Thursday, July 7, 2011

Zeroth Down: Saskatchewan?s revamped air attack

Continuing our Zeroth Down preview series, here's a look at the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They've come out of the CFL's West Division for two straight seasons and have been to the Grey Cup three times in the last four years, but only came home with the trophy in 2007. They may have a new coach in place, but there's a lot of continuity here as well; former head coach Ken Miller is now the team's vice-president (football operations), general manager Brendan Taman remains and offensive coordinator Doug Berry is back. With a veteran-heavy team, they're going to be making a push to try and get back to the Grey Cup and come away with another championship. The question is if they'll be able to do it despite substantial losses, including receivers Rob Bagg (who suffered a ACL injury just before camp) and Andy Fantuz (who left for the NFL's Chicago Bears).

Back To The Future: Wide receiver Don Narcisse joined the Roughriders in 1987 as a free agent and went on to a memorable career. Despite a reasonably small stature (he was listed at 5'9'', 170 pounds), Narcisse was able to use his speed and explosiveness to pick up 1,000 receiving yards or more in seven straight seasons from 1989 to 1995. His best season may have been that 1989 campaign, where he racked up a career-high 1419 yards alongside fellow legends Ray Elgaard and Jeff Fairholm and helped the team collect a memorable Grey Cup victory. He retired in 1999 after picking up four league all-star nods and left with the team record in career receptions. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Since that time, he's moved back to Regina and started a football camp, which held its first event this year.

Narcisse's story has plenty of implications for the current Roughriders, but perhaps most notably for slotback Weston Dressler (pictured above making a catch in a August 2010 game). Much like Narcisse, Dressler's a small (5'7'', 179-pound), quick import receiver from an under-the-radar college (Narcisse played football at Division I-AA Texas Southern, while Dressler played at North Dakota, which was in Division II when he was there) who's found substantial success in green and white. Dressler joined Saskatchewan in 2008, claimed the CFL's rookie of the year award with a team-high 1,123 receiving yards and 2,219 overall yards that season, and went on to post 941 yards in 14 games in 2009 and 1,189 yards in 17 games last year. With Fantuz (the league's top receiver in 2010) and Bagg (a crucial part of Saskatchewan's corps last year) both gone for at least the start of the season, Dressler and Chris Getzlaf are going to have to step up to fill the void. Both are certainly capable of it, but the depth behind them is a little concerning. We'll see if they're able to help the Riders reach the heights of Narcisse's 1989 season.

Offence: As pointed out above, the receiving corps may be a bit of an issue. Dressler and Getzlaf have both been terrific when called upon, but beyond that, the cast still has plenty of question marks. Cary Koch has certainly shown potential, Jason Clermont has proved he's got something left in the tank and Jordan Sisco is a promising rising prospect, but the receiving corps doesn't currently look anywhere as near as formidable as last year's was, and quarterback Darian Durant may take a while to adjust to different targets. The offensive line's also been shaken up a little with the retirement of Jeremy O'Day (now in a football operations position with the team) and the elevation of Marc Parenteau, as well as the addition of veteran Canadian free-agent tackle Alex Gauthier. The Riders are planning to go with four Canadians on the offensive line, and they certainly look good there from a personnel standpoint, but it may take time for them to gel as a unit.

The line shakeup could also cause issues in the running game, which hasn't exactly been spectacular over the last few years. Wes Cates is still very talented and picked up 1,054 yards on the ground last year, but only averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He was a decent threat in the receiving game too, adding 355 yards there, but Saskatchewan's going to need a more consistent ground game to get far this year. They've managed to hang on to Hugh Charles and Brandon West, who have both shown potential, and that may help.

It's not like this is a bad offence even with their losses. The 497 points the Roughriders put up last year were the third highest-total in the league, and Durant led the CFL with 5,542 passing yards. There's still plenty of talent in the receiving game despite the absence of Fantuz and Bagg, and the running game doesn't look bad from a personnel standpoint either. Still, on the whole, the Riders' offence has lots of promise but several unresolved questions as well, and many of those were on display in their 34-6 preseason loss to B.C. last week.

Rating: Four boxes of Fantuz Flakes

Defence: There's a fair amount to like about the Riders' defence, even if its success didn't necessarily show up in the standings last year. The Roughriders conceded 488 points in 2010, second-worst in the league (behind only Edmonton). However, they did have players lead the league in both tackles (the ageless Barrin Simpson, pictured at right trying to bring down Toronto's Dalton Bell in a 2010 game) and interceptions (safety James Patrick), and they proved very adept at creating havoc and turnovers thanks to Gary Etcheverry's unconventional blitzing schemes. Etcheverry is gone now, replaced by former Edmonton head coach Richie Hall (who was Saskatchewan's defensive coordinator for the 2007 Grey Cup run), and that may lead to more standard looks, but it may also reduce the number of points the Riders concede. We'll have to see how Hall does in this go-round, but he's certainly got the experience to succeed.

One major issue on defence is the absence of defensive end Brent Hawkins, though. Hawkins hurt his left shoulder during training camp and has been placed on the nine-game injury list. He's one of the team's best pass rushers, and replacement Montez Murphy hasn't shown a ton in his CFL career so far. However, the team does have options at the end slots; non-import Luc Mullinder has played very well, and 2010 top draft pick Shomari Williams may be ready to make more of a contribution on defence this season.

Something the Riders will have to look at in particular is stopping the run. They were the worst in the league in that category last season, conceding 137 rushing yards per game. However, there is potential for improvement here. Canadian defensive tackle Keith Shologan is an up-and-coming star, Simpson is an excellent linebacker, and Hall's approach may place more emphasis on shutting down the ground game. For now, though, the defence has potential, but is going to have to improve on last year for the Riders to have repeated success.

Rating: Four NBA tryouts

Special teams: This might be the main area of concern for Saskatchewan fans after a less-than-stellar 2010 season, where they were particularly bad in both the return game and kick coverage. New addition Tristan Jackson has the potential to elevate the return game and a history of success in the CFL, but Dominque Dorsey and Ryan Grice-Mullen had both of those qualities last year and didn't do much. New special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson (brother of Calgary offensive coordinator Dave) may also help. The kicking game is full of questions too, though; Eddie Johnson (pictured at right)�remains the most interesting punter in the world, and a pretty good one at that, but he isn't exactly proven as a placekicker, and neither is draft pick Christopher Milo (at least at the CFL level; he was rather impressive with Laval). With Luca Congi still hurt, the Riders' kicking game is going to remain a bit of a worry unless Johnson or Milo seizes the job with a solid showing.

Rating: Three Eddie Johnson mustaches

Totals: 11 points (out of 15).

Greatest strength: Darian Durant. Durant remains remarkably underrated, but he's proven to be one of the CFL's top quarterbacks over the past couple of seasons, and I think he'll continue to grow this year. His receiving corps doesn't look as strong, but he may find a way to overcome that and keep the offence ticking.

Potential weakness: Special teams. I'm sure the Riders will be able to sort out some of their issues on the special teams front this season, but I don't know if they'll be able to address them all. The kicking game in particular looks worrying at the moment, but kick returns and kick coverage aren't exactly the most solid either.

Season prediction: The West is looking quite even this season, especially at the top, so there's certainly a chance the Riders could wind up anywhere from the top to the basement. With that said, though, they may have made the Grey Cup the last two years, but I'm not as confident this year's team can repeat that dominance. I still think they'll be very good, but even a small regression could knock them back to the pack. I see them going 10-8 this year, finishing third in the West on a tie-breaker and losing a close first playoff game on the road.

Aggrieved Rider fans, please feel free to yell at me via e-mail or Twitter. We'll have a preview of the Edmonton Eskimos' season later on Tuesday. Also, remember to stop by 55-Yard Line at noon Eastern on Thursday, June 30 for a season preview chat with some special guests!

Anna Faris Lil Kim Kelly Ripa Yvonne Strzechowski Rhona Mitra

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