Playoff Preview: Can the crossover Eskimos stay hot against the Ticats?

Andrew Bucholtz
Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly leads an offence that tops the CFL in a number of categories. (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber photo)

Welcome back to our Playoff Preview series, an analytical look at the offence, defence and special teams matchups in each CFL postseason game. Let’s start with Sunday’s first game, the East semifinal, where the 10-8 Edmonton Eskimos are crossing over to take on the 7-11 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The game will air at 1 p.m. Eastern from Hamilton on TSN, ESPN2 and BT Sports, and can be streamed on TSN Go and WatchESPN or through a subscription to YareSports in 150 other countries outside CFL broadcast territories. Here’s a look at the matchups.

Edmonton offence: Five unmiked (but Miked) quarterbacks: Last year, the Eskimos’ Grey Cup run and championship had a lot to do with their dominant defence. This year, the offence has been their dominant unit. They’re first in the CFL in yards of offence per game (418.7), first downs (448) and completion percentage (71.0), and second in the league in points per game (30.5) and touchdowns (57). Their offence has been relatively balanced, too; they’re second in the league in both rushing yards per game (103.7) and passing yards per game (329.0).

Mike Reilly has been phenomenal at quarterback, finishing with 5,554 passing yards (first in the league), 28 passing touchdowns (second) and 408 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Receivers Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker finished first and second in receiving yards with 1,761 and 1,589 respectively, and running back John White has also been great, collecting 886 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns with a 5.4 yards per carry average and then adding 58 catches for 464 yards and another touchdown. The Eskimos’ offensive line has excelled, too, paving the way for the ground game and allowing the second-fewest sacks in the passing game. Head coach and offensive coordinator Jason Maas has done a nice job with this offence, and they won’t be easy to stop.

Edmonton defence: Three coordinator changes: The Eskimos’ defence went through a major transition this year, with head coach and defensive coordinator Chris Jones leaving for Saskatchewan in the offseason and taking several key players with him. Replacement Mike Benevides took some time to settle in and get the team adjusted to his system, and the defence struggled in many of Edmonton’s early-season losses. Their statistics on the year aren’t great; they’re middle of the pack in most categories.

However, the Eskimos’ defence has improved over the course of the season, and it was a key part of their 5-1 run to end the year; they’ve allowed 17, 26, 32, 20, 26 and 23 points in those games, an average of 24 points – below the 27.6 they allowed all year long. Players like Almondo Sewell (11 sacks from the defensive tackle spot) and Deon Lacey (87 defensive tackles, three interceptions and a fumble recovery) have done very well, and Edmonton’s second with four defensive touchdowns on the year. So the defence is improving, and has big-play capabilities.

Edmonton special teams: Four accurate kickers: Sean Whyte had an excellent season, finishing with 45 made field goals on 48 attempts, a 93.8 per cent success rate that’s the best among anyone with five or more attempts. Grant Shaw did pretty well on punts, averaging 44.1 yards per. The Eskimos’ return game hasn’t been great, though; Kenziel Doe picked up returns for most of the season without exceptional results. We’ll see if Troy Stoudemire (signed in September, and used over the last few weeks) can do better.

Hamilton offence: Three injured quarterbacks: Zach Collaros has looked like one of the league’s best quarterbacks at times, but he hasn’t found much consistency this year. Hamilton was rolling early with Jeremiah Masoli while Collaros was still recovering from surgery, and many thought the Ticats would dominate once he returned, but that didn’t happen. In 10 games, Collaros posted 2,938 yards and 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions with a 66.8 completion percentage, which is fine, but below the standard we’ve often seen from him. Hamilton finished middle of the road in points per game (fourth) and yards per game (fifth), and while they threw the ball more than anyone (708 attempts and 480 completions, both league-highs), they finished only third in passing yards per game (324.1) and fifth in yards gained per pass (8.2). The ground game wasn’t great, either; they don’t run much (a league-low 242 attempts), but weren’t successful when they did, as their 5.0 yards per rush was sixth in the league. They did look decent offensively against Edmonton two weeks ago (a 29-26 loss), so we’ll see if they can build off that.

Hamilton defence: Three fiery coordinators: Orlondo Steinauer’s defence has been generally good since he took over as Ticats’ DC in 2013, but this year hasn’t been great. They did all right from a yards-allowed standpoint (357.2 per game, third in the league), but allowed 27.9 points per game, seventh in the CFL. They are good at stopping the run (4.6 yards per rush, second-best in the CFL), but have been more vulnerable to the pass (8.6 yards per pass, tied for sixth). Steinauer’s defence does come up with big plays, though, and the Ticats’ 17 interceptions are second-best in the league. If they can get a few of those Sunday, that could go a long way towards a win here. Home-field advantage may also help Steinauer’s unit out; Tim Hortons Field can get pretty loud.

Hamilton special teams: Four departed kickers: Losing Justin Medlock to Winnipeg in free agency this offseason hurt the Ticats. Medlock posted a league-record 60 field goals with an 88.2 per cent success rate, while Hamilton replacement Brett Maher hit 41 with an 82.0 per cent success rate. Kicking in Hamilton can be quite difficult, and Maher’s doing okay at it, but Medlock was better. Maher’s been good in the punting game, though, averaging 45.9 yards per punt, and the Ticats do have perhaps the league’s most-feared returner in Brandon Banks. A big return or two from him could help turn the tide Sunday.

X-factor: The turnover game. Hamilton had the aforementioned 17 picks this year, while Edmonton had 15. Reilly only threw 12 interceptions, while Collaros only threw eight (in fewer games). These quarterbacks don’t turn the ball over much, but these are skilled ball-hawking defences. A pick or two might change the course of this game either way.

Prediction: Edmonton 29, Hamilton 26.