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MONTREAL — They may not be considered Grey Cup favourites, but there’s no reason one of the Montreal Alouettes and Edmonton Eskimos can’t make a deep playoff run this November.
The Esks enter the post-season on the hope that their franchise quarterback, Trevor Harris, can rediscover his early-season form, when he led the league in passing and boasted a 14-3 touchdown to interception ratio from June through August.
Montreal, meanwhile, has reinvigorated its fan base, winning 10 games and earning a home playoff game for the first time since 2014, thanks in large part to first-time head coach Khari Jones and emerging young star Vernon Adams Jr.
The winner will travel to Hamilton for the Eastern Final, needing just one more victory to play for the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw in Calgary.
What will be the difference in Sunday’s cross-division class? CFL.ca has the numbers you need to know:
When the going gets tough, Vernon Adams Jr. is at his best. The Alouettes’ quarterback has raised his game in pressure situations, posting a quarterback rating of 108.1 to go with a stunning 9.6 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter in 2019.
Not only are those numbers among the CFL’s elite, Adams has also engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks, including memorable late-game heroics against Calgary and Winnipeg. Meanwhile, 10 of his 24 touchdown passes have come in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The Eskimos must be aware that no matter what the score, containing Adams will be a challenge. In his first full season as a starter, Adams is tied for the league lead with 9.1 yards per passing attempt, but he’s equally dangerous as a runner, totaling 12 touchdowns and 394 yards on 82 rushing attempts.
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is the CFL’s all-time win percentage leader, but Adams is earning himself a reputation as a winner early in his career. Sunday will mark his first career playoff start, but the 26-year-old has already proven that no moment will ever be too big.
On a unit that ranks top three in virtually every offensive category, the offensive line has been the engine of the Eskimos’ success this season. Anchored by 6-foot-11 guard Matthew O’Donnell, the Esks have allowed just 25 sacks this season — nine fewer than second-ranked Calgary.
Nothing halts a drive quicker than a sack, which is why the Eskimos’ pass protection has been key to a passing attack that ranks fourth in passing yards (293.7 per game), third in completion percentage (69.8) and third in interceptions (16).
What’s clear is that the Alouettes’ pass rush against the Eskimos’ O-line will be a key battleground in Sunday’s matchup. While the Esks have allowed the fewest sacks, the Als have gotten to opposing quarterbacks a league-low 27 times.
That lack of pass rush could cause some problems for the Alouettes, who have allowed a CFL-worst 73.6 opponent completion percentage and also rank near the bottom in opponent passer rating (103.0) and completions of 30-plus yards (27), spelling trouble against one of the CFL’s most accurate passers.
The Alouettes have shown some positives under first-time defensive coordinator Bob Slowik, but the team’s pass defence ranks among the CFL’s worst in 2019.
There’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball, with veteran corner Tommie Campbell, emerging star Greg Reid and a returning Ciante Evans starting on a new-look defensive backfield. Yet that unit will be tested against one of the league’s most efficient offences led by Trevor Harris.
This season the Als’ secondary has given up the most passing yards (316 per game), the most completions (472) and the worst completion percentage (73.6%). Inversely, the Eskimos boast the CFL’s fourth-ranked passing attack (293.7 yards per game) despite missing starter Trevor Harris for five games.
Just a year removed from his record-breaking, six-touchdown playoff performance against the Ticats, we’ve seen what Harris can do against weaker defences. Harris is a career 70 per cent passer, while the Eskimos’ offence thrives on completing a high percentage of passes and staying on the field.
The Alouettes will need to find ways to contain Harris when the two sides meet on Sunday.