The new and improved Saskatchewan Roughriders defence has looked sharp so far this season, but this weekend it will face its toughest test yet.
The defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions visit Mosaic Stadium on Saturday for a battle of the league’s only undefeated teams.
“We’re hanging in there, you know, just trying to get better with every game,” defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said on Friday. “We’ve got two wins, and it took us a long time last year to do that, so that’s something, anyway.”
Last season, en route to a last-place finish in the West Division, Saskatchewan did not win its second game until Week 9 and by then the playoffs were a moot point.
This year, the Riders opened with a 43-16 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and followed up by beating the Edmonton Eskimos 17-1.
“The guys are buying in,” Hall said. “Hopefully, as the season goes on, everyone will be buying in 100 per cent.”
Hall said Saskatchewan’s defensive coaches have been stressing the importance of “getting some pressure off the edge, and generally just being more consistent with everything we do.”
As well, rookie head coach Cory Chamblin has asked his players on both sides of the ball to play hard on every down.
“Not just on 30 snaps,” Hall said. “On all 60 snaps.”
Hall said so far the work ethic is paying off.
“The guys are being rewarded,” he said. “We’ve taken a couple of big steps, but there are still some huge steps ahead of us.”
One of those steps would be the Lions.
“I don’t know about this being the stiffest test of the season, because the stiffest test is always the game you’re playing in any given week,” Hall said. “But we do know that to get where we want to go, we have to go through B.C., because they’re the defending Grey Cup champions.
“The thing is, they’re not invincible. You have to find the chink in their armour, and everybody has one. Superman had kryptonite.”
For the Saskatchewan defence, the obvious challenges this week are Lions quarterback Travis Lulay, running back Andrew Harris and slotbacks Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce III.
“Plus they’re well-coached, and they’ve been through the wars,” Hall said. “They’re a solid football team and they know how to win.
“But we have a good team, too. They guys are playing sound football. They’re giving us a chance to win. That’s all we can ask.”
The Saskatchewan offence, meanwhile, will have to handle a Lions defence that has a veteran secondary and mobile linebackers but still depends largely on a front four consisting of ends Khreem Smith and Keron Williams and tackles Khalif Mitchell and Eric Taylor.
This is not a good week to be shuffling the offensive line, but a shoulder injury to veteran guard Brendon LaBatte has left the Roughriders no choice.
LaBatte will dress for Saturday’s game, but according to Chamblin, he will be used only in “an emergency.” Starting at left guard will be rookie Johan Asiata.
Because Asiata is an import — one of three on the Roughriders’ offensive line — Canadian wide receiver Jordan Sisco has been added to the lineup in place of import wide receiver Sinorice Moss, who is now on the one-game injured list.
“We have a group than can get the job done,” Chamblin said, adding that the homegrown Sisco “has to show us what he can do.”
Just as Chamblin was shrugging off suggestions that this game is an early-season showdown of unbeaten teams, Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant was dismissing the notion that it’s a matter of Durant versus Lulay. The B.C quarterback has led the Lions to victories of 33-16 over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and 39-36 over the Tiger-Cats.
“He’s got his team off to a good start, and that’s good for him,” Durant said. “I can’t worry about the personal matchups.”
Instead, Durant is focused on the Lions’ defence in general and the front four in particular.
“We definitely have to control them up front,” he said.
Like Chamblin, Durant expressed confidence in the two new starters, Asiata and Sisco.
“Sometimes there are going to be injuries,” he said, “and guys are going to have to step in.”
Durant is approaching Saturday’s game as something less than a sudden-death showdown.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a Grey Cup situation, but it’s a great opportunity for us,” he said, and then he fielded yet another question about comparisons between him and Lulay.
“He’s got a Grey Cup,” Durant said with a smile, “and I don’t.”