Ellingson & Wilder Jr. lead the charge; thoughts on the Elks’ first W

It wasn’t a good start.

Chris Rainey returned the opening kickoff 57 yards into Edmonton territory, followed by the Elks narrowly avoiding an immediate Lucky Whitehead killshot and Dominique Rhymes first down. After B.C. made their 49 yard field goal, Trevor Harris had some early success moving the ball – as he and the offence have done in every game so far – but he threw a bad interception behind Tevaun Smith, at which point I’m sure plenty of Elks fans were thinking: “Oh, not again…”

Thankfully, it got a lot better from there as Harris finished 26-for-31 with 296 yards and a touchdown, and Edmonton finally slides into the win column.

Familiar troubles

Let’s get some of the bad things out of the way.

Edmonton ended the first half with a strong drive that ran out of time at the 17-yard line. I thought they were doing okay with the clock, but the combination of swapping out backup quarterback Taylor Cornelius after a sneak combined with a very lax Harris on the next play meant they ran the clock from 0:20 to 0:03 to gain three yards on a run. Not being able to get in two plays before attempting a field goal (if necessary) is poor.

It has probably cost them a game already, so that’s really something to be more conscious of.

The boss man

A couple of head coach question marks.

Small one: I don’t think I agree with Coach Elizondo accepting a holding penalty when B.C. punted a ball into the endzone to start the second quarter. You weren’t likely to get a better result, and sure enough Edmonton ended up inside their own five yard line on the re-kick. The good news is Edmonton drove it 108 yards and capped it with a Harris to Mike Jones touchdown.

Bigger one: the decision to punt on third and one with four minutes left is debatable. Coaches love playing it safe, but that doesn’t make it correct. While Edmonton’s short yardage troubles (see the next paragraph) likely contributed to the decision, usually an “and one” has a very high conversion rate which, obviously, keeps the ball in your hands.

Apologies if you aren’t a fan of sports math, but that is the vigorous justification. Again the good news is the Elks got a great result – the defence forced a two and out and the offence never gave the ball back – but regardless of result it pays to think about the process whichever way you lean.

Not so sneaky

Edmonton is having spectacular trouble with their quarterback sneaks. In 2019 Harris had some struggles with it, and his fumbled snap against Montreal probably led to Elizondo using Cornelius against the Lions. Well, Cornelius fumbled a snap and turned the ball over too, giving B.C. new life down 18-7 in the third quarter.

One of them will have to spend ten minutes a day after practice taking snaps from under center. I hope they also pay special attention to second down and two plays, too, because they’re starting to make me nervous.

Wilder and Wilder

22 carries for 127 yards, and four catches for 33 yards. James Wilder Jr. also had a highlight-reel block, so the only thing more you could ask for would be a touchdown, which he probably would have had with another 30 seconds.

As Derek Taylor indicates, it’s important to note that Edmonton’s last ten plays were Wilder Jr. runs in which he totalled 77 (yes, really) of his 127 yards in a six and a half minute span. It’s easy to forget that the 296 passing yards are what earned them the lead.

At the same time, strong run blocking with an effective running back is a useful pair for an offence that, as we saw, can clinch a game. It was a low bar, but Thursday was by far the most well-rounded offensive game we’ve seen from the Elks.

What’s wrong with Greg?

Nothing, as Harris included in his post-game comments to TSN’s Farhan Lalji. It was a matter of time before Greg Ellingson broke out, which he did to the tune of nine catches for 148 yards on ten targets.

He got involved early, on their second play, and repeatedly made his presence felt with seven first down catches plus one more drawn with a penalty. That’s one major question the Elks can put to rest.

A little bit of pain

The saddest spot was Derel Walker’s night. He finished with three catches for 22 yards on four targets, and I died a little inside when the deep pass fell off of his hands. Harris had simple reassuring words post-game, stating: “He didn’t have his best night, but it’s Derel Walker,” and of course pointing out how Ellingson went from ‘struggling’ to dominating in an instant.

Once Walker and Ellingson can fire up at the same time, well, now we have real reason to believe in the potential scariness of the Elks offence.

By the way, I sometimes refer to the typical national receiver as a “three for 30” meaning they most commonly end up with three catches for 30 yards. Tevaun Smith, Shai Ross, and Mike Jones combined for 10 catches on 12 targets for 93 yards – an average of three for 31.

How to Attack 101

Passing charts are awesome visualizations to help understand where quarterbacks and receivers target, succeed, and struggle, and you can often see patterns that show what they are good (or not good) at. In a coaching context, it would be about figuring out what works best and what to do more or less of.

 

What we see, thanks to Marshall Ferguson tracking every throw, is Harris and the Elks had thrown a huge amount at less than 10 yards downfield with trouble connecting beyond that. CFL teams love to aim short, but by comparing results to years of past CFL games we can say it is not an effective way of attacking defences in terms of ultimately earning points. This includes screens, which are among the least productive receiving routes and are what Walker’s tremendous talent is being used for the most, unfortunately. He’s relatively good at them but he’s really good at the rest, too.

Edmonton’s first two games this year certainly support all of this – we know they failed miserably at scoring points, and now we can confirm that they emphasized short throws.

On average a pass is better than a run, and on average a deeper pass is better than a shorter pass – the payoff is worth any risk. It seemed visually like Harris did a much better job of pushing further downfield against B.C., which would be a contributor to why they had a lot more success than the previous two weeks. On top of that, obviously he needs to be able to make the throws he sees – he generally did very well finding windows and putting balls in catchable spots for his receivers, and that’s backed up by his 84 percent completion rate.

A lot of this is, of course, dependent on pass protection. Harris seemed to have it in spades on Thursday, staying clean the whole game. It wasn’t just the return of Kyle Saxelid, but he definitely played a role.

DE-FENCE *clap clap*

Edmonton’s defence was again their best unit, though thankfully the offence seems to be catching up.

Michael Reilly was unable to break the trend of struggling majorly against the green and gold. He finished with 128 passing yards, compared to his 149- and 157-yard outings in 2019, and seemed to be consistently inaccurate. They did add another 70 yards through pass interference., but B.C. will probably be talking about a lot of the same things as Edmonton has been – in particular, I am shocked that Bryan Burnham only had three targets. Shaq Cooper seemed to give them a spark very late, but with only six carries it seems likely they think he’s not quite at full speed coming off an injury.

And left tackle Joel Figueroa leaving early with a calf injury surely didn’t help, with his replacement getting beat by Thomas Costigan for a clean sack on the very next snap. Jake Ceresna added two more sacks with pressure assists from Mike Moore inside and Mathieu Betts on the edge – a good night for the unit without Kwaku Boateng.

In total, B.C. was only able to run a paltry 42 offensive plays at 3.2 yards per play and 152 yards total. Very poor from an offence that’s had a pretty hot start.

DE-FENCE *clap clap* part two

Besides the defensive line, huge credit goes to Edmonton’s secondary, of who I will identify Aaron Grymes in particular. He is so good at flying to the football, and when an offence gets past him in coverage it’s usually by a hair. He was arguably the best defensive back in the league in 2019 – offences outright avoided throwing at him – and he’s carried that play forward.

Having Jonathon Mincy, Trumaine Washington, and Jonathan Rose with him seems to be a great fit, as aside from two deep shots to Montreal they’ve hardly given up anything through three games. Similar props goes to Grymes’s 2019 halfback partner T.J. Lee, who played an equal role for the Lions, though the rest of their usually-staunch secondary had problems.

Lastly, I feel like I’ve been ignoring Keishawn Bierria and Nyles Morgan – if we aren’t talking about two rookie linebackers, that’s probably a sign they’ve been solid. There are just so many high level guys who stand out even more. It’s looking like a very sturdy 12-man group.

Bringing out the worst in each other

Also in a flashback to 2019, Edmonton vs. B.C. resulted in a massive number of penalties, with an even split at roughly twelve for 130 yards. The Elks only took two penalties last week and six the week before, so I don’t expect this to be a regular occurrence. Frankly, as long as you avoid the costly ones and don’t get too far ahead of your opponent, I’m not super bothered – although in every game there have been a couple Elks players toeing the line with their behaviour, which needs to be reined in.

The money man

Sean Whyte lost his perfect start, unfortunately, but made field goals from 52, 24, 51, and 38 yards. Still really good, and he continues to show he’s an excellent judge of distance. With receiver Hunter Karl moving to the practice squad, punter Hugh O’Neill took over holding duties and seemed to do fine.

Meanwhile Terry Williams broke out his first notable return with three minutes left, though other than that was again quiet. Field position battles are a real problem for the Elks, and Williams’s issues are merely a symptom of the cover and return teams being well below average. Penalties dragging them back 10 yards aren’t helping, and I keep hoping Elizondo will act on his emphasis of them being preventable.

Less of a trudge, more of a stride

I had an “assert dominance” theme in mind this week, and apparently so did head coach Jaime Elizondo, who described ‘an edge’, ‘an attitude’, and ‘owning the field’. We would like to see more of first half Edmonton compared to second half Edmonton – as one example, the Elks had 17 first downs in the first half to B.C.’s six and a small 9-8 second half edge.

Still, Edmonton can finally look forward with a smile. They’ll be in Toronto next Thursday, and then it’s already Labour Day. They have a good chance of getting to .500 or better soon.

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