Hungry like a herbivore: thoughts on the Elks’ disaster vs. Montreal

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

“Harris will be way better and the points will follow.”

Oops. My bad.

Challenge mode

There were many, many microcosms of ineptitude in the Elks’ 30-13 loss. The best one is Jaime Elizondo’s obviously wasteful challenge of a William Stanback fumble. It’s not on him entirely, but there must have been a remarkable communication error when asked, “Was it a fumble?” the upstairs spotter responded, “Yes” without considering whether Edmonton recovered.

They clearly hadn’t, and that was that.

What the —-?

Edmonton’s offence entered Saturday’s game with one of the least effective offensive game-plans I’ve ever seen. No excuses for the execution, but it’s reasonable to wonder how the lack of Montreal game film affected it. Trevor Harris incidentally remarked post-game that he’s looking forward to studying another team’s 2021 film for the first time this week.

The TL;DR for Saturday night is demonstrated by: after a two-and-out midway through the third quarter, Edmonton had 15 pass attempts and 16 hand-offs. In the modern CFL football that is a non-starter, though I can understand it when the rest isn’t working. As a rule, passing wins football games and the running game seals them.

You can fairly think, “Well, Wilder Jr. had a pretty good game,” however Edmonton only scored six points, until they started completing passes in garbage time. The heart of it is that an average passing play is better than a good running play.

Somehow fittingly, Wilder’s last touch was a negative four-yard rush down 17 points in the fourth quarter. And in a huge twist, he only had one receiving target compared to twelve from Week 1. He shouldn’t be the passing game’s focus but nor should he be ignored, especially when your quarterback is facing a lot of pressure. Balance has been a serious issue.

Up in the air

With that segue: Harris attempted way more mid-range and long passes than last week, which is great to see, but the overall timing was frustrating. Elizondo’s big emphasis post-game was on their pass protection, and obviously it’s easier for a quarterback to be comfortable, confident, and get into a rhythm when he has consistent time to go through his reads.

There were a couple notable completions to Tevaun Smith, in instances when Edmonton’s offence looked its best. On the other hand, the Elks seemed to remember who Derel Walker is with, oh, about three minutes left in the game. I was begging over and over to throw deep at him every time he faced one-on-one coverage. The two times they did, the defensive back had to take a touchdown-saving pass interference penalty. Good things happen when he is fed the ball.

Edmonton’s other star, Greg Ellingson, totalled one catch for one yard and it was basically an accident, coming off a deflection. We can’t rule out the scheme not including him enough, but even when they do throw to him he hasn’t had a lot of room.

On top of all that, Harris had another subpar game. Officially he had zero interceptions, but he had one bounce of an Alouette chest on the first drive and another (a pick-six!) negated by defensive tackle Almondo Sewell taking a roughing the passer penalty.

The CFL is a better league when quarterbacks are making high-level decisions, and for whatever reason Harris hasn’t been. It’s not much of a consolation but at least he’s not the only one having uncharacteristic troubles to start the season. The offence has far too much talent to struggle this badly, and that talent includes Harris.

I don’t ultimately care how, but Elizondo needs to find better ways to get the best out of his elite playmakers.

The red zone

This gets its own section. I am convinced at this point that there is voodoo curse magic stuff happening.

Harris and the offence had a great opening drive, earning their way to the Montreal five-yard line, and then he decided to throw a ball off of Tyler Cranston’s chest. Later, in a similar spot at the opposite end of the field, Harris fumbled a snap on third-and-one and turned it over. An Alouette defender was panickedly sprinting off the field on the play, so a quicker snap may have earned the first down by penalty.

If it isn’t voodoo, I agree with coach-and-general-manager-turned-analyst Jim Barker that Edmonton’s play-calling has been weak. When you have weapons like Walker and Ellingson, you owe it to them and everyone else to toss it up and let them make plays.

I’m not sure, it’s like they try to play it safe — currently I’m thinking of Happy Gilmore “tapping it in” — but it’s at a huge cost of effectiveness.

The other twelve

The good news is Vernon Adams only completed 13 of 21 passes. But it was for 211 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions as the defence showed itself vulnerable to big plays, chief among them a brilliant Jake Wieneke touchdown behind rookie Darius Williams (who was filling in for Brian Walker).

It seemed like Adams had a ton of time on most plays, which matches up with the Elks only managing one sack late in the game. For the most part Edmonton’s top cover guys did well but clearly the unit is not impenetrable.

With Stanback, they did a great job containing him early but he built up some yardage as Montreal killed the clock. The defence was by far the best group, and if that changes hopefully it’s because the offence is catching up.

The not-so-little things

I had some concern after a remark this week in which Elizondo talked about winning “four-point battles,” meaning scoring touchdowns (seven points) instead of field goals (three points) and forcing the other team to settle.

The concern arises from the fact that going for two-point converts has a significantly greater average payoff than a kick for one. When Edmonton starts scoring touchdowns, based on that comment I don’t expect them to take advantage of the math.

I bring this up because Edmonton tried an onside kick with about a minute left in the game — after having just kicked a one-point convert to be down 17 points. This is the most basic football math there is: why didn’t they go for two to make it a 16-point, two touchdown lead?

However slim your odds of winning, all it does is indicate misunderstanding unless they just wanted a trial run of the kick.

The not-so-special teams

I’m getting tired of the trend of pairing punt return touchdowns against Edmonton with suspicious blocks on the lead tackler. But, the official decided it was clean, and Mario Alford made Edmonton’s cover team pay. They haven’t looked good through two games, on top of yet another lacklustre return game.

For what it’s worth, I was prescient enough to include Alford in one of my fantasy lineups. I know this team!

Any good news?

In the 119th minute of the season, the Edmonton Elks scored their first touchdown. Yay, Shai Ross!

Edmonton also only took two penalties for 20 yards. Unfortunately, it did not help much.

Also, Sean Whyte was perfect again, going two-for-two on field goals and adding a convert.

What now?

I agree that it doesn’t feel like a quick fix. I’m not a believer in Montreal and I’m certainly not a believer in Ottawa. That only means Edmonton is in that much more trouble if they’re going to play like that against their worst competition.

Next up the Elks travel to B.C. to take on Michael Reilly (or Nathan Rourke?) and the Lions. We;ll see if it keeps getting worse before it gets better!

Mike Ludwig enjoys math, chess, and football, all of which are kind of related. He lives in Edmonton and does not endorse Rod Black's metaphors. Follow him on twitter at @CityOfChamps14.