Eskimos 5 Things: Priming the playoff pump
What can you say about Saturday’s regular-season finale that didn’t mean a thing in the standings to the Edmonton Eskimos? Plenty, as it turns out. Yes, the team that finished sixth out of the six playoff squads has been locked into the crossover spot for the past three weeks with no chance of moving up or down. But they didn’t exactly wind out the string on their schedule like a playful kitten. With all the post-whistle pushing and shoving that took place, the Eskimos showed their claws against a Saskatchewan Roughriders squad at the top of the division, as both teams were already getting into the groove for the one-and-done, do-or-die post-season to come. Here is what we learned from the 23-13 loss to the Roughriders to cap off Week 21 and prime the playoff pump:
Saturday’s game at Mosaic Stadium still meant something in the standings to Edmonton’s provincial rivals, the Calgary Stampeders, who needed an Eskimos victory in order to stay in the hunt for first place in the West Division. Instead, Saskatchewan won to end up on top of the heap, thanks in no small part to a game sealing interception return for a touchdown after the Eskimos trotted out their fourth-string quarterback to close out the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter. Troy Williams, who spent most of his rookie CFL season on the practice squad, threw just three passes in the game. One was complete to a teammate and another went to Roughriders linebacker Cameron Judge 29 yards the other way for six points.
It’s getting to the point where defenders can’t even touch a quarterback without being flagged for roughing the passer with the state of today’s ultra sensitive, precautionary focused rules. And, as you can imagine, it’s making things challenging for pass rushers. While we are all in favour of making the game safe for its most prized possessions, the quarterbacks, at some point it must fall on the passer to give himself up in the interest of safety. Instead we get plays like one on Saturday, when Saskatchewan’s Isaac Harker made a last-ditch effort to elude Eskimos linebacker Don Unamba, whose split-second reaction to the move resulted in what would have been his seventh sack in six games, until the flag flew. The other option was for the defender to ease up, which may have resulted in the quarterback getting away, which can’t really be an option. Can it?
Unamba’s sack wasn’t the only one the referees took away Saturday, but Eskimos defensive end Alex Bazzie still had two that counted. Both of Edmonton’s in the game, in fact, and they ended up being the difference in a season-long sack race that saw the Eskimos and Roughriders finish neck and neck with 56 apiece to end up in a first-place tie for the second year in a row. While it took a team effort to stay on pace with a Roughriders pass rush featuring Charleston Hughes and his league-high 16 quarterback takedowns, Bazzie was a bit of an unlikely source. Especially given his 2019 season, which saw his role diminish from full-time starter to secondary support on an Eskimos defensive line brimming with young talent. But having started just one previous game this year, Bazzie oozed consummate professionalism and made up for lost time by helping his team hang onto the sack title.
BILL OF HEALTH
In football, like life, you are nothing without your health. And the Eskimos escaped Saturday’s game with about as clean a bill as can be expected in a collision sport. With a get-well-soon nod to backup offensive lineman Travis Bond, who left in the second half with a lower-body injury, the Eskimos first-stringers appear to be upright and ready to roll in Sunday’s East Division semifinal against the Montreal Alouettes (11 a.m., TSN, 630 CHED). Taking a cue from a week earlier, when they lost kick-return specialist Christion Jones to a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the home-and-away series against Saskatchewan, the Eskimos came into Saturday’s finale with a safety-first approach, sitting quarterback Trevor Harris and his two top targets, Greg Ellingson and Ricky Collins Jr., along with sack leader Mike Moore and veteran backfielder Calvin McCarty. While they took some flack for it from fans, imagine the backlash that would be taking place had one of the central pieces ended up getting hurt in a ‘meaningless’ game.
BY THE NUMBERS
While it didn’t always translate to wins, the Eskimos finished the 2019 regular season with some decent numbers. Harris, despite missing nearly six full games with an injury to his throwing arm, still finished second overall with 4,027 passing yards while boasting a league-best interception percentage of 1.3 with 16 touchdowns to six interceptions. And he helped the aforementioned Ellingson and Collins Jr. reach the top-10 in receiving yards, both of whom were among 13 players in the league this season to reach the 1,000-yard mark in receiving. The Eskimos also had another 1,000-yarder in running back C.J. Gable, who – thanks to some creative accounting on the part of the league – saw the 997 rushing yards he earned prior to suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the final three games, get bumped up by four yards after having his plays reviewed. Linebacker Larry Dean finished top five in tackles, Moore and fellow D-linemen Almondo Sewell and Kwaku Boateng finished top 10 in sacks.
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge