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Rob Vanstone: Saskatchewan Roughriders address two weaknesses in different ways

 Zach Collaros is preparing for his second season as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ starting quarterback.
Zach Collaros is preparing for his second season as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ starting quarterback. - Troy Fleece

The Saskatchewan Roughriders analyzed one facet of the team, concluded that an upgrade was warranted, and punted the punter.

Saskatchewan was ranked dead last in the CFL in gross average yards per punt (40.9), as well as the net (33.4). Hence the recent release of Josh Bartel, who was replaced by Regina-born punter Jon Ryan earlier this week.

Ryan’s presence will be especially invaluable if the Roughriders’ offence continues to falter.

Last season, the Roughriders eked out a league-worst 11 touchdown passes. Saskatchewan will begin the 2019 campaign with a TD-pass drought of 23 quarters.

Although the 2018 Roughriders had a 10-4 record in games started by Zach Collaros , his touchdown passes (nine) were outnumbered by interceptions (13).

The opposing offence actually scored more touchdowns — 19, to Saskatchewan’s 17 — during the 10 games in which Collaros was the victorious quarterback.

Yet, the Roughriders’ new order — led by general manager Jeremy O’Day and head coach Craig Dickenson — is somewhat less inclined toward change at football’s most important position than it is with regard to the punter.

“The reality is that we feel like we can get better by staying with continuity,” Dickenson explained on Thursday.

“We think our quarterback’s going to do a good job this year. We’re confident in Zach. We’ve got to give him the best offensive line we can. We’re going to try to run the football to protect him and try to create positive down-and-distance situations. And then we’ve got to find a couple of receivers to fill the void of some guys who left.

“It’s a long-winded answer to a question that’s not easily answered, but we’re going to look and try to improve that phase of our offence, just like we will anything that we do.”

It should be noted that, at one point in the off-season, the Roughriders did attempt to start over at quarterback.

They offered Bo Levi Mitchell a four-year deal, calling for $700,000 per annum, when the CFL’s free-agency period began Feb. 12. Shortly after Mitchell opted to re-sign with the Calgary Stampeders, Collaros inked a new pact with Saskatchewan.

Three months later, the Roughriders signed a big-name punter. Ryan joins his hometown team after spending 12 seasons in the NFL. His 10-year tenure with the Seattle Seahawks was highlighted by a Super Bowl victory in 2014.

Ryan, who was out of football in 2018 after being released by the Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, decided to return to the game and quickly piqued the Roughriders’ interest.

“We felt like we needed to improve in the punt game, not just in punting the football but in covering,” said Dickenson, who moonlights as the special-teams co-ordinator.

“That was an issue we talked with Josh about last year. We needed him to do a better job of getting downfield and tackling. But then we looked at the whole punt team as a group and we felt like if we could improve the punting just a little bit, we had a pretty good group there.

“So then when Jon became available, he’s an outstanding player. We felt like he’d improve our overall punt game, so that’s why we went after him.”

Bartel’s low punting averages were also considered by the Roughriders’ brass.

“That’s on me a little bit, to be quite honest, because we didn’t ask him to bomb it,” Dickenson said. “But the net punt is the key stat. With the fact that we were so low, we had to figure out a way to improve that. The punter was one area where we felt we could do it.”

CKRM’s Derek Taylor, a statistical maven, was quick to note that the 2018 Roughriders were prone to allowing punt-return touchdowns — a league-worst four, in fact.

“I agree with you,” Dickenson said, “and then the flip side of that is if (the punter) sticks his nose in there and makes a tackle, he also allows other players to get in there.”

  The Roughriders’ template was set, perhaps for all time, in 2007 when Jamie Boreham punted for Saskatchewan. A punishing tackler, he levelled many a rival punt returner.

“We’ve done a lot of research,” Dickenson noted. “The teams that traditionally have the best net punting average, they’ve got their punter up there that saves the day probably two or three times. Instead of it being 80 for a touchdown, it’s a 30-yard return.

“If you can get your punter to stay involved and stop the big one, it makes a big difference, so we feel like we’ve got to do a better job of that.”

Reducing the use of the punter wouldn’t hurt, either.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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