible.
Edmonton having lost six in a row at one point is on a roll and more importantly their defense looks like it is coming into form with consistent pressure. The addition of CJ Gable at running back gives the Eskimos balance on their offense which will help in the frigid conditions likely in the western playoffs for the next couple of weeks.
For the Riders, the injury to LaBatte, which appears to be season ending, will force some changes on the offensive line and the Canadian ratio. Derek Dennis will likely come back onto the roster, but the Riders will have to bring another Canadian onto the roster and that could well be Chris Getzlaf. The Riders looked not bad with Marcus Thigpen at running back, but maybe on Saturday the status of Cameron Marshall will come clear although the Riders could rotate Kienan LaFrance and Greg Morris along with Thigpen. Let’s not forget Shakir Bell is also an option for the Riders, although Bell is not known for his blocking and that will be a factor.
The big question for the Riders will be on defense and what system Chris Jones will try to employ versus Ottawa and then perhaps Toronto. The Riders split their series with Ottawa with each team winning by one point and each team thinking they gave a game away.
The Riders seemed to be playing a lot of zone defense, which maybe was designed to make it easier on Duron Carter playing corner. I wouldn’t expect to see Carter on defense against Ottawa, mainly because on offense Carter has devastated the Ottawa secondary. Where Ottawa can exploit the Riders is against their linebackers and intermediate passes and perhaps even isolating the Riders safety, depending on who lines up there.
The weather picture seems to be changing heading into the eastern semi-final, and if Ottawa gets a taste of the cold weather the west has been experiencing, along with the added attraction of snow, then the prospect of a weather game like last year’s eastern final is a real possibility. If that is the case, Ottawa would likely run more and considering their success in running against the Riders, it could be a long day for the Riders.
Of course since it is Tuesday, not all the cards are on the table and not everything will become obvious until kickoff. So since it is my birthday, here are my two cents about the eastern semi-final.
As previously mentioned, Ottawa and Saskatchewan line up well against one another and the key will be which team is more mentally prepared, especially if the weather is a factor. For the Riders the big question will be the state of their offensive line.
If Dennis as expected goes in, the trick will be keeping Kevin Glenn on his feet since Chris Jones has shown a tendency to pull Glenn if he is facing heaving pressure. Glenn’s lack of mobility is a factor and in a game where weather will be a factor, Glenn’s tendency based game will be dependent on his ability to stay vertical.
While the Riders defense has been improved, the last game against Edmonton showed some gaps in the defense that can be exploited by Trevor Harris. The Riders are suspectible to the run but Ottawa is suspecitble to the pass unless the weather plays a factor.
This should be a tight game and an entertaining one and for Canadian quarterback watchers, if Brandon Bridge gets in and does well, his stock will go up for his free agency in February. The first two games were decided by one point, I can’t see this one being any different. Riders win this one 27-26.
Edmonton goes to Winnipeg and while this is not quite the Ebola versus Bubonic Plague match-up that characterizes most Calgary-Winnipeg games, this game asks the question, is this the year Winnipeg breaks its epic 0-27 streak in not winning a Grey Cup?
On the surface the signs seems promising. The Bombers went into Calgary and showed Andrew Buckley is likely the second best Canadian quarterback in the CFL in beating Calgary and gaining a much needed home playoff game to pay for thatching the roof of the their press box at Dollarama Field.
They did it without Matt Nichols at quarterback, but clearly they are a one dimensional team without Nichols and if he is not fully recovered from his calf injury, they will remain a one dimensional team. Edmonton on the other hand showed good use of Gable and a consistent pass rush, which will be key to exploiting Nichols and making him as uncomfortable as possible.
Edmonton has been getting their weapons back on offense, but the question will be how their receivers match up against Winnipeg’s defense. Winnipeg won two games against Edmonton, but that was when Edmonton was building a new wing in their training room for all their injuries.
Edmonton has to be feeling good about themselves for going into Mosaic Stadium and beating the Riders, but considering their reward was a week in Winnipeg, who is really laughing now? I suspect it will be the Bombers who come away with a 28-24 win over Deadmonton and provide a grateful nation with a final glimpse of Jason (No) Maas blowing a final gasket on the crumbling foundation of Dollarama Field, the place where dreams go to die.
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