The evolution of the Edmonton Eskimos defence is finally progressing thanks to time, effort and a key personnel need being addressed. After seven weeks of development and experimentation at the wide side corner Ed Hervey has made a roster move to solidify the Esks defence.
On August 8th the Eskimos quietly signed veteran cornerback Brandyn Thompson and released the inexperienced Deion Belue. This move is the single most important move the Esks have made on defense since the start of the regular season. Why? Eskimos fans have seen the wide side corner play as the major reason why the unpopular passive zone defence has been deployed this season. While the cover two deep corner scheme and lack of pass rush is being blamed, shouldn’t Esks fans have tempered their expectations early only to expect progress now?
Eskimo Defensive Evolution
Wide Side Corner Woes
Clearly the Eskimos expected John Ojo, who had forty-one tackles and five interceptions in 2015, to be the starting wide side cornerback. Hervey and the Esks management team were ill prepared for the season ending injury to Ojo. With Aaron Grymes taking his talent to the NFL, there is a lack of a veteran to partner with Cord Parks. Playing Parks at halfback is the lesser of two evils. One can see the logic of moving Parks to cornerback if Grymes were to return from the NFL. Hervey tested this concept in Week 1. He then opted for a middle ground by signing a veteran and developing a corner; rather than signing a second CFL veteran on the corner.
Clearly the Esks thought they could find another Ojo and could save cap money by going with unseasoned defensive back. So Deion Belue started the season at the wide side halfback, then moved to the corner in Week two. In three regular season starts he chalked up eight tackles with one pass defence, but no interceptions, sacks, or forced fumbles. Belue was asked to play a deep cushion in an offset cover two zone, which undoubtedly impacted his ability to evolve into a playmaker. However, with his uninspired play, by week 5 had Belue was off and rookie Solomon Means on the active roster.
Cover Two Scheme
Means has had an inauspicious stint at the corner so far, with nine tackles and no big plays. Means was afforded a better opportunity for play making via the scheme evolution by the Eskimos, but has failed to seize the opportunity. With Labour Day fast approaching and Thompson on the roster, Means is on the bubble.
The Esks secondary has been slow to grasp the complex cover two scheme, but over the last two games their evolution has progressed. The key to the current Esks defensive scheme is working as one as unit and not attempting to play outside of one’s role. Boundary corner Pat Watkins has proven old dogs can learn new tricks in grasping this concept. The Thompson signing means the other veterans will have someone they can trust to complement Watkins in making plays as a unit. While with the Ottawa Redblacks Thompson started 17 games collecting 42 tackles, three interceptions, and a forced fumble in 2015, but was still a surprise Ottawa cut in 2016. He is an apt replacement for Ojo, at least statistically speaking.
Evolving Coverage Schemes
Thompson will be an upgrade on the corner, allowing the secondary to play even more multifaceted coverage schemes. Over the last two games, defensive coordinator Mike Benevides has used more double coverage. He has moved away from a more bland base passive zone. As the scheme continues to evolve, the Esks can shift to a multidimensional mix of attacking man and double coverage zones. It is no coincidence that the Eskimos have the second least sacks and the second most points against in the league while playing mostly a passive zone. Continued scheme alteration is a must. However it can’t be done until the gap at wide side corner has been addressed. This has finally happened.
If the secondary can cover for that one extra second then the front four and will linebacker Deon Lacey can come on the blitz. The sacks will come. Getting more pressure and sacks forces the offense to think about another dynamic and leads to hurries. Coach Benevides has argued that his schemes would take time to learn. With so many new faces patience would be required by Eskie fans. Lacey has shown he has adjusted well to the defensive scheme. He is evolving into the star he was projected to be in Benevides’ promised “championship-calibre” defence. Benevides is on the track with the development, but development time has to finish soon if the coach is going to deliver on his promise.
Leading by Example
Other than tweaking schemes and personnel, Benevides needs to motivate J.C. Sherritt to lead by example and play all-star ball at middle linebacker. As Sherritt goes, so does the Esks defense. He must play sound positional football then use his good lateral speed to get his nose around the football often. Sherritt made two game saving plays to keep the Esks in the hunt. He must make big plays consistently if the defense is going to take another step forward.
Add in Kenny Ladler’s strong play all season. The linebackers are quickly evolving as a strength of the Esks defence. The former Buffalo Bill Ladler is more nickel defensive back than linebacker. Once teamed up with Parks and Thompson they could form a formidable wide side cover trio opposite wily veterans Pat Watkins and Marcel Young. Ladler can also stop the run and is a nice hybrid player. This allows Benevides to further mix in different defensive looks.
What the secondary doesn’t have is a lot of depth going forward.
Eskimos will not be getting a CFL veterans to bolster the defense any time soon. Certainly not from former Eskimos Aaron Grymes, Willie Jefferson and Dexter McCoil all whom are currently doing well enough in NFL camps to make the cut or be on a practice roster down south. However, it’s looking more and more probably for two players in particular to make their way to Edmonton.
First, nose tackle Stefan Charles is in tough against Khyri Thornton in the Detroit Lions camp. The recent trade of Gregory Alexandre to the Saskatchewan Roughriders was as much about making roster room as it was about acquiring national special teams depth in Alex Ogbongbemiga. If the Eskimos are able to sign Charles, that would push Jabari Hunt outside to his natural defensive end position. A Marcus Howard with Hunt combo would give a massive one-two punch on the blind side. Coupling Eddie Steele with Charles along with Howard and Hunt would definitely change the pass rush dynamic. Add in Lacey on the blindside blitz. The pass rush could be the most improved part of the Eskimos defense in the second half of the season.
The second probable is Arjen Colquhoun. He was thought to be a lock for the fifth corner or a practice roster spot with the Dallas Cowboys. However, the Eskimos second rounder is in tough. He may be available to the Eskimos in a few weeks time as a back-up corner behind Thompson. Now mix in either Garry Peters, who is coming off the six game injury list, and former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Demetrius Wright. Suddenly the Eskimos have depth behind a veteran secondary.
The Eskimos defense is poised to transform from a weakness to a strength. This has happened through an evolutionary process of learning, key personnel changes and scheme adjustments. Can they keep Benevides promise of a championship-calibre defense? Well we are about find out going into and through Labour Day.