Much-maligned Eskimos' defence comes up huge to stop Bombers in 20-16 win

Much-maligned Eskimos' defence comes up huge to stop Bombers in 20-16 win

Through their first two games, the Edmonton Eskimos' defence struggled, allowing 40.5 points and a league-leading 459 yards per game. Granted, both of those games went to overtime, but those numbers still weren't good, and they had plenty of people talking about the issues with their defence heading into Thursday's game on the road in Winnipeg. The Eskimos found a way to get their defence back on track, though, and it was huge in their 20-16 win over the Blue Bombers, especially on the final drive.

That final drive inside the final two minutes was a masterpiece of defensive strategy from Edmonton defensive coordinator Mike Benevides, who regularly dropped eight and nine players into coverage and blanketed Winnipeg's receivers down the field and towards the sidelines. As a result, Winnipeg quarterback Drew Willy opted to take the underneath throws and gradually move the chains, but the Eskimos did a great job of coming up to tackle quickly and force second and third downs with time ticking off the clock. (Yes,  the Bombers could have done much better on their side too, but that doesn't diminish the defensive performance.) When Winnipeg eventually ran out of time and had to throw deep, Edmonton safety Neil King was there to make the game-sealing interception, giving the Eskimos the win and also providing some vindication for their defence.

There was a sense that maybe this was some momentum building from last week, where the Edmonton defence gave up 36 points but did come up with the crucial third-and-one stop to knock off the Saskatchewan Roughriders in overtime. It's possible that remarkable play may have helped provide some confidence and let the Eskimos turn the corner defensively. It's also quite likely that the inexperienced-overall and inexperienced-together players Edmonton's using this year are getting more used to the league and to each other as the season progresses, and are figuring out what Benevides (a new hire ahead of this season) wants them to do. By the way, the anonymous coach or manager who blamed the Eskimos' defensive struggles on the transition from Chris Jones to Benevides is way off: yes, Jones is a great defensive mind, but so is Benevides, and the real answer is closer to what another insider in that column said about the massive losses in Edmonton's linebacking corps and secondary, including Dexter McCoil and Aaron Grymes to the NFL, Otha Foster to Saskatchewan and John Ojo to injury. That attrition had taken a toll on this defence through two games, but the replacements seem to be starting to figure things out.

Not everything was perfect Thursday, of course. Winnipeg quarterback Drew Willy threw for 299 yards and completed 25 of 38 passes (65.8 per cent), and those aren't numbers the Eskimos particularly want to see from opposing quarterbacks. They buckled down in the red zone, though, allowing just one touchdown, and they only allowed three points after the half (which came in the third quarter). They also stuffed the run nicely, holding Andrew Harris to 22 yards on nine carries (2.4 yards per carry), and they came up with two interceptions, three sacks, and a fumble recovery. While they got some help from their offence (Mike Reilly threw for 465 yards and two touchdowns and Adarius Bowman had 10 grabs for 185 yards, including this spectacular one), that's still an impressive defensive performance overall. If this unit keeps improving, the rest of the league might need to watch out.