Roughriders have a chance vs. Argonauts

Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Chris Jones prides himself on building versatile teams. Michael Bell/Regina Leader-Post

If I wore a hat, I’d eat it, courtesy the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

A little over a week ago in this space, I predicted they would fall to the Ottawa Redblacks by three or less points in overtime of the CFL’s East division semi-final, effectively ending their 2017 playoffs.

I was wrong by a long shot – as long as Marcus Thigpen’s 75-yard touchdown run that put the game to bed. The Roughriders handily won 31-20 in regulation time.

They’re now set to face the Toronto Argonauts in the East division final at BMO Field on Sunday at 12 p.m. CST. The winner earns a trip to play in the 105th Grey Cup in Ottawa on Nov. 26.

No crossover team has ever earned a Grey Cup berth.

Toronto finished its regular season 9-9, while Saskatchewan went 10-8. The Roughriders took the two-game season series against the Argos by scores of 38-27 at home in July and 27-24 in Toronto on Oct. 7.

As I pour over the stats, past game sheets and the teams’ rosters, I can’t help but get excited for this matchup: two defensive gurus (Chris Jones and Corey Chamblin) will go head-to-head and try to stifle the league’s two veteran signal callers, Kevin Glenn and Ricky Ray; the teams are poised to play mistake-free football – through two games, they’ve combined for only a single turnover; and a versatile Roughriders’ offensive line will face its toughest test yet from a hulking, brutish Toronto defensive line, which will have to contend with a surging Riders’ run game and (possibly) their elusive Canadian quarterback.

This is a tight game to call.

The following four factors are key items to watch in the East division final.

Defensive line

Advantage Toronto.

Commit these four names to memory: Victor Butler, Cleyon Laing, Dylan Wynn and Shawn Lemon.

These Toronto four – when healthy and playing together – have been beasts for the Argos.

Butler is second in the league with 10 sacks (through just 12 games) and Lemon is tied for fourth with 8 sacks (also through 12 games), while Wynn and Laing have tallied six and five sacks, respectively.

Couple their tenacity with the hard-nosed play calling of defensive coordinator Chamblin, and we’re likely to see Jones replace starting quarterback Kevin Glenn with the more elusive Brandon Bridge.

Also, Toronto is tied with Calgary for first in the CFL with 50 sacks on the year; Saskatchewan is second-last in the league with 27; quarterback pressures are effective, quarterback sacks reverse offensive drives.

Offensive line

Advantage Saskatchewan, which makes the above section conditional, based on the success of the Riders’ o-line.

Saskatchewan’s front-five have proven versatile throughout the year in weathering injuries to centre Dan Clark and guard Brendon LaBatte (who filled in for Clark earlier this year).

They’ve also managed to turn Derek Dennis’ failure at left tackle into success by moving him to left guard.

And right tackle Thaddeus Coleman – who’s started all 18 games this season – has garnered less than three sentences’ worth of media coverage this year, a good sign of consistency at his spot.

Overall, they’ve allowed only four more sacks than Toronto’s front five (44 to 40), and they’ve been effective in stopping quarterback pressures, allowing 86 to Toronto’s 130.

If Clark and co. have early success against the hulking Butler and his teammates, then the Riders’ quarterbacks should have little problem picking apart the Argos’ secondary.

A grain of salt to consider: Toronto running back James Wilder Jr. can easily swing this game and any early failure on the part of his o-line teammates. See the below section.

A second grain of salt to consider: Ray’s speed at making reads and getting the ball to his receivers reduces the time his offensive line needs to protect him.

Running backs

Draw.

This depends on whether you want to pound the ball by committee (Roughriders) or with your workhorse (the Argonauts’ Wilder).

Due to injuries and a tendency for unpredictability on Jones’ part, the Roughriders have found success throughout the year with four different running backs – Cameron Marshall, Kienan LaFrance, Trent Richardson and, recently, Thigpen.

Jones said the healthiest running back will start Sunday’s game.

But that doesn’t account for the probability that offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo will call for multiple ball carries.

Meanwhile, Wilder is a prototypical running back: He’s tall and lean, is a smooth, fast runner, and he can gain yards on the ground or through the air.

Wilder has been hitting his stride of late. Through his team’s last three games, he’s rushed for 72, 112 and 136 yards, respectively; he’s tallied 265 yards receiving through those three games, too.

The caveat here is if one team’s o-line breaks down and allows continued pressure from the opposition’s defensive line, then its running game will likely be a mute point.

X-factors

Draw.

For Toronto, watch fullback Declan Cross – he’s built like a compact tank, is elusive and has superb hands. With defences honing in on Wilder, Ray and veteran receiver S.J. Green, Cross frequently slips into the flat areas of the field. From there he turns quick hitch and screen passes into effective gains.

Through 18 games this year, he has 36 catches for 366 yards and 5 touchdowns.

For Saskatchewan, pick your poison.

The team’s versatility – a quality that Jones likely has tattooed across his chest – has been its biggest game-changer this year.

Whether he’s been putting Duron Carter at cornerback, using a 1-2-3-quarterback system, turning receivers into d-linemen or transitioning return specialist Thigpen into a running back, Jones has found a way to win by being creative and unpredictable.

CFL.ca’s Brodie Lawson and Marshall Ferguson nailed it: The Riders’ biggest weapon is their ever-changing game plan and set of players.

Their x-factor?

The gaping abyss of the unknown.

Prediction

Saskatchewan makes history and wins by one point in overtime.