WINNIPEG — Not many would have picked the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos to be leading the league early in this CFL season.
“I don’t think very many people did,” Bombers offensive lineman Glenn January said Wednesday, on the eve of the two CFL West clubs’ first meeting of 2014.
“It’s just a testament to what both clubs have been able to accomplish in the off-season. I think we both decided that serious changes had to be made and we’ve seen that on the field.'”
Edmonton trailed the West and Winnipeg the East as they finished out of the playoffs in 2013 and both parted ways with their coaches, dipping into the Argos pool to pluck Chris Jones and Mike O’Shea to lead their recovery.
Edmonton defensive tackle Almondo Sewell, the CFL’s sack leader and defensive player of the week, said it all has to be kept in perspective just three games into the season.
“We were both terrible last year and now we’re like top of the league but, like I say, it’s a long year, anything can happen,” said Sewell.
Besides the coaching changes, much of their success has been laid in the hands of their young quarterbacks – the Bombers’ Drew Willy and Mike Reilly in Edmonton.
“In the huddle, they’re the exact same,” said Winnipeg receiver Nick Moore, who played with Reilly in B.C.
“Calling out the play call, making sure that guys are (paying) attention to details, paying attention to the little things. They’re both leaders, making sure everybody’s in the right place, doing the right things.”
They have also known each other for years, ever since they met at the 2009 NFL combine.
As Sewell says, the season is young, but in quarterback stats, Willy sits at No. 2 in the league with 871 passing yards and Reilly (738) is at No. 3, behind Toronto’s Ricky Ray (982) at No. 1.
Edmonton’s defence is also getting a lot of credit for their three wins.
“They do it in a variety of ways,” said Willy. “They try to confuse you a little bit, trying to bring different strong and weak pressures but we’ve been preparing for that all week, been looking at a lot of film, a lot of walkthroughs.”
Jones, Toronto’s former defensive coordinator, brought his unique style to the Eskimos.
“The kids have bought into a simple scheme, the ability to line up and play fast and be physical,” he said.
Winnipeg has it’s own defensive guru in Gary Etcheverry, who has also introduced some new wrinkles this season to confuse offences.
One thing O’Shea is hoping for Thursday is fewer penalties, suggesting wins are going to be harder to come by if things don’t change. The Bombers had 15 for 148 yards last week in Montreal.
This is the first divisional game the Bombers have played as a Western team in almost a decade, thanks to Ottawa’s return to the league.
“It’s definitely going to be a different season playing in the West this year,” January said. “But whenever you play football at this level you want to go against the best as much as you can. So I think that the west is where Winnipeg belongs and we’re excited about it.”
The game will also see the return of receiver Romby Bryant to the starting lineup. Bryant began his CFL career with Winnipeg in 2008.
Reilly says last year doesn’t matter for either team and neither do the last three games.
“Just as we forgot about 2013 we kind of forgot about the first three games as well,” he said.
“We’re concerned about this game and we’re not worried about anything past that, we’re not worried about anything before it. We just know that we’re coming here to play against a very good football team and we’ve got to execute at a very high level if we want to come out with a win.”