June 25th, 2018

Inside the CFL: Esks, Riders heating up at the right time

By Ryan McCracken on November 14, 2017.

When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not you’re not. Right now the Eskimos and Roughriders are hot. Until three weeks ago, whenever I was asked who would win the Grey Cup, I always said, “Calgary.” They were a hot 13-1-1. But they finished the regular season with three straight losses. Despite those losses, the Stampeders are confident, perhaps over-confident. What they need Sunday is fear, the attitude that they must play desperate football to win.

The Stampeder offence has been decimated by injuries to the offensive line, receiving corps and quarterback. But veteran Marquis McDaniel and Western nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie Marken Michel will be back, teaming up with DeVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and Anthony Parker. With the return of Shane Bergman, the offensive line is intact. Running back Jerome Messam has been healthy but ineffective. About half the time the first place finisher loses the final. Because of the extra week off, they lose their edge. In this case, though, the bye might be just what the doctor ordered. By Sunday, the team that went 13-1-1 through Oct. 19 should be healthy again. The defence is the best, the special teams excellent. If the ailing Bo Levi Mitchell and his pass catchers can return to form, Calgary can win.

But defence will decide it. During the team’s three-game losing streak, the defenders still played well. Most opposition points were the result of the offence’s turnovers. Two of the four defensive line all-stars are Stamps, Charleston Hughes and Micah Johnson. Just as good as either, Ja’Gared Davis is back inside. Linebacker Alex Singleton is the West’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player. The secondary with Ciante Evans, Jamar Wall, Joshua bell, Brandon Smith and Tommie Campbell is superb. Outside linebackers Shaq Richardson and Jameer Thurman may be the most underrated defenders in the league. Calgary led the league in every important defensive category.

Western special teams nominee Roy Finch is back. Punter Rob Maver and kicker Rene Paredes are the best. Even if the offence is rusty, dominating special teams and defence should be enough to win, especially if the weather is bad.

The Stampeders believe they blew the Grey Cup to Ottawa last year and have been dedicated from the first day of training camp to return to the big game and claim what they believe was rightfully theirs in 2016.

If the Stamps are confident, the Eskimos are downright cocky. They’ve likely already applied for a Jasper Avenue parade permit to celebrate their upcoming Grey Cup victory. They should and will be favoured to win the final. The great Mike Reilly has the CFL’s best receiving corps and he now has a formidable running attack with recent arrival C. J. Gable.

But they gave up the most sacks. Calgary’s giveaway-takeaway number was plus-20, Edmonton’s was zero. Only Montreal took more penalties than Edmonton and the Eskimo defence committed the most infractions, 24 more than Calgary. Edmonton was second-last against the run. The Eskimo secondary is suspect. Playoff pressure exposes weaknesses.

With the return game, Edmonton has the edge on kickoffs, Calgary punts. Rene Pardes made 91.4% of his field-goal attempts, Edmonton’s combination, 80%.

Although Saskatchewan trounced the Redblacks, Toronto has a much better quarterback in Ricky Ray. They are led by receiver S.J. Green and sensational running back James Wilder Jr.

Only Edmonton amassed more yards. The Argo’s had the second toughest defence in the league, second to Calgary in sacks and offence surrendered. They will face another great western receiving corps, so good the Riders used Duron Carter as a decoy. Plucked out of retirement weeks ago, running back Marcus Thigpen has been formidable.

Regarding special teams, both are average. Both have reliable kicking games. Both take a lot of penalties but the Riders take fewer penalties on special teams which means they usually have good field position.

The stadium is beside Lake Ontario. Cold and rain could be factors.

Inexplicably, Kevin Glenn faced little pressure last Sunday, even though the Riders had a makeshift offensive line. Boatmen Boss Marc Trestman won’t make that mistake. The Double Blue will force Glenn from the game to be replaced by the mobile Brandon Bridge. He will lead the first crossover team into the Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 45 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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