August 12, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: Defence leading the way in Edmonton

Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca

It’s tough to stand out in a West Division boasting four teams with five wins or more. That’s why the Edmonton Eskimos haven’t necessarily burst off the page so far in 2019. However, a closer look at what the Esks have done all year suggests an already very good team is poised to really get on a roll.

Edmonton sits tied for second in the West with Calgary and Saskatchewan; at 5-3, all three teams sit one back of first place Winnipeg at 6-2. Coming off a 16-12 win over Ottawa on Friday night, the Eskimos have shown they can win games in a variety of ways. Right now, they look like the CFL’s most consistent team on both sides of the football.

“We have the best defence in the league in my opinion,” were the words of head coach Jason Maas post-game on Friday. And while those comments may have made for good headline material, he’s not saying anything incorrect. Edmonton is clicking on all cylinders defensively with an impressive offensive unit to boot.

Instead of leading the league in sexy categories like sacks or interceptions, the Esks are simply relying on strong, fundamental defensive football. Edmonton has modest totals of six forced fumbles and ten interceptions, but that’s not what’s moving the needle for them. Instead, the Eskimos are, well, just making it really hard to gain yards or score points on them.

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If you’re looking for evidence to support Maas’s claim, look at where Edmonton ranks in almost every defensive category. At under 18 per game, the Esks are allowing the fewest points against in the league. That seems to follow in line when you look at the rest of their defensive totals.

Edmonton is also the CFL’s number one team against the pass; they’re the only team averaging less than 200 yards (193.1) against per game. On the ground, the Eskimos are allowing 82.0 yards against per game, which is second to only Winnipeg (66.4) approaching the halfway mark of the season.

I guess we shouldn’t be overly surprised at what Edmonton is doing defensively based on the personnel in place. Almondo Sewell and Mike Moore anchor a very good defensive line. Larry Dean, Don Unamba, and Vontae Diggs form what could be the league’s best trio of linebackers. Arjen Colquoun and Anthony Orange are an elite corner duo. This is an extremely talented group coached by an experienced football mind in Phillip Lolley. As such, this is no fluke.

The Esks aren’t a one-trick pony, though. Sure, defence was the name of Friday’s win over the REDBLACKS, but let’s not forget what this team can do with the ball in their hands. Led by Trevor Harris, Edmonton boasts the number one passing attack in the CFL; Harris’s 2,631 yards through the air is the league’s highest total by a significant margin.

At receiver, the Eskimos have relied heavily on a strong one-two punch in Ricky Collins and Greg Ellingson, a pair of big time free agent signings. DaVaris Daniels, another free agent newcomer, is only just starting to come into his own after some injury issues to start the season.

With CJ Gable and Shaq Cooper at tailback, Edmonton is averaging just under 100 yards per game on the ground. It’s a nice total to compliment the team’s passing attack, and I think there’s more potential in how productive both Gable and Cooper can be.

There are still some areas to work through for the Esks, which is to be expected eight games in. I think they can be a little more steady offensively and a little more explosive on special teams. Edmonton is one of the few teams in the league without a return touchdown this season, although there’s lots of time to go.

Overall, though, the Eskimos and their fans can feel pretty good about where they’re sitting. At 5-3, Edmonton is right in the fight with three other outstanding teams. With what we’ve seen through almost one half of a season, I expect the Esks to fighting for top spot in the West Division all season long.

Challenge accepted?

I’m really curious to see how Montreal responds after an unfortunate weekend. After a tough overtime loss to Ottawa in Week 8, the Alouettes just didn’t have luck on their side one week later.

Montreal was without offensive leaders Vernon Adams Jr. and William Stanback due to injury, which made things difficult to begin with against a very good Riders team. Add that to uncooperative weather and a shortened 17-10 loss, you can understand why there’d be some frustration inside that locker room.

We can debate the league’s “weather protocol” all we want on the outside, but the Als have to forget all about what happened this weekend. The fact is, they had some bad breaks and they fell back below .500 as a result. But this team needs to park the last two weeks, focus on the positives, and get what looks like a very promising season back on track.

Montreal has a tough task in Week 10; they’re on the road to take on the Stampeders with Bo Levi Mitchell very likely back at quarterback. But this isn’t the same Alouettes we’ve seen the last number of years. Prior to their last two losses, this team had a noticeable and well-earned swagger, which is something they need to keep.


Buy Week 9 Tickets
» Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET: BC at Winnipeg
» Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET: Edmonton at Toronto
» Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET: Hamilton at Ottawa
» Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET: Montreal at Calgary


With a longer week to prepare, and with a game already missed, I’m curious to see if Adams is back under centre in Calgary. While I was slow to come around, I’m really on board with what I’ve seen from “Big Play VA” this season. He’s significantly more accurate than he’s ever been, still has game-breaking speed, and hasn’t been afraid to throw the deep ball.

Similarly, if Stanback returns, Montreal gets the league’s most explosive runner (at least for me) back in their backfield. Stanback is torching opposing defences with a 6.8 yards-per-carry average and an ability to slash it outside or run right over you up the middle.

There are still some things to work out defensively, but the Als are coming around in that area, too. Patrick Levels has been a nice addition at cover linebacker, as has Ciante Evans in the defensive backfield. And, despite some big passing totals against Montreal, Tommie Campbell remains one of the better lockdown corners in the league.

The last two weeks have been unfortunate for Montreal and you could understand some frustration. For head coach Khari Jones, though, I wonder if the better message isn’t to accentuate the positives. After years of struggles, the Alouettes look to have taken a significant step this season.

Staying true to that is how Montreal overcomes a bad run of luck.

Quick hits

Every year it seems some wonder if Winnipeg’s Andrew Harris is poised to finally take a step back. After all, he’s 32 years old and he can’t possibly keep up his production, right? I’ve pushed back on that narrative for some time because, well, it really doesn’t make sense. If a guy is coming off his best statistical season at 31, what suggests he’s just going to fall off one year later?

Harris touched the ball 27 times as the Bombers outlasted Calgary 26-24 on Thursday night. That doesn’t suggest Winnipeg is all that worried about his durability or longevity, and nor should they be. Harris looked just as fresh in the fourth quarter as he did early on, the same way he looks just as fresh at 32 as he ever has.

Finally, I think you can say Saturday night was the official “welcome to the CFL” moment for Dane Evans. Hamilton’s new starting quarterback connected with Brandon Banks on some huge gains late in the fourth quarter to turn a 34-22 deficit into a stunning 35-34 win over the BC Lions.

With Jeremiah Masoli done for the season, we all know Evans has big shoes to fill. The good news for the Tiger-Cats, though, is they don’t need a quarterback to singlehandedly win them games. With a great group of receivers and an outstanding defensive unit led by the likes of Delvin Breaux, Richard Leonard, and Ja’Gared Davis, Hamilton’s 6-2 record is truly a team effort.