Ben’s Breakdown: three defensive mistakes that cost the Saskatchewan Roughriders in B.C.

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders missed an opportunity on Friday night and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

The offence came to life far too late and there were issues on special teams, but to me, this was a winnable game for the Roughriders until a series of defensive mistakes buried them.

Fairly or unfairly, the stakes are higher for defensive players. When an offensive player makes a mistake, they jog back to the huddle and try again. When a defensive player makes a mistake, it often results in a touchdown — especially against an explosive offence like B.C.’s.

On Friday night, a mental mistake, a mistake in execution, and a bizarre defensive play call in a 15-minute span led to three touchdown passes from Vernon Adams Jr. that blew the game wide open.

The call

Trailing 12-11 with 17 seconds remaining in the first half and B.C. in field goal range at Saskatchewan’s 34-yard-line, Riders’ defensive coordinator Jason Shivers appeared to call cover zero robber, which Adams and Keon Hatcher exploited for touchdown.

I love aggressive play-calling on both sides of the ball, so I hesitate to criticize Shivers’ gamble, however this was the wrong call in this situation. B.C. only had time to run two plays, so with them already in field goal range, the defensive priority should have been to prevent them from scoring a touchdown on this play.

This variation of cover zero robber is not one I like in any situation, but there are a few Pac-12 teams that have had a lot of success with it.

Cover zero means simply that all six eligible receivers are locked up in man coverage with no safety help. It’s also generally accompanied by a six-man blitz.

It’s a risky call and a tough assignment for the secondary, though they at least know the ball has to come out quickly.

In cover zero robber, the eligible receivers are locked up the same way, but only five defenders rush the passer. The extra man is the robber, and his job is to look for an interception as the quarterback throws a hot route or sight adjustment over the middle in response to the expected pressure.

The robber technique in cover zero robber usually comes from a linebacker sugaring the A-gap before dropping back. In this case, however, the robber was safety Jayden Dalke, so Adams never expected a six-man pressure. It was meant to look like cover one before Dalke dropped down looking to poach a ball over the middle. But with only a five-man rush, Adams calmly surveyed the field and found Hatcher in the very spot Dalke vacated.

In his first game of the season at halfback, Derrick Moncrief got turned inside out on this play. The broadcast on TSN implied that Moncrief had been the primary culprit in allowing Hatcher’s 146 first half yards, but prior to that touchdown, my charting shows Hatcher with only one catch on three targets for 12 yards against Moncrief, including a play that was initially called an interception.

The bust

With Saskatchewan behind 19-11 midway through the third quarter, a missed assignment in the Roughriders’ secondary allowed Alexander Hollins to fly up the seam for the easiest 71-yard touchdown you’ll ever see.

Without knowing the call, I can’t say for certain who was at fault on this play, but it appears the coverage bust stemmed from a mental lapse or a miscommunication between cornerback Nic Marshall and halfback Derrick Moncrief.

My best guess is that this was cover two robber, with cornerback Jeremy Clark deep to the field, safety Jayden Dalke in robber technique, and Marshall deep to the boundary. What I believe threw Marshall off was Moncrief appearing to drop deep before breaking on Keon Hatcher’s 15-yard hook. Remember, this was Moncrief’s game at halfback this season, so his unfamiliar positioning may have caused Marshall to hesitate and second guess his assignment.

In the All-24 shot, Moncrief can be seen pointing to Hollins as he worked between them, perhaps reminding Marshall that Hollins was his man.

The execution

Down 26-11 with 35 seconds left in the third quarter, Saskatchewan’s defence allowed Alexander Hollins to find open space in the corner of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown.

With the Roughriders in cover one, C.J. Reavis reacted late to Hollins’ sudden burst of speed on an over route. Reavis is almost as fast as the speedy Hollins despite being 25 pound heavier, but he got lulled to sleep by Hollins’ nonchalant waggle. Hollins wasn’t even running half speed as he approached the line of scrimmage, but at the snap, he cut inside and floored it, cleverly using the uprights as a pick.

Offensive coordinators use motion to gain an advantage. It can help identify coverage, put a defender in conflict, create a personnel mismatch or a numbers advantage, or gain leverage. B.C. initially lined up with Keon Hatcher out wide left, Hollins in the slot beside him, and Dominique Rhymes further inside. As Adams started his cadence, Hollins and Rhymes crossed casually over to the right as Jevon Cottoy came back across to the left slot.

Reavis was the shortest defensive back on the field for Saskatchewan, so if this were about creating a height mismatch, they would have aligned him with Cottoy or Rhymes. You also don’t need to crisscross three receivers to identify coverage near the goal line or create a numbers advantage. The crisscross could only have been intended to cause Reavis to hesitate while B.C. positioned their fastest receiver in the middle of the field at the last possible second, so he couldn’t be jammed, while also maximizing the horizontal space he had to run into. By the time Adams got to the third step of his drop, Hollins had five yards of separation on Reavis.

The Roughriders have accumulated four straight losses, giving up an average of almost 40 points per game in the process. They’re clearly capable of playing solid defence, as they did for long stretches against the Lions, but they’re not a good enough unit to overcome mental mistakes, poor execution, and bad play-calling.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.