Making slow progress (& 11 other thoughts on the Elks’ loss to the Riders)

Photo: Paul Swanson/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Edmonton showed improvement. Not enough to win, but it was a tight game until the final minutes.

The Elks had three one-point leads on Saturday night but in every case, immediately allowed Saskatchewan to go down the field and retake it. Edmonton didn’t manage to get back the lead a fourth time and lost 26-16.

Let’s talk about Nick

Nick Arbuckle had a thoroughly decent performance, neither bad nor great. There are quite a few angles from which to cover his game; in summary, he didn’t make many bad decisions and made a couple more bad throws, to go along with plenty of good.

Quite honestly, Arbuckle had the best zero passing yard first quarter ever. He had two incompletions on pretty well-placed and well-covered second-down attempts. There were two drops by Caleb Holley — a tough one off his outstretched hands and one straightforward one. Arbuckle did find Shai Ross for a nine-yard gain that was taken away by penalty and he generally showed good pocket maneuverability.

His first completion being to a Roughrider wasn’t great. It was an overly ambitious attempt that was punished by the ultra-athletic Derrick Moncrief. But he came back, earned some yards and — after a recovered fumble on a missed field goal return — got into the endzone by setting up Kenny Lawler, who made a magnificent touchdown catch.

That’s a pretty nice first major with a new team.

Let’s talk about Nick, part two

It wasn’t Arbuckle’s fault that every time the Elks earned a lead, the defence immediately gave it up. There was a six-play touchdown drive, a nine-play field goal drive, and a five-play touchdown drive allowed, all starting no further up than the Riders’ own 40-yard line.

It was clearly a mixed night for the unit. The first of those lead-regaining drives did come with the help of a subtle push-off from Shaq Evans and an instance of the CFL’s latest epidemic, uncalled slotback offsides. The second was stopped more by Saskatchewan’s penalties than by Edmonton’s defence. The third was the most crushing, as Treston Decoud followed an already covered receiver and left Mitch Picton wide open late in the fourth quarter.

It was definitely early for this feeling but for much of the game, I was building confidence in the team. I don’t fear disasters on offence, for which I mainly credit Arbuckle. For one thing, I’m not sure I can recall a throw other than the early interception and the no-fault final play that was at risk of a turnover. That’s a major positive.

If he keeps consistently finding open receivers as he generally did, the team’s success will come.

The climax

Offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo earns more of my disappointment for the final mistakes than Arbuckle does.

With Edmonton at midfield, his second-and-two play call was a disaster.

Of course, we’ll highlight the whiffed Manny Arceneaux block on the right side of the line, but there is more about this play that bothers me as well.

When play-action happens against a blitz, you are in deep trouble if the first read is covered and there’s a free rusher because it’s a slower play by design. Both slants were covered and they got roasted. Unless Arbuckle had instantly recognized that Larry Dean was bearing down on him and tucked the ball, there was nothing to be done.

Extra unpleasant is that the red-hot Kenny Lawler was one of the players picking up the rush and only two receivers were options at all, with running back James Wilder Jr. just kind of awkwardly standing around.

In fairness to McAdoo, maybe if Arceneaux makes his block we’re talking about this play glowingly, but I’m still not sure it was anything other than a nightmare.

Fast forward to the critical third-and-one play just over a minute later and the Elks attempted a short sideline throw. I’m mixed on how I feel about that compared to something more directly forward, but I wonder if it’s known to teams as a high percentage conversion play –- I believe the Stampeders did something almost identical earlier in the day.

The Elks still had 1:20 left, which is enough time for a lengthy drive and would have kept the playbook open. On this one, Arbuckle is not free from criticism, as he did have multiple open receivers and missed Mike Jones high on a very slightly pressured throw. He was openly critical of himself on that specific play in his post-game interview. I appreciate how he consistently demonstrates accountability and an intense drive to be better.

Along with lamenting their inability to run the ball –- not that nine James Wilder carries for 40 yards is terrible, nor does it show much commitment given 35 passes were thrown — head coach Chris Jones made a point post-game of saying his quarterback will have to run sometimes to gain a few yards when the throws aren’t there. That’s the opposite of teaching a passer to keep his eyes downfield and go through his reads!

He’s pretty good, eh?

It turns out I underrated Kenny Lawler. The offence understandably ran through him with fellow receiver Derel Walker out. He produced well on his 17 targets, while nobody else even got more than five. Here’s the receiving list:

– Lawler: 12 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown

– Arceneaux: three for 85 yards

– Holley: two for 52 yards

– Jones: two for 12 yards

– Kai Locksley and Wilder: one each for 9 yards

I’m concerned that Arceneaux and Holley left a visibly bad impression on the day, even as they both made deep catches that could have been touchdowns if they weren’t underthrown. Those two positive plays required errors by defenders to leave them so open, while Holley’s drops, one instance where he seemingly did not pay attention long enough on a second-and-goal, and Arceneaux’s missed block were all costly individual mistakes that weren’t made up for by their other limited impacts.

I’m still processing how Jalen Tolliver fell off the radar after such a strong finish to last season. If veterans are missing fundamental plays, why not bet on the youthful high ceiling and explosiveness? I would love to see the two older receivers be big contributors but I haven’t seen anything to indicate they are good lineup choices. One receiver injury should not leave a team relying on a single star and depth guys playing above their level.

Protection

The good news for the offensive line is that they only allowed one sack for almost three quarters. The bad news is they allowed back-to-back sacks on three-man pressures at the end of the third quarter to quickly kill a red zone attempt and force a field goal.

When taken together with two more fourth-quarter sacks, that helps explain how Edmonton lost ground on the scoreboard in the last 15 minutes. Relatedly, Edmonton’s last sack on defence was midway through the third quarter.

Breaking news: big plays help you win. The Elks didn’t find them at the crucial moments.

Gap control

Am I concerned about the run defence? Sure. Jamal Morrow should not be earning 126 yards on 17 carries and it’s bad that it’s a two-week trend.

With that said, run defence ranks below pass offence, pass defence, and your own run offence in terms of importance. Morrow had 73 first-quarter rushing yards and it helped the Riders earn… three points. 82 yards in, they had six points. Then, lo’ and behold, they connect on passes of 36 and 28 yards and suddenly there’s a touchdown — sure, capped off by a two-yard run.

That’s the point with these arguments, rush yards are inefficient at producing points. They’re good for confident small gains, like two-yard touchdowns, but not for moving the ball effectively.

The Elks’ pass defence did a good job overall with four sacks and many forced check-downs. Without the blown coverage on the late touchdown, they would have held Saskatchewan to 219 passing yards and no scores. I was extremely surprised Fajardo didn’t run at all, schemed or otherwise, given Nathan Rourke’s dominance last week.

The analytics battles

Craig Dickenson is the most mathematically-progressive coach in the CFL and I love him for it. He consistently goes for third downs that are more than a yard, like choosing to throw a pass on third-and-two from Edmonton’s 53-yard line midway through the first quarter.

Even though that play failed, aggressiveness pays off in the long run. Note that if they got a measly two or three yards — which they usually will — the Riders are suddenly on the edge of field goal range. Dickenson is following the building trend in the NFL and hopefully, other CFL coaches will soon follow suit.

On the flip side, Coach Jones attempted a 48-yard field goal on third-and-two from the Riders’ 41-yard line and, to my amusement, got punished for it with a botched snap that narrowly avoided becoming a much larger disaster thanks to a lucky incomplete pass from kicker Sergio Castillo to holder Matt Mengel. I also hope Jones starts picking better challenges because, while I agree it could have been pass interference on Lawler later in the game, it was extremely unlikely to be overturned and he is now 0-for-2 on the season.

Dickenson also added a smart two-point convert attempt that saw his team go up 23-16, on top of an early two-point attempt at 12-7. So far, the only single-point conversion he has chosen this season was to go up by nine points late against Hamilton, with no need to risk an eight-point lead.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see if Jones would have kicked a single point to tie at the end of this game or attempted the two-point try to get the win.

The theory of relativity

According to the CFL play-by-play logs, Brett Lauther’s missed 44-yard field goal was snapped at 1:55 and after a change of possession, the first Edmonton snap was at 1:33. As written, the miss and short return took an impossible 22 seconds. Fortunately, I went back through much of the game to re-watch and noticed the stadium clock in the background was running, so it was actually a transcription error.

Therefore the mistake falls on Coach Jones, who failed to call his second timeout, assuming no other log errors. I thought he had in live time, but it is an obvious error to not save 12 seconds of play-time. Saskatchewan also failed by not using more of the 20-second clock.

Overall, I didn’t love the decision to run the missed kick out of the end zone. The advantage of a seven-point deficit versus eight points is a tough call when weighed against 30 yards of field position.

The picks

I dared to pick the Elks to cover the spread (+7.5) against even my own better judgement this week and was the only one of the 3Down writers to do so. I was robbed of a glorious backdoor cover by referee Al Bradbury, who it seems most fans agree had an especially rough night. TSN’s Glen Suitor was even compelled to make multiple complaints about the officiating crew, which he rarely does.

With seven seconds left, Edmonton attempted to put the field goal unit on the field after the play clock had started, which would have made it a seven-point game. Somehow, neither of the following happened:

A) The Elks were allowed to substitute and the clock was reset to seven seconds, starting on a whistle.

B) They were not allowed and given either a time count violation or an illegal substitution penalty.

Instead, the officials effectively said, “No, you’re not allowed to substitute, but also no, you didn’t do anything wrong by trying to substitute, so just put your offence back on and we’ll call it a day.” The Elks lost by ten.

For season series purposes, it made sense to kick anyways, even if it meant accepting a penalty against, though a rare spike would have been the most astute.

It wouldn’t have made a difference to the game, but it would have been tremendously funny.

Commonwealth Stadium has excellent sunset views

 

It really does.

Congratulations!

My well wishes to offensive lineman Mark Korte, who got married on Saturday. I would agree it’s very unusual to see a player miss a game for a wedding, but I don’t hold it against him in the slightest.

I will also note that the team was already aware of his wedding plans during free agency in February.

What’s next?

The Elks visit the Stampeders next Saturday. Calgary is lucky to be 2-0 but they are four points ahead of Edmonton in the standings, so this would be a nice time to make up some ground.

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.