DON’T COUNT OUT THE ESKS JUST YET
Improving defence will be key to making the playoffs
The Calgary Stampeders have owned the top-rated defence for most of the CFL season.
Through Week 18, they have allowed the fewest points, touchdowns, yards and first downs. They don’t leave much room for running backs, receivers, quarterbacks or debate.
Winnipeg ’s defence is right on their heels in most of the important categories and Hamilton’s unit is not far behind the Bombers. Saskatchewan’s defence has been lauded for its seven touchdowns on interceptions and fumble returns. The B.C. defence is renowned for its ball hawks and indeed the Leos lead the league with 21 interceptions.
But what of the Edmonton Eskimos’ defence? Maligned for much of the season as too bendable and occasionally breakable, its members would submit the last few performances on video as proof of eligibility for entry in that upper echelon.
“We want to be the best defence in the league, hands down. We’re proving that we are in that conversation these last couple weeks,” said Eskimos defensive back Neil King.
Some stats are certainly starting to support his contention. With 43 sacks, the Eskimos suddenly share the league lead with Saskatchewan. With 18 interceptions, they are now third, just one behind the second-place Bombers.
They are still middle of the pack or worse in many other defensive categories. But they didn’t allow an offensive touchdown for more than seven quarters of football played against Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Ottawa, their last three opponents, so the improvement is obvious, not to mention timely.
“We’re a sound defence,” said linebacker J.C. Sherritt, when asked to sum up the unit. “And improving, I guess, would be the main word because that’s the thing we haven’t stopped. We’ve just continued to get better and not all teams do that defensively.”
Sherritt leads the Eskimos with 86 defensive tackles and 99 defensive plays when his three sacks, one forced fumble, two interceptions, three knock-downs and four tackles for a loss are added to the mix. He’s among the league’s elite linebackers, right there with Calgary’s Alex Singleton, Winnipeg ’s Adam Bighill and Montreal’s Henoc Muamba.
If there is a play to be made, he’ll make it more often than not. There are plenty of playmakers on the line, too, as Kwaku Boateng leads the Eskimos’ sack attack with nine, while Alex Bazzie, Jake Ceresna and Almondo Sewell have each recorded seven and nine other Eskimos have bagged at least one. With three picks, Forrest Hightower leads a corps of 10 Eskimos who combine for the team’s 18 interceptions.
The contributions are coming from all over the unit and at the right time.
“We have a lot of vets in this room who understand where we’re at this time of year,” said King. “It’s not ideal, the situation we’re in. But these moments, when you get into a corner, your back against a wall, you realize who you are and what type of team you are. Defensively speaking, we knew what we had to do. We’re playing at a very high level right now, communicating very well.
“We’re seeing the field very well, tackling well, making the plays when they come. When you make it hard for offences to drive the ball every single drive, you get results like we have recently.”
They have surrendered an average of 20 offensive points to the opposition in the last four games. But only one was a victory and at 8-8, the Eskimos are dead last in the West Division, facing a couple of must-win games against B.C. and Winnipeg to close out the regular season, lest their playoff hopes expire. And that, as always, is the most important thing for this defence.
“We don’t care what the critics say, who people say is the best. At the end of the day, they can give whoever they want their props, we want to stack our wins up,” said defensive back Aaron Grymes. “We want to get in the playoffs. That’s what’s on our mind right now.”
We want to be the best defence in the league ... We’re proving that we are in that conversation.
J.C. Sherritt, left, and the Edmonton Eskimos’ defence are doing their best to give quarterback Mike Reilly and the offence a lift as they chase a playoff berth with the team fifth in the West Division standings.