Collaros among five keys to the Riders success in 2019
HAMILTON — The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats kick off the 2019 CFL regular season under the large shadow of the Toronto Raptors’ bid for an NBA championship.
The kickoff for Thursday’s CFL game was moved up 30 minutes, to 5 p.m. CST, to accommodate fans interested in following both events. Game 6 of the Raptors-Golden State Warriors game is to tip off at 7 p.m., Saskatchewan time.
With everything that is going with the Raptors, here’s a look at five things the Riders need to do to reach the playoffs in Craig Dickenson’s first year as a head coach.
KEEP COLLAROS UPRIGHT
The Riders’ fortunes hinge on a healthy Zach Collaros, because the cupboard is bare behind him in terms of CFL experience. Backup quarterback Cody Fajardo has primarily been a short-yardage specialist and Isaac Harker is a rookie.
Collaros, however, was effective in Thursday’s 35-29 pre-season loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, completing 10 of 15 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns. He also bounced up after absorbing a couple of hits, easing some concerns about his health.
Regardless of what Collaros does, there will be apprehension about his ability to handle a hit. He suffered two concussions in 2018 and consequently missed four regular-season games and the West Division semi-final.
Collaros completed only nine touchdown passes against 13 interceptions in 2018 and the Riders need more from their starting quarterback. If that happens, the Riders are strong enough to compete for the playoffs.
MAINTAIN THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Saskatchewan’s offensive line improved after a slow start in 2018, tying the Calgary Stampeders with league-low 27 sacks allowed.
There isn’t any reason to think that won’t continue in 2019, given the experience and depth.
A groin injury to perennial CFL all-star Brendon LaBatte may sideline him for a couple of weeks. The underrated Philip Blake starts at left guard with LaBatte out.
Dan Clark starts at centre, which is notable because the seven-year veteran was in a single-vehicle rollover on May 7. Tackles Thaddeus Coleman and Takoby Cofield and right guard Darius Bladek round out the offensive line.
The offensive linemen are aware of Collaros’ health issues and know that keeping him upright is a key to the season.
Powell, 31, is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Ottawa Redblacks, with whom he was an East Division all-star in 2017 and 2018.
He’s powerful and elusive, an elite blocker and receiver out of the backfield, and can handle a heavy workload — based on his league-leading 251 carries in 2018.
The Riders have capable backups in Marcus Thigpen and Kienan LaFrance, who can provide Powell with a breather. Pounding the ball is a key to the Riders’ success.
Saskatchewan’s defence stood up in 2018, scoring 11 return touchdowns and carrying the Green and White when the offence was largely ineffective.
One of the reasons for that defensive showing was the performance of the front four and the pressure it applied to quarterbacks. The Riders lost a key contributor to that pass rush when free-agent defensive end Willie Jefferson signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Riders addressed the departure of Jefferson with the signing of defensive tackle Micah Johnson and defensive end A.C. Leonard. Johnson had 14 sacks with the Calgary Stampeders in 2018. Leonard recorded six sacks with Ottawa.
Johnson is a three-time CFL all-star. Leonard earned East Division all-star honours last season, but was nonetheless a healthy scratch for the playoffs.
The free-agent signings should complement defensive end Charleston Hughes, who led the CFL with 15 sacks in 2018, and defensive tackle Zack Evans.
The front four is formidable and the pressure it can bring means the defence can pick up where it left off in 2018.
Even with a healthy Collaros, a solid offensive line and effective ground game, the Riders still need a game-breaking receiver.
The passing game was pitiful in 2018, producing only 11 touchdowns. It should be better in 2019 because Kyran Moore, Shaq Evans and K.D. Cannon have a year’s worth of CFL experience.
Cannon is a speedster who might provide the game-breaker Saskatchewan has been lacking.
Evans had a team-high 785 receiving yards in 2018, but did not score a touchdown. He did register a major in the pre-season, though, which the Roughriders hope is a sign of things to come.