At least the punter was good?: nine thoughts on a stumbling start for the Stampeders

Photo courtesy: Calgary Stampeders

The sun was shining, the grills were fired up, and 17,942 tickets were sold for the Stampeders’ home opener at McMahon. It was a great party, it’s just too bad the hosts didn’t show up.

Here’s what I saw from the press box as the Stampeders fell by a 25-15 margin; a score which flattered the Lions despite how bad Calgary looked.

Maier off target

Last season, Jake Maier’s 74.7 completion percentage was one of the best in the CFL. In the season-opener, he managed just a 55.6 percent rate to finish 20-of-36 for a paltry 166 yards and a touchdown.

Maier also threw a bad interception while on the run that didn’t hurt the club as the ball was fumbled on the return and recovered by Calgary, who lost about four yards total on the play.

In Maier’s defence, several balls clanked off the hands of receivers and should have been caught. He also spent a good portion of the game feeling pressure from the Lions’ defensive front, but more on both those topics later.

What the Stampeders’ offence lacked in this game was any semblance that they were going to throw the ball downfield in a way that would require any attention be given by the Loins defenders. There was only one deep ball attempted all day, an early shot to Malik Henry that was broken up by a defender.

The longest completion of the day went for 21 yards to Tre Odoms-Dukes, but most of those yards came after the catch. Odoms-Dukes also had a touchdown catch that was deep in the back of the endzone, meaning that while the stats sheet shows it as a five-yard completion, the ball did travel more than 20 yards in the air.

Not only was the long ball missing, but the intermediate game was also absent. Maier’s second-longest completion was just 12 yards total.

“They definitely kept the top on the coverage. I don’t remember any true zero blitz situations, maybe one or two, but not enough to truly go downfield. But I’d like to think we could win some one-on-one battles and we didn’t win (those),” Stampeders head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson said after the game.

“I’m trying,” Maier later added. “I’m trying to see what’s down the field. Maybe a little bit of (the shorter routes) is gameplan specific. We have guys that are great on the underneath routes and the choice routes and that kind of thing.”

Maier also credited the Lions’ defence for his less-than-stellar numbers.

“They did a good job once they got the lead, keeping everything in front of them… They had a good plan and they executed and we didn’t.”

Under Pressure

While we don’t have official pressure statistics available at this time, you can assume that those numbers would be skewed largely in favour of the Lions.

Maier was sacked twice in this game, notable considering the Stampeders gave up the fewest number of sacks last season. Another sack was awarded on a Tommy Stevens scramble that didn’t get back to the line of scrimmage.

The Stampeders parted ways with left tackle Derek Dennis when the final cuts were released this week. While I’m not about to say I know better than the winningest front office of the last 15 years, he was a four-time divisional all-star that was beaten infrequently. Replacement D’Antne Demery didn’t meet that standard on Thursday.

Still, the head coach wasn’t ready to point the finger at his offensive line.

“We have to give Jake time to make the play or make an extra read,” Dickenson told reporters. “I didn’t think (the offensive line) were terrible, some of (the pressure) was because they blitzed off edges and we didn’t have the right protection call as far as to pick it up. Sacks are a team deal. Running backs, o-line and quarterback.”

With last year’s right tackle Julian Good-Jones off in the NFL and left guard Zack Williams missing due to injury, some growing pains were expected up front. But if Maier can’t get any time in the pocket, it will further exasperate the issue of a short-target passing game.

On the other side…

Vernon Adams Jr. had all day in the pocket against Calgary’s revamped front six and wasn’t sacked a single time.

Not only was Adams able to stay clean, there seemed to be little sustained pressure at all which gave the pivot plenty of time to pick apart the Calgary secondary early. Adams would finish the night 27-of-35 for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He very rarely had to scramble, let alone take off running.

Calgary lost Folarin Orimolade and Shawn Lemon in free agency this past offseason and replaced them with James Vaughters and Julian Howsare. Those two will have to start getting to opposing QBs or it will be a long season in Cowtown.

Carey dinged up

Ka’Deem Carey began the game incredibly well with runs of 19 yards and seven yards on back-to-back plays to get Calgary into field goal range. His remaining five carries on the day would only total an additional 11 yards before he left the game with an injury in the third quarter.

There was no immediate information as to the extent of the injury but he did remain on the sidelines with his helmet on, as opposed to shedding equipment or heading to the locker room. The Stampeders have to be hoping the issue is minor.

Calgary’s offence is built around the run and if Carey is injured long-term, it could force changes to the scheme despite the efficacy of the other running backs in the locker room.

“When he’s rolling, we are at our best. We can do our play-action pass because we are running the ball so well,” Dickenson said. “He started really hot, but then we never got back on track so we need to see where we went off the rails.”

Swing and a miss

In a rare sight, Rene Paredes missed two early field goal attempts before hitting his final three and finishing the day three-for-five.

Those early misses from one of the most accurate kickers in CFL history, which were both returned out of the endzone, had a major impact on the game script towards the end.

With six points off the board for Calgary, the team was forced to attempt an unsuccessful two-point conversion as they tried to close the gap. If Paredes hits those early kicks, the two-point conversion is a single that would have brought Calgary within three at the time.

I’d never suggest that Paredes is a concern but as always seems to happen, his misses on this occasion were pretty costly.

Grace kicks the lights out

Cody Grace was the best player on the field for Calgary and one of just two bright spots on the night, the other being Tre Odoms-Dukes emerging as a reliable target.

His hang time allowed for defenders to get to the ball and the Stamps limited the Lions to just a 4.8-yard average return on his six kicks. The best of them landed inside the one-yard line before bouncing back to the field of play and burying the Lions deep. Later in the game, he showed he can flip the field as well by pounding a ball 63 yards downfield with very little return.

If the Stampeders’ defence can force punts at the same rate that the Stampeders’ offence is forced into them, Cody Grace and the cover teams will be the difference maker in Calgary.

Put up your Dukes

Heading into the season, Reggie Begelton and Malik Henry were the known commodities at receiver in Calgary and the questions were about who would step up into the third receiver spot.

Tre Odoms-Dukes won the job in camp and showed why in this game,  leading the team with 10 targets, seven catches, and 75 yards including the Stampeders’ only touchdown of the day. On that play, he held onto the ball despite being smashed by two Lions defenders going in opposite directions as he made the catch.

Begelton caught six of nine targets for 30 yards and was mostly used for screens, while Henry caught just three of eight targets for 28 yards.

First-round draft pick Cole Tucker was downfield often but never targeted, while third-round selection Clark Barnes caught three of the six passes thrown his way.

Awe in the middle

I wrote earlier this year about the Stampeders and the success that a string of middle linebackers have had here. Alex Singleton, Cory Greenwood, Wynton McManis, Darnell Sankey, and Jameer Thurman have all done well in that spot before moving on in recent years.

It should come as no surprise then that Micah Awe collected 13 tackles in the game. The middle of this Stampeders’ defence was a question mark heading into the season but for now, at least there seems to be an answer.

Once Silas Stewart is healthy, the topic may come up again, but not because Awe hasn’t done his job.

Next time on a very special Thursday Night Football…

No rest for the Stamps as they once again kick off the week on Thursday, travelling to Ottawa to take on former Stampeders backup Nick Arbuckle and the Redblacks.

It is part of what is expected to be a softer section of the team’s schedule as they face Ottawa twice, Saskatchewan twice, Montreal and Winnipeg. While all of those teams have yet to play, all but Winnipeg are projected to be in the bottom tier of CFL teams this season.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Horsemen Radio Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.