July 22, 2014

Cauz: In praise of Chris Jones and the Eskimos

Re-watching Chris Jones and the Edmonton Eskimos defeat Mike O’Shea and the Blue Bombers 26-3 (by the way this game was way closer than the final score would indicate), I couldn’t help but feel bad for my beloved Argonauts losing 18-17 the following night to the REDBLACKS.

Yes it was a historic night for Ottawa (Check out Pat Steinberg’s piece on the game) but it was also a handy reminder of the negative impact that a coaching brain drain can have on a team. Both Jones and O’Shea played a huge part in the Argonauts recent run of success and both were more than due to have control of their own squads.

At this point I bet you’re thinking, “Holy lord Cauz, you’re not going to write another piece about Winnipeg?!?”, well fear not, I want to focus on Edmonton.

Beyond making snide jokes about Toronto robbing Edmonton in the Ricky Ray deal or expounding on the virtues of Fred Stamps or J.C. Sherritt, I really haven’t spent much time with an Eskimos team that has won just 11 games over the past two seasons.

Well with the team eclipsing last year’s win total before August (yes Calgary I understand you may have more talent, I promise I’ll write a 2000 word column on you guys soon … whether you want one or not) I figured why not see what’s going on with the undefeated Eskimos.

Let’s get some statistics out of the way before we take a closer look at the game. The first thing you can see is that this version of the Eskimos is far tougher than past incarnations (I swear I wrote this all before reading Dave Campbell’s piece). Last season Edmonton was in the bottom 2nd-3rd in several critical defensive categories including points allowed, yardage, interceptions, sacks and average yards allowed per play.

This season has been a complete turnaround with Edmonton leading the league in fewest yards given up while amassing the most interceptions and sacks. Clearly Chris Jones is doing something right. Of course they’re also second in penalties with only Jones’ former team, Toronto, with more infractions, so some habits die hard.

Speaking of toughness, that’s a trait that is not in short supply in Mike Reilly. Almost to a fault, but more on that later. If I may use some fancy football analytics for a moment, the dude is a truck. Seriously Reilly runs like a fullback, he looks like Jerome Messam on the field.

At this point he needs a nickname like “bone crusher” or “freight train” or “battering ram”… you get the idea. You hear story after story about the 25 pounds Reilly added in the off-season. Well he needed it after being sacked 60 times last season.

Some of Reilly’s victims from Thursday ranged from linebacker Ejiro Kuale, who Reilly shrugged off during a 30-yard run in the second quarter, to safety Teague Sherman, who had a clear shot on him early in the fourth quarter only to be swatted away turning a 3rd and long into a manageable short yardage situation.

Now my concern is watching Reilly run is like eating 30 Cinnabons a day. It sounds awesome, it is awesome for a short while but it is unsustainable. Late in the game TSN flashed up a stat that showed that Reilly had been hit 14 times, hurried 18 times while being sacked on four other occasion.

You could see after a 14 yard sweep that was so old school that the play should have been in black and white with players wearing leather helmets, Reilly limping a bit.

Edmonton is going to have to do a better job with pass protection and maybe introduce Reilly to the word “slide”. I’m not saying he has to channel his inner Damon Allen but not every play needs to be Reilly treating the opposing teams defence like a game of Red Rover.

Speaking of fun and games that is exactly what Odell Willis and Willie Jefferson were having against the Blue Bombers offensive line. Jefferson led the team in tackles and sacks while Willis was all over the field, always in the right place at the right time.

Whether it was collecting Nic Grigsby’s bobbling of a simple swing pass to scooping up Nick Moore’s fumble, to meeting Jefferson around Drew Willy, Willis looks like the guy that successfully ran for mayor of Swaggerville.

Also I cannot stress how much I am enjoying the synchronized somersaults going on with the Eskimo’s defensive line.  Please CFL, don’t take this celebration away. Both players were a terror giving Drew Willy a case of the “happy feet” (Copyright: Matt Dunigan). Edmonton’s defence is playing so well I haven’t even mentioned Almondo Sewell who is leading the team in sacks.

Interestingly the best special teams play did not come from Winnipeg. Mike O’Shea performed magic as the Special Teams coach in Toronto but this time the night belonged to a lesser known figure, Craig Dickenson, the Special Teams coach in Edmonton. Remember this was a close game with the Eskimos holding on to a 13-3 lead to start the fourth quarter.

If a couple plays had gone differently Winnipeg easily could have had the lead. Early in that fourth quarter Mike “Rampage” Reilly had done his best to turn a 2nd and long into a 3rd and short but the team was still two yards from a first down so the punting unit marched on the field.

One member of that group was 3rd string quarterback Pat White. For anyone who watched him play at West Virginia you know just how dangerous he can be scrambling with the ball. We all saw what happened next with the ball being snapped to White who did just enough to get the first down.

A ballsy call by Dickenson. If it doesn’t work Winnipeg has a short field and almost an entire quarter left to get back into the game. Instead this 3rd down conversion was the key play of an eight play touchdown drive that ate up five minutes of clock and game Edmonton an 20-3 lead.

The rest of the fourth quarter would be about Edmonton’s offensive line slowly starting to overwhelm Winnipeg’s defence, special shout out to D’Anthony Batiste, who on a couple plays looked like he pushed half the Bombers defensive line out of the way for John White.

Of course you can only take so much out of one game. If you’re a Winnipeg fan you really should not despair, as mentioned before this was anyone’s ball game. The first quarter saw that Nic Grisby mishandle that led to the only touchdown in the first half plus Julian Feoli-Gudino dropping what would have been a huge gain a couple minutes later.

If those two plays go in Winnipeg’s favour maybe we’re talking about a different game. If you’re an Eskimos fan you have to be thrilled from what you see from a defence that is making big plays all over the field and an offence that leads the CFL in time of possession behind a tank of a quarterback and some talented skill position players. You guys have a coaching staff that seems to know what they’re doing and a date this week with the also undefeated Calgary Stampeders.