The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have tricked opponents all year with gimmicky plays on offence, but the Eskimos may end up providing the best smoke-and-mirrors illusion.
The Esks fooled the entire country into overlooking the Green and Gold because they struggled down the home stretch with only two wins before upsetting the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division Semifinal.
Now that starting quarterback Trevor Harris’s throwing arm is finally healthy, and the 8-10 Eskimos are suddenly looking like a dangerous team again. But will it be enough to knock off the 15-3 Tiger-Cats in the East Division Final at a sold-out Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton at 11 a.m. MT Sunday (TSN, 630 CHED).
“It’s the playoffs,” receiver Ricky Collins, Jr., said on the 630 CHED post-game show after the Eskimos’ impressive 37-29 victory over the Alouettes last week. “Anybody can win any game. It doesn’t matter who the team is. If we go out and play (well), the sky’s the limit for us.”
“They haven’t won a game in the playoffs,” pointed out veteran receiver Greg Ellingson, who played the Tiger-Cats in the East Final twice in the past four years with the Ottawa Redblacks. “That’s what they have to do to get to the Grey Cup. We’re standing in the way, and we’re going to stand firm, and we’re going to battle to get to the Cup.”
If successful, Edmonton would become the first West Division crossover playoff team to represent the East Division in the Grey Cup. If the Eskimos can get to Calgary next week, they would then try to become only the fourth team to win the CFL’s championship game after having a losing record during the regular season.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The Tiger-Cats present the ultimate challenge right now, having swept both regular-season matchups – winning 30-27 in Edmonton after jumping out to a 24-0 lead and overpowering an ailing Eskimos team 42-12 in Hamilton two weeks later.
“There’s a number of things that stand out about them,” Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas said about the Ticats. “They’re just a talented group across the board.
“I know personally how well they’re coached, having been around (head coach) Orlondo Steinauer and (football operations consultant) Jim Barker and watched (defensive co-ordinator) Mark Washington from afar. … They’ve played physical. They’re fast. They’ve got athletes all over the place. They’ve got great schemes. (Assistant coach Jeff) Reinebold on special teams, you’ve got to worry about everything with him. And they’ve got great players.
“They’re 9-0 (at home), they’re 15-3 for a reason. They’ve found ways to win, too. When you look at some of their games, they’ve been down and found a way to come back.
“It’s fun to watch them play,” Maas added. “It’s fun to compete against them. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Despite having said all that, Maas isn’t anywhere close to throwing in the towel. He pointed out that the 2019 Eskimos have “wanted to be special” since the start of the season.
“We wanted to be remembered, I guess,” he said. “The way you do that is by winning big games. We got to the playoffs, and we won a playoff game, we want to take the next step. I don’t think there’s one guy in our locker room who doesn’t believe we’re capable of that. We’re excited about this opportunity and looking forward to it, and we’re expecting to go in there and win. That’s the belief we have.”
The Eskimos are saying, “Why not us?” Maas first uttered the words before the East Semifinal last week, and the players quickly bought in.
“We had to believe in ourselves,” Collins said. “Everybody counted us out going into (the East Semifinal) because, one, we were travelling to the East playing in the playoffs. If we believe in ourselves, we don’t need anybody else to believe in us.”
“We’re in the (division) finals, man,” said SAM (strong-side) linebacker Don Unamba, who is excited to go to Hamilton this weekend and not just because he played with the Ticats the past two years. “We get another opportunity (to play). There’s a lot of teams at home right now watching; a lot of people are wishing they could be in our position.
“All the things we dealt with all season, man, and we’re still one of the final four right now. We’re going to keep fighting. We get another opportunity just to keep going and to earn another week. It’s exciting, man.
“You’ve got to be happy and excited for times like this,” Unamba continued. “We could be packing (up our lockers) right now with trash bags, ready to go home, but we’re out here practising, it’s a good atmosphere, everybody’s happy. … It’s a good place to be, a good time to be right now, ready to play some football and go to the Grey Cup. And we get to prove a lot of people wrong. That’s a big thing right there.”
Why not us?
Asked how he came up with the slogan, Maas shrugged.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really recall,” he replied. “It’s just a rallying cry when something hasn’t been done, and you believe that you are capable of doing it. It just came out.
“I think our guys are definitely rallying behind that and believe in it.”
“We know we’re underdogs,” Maas said. “We know what our record is. We know what we’ve done during the regular season, which doesn’t matter because we got to the playoffs with it. We won a playoff game already, and we’re going into that building with a one-track mindset.
“Altogether, we’re going in there to get a victory to go to the Grey Cup. That’s what our focus is on.”
Esks learned lessons the hard way
Defensive back Josh Johnson is the CFL’s first player since Toronto’s Darrell Moir in 1986 to have three interceptions in a playoff game.
His three picks in Edmonton territory during the second half of Sunday’s playoff game helped the Eskimos finish off the Alouettes, who had seven come-from-behind victories this season, including five with a fourth-quarter drive.
The Tiger-Cats will present a different challenge for the Eskimos because of all the misdirection and option plays they use on offence. Johnson calls Hamilton’s trick plays “eye candy,” but the secret to stopping those plays is not to get caught watching all of the Ticats players running around in different directions.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to play a lot smarter this game,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s going to be in the right place at the right time. We’re not going to have everybody running around not knowing what’s going on. You just understand your job, play your job and depend on everybody else to do what they’re supposed to.”
Unamba said it all comes down to “reading your keys” against a team that uses “a bunch of gimmicks and fly motion.”
“When you’re on the field, you’ve got certain keys and people that you read that will take you to the ball,” he explained. “When you try to see too much and see everything, that’s when you lose sight of what you’ve got – your responsibilities and stuff like.”
Unamba pointed out that the Eskimos simply “made a bunch of mistakes” early in the first game against the Ticats, allowing Hamilton to score big-play touchdowns on three consecutive offensive plays in the first quarter.
“When we let the game settle down and got back to looking at our keys, then we slowed them down, and they weren’t able to put up that many points and that many yards after that,” Unambasaid.
When the teams met again in Hamilton two weeks later, the Eskimos were adjusting to the recent loss of veteran cornerback Anthony Orange and offensive left tackle Tommie Draheim in addition to Harris’s absence.
“This is going to be our first time to have our full team (against Hamilton),” Unamba said. “We’re locked in, and we’re focused, ready to play a good Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team.”
Green-and-Gold builds momentum
Unamba said he’s never been on a first-place team, so he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s shoes and enjoy a bye during the first round of playoffs. But he likes the fact the Eskimos have already played a game.
“You get in your groove and get your feet hot,” he said. “They’ve been sitting around. Sometimes, when you take a week off, even coming off a bye week (during the regular season), you get a little rusty sometimes.
“I feel we played a good football game this past week and we get to continue to work off of that and continue to make plays like that and build off of that momentum going (up against) a good football team feeling confident.”
Mass said the Eskimos’ recipe for success on Sunday “is protecting our quarterback and making sure he can go through a progression and make good decisions with nobody around him and then control that line of scrimmage running the football as well.”
The Eskimos led the CFL with the fewest quarterback sacks allowed (25) all season, but the Tiger-Cats recorded eight of them in two games. Hamilton has two of the league’s top sack-masters in defensive end Ja’Gared Davis (13) and defensive tackle Dylan Wynn (11).
Getting off to a good start will also be important, said Unamba, because it’s different playing the Ticats with the lead and playing without the lead.
“If we jump out to a 14-0 lead, now they get more into a pass-heavy type offence, now our D-line can peel their ears back, and I can come on blitzes knowing they’ve got to get the ball down the field and we can get on them and tear them up,” said Unamba, suggesting that the Tiger-Cats wouldn’t be as willing to risk wasting a play on a gimmick if they’re behind on the scoreboard.
“Now you’ve got to play football and come out and line up and run your offence,” Unamba said. “There’s not much time for the fun and the stuff that excites everyone, and the stuff people want to see. You’ve got to come out and play football now because we’re going to get after you.”
‘Just enjoy it’
Eskimos fullback Calvin McCarty is usually asked to help protect the quarterback or block for the running back, but the 13-year veteran had his busiest game since July 2017 – when it comes to touching the football – in the East Semifinal.
McCarty had one short-yardage run near the goal line and five catches, including a touchdown, in his 13th career playoff game.
Esks place-kicker Sean Whyte has also played 13 CFL playoff games.
“Just enjoy it,” McCarty said about this time of year. “This is the reason you show up at training camp – an opportunity to obviously make the playoffs, but an opportunity to play for the Grey Cup. We’re one step away to get there.
“At the end of the day, man, you work the whole season. All these games during the season are a testament to get to this point. You overcome adversity, and you build teams, a lot of guys that went down, guys had to step up. Now we’re in a position where we feel healthy and feel like we can go out there and play with anybody.
“For us, you’ve got to take pride in what you do, anyway … and we play football for a living. A lot of guys have sacrificed time away from their families. This is the time for you to pay them back, man. Go out there and put a good game together and have fun.”
No room for mistakes
Harris hasn’t played against the Tiger-Cats this season but doesn’t think that will help him or hurt him on Sunday. He’s an eight-year veteran the Ticats know as well as he knows their defence.
“It’s just going to be a chess match,” he said.
Harris is 5-4 in nine career starts against Hamilton, including last year’s East Final when he threw a CFL-record six touchdown passes for the Ottawa RedBlacks, but says defeating the Tiger-Cats “is not going to be an easy task.”
Ellingson, another former RedBlack who made eight catches for 125 yards in last week’s East Semifinal, says “it’s kind of cool, going to the West, but still battling in the East to get to the Grey Cup.”
He said there’s always a “heightened intensity” during the playoffs, “a little bit different vibe.”
“There’s no room for mistakes,” he explained. “You have to execute, or you’re going home and your season’s over. We know we have nothing to lose. We’ve had doubters all year. But all the guys in the locker room and all the coaches, we believe in ourselves, and we’re going to keep doing that. We’re going to keep battling and keep fighting, and we’re going to give it our all.”
More than 200 of the Eskimos’ 478 yards of net offence in the East Semifinal were yards after catch (YAC). Collins had 59 YAC, running back Shaquille (Shaq) Cooper had 55 YAC and Ellingson had 50 YAC. Collins (117) and Ellingson (125) were both in triple figures overall.
The Eskimos will have the same starting lineup in back-to-back games for only a second time this season. They also the same lineup in consecutive games in the home-and-home Labour Day week series with the Calgary Stampeders.
The only roster changes this week involved adding international receiver Kevin Elliott as a backup on offence, national offensive lineman Josiah St. John (the first overall pick in the 2016 CFL Draft who was recently added to the Eskimos practice roster) as the backup on an O-line that features only one American player, and special teams veteran Blair Smith. International offensive lineman Eric Lofton was transferred to the practice roster while defensive tackle Stefan Charles and receiver Harry McMaster are on the one-game injured list.
The Esks are trying to repeat the accomplishment of the 2005 Grey Cup champions, which is the last team to win all three of its playoff games on the road. “It’s impossible until you do,” said Maas, who was a quarterback on that Edmonton team.