CFL round one playoff preview
By David Hollinshead, Contributor
The Canadian Football League playoffs have begun, and the entire West Division is invited. Due to the league’s crossover rule, if the fourth placed team in one division has a better record than the third place team in the other, the team will join the other division. Such is the case with the Edmonton Eskimos, whose record of 7–10 in week 17 clinched their playoff spot after the Hamilton Tiger-Cats dropped a close game against the Toronto Argonauts 43–40, leaving them with a 6–12 record.
Edmonton struggled all season at the quarterback position. After trading all-time leading passer Ricky Ray to Toronto for Steven Jyles, Eskimos General Manager Eric Tillman raised a lot of eyebrows, considering it left the team without a legitimate starting quarterback. The position had Jyles rotating with 39-year-old veteran Kerry Joseph—with both of their performances being inconsistent and having the second worst offense in the league. The interesting thing is what happened in their week 17 loss to the Montreal Alouettes where Jyles didn’t play due to injury, and Joseph left the game with a hand laceration in the fourth quarter, opening the doors for third string Matt Nichols. Down by 16 points, Nichols threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns, including one at the last second to bring the Eskimos within two, looking to tie the game. Nichols overthrew Cary Koch and the game ended with a loss, but brought excitement to an Edmonton offense that has lacked explosiveness all year. This brings in yet another quarterback controversy. Who do you start in your playoff game against Toronto?
Head coach Kavis Reed has said that Joseph is still their man, but if the game comes down to a shootout, there is no way that Joseph will be able to keep up and Edmonton will surely lose. Joseph’s experience might give you the best chance of the three, seeing as he’s the only one to have won a Grey Cup (one with Saskatchewan, one with Toronto). If the team decides to go with Nichols, his inexperience might wind up costing them, but he is the unknown. No team has any insight on him and he could be a surprise against a weak Toronto secondary that has depended on its offense to win them games.
Despite having a .500 record at 9-9, Toronto has allowed 46 more points than it has scored. That screams inconsistency on both sides of the ball. Ricky Ray was thrust into a change of scenery and had to pick things up quickly in a new Toronto system, and first time head coach Scott Milanovich might still be figuring out the kinks. This offense also cut running back Cory Boyd mid-way through the season, despite his league leading rushing yards because he wasn’t an effective enough receiver as now starter Chad Kackert. Toronto has all the cards in their favor to win this game if they can solve a stingy Eskimo defense. If the Eskimo defense holds up, and Nichols can do what he did against Montreal, Edmonton has a slight potential to blow out Toronto.
In the West, the Calgary Stampeders will be taking on the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Being a contender for first in the west doesn’t usually have a quarterback controversy underneath it, but such is the case in Calgary, who could start either Drew Tate or Kevin Glenn and have success this post-season. Having the best offense in the west will help against the Roughriders, who have the second best defense in the league and are the only team to have a winning record against the defending Grey Cup champions, the BC Lions. Calgary’s defense is no push over either, being third in the league. The key for Calgary will be not allowing the big play. Saskatchewan’s whole plan of attack revolves around running Kory Sheets into the ground and throwing screens to 10 yard passes, and once you start cheating up they throw it over the top. It’s a gimmick that is effective and hard to stop, but if you can get in quarterback Darian Durant’s head you can dictate what he does, either with turnovers or pressure.
Calgary will also have to own the time of possession clock. With Jon Cornish coming off one of the greatest seasons for a Canadian, running him effectively to keep your defense off the field will be substantial for your defense to keep fresh. Saskatchewan’s defense will have its hands full. Playing too aggressive on Cornish will open up downfield for guys like Romby Bryant and Nik Lewis, but playing man coverage will open holes on the line. Saskatchewan will need to try and confuse Glenn by throwing zone blitzes at him and giving him different looks. Disciplined play on the defense, and a methodical offense give the Roughriders the best chance to win, but one too many mistakes and the Stampeders could blow right by them.