Ferguson: National talent paying dividends for Als, Esks
Every year around this time we at CFL.ca are asked to do breakdowns, analysis and predictions regarding who has the best chance to survive and advance in the CFL’s playoff adventure.
Quarterbacks, coaching experience, kicking game, ability to run the ball in inevitably freezing temperatures and much more go into our efforts to bring you the best coverage possible, but every year my mind always comes back to one thing.
While American quarterbacks and coaches are often the headline, the story is quite often about the contributions of many to reach a championship one win at a time. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the names to know on each side of the ball and predict who should have the national advantage Sunday in Montreal for the Eastern Semi-Final.
At their best, the Montreal defence is playing fast, free, and at times bordering on reckless for coordinator Bob Slowik. He has been gifted a talented core of top end Canadian talent anchored by middle linebacker Henoc Muamba, who serves as the Alouettes’ most outstanding Canadian nominee in 2019 while racking up a team leading 93 defensive tackles.
Supporting Muamba on defence is hard hitting Bo Lokombo, who has been good for a couple all-time hit highlights this year, along with a pleasant surprise to many DJ Lalama, standout Chris Ackie and stout run stopper Fabion Foote.
Last year the national talent on the Eskimos defence was obviously lacking and it cost Mike Benevides his job as defensive coordinator. This year that same young core has another year of understanding under their belt and a top five draft pick added to the mix.
Kwaku Boateng is the leader of this group with Mathieu Betts hot on his heels as he shows the ability to produce in the CFL as he did at Laval.
Advantage: Muamba by himself is enough to take this one, but the evolution from injured free safety Taylor Loffler to Lokombo and the emergence of national depth on defence at all three levels gives Montreal the advantage.
It’s all about the big men for Edmonton up front. The tradition and longevity of a strong national core up front is strong in the Esks’ organization and that continues in 2019 with O’Donnell, Ruby and rookie out of UNLV Kyle Saxelid all playing key roles.
At offensive skill positions Tevaun Smith has unlimited amounts of potential while Alex Taylor continues to play the backup role assigned to him very effectively.
Anybody else see Trey Rutherford’s block on that wide receiver screen in Week 19 against the Argos and think, “yep, he’s going to be a bad man for a long time.”
Same. Rutherford has come into his own after being taken second overall in the 2018 CFL Draft and is surrounded by talented nationals, while Kaion Julien-Grant could supply a spark off the bench behind veteran Felix-Faubert-Lussier Sunday if Grant dresses.
Advantage: It’s close, but the advantage here goes to Edmonton. I believe Tevaun Smith will give more production on Sunday than Faubert-Lussier and Grant combined, while the Esks’ national linemen keep Trevor Harris clean and able to dissect Montreal’s secondary.
Edmonton Special Teams
Statistically speaking Sean Whyte has been off the charts this year, thanks in part to Edmonton’s early season score zone struggles. In the punting department Hugh O’Neil has done well to average 45.1 yards per kick, helping Edmonton gain field position head-to-head.
Montreal Special Teams
Bede averages a respectable 44.6 yards per punt while handling all three responsibilities for the Alouettes. He is supported by his coverage unit which features seven of the Alouettes’ top eight special teams tacklers (J.S. Blanc, Ty Cranston, Christophe Normand, Bo Banner, Bo Lokombo, Paul Kozachuk and Spencer Moore).
Advantage: While Edmonton has enjoyed national James Tuck’s outstanding 15 special teams tackle season and Sean Whyte has been very accurate, I lean Montreal here thanks to the overwhelming number of nationals’ names making contributions on special teams and the minimal amount of separation for Whyte and O’Neil from Bede.
The playoffs are a great chance to enjoy fast and fun football with stakes attached, but while you’re watching Sunday think about the Canadians, where have they come from and what your favourite team might look like without them. Many of these guys will be living out a childhood dream this Sunday and throughout the playoffs as they strap on a CFL uniform and play in front of friends, family and passionate Canadian football fans.
It’s an experience unlike any other and their performances while handling those emotions just might be the difference in a Grey Cup championship.