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How good are the Saskatchewan Roughriders?

Andrew Bucholtz
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Rider fans (including these ones in Guelph) have lots to celebrate this year.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are the talk of the CFL after improving to 5-0 thanks to a 32-20 road win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Saturday, and much of that talk's centred on a single question: just how good is this team? There's a lot to like about the Riders, who have not only won, but dominated in many of those wins. They've also proven quite resilient, persevering through injuries and adversity thus far. However, there are questions about if they can keep this up for a whole 18-game season: consider that Saskatchewan started last year 3-0 before slumping and finishing the year 8-10. Just how impressive is this team, and how will they fare as the year goes on?

One of the biggest points in favour of the Riders' dominance being real is that it extends beyond the win-loss column. Heading into this past week, they led the league in points per game (37.8), net offensive yards per game (423.0), rushing yards per game (168.0), yards gained per pass (9.6), sacks allowed (four), points allowed per game (16.8), rushing yards allowed per game (59.5), and interceptions recorded (five, tied with Montreal). They have an incredibly strong ground game, with Kory Sheets being well on track to shatter Mike Pringle's rushing record, and their willingness to run the ball 10 times more per game than an average 2013 team speaks to their offensive flexibility. Offensive coordinator George Cortez has been previously more famed for his high-flying passing attacks, but he's using the run exceptionally well this year: Sheets' 712 rushing yards are over 200 ahead of second-place rusher Jon Cornish, but he's still maintaining an excellent 6.0 yards per carry average. Their defence has been able to get the job done by forcing turnovers and stifling the opposition's ground game, and their passing game has also been incredibly effective and efficient: the Riders completed 69.4 per cent of their passes heading into this week and had posted 12 touchdowns with no interceptions.

That passing success also speaks well for the Riders' resilience. Those previous stats all came with CFL veteran Darian Durant under centre, but backup Drew Willy filled in admirably Saturday. He wasn't quite as accurate, only completing 14 of 25 passes (56 per cent), but he made his completions count, throwing for 269 yards (a crazy 19.2 yards per completion) and three touchdowns with no interceptions. It's never easy to replace your starting quarterback, but Willy did a fine job of that. It's also interesting that his top receiver Saturday was Geroy Simon, Saskatchewan's big offseason acquisition, but a guy who missed their first four games this season thanks to injury. The Riders certainly didn't need Simon to succeed, but the five-catch, 125-yard performance he put up against the Tiger-Cats suggests that he can be a valuable addition to this Saskatchewan offence. Add in Weston Dressler, Chris Getzlaf, Rob Bagg, Taj Smith, Jock Sanders and more, and you have numerous aerial weapons that can hurt any opposing defence.

There are a few areas of concern for Saskatchewan, though. For one, their defence has shone from a points-allowed perspective, but they're giving up a lot of yards through the air. The Riders had conceded 305.3 aerial yards per game heading into this week, the league's worst numbers in that category, and that average isn't going to improve after Henry Burris threw for 395 yards and two touchdowns against them Saturday. Saskatchewan's solid from an opposing completion percentage standpoint, as the 63.2 per cent they had heading into this week was the second-best in the league (and the 63.4 per cent Burris recorded Saturday won't boost that much), but the Riders are giving up a lot of yards through the air, and that could come back to haunt them. Of course, part of the aerial problem is that Saskatchewan's often led for most of their games, causing teams to throw more in hopes of catching up: teams attempted 155 passes against the Riders through Week Four, 19 more than against any other team. The comebacks obviously haven't worked so far, either. Still, pass defence is an area to watch going forward.

Beyond that, the Riders will have to develop a plan in case someone's able to contain Sheets, and they'll have to find a way to keep all their receivers happy. Maintaining the momentum from their hot start won't be all that easy, either, considering that they don't play again until Aug. 9. There's a lot for Saskatchewan fans to be pleased with thus far, though. This is an excellent start, both in the wins and losses columns and in the deeper statistics, and if the Riders can maintain it, they'll be a force to be reckoned with all year.

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