CFL Pass

Vanstone: Ground game has been vital during Riders' championship runs

The 2018 Saskatchewan Roughriders went to considerable lengths — except in terms of yardage — to counter the notion that the CFL is a pass-oriented league.

Consider the fact that they will begin the 2019 campaign with a touchdown-pass drought that has swelled to 23 quarters.

Clearly, there is a need to upgrade the passing attack.

Yet, the emphasis seems to be on the ground game.

“I envision a physical offence,” Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson said leading up to Thursday night’s pre-season game against the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “That’s what we want to be — physical.

“We want to be able to run the ball, and then we want to be able to throw play-action off of that.”

On the surface, that quote may not strike fear into the hearts and minds of rival defensive co-ordinators.

But the Roughriders’ focus on the run could open up opportunities for the passing game — which is, of course, an essential ingredient of three-down football.

The mind rewinds to 2013, when tailback Kory Sheets was the engine that drove the Roughriders’ offence.

Sheets rushed for 1,598 yards over 14 1/4 regular-season games.

When Sheets was in the lineup for all four quarters, Saskatchewan fashioned an 11-3 record. When he was sidelined for most or all of the game, the Roughriders were 0-4.

Most importantly, Sheets rushed for a Grey Cup-record 197 yards to help Saskatchewan defeat the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23 on Nov. 24, 2013.

Yes, Darian Durant was brilliant in the playoffs, after throwing a career-high 31 regular-season touchdown passes.

Yes, the 2013 Roughriders had three 1,000-yard receivers (Weston Dressler, Taj Smith and Chris Getzlaf), plus Rob Bagg, plus a legend named Geroy Simon.

The running game, however, was the foundation.

The threat presented by Sheets created abundant play-action opportunities for offensive co-ordinator George Cortez, who deployed the team’s array of playmakers in masterful fashion.

“We’ve got so many weapons all over the place that if (defences) want to key on Kory, then we’ve got other guys who can hurt you,” Durant said on July 21, 2013, after a 37-0 defenestration of the Tiger-Cats left the Green and White at 4-0.

The importance of the running game has been accentuated throughout Roughriders history — and especially in the four championship seasons.

In 1966, the Roughriders’ featured ball-carrier was George Reed. Enough said.

Although a 474-yard passing performance by Kent Austin helped Saskatchewan win the 1989 Grey Cup game, the team’s most outstanding player that season was actually a running back — all-purpose threat Tim McCray.

Saskatchewan sealed a 23-19 Grey Cup victory over Winnipeg in 2007 when Wes Cates — playing despite a hairline fracture in his left foot — rushed for 15 yards on second-and-eight in the final minute.

And then, of course, there was 2013.

As was the case six years ago, the Roughriders are blessed with a strong, veteran-laden offensive line, along with a top-tier tailback.

Free-agent signee William Powell amassed 1,362 rushing yards in 16 regular-season games with the Ottawa Redblacks in 2018.

Powell’s presence obligates opposing defences to honour the run.

That, in turn, may give the Roughriders a passing game that is at least, well, passable.

Even that would constitute a monumental improvement over the abject horror of 2018.