Five things to watch for in the Riders final five games

After winning their second game in a row and third of the season last weekend against the Hamilton Ticats, the Riders and Rider Nation enjoyed the team’s second and final bye week of the 2016 season.

A bye week around these parts sure had a different feeling after a couple of wins. Right now, fans are feeling relatively good about their team and are hopeful that better days are ahead. The Riders seem poised to improve upon their 3-15 record a year ago, a feat that was in doubt not too long ago.

With that in mind, here’s five things to keep an eye on over the final five games of the regular season:

Darian Durant

It’s been an up and down year for Durant to date. The quarterback has had a few 300 yard games but has also found himself below the mark at times as well. The good news for Durant and the team is before leaving the game two weeks ago with an injury, Durant told reporters after the game it was the best he’s felt since the 2013 Grey Cup. It could mean that better and more consistent times are on the horizon.

The biggest question surrounding Durant at this point will be if he’s able to agree to an extension before the season comes to an end or not. If that deal doesn’t get done, it will easily become the talk of the offseason until Durant signs in Saskatchewan or somewhere else.

As for Durant’s injury, he also told reporters he felt fine after the game and even went to social media the next day to tell everyone he would be playing after the week off.

Related to that injury, the Riders medical staff deserves a lot of credit for keeping Durant out of the game after “getting his bell rung” as he called it. Durant’s long term health was far more important than him returning to that game after a head injury. This is something we should be seeing a lot more across sports.

The offensive line

It’s been a difficult year for the big boys up front on offence. Chris Best hasn’t played a game all year and perennial all-star Brendon LaBatte has been out since early in the season. The good news is appears rumours of LaBatte’s career being over have been put to bed after he signed an extension with the team this week.

In recent weeks, the group has started to come together a little bit. Jarriel King has stablized the line since making his season debut two weeks ago. King in the lineup give the Riders four solid veterans on the line. It allows them to protect Josiah St. John and allow the first overall pick to work on his game after sitting out during training camp.

The Riders sit sixth in the league with 34 sacks allowed but they have been improving in that area recently.

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant throws the ball to wide receiver Armanti Edwards against the Hamilton Tiger Cats during first half CFL action in Regina on Saturday, September 24, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor
Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant throws the ball to wide receiver Armanti Edwards against the Hamilton Tiger Cats during first half CFL action in Regina on Saturday, September 24, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor

Options on offence

For much of the season, Durant’s only help was basically receiver Naaman Roosevelt. Before missing the last two games with an injury, the Buffalo native was on pace to set a Riders single-season receiving yards record. Unless Roosevelt returns soon and has one of the most ridiculous finishes to a season we’ve seen, breaking that record is likely out the window. It would have been a good story for a tough season, but at least we know Roosevelt is a guy the Riders can rely on going forward.

The good news to come from the injury is the rise of some other pass catchers that could make this offence better next season. Caleb Holley could be that tall receiver this team has been looking for and Armanti Edwards has put up 148 yards in three games with an 11 yards per catch average. Add in Ricky Collins Jr. and the recently signed Jeff Fuller and there could be some good competition for playing time when everyone is healthy. That’s never a bad thing.

Now the Riders just need to see some more growth out of Nic Demski to feel better about their depth at Canadian receiver going forward. If the Winnipeg product doesn’t build off his 60 yard game against Hamilton, this could be an area the Riders explore at the draft or in free agency.

Gains on defence?

Without a doubt the one area where this team hasn’t really seen much growth is the pass rush. Heading into this week, the Riders sit dead last in the league with just 16 sacks. That’s an average of just over one sack per game.

Johnathan Capicciotti hasn’t lived up to expectations this year after a solid year in Ottawa a year ago. The team also still hasn’t found a replacement for Keith Shologan and Zack Evans up the middle after both were lost in the Ottawa expansion draft. Makana Henry and Corey Irvin have been holding down those duties for the last few weeks and still could grow into the role. Right now, the team has nothing but time to see if they can do it.

The addition of Willie Jefferson this week gives Chris Jones even more options with the recent return of Eric Norwood.


Wheeling and dealing

All season Chris Jones hasn’t been afraid to pull the trigger on a trade if he thinks it will make the Riders better. The team’s new boss of all things football has seemingly pulled off on average about a trade every two weeks or so.

Mathematically, yes, there’s still a chance the Green and White could make the post-season but realistically the Riders should miss the second season for a second straight year. It will be interesting to see what Jones may do ahead of the October 12 trade deadline. Last year, interim general manager Jeremy O’Day dealt running back Jerome Messam for among other things, kicker Tyler Crapigna. That deal continues to work out well for both teams. Could a veteran or two be the block to bring in some pieces for next year? There could definitely be an arms race in the West with Calgary, B.C. and Winnipeg all looking to make big playoff pushes and inconsistent Eastern teams could be looking for that piece to put them over the top.