Alouettes flip the script in Edmonton (& five other thoughts on Montreal’s win)

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

Jason Maas has repeated it constantly: he wants to maintain the momentum the team has been building lately. The odds of that didn’t look good for the first 15 minutes of Saturday’s clash with the Elks but the Alouettes flipped the script for a 35-21 victory in Edmonton, reaching the 10-win mark for just the second time since Anthony Calvillo’s retirement.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Rough start

The Als had a short week of preparation, it’s true. They also travelled across the country and were facing a dynamic quarterback they had never seen before. A slow start was therefore expected, but not as slow as how they began on Saturday afternoon.

The Elks were everywhere offensively, moving up the ball like no team has been able to do against Montreal in the past few weeks. Tre Ford had the answers to any coverage Noel Thorpe was throwing at him and was causing damage with his legs.

Defensively, the team was plagued by missed tackles, which opened the door for the Elks to come out flying. The Alouettes were already down 21-3 when everything changed in the second quarter.

Until then, the offence wasn’t able to get into a rhythm. Nobody anticipated creative play-calling in the context of a meaningless game, but what they were doing wasn’t enough. But despite failing to live up to the standard early, brighter moments were ahead.

Complementary football is always the remedy

The Als were going nowhere until the offence woke up midway through the second quarter. Cody Fajardo led a successful drive that included a third-down gamble and Tyson Philpot finished it with a touchdown, giving life back to Montreal’s camp.

One drive is not enough to change the momentum of a game, and the defence understood that mission. Lwal Uguak forced a fumble on the following Ford dropback, which ended with Mustafa Johnson returning the ball to the house.

The special teams also got involved, as they forced a fumble in the ensuing kickoff. All of a sudden, the deficit was down to a single point. The rest was history, as Montreal dominated for the remainder of the game.

Come playoff time, that’s the type of sequence that Montreal will need to be successful. Not necessarily with the same amount of points, but enough to build a rhythm.

After giving Ford the chance to score 21 points, the defence made the necessary adjustments to shut him down for the rest of the way. He wasn’t comfortable and had to force many throws.

The Als have been winning two battles lately: turnovers and mid-game adjustments. Both are crucial to winning important games. For me, that’s the most impressive thing about the last four weeks. The starts have not been the best, but Jason Maas’ team finds a way to step up and win. 

I know it hasn’t been against the best teams in the CFL, but it’s important for confidence nonetheless.

James Letcher Jr. is making a case

Chandler Worthy was not having his best season before he got injured and since his exit from the lineup, James Letcher Jr. has been solid. He added another highlight to his resume with a 125-yard missed field goal return on Saturday, demonstrating patience and quickness to put a finishing touch on the Als’ comeback.

We don’t know the extent of Worthy’s injury but if he is healthy for the East Semi-Final, Jason Maas will have a hard decision to make. Go back to his veteran or give a chance to the rookie, who has been excellent.

For now, I don’t see any reason to change anything to a return game that has been explosive and consistent. 

Mustafa Johnson and Cole Spieker, silent weapons

In every defence, there is a player who is efficient at his position without always making the scoresheet. Mustafa Johnson has been that player for the Als.

Even in games where Montreal’s defence as a whole wasn’t effective, Johnson is still disrupting opposing offences. Saturday afternoon, he recovered a fumble in addition to recording two sacks, with his efforts being rewarded in primetime.

On the offensive side of the ball, receiver Cole Spieker has quietly become an important piece in the Als’ offence. He didn’t have a convincing beginning of the year but since his return to the lineup, he has been making important and impactful plays.

Most of his catches are made in the traffic, with all the contact that comes with it. He gets hit hard but always gets up and continues delivering. He has become a reliable target on second down for Cody Fajardo.

What’s next?

Usually, this section is reserved for next week’s game but since the Alouettes have a bye, let’s discuss the strategy moving forward.

With playoff seeding already determined, Maas and his staff could decide to rest several starters two weeks from now against Hamilton. If he does so, three weeks without football will have passed between this win and the East Semi-Final.

The Toronto Argonaut decided to employ that very strategy last year, which paid off for them in the form of a Grey Cup victory. It was a bold decision by head coach Ryan Dinwiddie and I’m wondering if Jason Maas will follow the same path this time around.

Maas has been preaching momentum for the last few weeks and I expect most starters to play for at least half of the game. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to establish a rhythm against a defensive system they will see the following week. But if they do see the field, Maas will need to make conservative decisions to try to avoid injuries. 

Pablo is a CFL and Alouettes analyst based in Montreal.