Roughriders in tough vs. Redblacks

The Roughriders' offensive line will need to protect quarterback Kevin Glenn (5) if they hope to win against Ottawa. Troy Fleece/Regina Leader-Post

After a forgettable 28-13 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos in their last regular season game, the Saskatchewan Roughriders will cross over to the CFL’s East division for their first playoff run since 2014.

They’ll face the Ottawa Redblacks (8-9-1) in the division’s semi-final on Sunday afternoon; the winner will move on to play the Toronto Argonauts in the East final a week later.

Saskatchewan’s 10-8 finish this year matches its 2014 record.

And while it’s admirable that the team has pulled itself from the pitiful depths of a 3-15 finish in 2015, I’m not completely convinced this year’s team can make a push for the Grey Cup.

A lot of that has to do with its upcoming game on Sunday.

The following four factors are key items to watch in the showdown of R-teams from the nation’s capital.

Quarterbacks

The advantage here could go to either team.

Riders’ head coach Chris Jones and offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo seem to have found a 1-2 quarterback system that works for their offence: When starter Kevin Glenn is ineffective at dissecting defences, coaches replace him with Toronto-born Brandon Bridge, who has the added-threat of being a dependable ball carrier – and thrower – on the run.

Forcing Ottawa’s defence to adjust to a different type of signal caller will make the game that much harder on the unit.

The downside is inconsistency at the Riders’ most important offensive position, which may affect starters who’ve grown accustomed to one quarterback over the other.

Jones and co. also seem to have Glenn on a relatively short leash, often pulling him in the second quarter. I wonder what type of rhythm is stifled when Glenn is pulled early in the game; football games are marathons, not sprints.

Ottawa gunslinger Trevor Harris has been just that, deadly accurate.

Despite missing three games this year due to injury, Harris is tied for first in the league in touchdown passes (30). Of his 572 pass attempts, only 11 of those have been interceptions – 1.9 per cent, or one interception for every 52 pass attempts.

Offensive line

Ottawa has the advantage here.

After an apparent knee injury against Edmonton, Riders’ anchor-point Brendon LaBatte is likely done for the postseason. Jones confirmed he’d probably be out for the Ottawa game.

His absence means Derek Dennis will likely step in to replace him at left guard.

Dennis’ play has been inconsistent this year, falling short of what landed him top lineman of the year honours in 2016.

The Roughriders have also allowed 44 sacks this season, third-worst in the CFL, ahead of Montreal (46) and British Columbia (49).

Ottawa’s offensive line has allowed eleven less sacks (33), placing the Redblacks in third behind Calgary and Edmonton.

When it comes to quarterback pressures, the two teams are evenly matched: Saskatchewan sits in third place with 86, one spot ahead of Ottawa, which has allowed 87.

The added benefit of playing at home will also make it easier on the Redblacks o-line, which won’t have to contend with crowd noise.

Defensive line

Advantage Roughriders, just barely.

Both teams are close in this category, but one can’t discount the individual contributions of towering Willie Jefferson to his team this year.

The Texas-native leads the league in quarterback pressures with 37. Combine that with his eight sacks this year, and Jefferson sits in first place in the CFL with combined sacks and quarterback pressures at 45.

Jefferson alone warrants two offensive linemen to try to contain him. That should open up space for his d-line teammates to break through the Redblacks’ o-line to at least disrupt Harris, if not sack him.

But if the Riders’ d-line can’t find early success in getting to Harris, the advantage swings quickly to Ottawa.

A grain of salt to consider: The Roughriders are second-last in the league in sacks made (27), four ahead of the Montreal Alouettes’ dismal 23.

History

Advantage Ottawa.

The two teams split their regular season series at one game apiece. Each team beat the other by a solitary point at its respective home field.

In their win, the Roughriders scored no points until the third quarter – a Christion Jones punt return for a touchdown. The team only mustered 60 rushing yards and 252 passing yards.

In the loss to Ottawa in Regina two weeks later, it was a similar outcome: the Riders gained only 72 yards on the ground, but it improved in passing yards, amassing 387.

But Saskatchewan’s defence collapsed in the game’s final three minutes, allowing Harris’ crew to score 13 unanswered points, sealing their team’s win as the clock counted down to 0:00.

That, plus no crossover team going into the East division has ever made it to the Grey Cup.

Prediction

Ottawa wins in overtime by three or less points.