Elks are their own worst enemy in home loss to Alouettes (& six other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

In what has become the norm at Commonwealth Stadium, the Edmonton Elks turned over the ball too many times on Friday night and fell 23-20 to the Montreal Alouettes.

Here are my thoughts on the game

Explosion plays

Edmonton held their own fairly well against the reigning Grey Cup champs but the few plays they did mess up, they messed up enormously.

Montreal running back Walter Fletcher had the revenge game he was looking for against the team that traded him away for a sixth-round pick in 2022. He had a total of 143 yards on the night, including two of the biggest explosion plays of the game. His two touchdowns came with less than two minutes on the clock in each half, one on a 46-yard catch-and-run and the other on a 39-yard running play, and each served as a dagger to the Elks.

Edmonton did themselves no favours when it came to swinging big plays back their way either. With just under five minutes left in the game, Dillon Mitchell had a ball bounce off his hands that looked to be a clear touchdown. McLeod Bethel-Thompson also underthrew Eugene Lewis and Mitchell on two big throws that turned into interceptions.

Big plays were available for both teams but only one capitalized on them.

“Too many big plays,” head coach Chris Jones said post-game. “We had too many explosions last week versus Saskatchewan and too many explosions tonight. You can’t take two explosions a quarter and feel like you’re playing good defence. We certainly have a long way to go.”

O-line struggles

Last week, I thought the Elks’ offensive line did a fairly good job in pass protection and the run blocking was the key area to be worked on. This week, I have many more concerns.

Short yardage has not been a strength for this unit, even as compared to last year. With 11 minutes left in the game, Edmonton lined up needing to gain 1.5 yards. They instead lost three, as Mustafa Johnson was in the backfield before the ball hit Dakota Prukop’s hands. In the final minute of the game, it took three plunges to gain the one yard needed for the touchdown, taking 25 needed seconds off the clock and generating awful flashbacks from Week 1 of 2023. One yard is not a gimmie, but it should not be this much of a struggle either.

The Montreal pass rush was fierce all night. MBT had less time than he did last week and it showed in some of the passing decisions and is 66 percent completion. There always seemed to be an outside rusher that was fairly free. The three sacks given up and pressure all game did not help Bethel-Thompson succeed.

The run blocking was a bit better with Kevin Brown getting a few more carries. For a guy who was averaging six yards per carry in his first two seasons though, he has been under five in both games. The holes do not seem to be opening up as they did last year.

I expected this group to be better with the consistency year over year, but have not seen any kind of significant overall improvement. Next week in Toronto will be a big challenge.

Better defence

Other than the explosion plays, the defence had a decent game and held the Alouettes to 17 points through three and a half quarters. The defensive line contributed three sacks, Nyles Morgan led the way, again, with five tackles, and Romeo McKnight had a great knockdown at the line of scrimmage. The front seven remains one of the strengths of the team.

The return of Loucheiz Purifoy was noticeable in the secondary. He almost had an interception and recorded the hit of the game by separating Cole Spieker from the ball for an incomplete pass in the second quarter. After the game, he did not want to take any praise because of the loss.

“Got to be more disciplined,” he said. “End of the day, we are shooting ourselves in the foot right now. We have to take advantage of the plays and we have to make them.”

Gittens what we wanted

The trade that brought Kurleigh Gittens Jr. to Edmonton for Jake Ceresna was accompanied by concern as to whether the Canadian receiver would be healthy enough see the field early on. He has proven to not only be on the field but extremely productive. Now with 155 yards in two games, the trade looks to be a good one for both teams.

Gittens had 93 yards on the night on seven catches and his speed is helping to open up space for Eugene Lewis and Dillon Mitchell. His passport and the play of Hergy Mayala have locked down the national receiving position with a lot of talent. For the first time since 2019, Edmonton may have a 1000-yard receiver. He would be the first Canadian to hit the mark in Green and Gold since Kamau Peterson in 2008.

Leake adventures

Javon Leake has been up-and-down so far this season. On the upside, he had a 56-yard kickoff return near the end of the second quarter. On the downside, he had a punt go through his hands, that he was able to recover, in the third quarter.

He could not break through on the running attack either, with only ten yards to his name so far as an Elk. As the return blocking group gets to know each other better, I hope to see more from Leake.

“It’s sometimes interesting watching us catch a punt back there,” Jones admitted post-game. “But he is really dynamic when he’s got the ball in his hands. He’s got the potential to score any time he touches the football. It was good to see Javon be aggressive tonight.”

Low crowd

Once again, the crowd at Commonwealth was rowdy but small. The weather definitely played a role, with thunderstorms and a funnel cloud just outside the city in the hours leading to the game keeping some fans away. It turned into a great evening for football when the sun broke through about 10 minutes before kickoff but you could tell many decided not to come just based on the low traffic at the tailgate.

Losses in the first two home games have many thinking “Here we go again” and who can blame them? The last three seasons have been dreadful for competitive football. The first two games of this year have been close, but fans are just tired of losing. Having the local hockey team in the Cup final takes away some attention too.

The bottom line is that the ownership groups that are looking at the team are seeing the amount of work that will need to be done. There is no small task ahead.

The Elks hit the road now for two difficult games against the Argos and B.C. Lions. The Week 5 bye week could be interesting before we see them at home again on July 14, with Chris Jones’ job potentially on the line. Fewer explosions surrendered and more running would be welcome.

Andrew Hoskins is a lifelong Edmonton resident and the host of the Turf District Podcast.