The Saskatchewan Roughriders, coaches and players alike, are prone to using phrases like “brand new team” and “brand new season.”
There is no denying, however, that the two primary objectives for 2012 are linked directly to a disastrous 2011 CFL campaign when the Riders went 3-6 at home and 0-10 against West Division opponents.
If they hope to improve on last year’s 5-13 record and return to the playoffs, Saskatchewan will have to be a more dominant team at Mosaic Stadium and win some games against their rivals in Alberta and B.C.
A good time to start would be Sunday afternoon when the Roughriders (1-0) welcome the Edmonton Eskimos (1-0) to town for their regular-season home opener.
Expectations are high on the Praries, but so is the confidence level. Saskatchewan is coming off an impressive 43-16 road victory over the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton in Week 1.
“It’s going to be a loud and intense stadium, and I’m really looking forward to it,” offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte said Saturday. “If you’re the visiting team, you’re definitely coming into the most exciting environment in the CFL. We have to use that to our advantage.”
Corey Chamblin, Saskatchewan’s rookie head coach, has seen evidence that his players have been loose and relaxed in workouts this past week. He has also detected an air of urgency surrounding a team that has been rebuilt as opposed to retooled and is anxious to separate the present from the immediate past.
“Right now,” Chamblin said, “the biggest thing for me is for the players to learn how to play at home.
“There’s a certain pressure that comes (with high expectations) and I think they have put that pressure on themselves.”
There is additional pressure to win against a divisional opponent, because the Eskimos, B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders have all started strongly and the early indications are that the West will be a dogfight once again this season.
“It’s a close race right now,” said linebacker Shomari Williams. “You definitely don’t want to put yourself behind the eight ball.”
Defensive end Odell Willis attributes the newfound optimism to Chamblin’s style as “a player’s coach” and believes the key to success for Saskatchewan is cohesiveness.
“It’s all about that team unity,” he said.
Fellow defensive end Brent Hawkins concurred, adding: “We’re all working together as one big unit. That’s what it’s all about. Team unity.”
The bonding began last weekend in Hamilton.
“I think they all play off each other,” Chamblin said. “The defence put the offence in some good situations, and the offence put the defence in some good situations.”
Quarterback Darian Durant passed for 390 yards and four touchdowns against the Tiger-Cats. His favourite targets were wide receiver Weston Dressler and slotback Chris Getzlaf. Dressler had 13 receptions for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Getzlaf chipped in three catches for 96 yards and a touchdowns.
The Eskimos, of course, have taken notice.
“They go as far as 7 and 89 will take them,” said Edmonton linebacker T.J. Hill, referring to Dressler and Getzlaf by their jersey numerals. “Durant will try to get the ball to them as much as possible. When they get the ball, that means their offence is clicking.
“They like to release their backs out of the backfield and get a lot of matchups with their tailback on our linebackers, so we’ve got to concentrate on that, too.”
The tailback in question this year is newcomer Kory Sheets, who has strengthened Saskatchewan’s offence through diversification. Against the Tiger-Cats, Sheets carried the ball 12 times for 80 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s very elusive,” Hill said. “We pretty much have to tackle him.”
Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed was impressed by Sheets in more ways than one.
“He’s proven he’s an absolutely phenomenal back, not only as a running back, but his (pass) protection last game was absolutely phenomenal, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield,” Reed said. “We’re going to have to pay close attention to him.”
Until Sheets establishes himself as a tailback capable of putting up big numbers week after week, Dressler and Getzlaf figure to be Saskatchewan’s most potent offensive weapons again this season. Chamblin is hoping they won’t be the only weapons.
“I’m not looking to have one guy, a feature guy,” he said. “I’m looking to have a good team.”
The Roughriders are well aware that on Sunday they will going against a defence that is physical through the front seven and has exceptional speed in the secondary.
“They’ve got a great defence,” said Durant. “They fly around. They make it difficult for you.
“We have to make sure we execute our game plan. I’m just going to take what the defence gives me.”