Better than expected but still not enough: nine thoughts on the Edmonton Elks’ Labour Day loss

Photo: Larry MacDougal/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Better than expected. But not enough.

The Edmonton Elks lost to the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 26-18. The Labour Day winning streak ends at one, but for a team that was fielding half of a preseason roster, it was a respectable performance.

Harvest season

Taylor Cornelius had to do some hard work.

Parts of it he did well. Cornelius finished 22-of-33 (66.7 percent) for 257 passing yards and two touchdowns. There was plenty of his patented rolling and throwing on the run, including a heroic third-down touchdown to keep the game interesting.

His start was splendid. I noted in the early second quarter that Cornelius was seven-of-eight for 124 yards and a touchdown to Jake Maier’s three-of-seven for 47 yards. If you had told me ahead of time that those would be the two early stat lines, I wouldn’t have blinked, though I would have expected the roles to be flipped.

Cornelius did get pieces of praise that I didn’t agree with. One second-quarter throw especially: it was zipped behind Dillon Mitchell and, while it was catchable, it would have been a difficult grab. Plus, there was no reason it couldn’t have been placed to lead the receiver.

The other two most notable missed connections were a slightly-too-high pass off a wide-open Jalin Marshall’s fingertips and an overthrow of Derel Walker in the endzone. Though, he followed up the Walker miss nicely on third down.

First frost

Unfortunately, the offence was not ultimately effective. The official 4.5-yard per play average sets another season-low for the unit, and while it’s slightly held back by a large number of quarterback sneaks, it matches up with an 18-point total that includes just a field goal and a punt single on two drives that started in Calgary’s half.

In fact, despite a strong-seeming last 15 minutes, the average was 4.5 at the end of both the third and fourth quarters.

A large chunk of the offence’s issues stems from a low average depth of target. Cornelius threw the 48-yard touchdown, but beyond that rarely aimed beyond 15 yards downfield while checking down early and often. I counted and 11 of his completions — exactly half — were at or behind the line of scrimmage.

He also shares responsibility with the offensive line for six sacks. I’ve mentioned that sometimes Cornelius’ improvisation is necessary because he’s slow to release the ball. In my rewatch, it looked like both teams used a ton of three-man and four-man rushes, and Cornelius generally had time to scan the field.

Otherwise, he managed to stay interception-free, though three separate passes had good chances of being picked off, including his very first attempt. The lowest point of the game was, frankly, the entire third quarter, where the Elks had three straight two-and-outs — with four incompletions and a sack among six plays — leading up to a blocked punt.

They then got a break, as Calgary fumbled the punt after a fourth-straight two-and-out, but only managed one first down on a 25-yard completion before settling for a short field goal.

Included in Cornelius’ workload was fielding multiple poor snaps from Mark Korte, who shifted into the middle to take the place of the recently-traded David Beard. That’s not a promising sign.

The dark side

In contrast to the Elks, the Stampeders rose from a 4.8-yard average at halftime to a 6.4-yard final mark. It seemed like it took Maier a long time to figure out the wind, but that or another switch flipped at the midpoint, as he followed a 5-of-11 first half with a 13-of-15 second half.

The most important connection was with Reggie Begelton, who made a superb catch on a superb throw under pressure to give Calgary a two-score lead.

Both teams failed to produce 300 yards of offence, but the Elks only managed one really big play to Calgary’s several. Winning the time of possession battle 35:18 to 24:42 isn’t as important — Edmonton ran 60 plays to Calgary’s 45 — as the Elks were outgained in total and by almost two yards per play on average.

Playmakers

I’ve talked about Edmonton’s lack of offensive talent, which up to this week included fielding a roster where the average fan wouldn’t recognize a single skill-position player’s name other than Walker.

This was an early breakout game for Dillon Mitchell, first and foremost. He’d shown flashes through his first two games, but a performance of six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown indicates a high potential ceiling on offence.

Disappointingly, Cornelius and the Elks only targeted him twice in the second half, with one completion for no gain.

Jalin Marshall also had a quietly effective game. Edmonton cut him after their opening week before re-signing him recently. In his return to the field on Monday, he caught three passes for 33 yards and the late touchdown. He and Mitchell would both be in my starting five receivers at this point, even assuming full health for everyone else.

Praise also goes to rookie running back Kevin Brown, who showed badly needed electricity in his CFL debut. Players like him are exactly the reason we say it’s hard to lose a trade involving an American running back because you should be able to find quality replacements.

Brown only got five carries but put up 45 yards, while adding six catches for 51 yards and showing a tremendous resistance to being tackled. We can quibble that it’s too many targets for a running back, though early signs suggest he will make the most out of them.

Walker, meanwhile, caught three of five targets for 48 yards. It’s a surprise that he was unused for very long stretches, although a primary matchup with defensive back Jonathan Moxey is a likely contributor.

Derek Taylor shared last week that Walker has had to deal with tremendous quarterback inaccuracy in his last three seasons. Instead of the 80 percent rate he used to get, only around 60 percent of throws to him have been judged as accurate for three straight years.

Crushing familiarity

It wouldn’t be Labour Day without hitting on a few key themes.

Number one is allowing an explosive punt return as Peyton Logan took one for 46 yards in the second quarter. Before the game, I had mused that the over/under for Calgary’s longest return should be about 48.5 yards. Pretty good.

Number two is Edmonton making hilariously bad mistakes on repeat. This year’s collection included one blocked punt, two lost fumbles, and three penalties wiping out big first downs.

Much like almost every Blue Bombers game, if you wait long enough, the better team will start to take over. What was strange was how frequently the Stampeders failed to punish Edmonton’s errors early on.

Last man standing

Edmonton’s best defender was clearly Jake Ceresna, who can be identified as the only healthy member of the unit who is definitely a good player. He had two sacks — the second of which involved a particularly impressive burst — and a forced fumble.

The Elks need more defensive playmakers like him. Even with how much time I spend thinking about the team, it was difficult for me to keep track of all the shuffling, in the defensive backfield especially.

Two quick acknowledgements: I noticed J-Min Pelley had a lot of success early on driving into the heart of the pocket. Also, props to debutant linebacker Mark McLaurin for undercutting and intercepting an ill-advised Maier pass.

Well except for that one part…

Aside from the entire third quarter, the Elks’ defence was pretty good. As usual, some credit goes to the opposing offence for getting in its own way, but still: Calgary’s attack only managed 106 net yards in the first half along with seven points.

The biggest highlight was that Ka’Deem Carey was held in check. He had one big catch-and-run where two tacklers whiffed on either side of him — Adam Konar was the egregious fly-by — but only 61 yards on 13 carries. It was surprising that the Stampeders barely used Logan on offence, given how effective he’s been.

The defence allowed too much after the break, however: 15 points in one quarter, while being all but unable to break up any of Maier’s attempts.

Quick hits

-Sergio Castillo had a quiet night, making two converts and a 15-yard field goal.

-Speaking of quick hits, with a few minutes left Duron Carter got undressed so cleanly by Malik Henry on a slant that he had to take a minute to collect his clothes from around the stadium. Henry still only made four catches for 67 yards, but it was more from the wind and inaccuracies than an inability to get open.

-Turning a two-score game into a two-score game with a 15-yard field goal at 22-8 is not winning football. You need to make up a deficit, which means getting the most out of your best chances. Calgary immediately followed with a field goal of their own to restore the two-touchdown lead.

-It felt like Cornelius and the Elks wasted a lot of time getting snaps off in the dying minutes. Had they been more efficient, the last long drive may have had slightly more than the vaguest of hopes.

-If I’m not mistaken, Chris Jones ended another game with a timeout in his pocket. There was a perfect opportunity to use one just outside the three-minute warning.

Next

The traditional rematch in Edmonton is scheduled for Saturday at 6:00 p.m. local time. More of the first-half Elks will mean a fun night, while a second-half repeat will continue the sadness and a historic home losing streak.

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.