The Saskatchewan Roughriders offence is a big reason why the team sits at 5-3 in third place within the logjammed West Division. They also have the two straight losses suffered by the Calgary Stampeders to thank. That included a monumental collapse to the Montreal Alouettes this past week. However, there are still detractors out there for those in green and white. Of the Riders five victories, two have come against the toothless BC Lions, one against the struggling boatmen and two more against teams missing their starting quarterback.
That being said, it’s not exactly Saskatchewan’s fault, they’re just playing the games on their schedule like everyone else. One of the key losses the Riders had early on was at the hands of the Ottawa Redblacks, who at the time was surprising everyone with their hot start. That game also turned out to be Cody Fajardo’s breakout performance and the catalyst that appears to have shifted the identity of the Saskatchewan Roughriders offence.
Evolution of the Passing Game
Offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo has been the subject of heavy criticism in Riderville in his role with the Saskatchewan Roughriders offence. Especially coming off of a very inconsistent 2018 season on offence that saw the defence bail out the team on many occasions. That would only take them so far, as the offence sputtered once again in the West Semi-Final at the hands of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Heading into 2019, many didn’t want to see McAdoo back in green & white. However, with Chris Jones’ departure, a level of consistency was needed on the coaching staff with Craig Dickenson taking over. The plan originally was to have Zach Collaros step into the role as the bonafide starter. We all know what happened next, with Collaros taking a dirty hit to the head that effectively ended his tenure with Saskatchewan
So why has the Saskatchewan Roughriders offence looked so much better in 2019? Does Fajardo deserve all the credit? Has McAdoo opened up the playbook? What is this offence’s identity? Let’s look at the stats.
Stats and Graph provided by @cflgal (Instagram)
Both completion percentage and passing yards per game are significantly higher than the year prior. A large part of that credit does go to Cody Fajardo. The revolving door of Zach Collaros, Brandon Bridge and to an extent David Watford did little to add consistency to the passing game in 2018. That may have been part of the hesitation to get creative for McAdoo and stick to the run game as their primary identity.
Coming into 2019, the run game was once again supposed to be the team’s offensive gameplan. William Powell was signed to be the team’s bell-cow running back while Zach Collaros would act as the team’s “point guard” distributing the ball quickly and not spending too much time in the pocket. A similar philosophy to Pete Carroll’s early Seattle Seahawks days with Marshawn Lynch and Tarvaris Jackson.
The signing of Micah Johnson and William Powell with no QB makes pretty clear where the #Riders are going for 2019.
I hope you are looking forward to watching an even more extreme version of that 2018 offence… #CFL #CFLFA
— Ben Kramer (@benyamen) February 12, 2019
Change on the Fly
Not to pick on Ben Kramer, he said what we were all thinking in regards to the identity of the Saskatchewan Roughriders offence. He was also correct before Zach Collaros went down with his injury. In Week 1, Powell had 20 carries for 104 yards, the direction the Riders were going in was clear. However, since that game, Powell has had more than 20 carries just once. Week 7 against the BC Lions where he exploded for 21 carries, 146 yards and three touchdowns.
Despite the much improved passing game, the Riders running game has actually improved from the season prior. Rushing attempts and yards per game are up from 2018. What is the reason behind this? A big part of the drastic increase has been Fajardo’s ability to use his legs to put up significant yardage.
Stats and Graph provided by @cflgal (Instagram)
Fajardo has rushed 52 times for 275 yards and six touchdowns on the season. Obviously, Collaros is a very different quarterback fundamentally, however, for context both him and Brandon Bridge combined for just 213 yards on 49 carries in 2018. Both never found the endzone running the ball either.
If you were to take out Fajardo’s running statistics for just a minute, it is clear that the Roughriders have relied less on designed runs and have shifted their focus to the passing game. In 2018, Saskatchewan had four running backs rush for more than 200 yards in the season. Tre Mason (809), Marcus Thigpen (408), Cameron Marshall (220) and Jerome Messam (205). The big four combined for 294 carries. In 2019, only Powell appears to be on pace to have more rushing attempts and yards than Mason the season prior. After Thigpen, it doesn’t appear the Riders will have another running back crack 200 yards.
There’s a growing trend in NFL analytical circles that “running backs don’t matter” with data telling us that passing leads to expected points on average. Derek Taylor touches on this in his article here. He mentions that winning teams average 9.1 passing yards per attempt in the first quarter versus 8.1 for losing teams. The important concept to take away is situational running. Taylor also tells us that teams that are up heading into the 4th quarter pass less and win more because they are using the run game to kill the clock. On the contrary, teams losing going into the fourth quarter pass 80% of the time whereas winning teams pass just 54% of the time.
What This Means
The Riders won’t have to rely as heavily on their defence to score points if they continue on this trend. Though their game in Montreal said otherwise, they won’t have to be asked to do as much if the Riders can continue this production. 938 words in and I’ve yet to mention the likes of Shaq Evans, Naaman Roosevelt and Kyran Moore who have all contributed to the Riders more explosive passing game and the offensive line who have allowed just 12 sacks on the season, second-best in the CFL.
With a matchup against the inconsistent Ottawa Redblacks, the time is now for Saskatchewan to lean into their strengths and build a lead in the West while teams like Winnipeg deal with injuries or Calgary with their current two-game slide. Are we in for another 44-41 barnburner? We will see on Saturday.
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