"Sin Wagon"

I really, really, really need to STOP staying up until 4 am. Seriously. I know I’m a night owl, but going to bed at 3 and 4 am on a regular basis is tiring me out. I guess I’m not as young as I used to be. Or think I am…

Did you watch the Red Wings/Penguins game last night? If you didn’t, you didn’t miss a whole hell of a lot. The Penguins had no forecheck and therefore – no attack. Why did CBC have to lose its feed from Detroit right when Gary Roberts is pummelling Johan Franzen?? Geez!! And the Oscar for Best Diving in a Stanley Cup Playoff Game goes to…Chris Osgood! He drew two penalties last night. The first one was the one that did the Penguins in. Even my brother, a Red Wings fan, decried Malone’s penalty.

But let’s get back to FOOTBALL!!!!

Today’s stop on the Rider Preview Train (wow – what a sad, sad phrase; but I’m too tired to erase it and think of something better) is the Riders’ defensive backfield. Then we’ll take a look at the Toronto Argonauts.

“There’s Your Trouble” – RIDERS DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD

The Rider defence was equal parts good and bad last season. The good? The Riders’ defence ranked #1 or #2 against the rush. The bad? The Riders’ defence ranked #7 or #8 against the pass. Definitely a Jekyll and Hyde thing.

So the Riders need to get better against the pass, something I’ve been saying for, well, awhile. The Riders CANNOT stop 2nd and long. Seriously. I swear – offences have converted 2nd and 25 situations on a regular basis against the Riders ‘D.’

Now you might be saying, “Well, defence wins championships, and aren’t the Riders the Grey Cup champs?” Yes. But y’all know that there were a couple of scary moments in that Rider game when Bomber receivers got in behind their cover guys and made big gains. BIG gains. If the Riders want to repeat as Grey Cup champs, they need to figure out a way to stop 2nd and long.

And how might they do that? Well, maybe the defensive scheme needs to be tweaked just a little. I know defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall is a football god in Saskatchewan – and rightfully so; he’s one of only two people who can say they won TWO Grey Cups with the Riders. BUT – he needs to be pushed to find coverage that helps his guys on the field stop 2nd and long.

I know I keep harping on ‘stop 2nd and long,’ but if a team converts a 2nd and long situation, it can be a game/momentum changer. Remember the Western Final vs. BC in 2005 when the Riders lost to the Lions in OT? Of course you do. Well, the Riders had BC in a 3rd and 19 situation with under a minute to go. If BC can’t convert it’s game over: Riders go to the Grey Cup. BC converted with a pass to Jason Clermont. Two more passes and they’re in field goal range. O’Mahony ties the game with a field goal and in OT the Lions win. THAT’S WHY YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO STOP 2ND AND LONG!!!!!!!! I think I’ve made my point.

The good news is that the Riders resigned long-time Rider veteran Eddie Davis. Davis will be entering his 8th season with the Green and White this year. I was actually surprised Davis resigned; I was sure he was going to go to Calgary. His family is based in Calgary, Henry Burris is one of his best friends, Calgary has a new head coach – the stars seemed to be aligned. But Davis came back.

Omarr Morgan is also returning after a year with the Eskimos. Morgan came into the league as a Rider and sure as hell should have been with them last year to win the Grey Cup. I actually feel bad for the guy. He went through those tough first couple of years when the Riders were rebuilding under Danny Barrett and Roy Shivers and deserved to win a Grey Cup with the Riders. But, he chose to leave. Hopefully the Riders can win another with him on board.

The great thing about having both Morgan AND Davis in the backfield is that they’re both veterans with tons of experience. It’ll be like having TWO on-field coaches. The Riders’ pass defence suffered a lot when Davis was out 9 games with a shoulder injury. If either Morgan or Davis is hurt during the course of the season, it’ll be nice to have another veteran to lean on. Davis was instrumental is keeping the defensive backfield competitive last season, as the Riders had lost many a veteran prior to the 2007 season (Omarr Morgan, Jackie Mitchell, Davin Bush, and others).

But if BOTH succumb to injury at some point (eeeek!), the Riders have a number of good options. Lance Frazier started at DB in the Grey Cup and had a solid 8 games. Rontarius Robinson had 40 tackles last year and became more consistent at the DB position. A couple of other young’uns will be at camp, too, battling for backup spots.

The cornerback positions are solid as well. Grey Cup MVP James Johnson (remember him and his THREE interceptions? And the one returned for a TD?) is back and can hopefully build on his solid sophomore season. Airabin Justin continues to develop into a solid cornerback, but may be challenged at camp by Frazier or Robinson, both of whom may shift to CB.

The safety position is a bit of a toss-up between Canadian Scott Gordon and Tristan Clovis. Clovis started the first half of the season, and once Gordon was healthy, he started the last half and the playoff games. Gordon may have an edge with his hard-hitting ability. He’s made quite a few bone-crushing hits over the years.

That leaves us with the linebackers. And the Riders lost their most prominent linebacker in the off-season when Reggie Hunt signed with the Montreal Alouettes as a free agent. ‘The Reaper’ didn’t have a standout season, but he picked up his game in the playoffs and was a big reason why the Riders were able to climb over both the Stamps and the Lions to get to the big game. The competition for his starting job will be between Mike McCullough, Anton McKenzie, Dustin Cherniawski, and TJ Stancil, all of whom played well last season when given the chance.

The other two linebacker spots belong to Maurice Lloyd and Sean Lucas. Lloyd was the more dominant of the two, only one tackle shy (69) of top spot on the team (70). He flies around the field, making things happen, and is more than capable of filling ‘The Reaper’s’ shoes. But Lucas wasn’t exactly shabby last year; he had 61 tackles of his own. These two make a good starting tandem. Hopefully one of the above-mentioned players can help create a formidable trio.

I promise I’m going to only say it one more time, but if the Riders want to repeat, they HAVE to solve the ‘2nd and long’ problem. Enough said.

“Only What You Make of It” – TORONTO ARGONAUTS

It only seems appropriate to review the Argos the day before their former starting QB and future CFL Hall of Famer, Damon Allen, will announce his retirement. I’m not going to write an ode of praise to Allen because enough of that will be done tomorrow and the next day. And I’m not going to even try to rank him in terms of his place among CFL QB greats. I think his 72,000+ yards passing speak for themselves, as well as his longevity. Not every QB has their best year at the age of 42.

Allen’s retirement is welcome news for the Argos. Allen has become a distraction of sorts for the Argos. What do you do when pro football’s all-time leading passer thinks he can still compete but he clearly can’t? You can’t push him out the door and say, “Thanks for the 2005 Grey Cup ring, but you know what Damon? You’re too damn old to play anymore.” Well, I guess you CAN, but you definitely shouldn’t. The Argos needed to let Allen decide his own future and his own timeline for retirement.

So now that the Allen era is over, the Argos need to find their next starter. And who better than last year’s MOP, Kerry Joseph?

(Ugh. I’m still bitter about that whole trade. I just don’t think one good year qualifies you as an elite QB. Look at Marcus Crandell. Sure he won the 2001 Grey Cup and was the Grey Cup MVP, but he sure as hell didn’t make $350,000 the next season. But whatever. KJ is now the enemy.)

The Argos have Michael Bishop as their backup QB, though they’ve publicly stated that the starting position is up for grabs. But come on. You don’t trade for the league MVP, pay him $350,000 for the year and then tell him he may have to ride the bench. Bishop will be the backup, KJ will start. But new head coach Rich Stubler won’t hesitate to yank Joseph if he struggles – which a little part of me hopes he does. Yeah. I’ll be holding a grudge against KJ until he retires.

The Argos’ defence will continue to be stellar; they were at or very near the top in almost every defensive category last season. And in spite of the fact that he will be focusing on head coaching duties, I can’t imagine Stubler will turn a blind eye to his defence. He’s still have a hand in it.

The D-line is led by Adrianno Belli and Jonathan Brown, both of whom had career years for the Boatmen. Kevin Eiben continues to develop into one of the best linebackers in the league – and he’s CANADIAN! Mike O’Shea will come back and continue to defy his age. Michael Fletcher will return; he’s one of the most consistently good linebackers in the league.

In the backfield, Orlando Steinhauer leads from his spot at safety. His teammates are not as experienced, but are speedy and a quick study. They’ll have to replace Jordan Younger and his 50ish tackles at CB which puts them a step behind where they were last year.

On offence, I’ve already stated the Argos improved their QB position by acquiring Kerry Joseph. He’ll have to use his legs a lot, as the Argos don’t have a #1 running back. John Avery was released in the off-season after an injury-laden couple of seasons. Dominique Dorsey and Tyler Ebell will battle it out for the starting spot.

Toronto’s receiving corps will be a little different this season, but two key players return (according to CFL.ca, Andre Talbot will have to relinquish his #4 jersey to Joseph. You can’t have two players with the same number!). Arland Bruce is always a threat, and so is Talbot if given space. TJ Acree will probably nab a starting spot as will Bethel Johnson – if he pans out. The Argos always sign these NFL castoffs; they rarely work out.

Noel Prefontaine returns as placekicker. Last year wasn’t his best year, but he’s one of the most consistent placekickers in the league. Maybe it has something to do with the fact he plays 9 games INDOORS. Just sayin’…
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