And so it begins on Saturday night.
The Rider hype machine is in full swing as the Riders open their exhibition season against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the first start of Mosaic Stadium at 7 pm.
TSN has decided not to televise the game and the Riders have decided not to put out the pocket schedules which means a sizeable portion of their audience who don’t have smart phones are wondering which games are televised and which are not. This goes to an interesting challenge where the Riders are trying to save money by not putting out the pocket schedules but a major portion of their support comes from people who either don’t have smart phones or use computers, in other words seniors.
Combined with what should be a bit of a free for all at the new Mosaic Stadium, the results will be ugly on Saturday night, probably on and off the field. For the Riders enthusiasm about their receiving corps and the ongoing back up quarterback situation, the Riders have some ugly secrets that will come out against an undermanned Blue Bomber team that is not bringing in Weston Dressler or Andrew Davis.
Let’s start at quarterback where Brandon Bridge will start the first half, Bryan Bennett will take the second half and Marquise Williams will come in likely at the end of the first half and probably the end of the game. Vince Young and his hamstring injury will be watching from the sideline and Kevin Glenn will be dressed but not play.
Bridge came into camp with a reputation for being a weak practice player, which is not going to cut it in Chris Jones’ world. What Bridge has going for him is a rocket arm and a willingness to run, but that is balanced by a tendency to sometimes be wild on his passes.
For Bridge to take the next step, he needed to show Jones in camp he was willing to put in the work and show he was capable of being consistent, which is big in Jones’ world. Now what Bridge has going for him is a reputation for being better in game conditions, which if he has done the work and shown he understands the offense and can make the reads, could result in his being on the roster as the number two or three quarterback.
Bennett in the scrimmage threw for three touchdowns, but also two interceptions and while Bennett has a deft touch and can make reads, he is still relatively inexperienced. Bennett has spent last season on Winnipeg’s practice roster and has some experience dealing with the wider field and the extra player. If Bennett shows some poise, it may be enough to get him into the number two spot behind Glenn.
The Rider running game is open to discussion at this point. Daniel Thomas was formerly of the Miami Dolphins and was brought in but was cut. Cameron Marshall, a former Bomber, seems to be in the lead, but injuries to Kienan Lafrance has derailed what seemed to be a proposal to get a Canadian into one or both of the backfield spots. Greg Morris showed flashes of promise last year and haven’t heard much from him this year. The big problem with the running game may not be so much the ability to run and find the holes like Kory Sheets, but the ability to block, which will be crucial to keeping whoever lines up at quarterback alive and in one piece.
Another area of question marks is at offensive line which was probably the worst in the CFL last year and an improved line needs to be in play to give the quarterbacks a chance to succeed. Helping out was the return of Brendan Labatte and the addition of Peter Dyiakowski and Derek Dennis, the outstanding offensive lineman last year in the CFL. The Riders are looking to go Canadian at the centre and guard positions and ensure the starters have quality back ups. One thing the Riders looked at was improving the quality of their Canadian content and in the draft they picked up some offensive linemen who may come into play and that will be one of the sub-plots to follow during the game.
The Riders receiving corps appears to be in great shape and the team is dealing with some minor injuries which we will discuss further in the kicking category. Jenson Stoshak is the free agent receiver who is pleasantly surprising over the middle, but now that there is live hitting, the question will be how Stoshak will react to getting hit. Mitchell Picton is looking to join the mix as a Rider draft pick and it will be interesting to see how he does.
Naaman Roosevelt and Duron Carter will lead this bunch and while Rob Bagg fills out the starting receiving corps at the wide receiver spot, there is enough depth that if injuries hit, and they have, the Riders will not have that much of a drop off.
The Rider defensive line appears to be in OK shape with Eddie Steel and Zach Minter in the middle and AC Leonard and Johnny Newsome at the defensive ends. Willie Jefferson is in the mix here and will start in the regular season, but this is a good excuse to see how the other players are doing and how they respond to starting.
The question mark comes at linebacking. Henoc Muamba is the starting middle linebacker, but the Riders will need to find a worthy back up for him and more importantly, find two outside linebackers who can play. The Riders either seem thin on talent or full of question marks at those positions and the initial panic over the defensive backfield seems to have been alleviated over the last couple of days.
With the emphasis on team pursuit, it would be likely that the Riders will unleash their defensive line and whatever linebacking package in a series of blitzes to take the pressure on the defensive backfield. This will mean whoever survives in the defensive backfield will have to be extremely good at playing man to man defensive because that will be what the Rider defensive schemes will leave the defensive backs in until the blitz package results in a sack or better.
This leads us to the kicking game and perhaps one of the biggest gripes of training camp – the spate of soft body injuries, particularly to the kickers, which indicates not necessarily that the kickers are over extending themselves but that they came into camp out of shape. The Riders have an extra kicker on their roster that they could parlay into trade like they traded Armanti Edwards to Toronto for Dyiakowski so if there was another player of need that the Riders could get for a kicker, that would be the way to go. Unless of course your kicker has pulled a muscle opening a beer bottle or slipped in the hot tub, then there goes that idea.
One could argue Vince Young falls into that category, of not being physically prepared, but perhaps after five years or so, he found it tougher to make the transition back to active player than he expected. I think Young came into camp thinking he had a shot at back up, but he came in perhaps heavier than he should and the mental work needed to learn a new offense and rules may have been more than he expected.
In that respect his hamstring injury may be the graceful way to say goodbye that Young needed instead of being cut. It will be interesting to see Saturday night if Bridge and Bennett show well, would be the Riders keep Young on the sidelines or injury list as a potential insurance policy?
That may well be how it unfolds if the Riders stockpiling of receivers gives any indication as to how Rider management is approaching this season. Letting Bridge and Bennett it out on the field to see who backs up and who has the third down unit is the fair way to decide. If Williams shows enough to stick to the practice roster to learn the game, so much the better and Young can use his time on the injury list to learn more about the game and more importantly, shed the weight and get into better shape.
If Young can do that, then maybe the Riders have some interesting options at quarterback in case of injury or poor play. Placing Young on the injury list doesn’t set the team or Young back, and allows Young time to learn and get into better shape or take the honorable route and go home.
In the meantime, it is time to see if the City of Regina can figure out what it is doing with the new stadium because with all the new bells and whistles, if the team is lousy, maybe the fans will be happy with the opportunity to walk around the stadium and talk with their friends about the washroom lineups, overpriced beer and food and why the concourses so crowded when they are supposed to be wide open.
Maybe that’s the cynic in me, but this is my third event in the new stadium and the City of Regina does not fill me with confidence with their ability to plan. Let’s hope the Riders play makes the City of Regina’s mistakes less noticeable.
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