DON’T COUNT OUT THE ESKS JUST YET

Im­prov­ing de­fence will be key to mak­ing the play­offs

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - DAN BARNES [email protected]­media.com twit­ter.com/sports­dan­barnes

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.

GREG SOUTHAM

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.

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