EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos look to continue their torrid start to the season on Saturday afternoon, as they welcome Ricky Ray and the Toronto Argonauts to Commonwealth Stadium in Week 9 action.
Locked in a melee with four other teams in a contentious West Division that separates first and last by just a single win, every game is huge no matter who it’s against.
Win at all costs continues to describe the approach for Western teams each week, which is exactly why Head Coach Chris Jones isn’t about to complain about his team’s 10-8 win last weekend over the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
“It’s one of those deals where it was a rainy, tough game,” Jones told Esks.com. The Eskimos had been in a hotel all week after electing to stay on the road during their two-game Eastern road-trip, during which they salvaged victories over both the Alouettes and REDBLACKS coming off their bye week.
It was a game against an East Division expansion team in which the Eskimos trailed for 55:51 – from 3:49 into the game when the REDBLACKS opened the scoring on a single point, to 20 seconds left when Grant Shaw gave the Eskimos their very first lead on a go-ahead field goal – yet for the Eskimos, it doesn’t matter how it happened, it was as thrilling a win as any.
“We ran up and down the field on them offensively and didn’t put it in the end zone, and then the penalties kept getting in on special teams and put us in bad field position,” Jones said. “The only thing I didn’t like was the penalties.”
“We just didn’t finish drives,” he continued. “We did a good job of getting yardage but we didn’t finish drives and we turned the ball over, and we took too many penalties – we’ve gotta fix those things.”
Outside of that the Eskimos are getting better each week. Their defence continues to lead the CFL, surrendering a league-best 115 points this season (a staggering 16.4 points per game) and an average of 264.5 yards per game.
Offensively however they’re only just starting to come into their own under their first-year head coach and new system, even if it hasn’t always shown on the scoreboard. Last weekend despite scoring just 10 points the offence produced 438 yards, up from 391 in their sixth game and 262 the game before that.
Perhaps the biggest revelation has been Adarius Bowman, in a season when the usual top receiver Fred Stamps was expected to shoulder the load. The 29-year-old missed most of last season due to injury, but this year is showing glimpses of his true potential as he’s been the true go-to receiver for Mike Reilly.
“Adarius is a tremendously talented young man, and it’s just a matter of him finding out exactly how talented he is and playing consistently over the course of the season,” said Jones. “I can only judge what I know of him but so far he’s done what we’ve asked him to do – he’s caught the football for the most part and he’s attempting to block, and that’s what we ask of him.”
Bowman leads the CFL with 41 catches and 532 yards and is also tied for the most touchdowns with five. He’s also the only CFL player in the top-six in every receiving category, including second-down conversions, yards after the catch, and catches of 30-plus yards.
Yet as Jones pointed out, there could be more to uncover when it comes to the six-foot-three, 217-pound dynamo.
“He’s hard to cover, he’s big, he’s fast, he can change directions and get open off the jam, and he can go up and catch the football,” Jones added. “So I don’t think he’s reached his total potential.”
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Reilly, Bowman, and the rest of the Eskimo offence will have their hands full against an Argo defence that’s also improving weekly, but the biggest chore for the Green and Gold this weekend should be stopping Ray, the league’s leading passer.
The former Eskimo is 367 yards shy of achieving the 50,000 career passing yards mark and would love to reach the milestone in his old stomping grounds, but more than that he’d love to get a win and help the Argos maintain their hold on the East Division.
“They do a great job of scheming up and getting people open with formations and personnel groupings, things of that nature,” said Jones. “If we give him a yard and a half he’s going to complete balls, so you have to be within 18 inches of a guy or else it’s a completion unless the receiver drops it.”
Jones is set to go against his former team for the first time after spending two years and winning a Grey Cup under current Argos head coach Scott Milanovich, but the rookie head coach said he doesn’t expect it to be emotional.
“I get paid to win football games as a coach, and that’s what we, as a staff, gets paid to do,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you if my sister had a team and my mother had a team, I’d be out there trying to beat ‘em on game day.”
While the Esks are happy to be home after a successful road trip, the Argos head West thankful to have gotten a little more rest after playing twice in a five-day span. A 33-17 loss to the Lions wasn’t how the Boatmen wanted to cap off a quick two-game set against Winnipeg and BC, but Milanovich said he was happy with his team’s effort on a short week.
“I thought we got beat on special teams and we got beat on offence, and consequently we obviously didn’t win the game,” the third-year head coach told Argonauts.ca.
“I’m not disappointed with our effort though, I thought our guys played hard and we had a chance – just too many mistakes.”
After the teams combined for just 23 points through the first three quarters, the Argos took the lead on Terrell Sinkfield’s first career touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter. But with the offence unable to sustain drives after that and fatigue setting in for the defence, the Lions roared back with 20 unanswered points, including a pick-six by emerging star defensive back Ronnie Yell.
“The fumble early, three times we got stopped on second-and-two and just couldn’t sustain drives, and I just felt like our defence got a little bit worn down in the fourth quarter and they ran the ball fairly well,” Milanovich said.
“Tough game, tough loss but our guys played hard.”
Beaten up by injuries and a difficult early-season schedule, things could now be looking up for the Boatmen after splitting their previous two games and winning two of their last three. Chad Owens is set to return to the lineup in Edmonton, and a week after slotback Jason Barnes also returned, the Argo offence is starting to look familiar again.
“He’s dynamic,” said Milanovich. “He’s a guy you can give a short pass to and he can turn it into something more.”
“He’s just another weapon that Ricky has familiarity with, and with Jason Barnes back now I think it’ll just make Ricky more comfortable.”
Last weekend Owens went through pre-game warm-ups before the team’s matchup with the Lions, and afterwards said he felt great. After a strong week of practice the fifth-year Argo declared he was ready to go out West.
“I tried to go through a normal game-day routine and get warmed up, and it felt good,” Owens told the team’s official website. “Solomon Elimimian said ‘are you playing today’, and unfortunately I wasn’t but it’s just good to hear some of those things from your colleagues and teammates – from a confidence standpoint that helps.”
With 28 catches and 339 receiving yards in three games of work, Owens led the league when he went down and continues to lead the Argos in most categories. Even without the dynamic Hawaiian Ray still leads the league in passing, but the offence just wasn’t the same in Owens’ absence.
Three times Ray failed to complete at least 60 per cent of his passing attempts, something he had only done once in two seasons as an Argo leading up to this year. His completion percentage on the season is down to 68.1 – outstanding, but nothing like his unfathomable 77.2 per cent last season.
“Ricky’s that guy, no matter who’s out there,” Owens said. “I’m sure it matters to him and he’d like to have all the starters healthy, but the guys that stepped in really stepped up and were making plays, and it just goes to show how good Ricky is and his ability to adjust and make the throws on time.”
“Us as receivers, we just have to make sure we get open and we’re open on time.”
- With a win the Eskimos move to 7-1 on the season, something they last accomplished in 1989, the same year they started 9-1 and finished with a CFL record 16 victories (16-2).
- When Edmonton has either trailed or been tied at halftime, it is 3-1. The Esks have also won twice when trailing entering the fourth quarter, something that’s only happened five times overall in the CFL in 2014.
- The Esks had four red zone chances last week and failed to score a touchdown in four trips, turning the ball over twice and settling for two field goals. The Esks are just 33 per cent this season, scoring touchdowns on 6-of-18 attempts.
- They have the best red zone defence in the CFL, however, allowing a touchdown just 28 per cent of the time (5-of-18).
- Ricky Ray returns to Commonwealth Stadium for just the second time since being traded to the Argos before the 2012 season. He’s 0-1 there after sitting out last year’s game in Edmonton with a shoulder injury.
- Among the 24 starters in last week’s game vs. BC, only 12 Toronto players started in Week 1 for a lineup turnover rate of 50 per cent. A total of 43 players have made at least one start for Toronto in 2014, including 11 different receivers and four running backs.
- The Argos committed a season-low (for any club) three penalties against BC, marking the team’s lowest penalty total since Oct. 13, 2001 when it had three that day.
- 10 different players caught at least a pass two weeks ago for the Argos, then last week nine different players did. They’re up to 19 different pass-catchers through eight games, including Ray himself (who caught his own pass last weekend after it was batted back to him).
Kickoff is at 4:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live with CFL.ca Gamecast.
– With files from Esks.com/Argonauts.ca