East Division Semifinal
Edmonton at Toronto, 1 pm ET Sunday
The evolution of the Toronto Argonauts has been fun to watch. When it matters most, they have looked good. However, on Sunday, they face a team that they have yet to find a way beat.
The Edmonton Eskimos have been dealing with distraction all season long, with weekly quarterback controversies, poor offensive performances and a general manager that enjoys speaking into a microphone too much. So the best way to beat Toronto? Keep Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray off the field.
I would love to see Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed activate running backs Hugh Charles, Cory Boyd and Jerome Messam, then insert a powerful rushing attack that could grind down the clock. The question is whether or not Edmonton has the offensive line to pull it off. It would be difficult for Ray to hurt you offensively when he is standing on the sideline.
Toronto's defence is solid, but it gave up an average of 111 rushing yards per game this season. Plus, the lowly Winnipeg Blue Bombers were able to beat the Argos in Week 17 by rushing for 221 yards. Even so, if Ray is comfortable in the pocket, he will be tough to stop.
The return of Marcus Howard will go a long way in making Ray uncomfortable. Ray was sacked three times the first time these two teams met four times the second. The Eskimo defence looked extremely good at the beginning of the season and it was directly related to the pressure generated by the front four.
Toronto's offensive improvement began when head coach Scott Milanovich made the (unpopular) decision to release Boyd. To win games, pass protection had to improve. Moving Wayne Smith to guard and inserting Tony Washington solidified the Argos offensive line. But with the recent injury to Smith, they will need to make some changes. It will be interesting to see how they handle it, not to mention Edmonton's pass rush.
The breadth of talent that the Argos have assembled alongside record-setting receiver Chad Owens makes it tough for defences to contain them. The emergence of Jason Barnes, Dontrelle Inman, Maurice Mann and Gerald Riggs Jr. gives Ray the ability to spread a defence out and creates space for him to go to work.
Moreover, I am interested to see if Milanovich tinkers with the roster, if he sits Swayze Watters and asks Noel Prefontaine to kick field goals.
If the Eskimos keep it a low-scoring game, they have a chance ... well, that is if Grant Shaw can kick a game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, for Edmonton, Ray is too good.
West Division Semifinal
Saskatchewan at Calgary, 4 pm ET Sunday
It is important to feel confident heading into the playoffs. However, that 8-2 record the Calgary Stampeders are hanging their hat on is misleading. The reality is they beat two teams that didn't make the playoffs and another that needed to cross over to the East. They also lost to both teams they'll need to beat to reach the Grey Cup.
Shutting down running back Jon Cornish, a nominee for Most Outstanding Player, is the key to beating Calgary. Minimizing his effectiveness between the tackles forces him to join in the passing attack, which removes him from pass-protection schemes.
Once the Stampeders improved on the rush, they started to win consistently. Rushing the football allowed them to control games and slow down the pass rush, which gave quarterback Kevin Glenn additional comfort in the pocket.
Similar to the Argos, the Stamps have become more complete on offence over the course of the season. Maurice Price and Joe West complement the play of Nik Lewis at receiver and, with that additional talent, defences are now required to spread out, which strengthens both the rushing and passing attack.
Drew Tate was been given the green light by head coach John Huffnagel to start at quarterback. I agree with Huffnagel's decision because Tate gives the Stamps the best chance to win. If Tate stalls, Huffnagel will not hesitate to rotate Glenn into the game.
I can't help but feel bad for Glenn. This is the second time that he has had a chance to make a run at the Grey Cup and has been forced to the sideline. In 2007, he led Winnipeg to the East final. After rolling his ankle on a seemingly innocent keeper, Glenn was sidelined and forced to watch his Bombers fall to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Still, Tate's confidence may be just what this team needs to go the distance, yet I wonder whether or not it will get him into trouble. Tate's confidence may make him release the ball too early. A season of snaps would have taught him to exhibit a bit more patience, especially during the first quarter, and turnovers have hurt Calgary in past playoffs. Anticipate Roughriders defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall inserting some creative defensive schemes to challenge Tate.
Losing four straight games is not the way the Riders envisioned heading into the playoffs. That said, Saskatchewan lost to the Montreal Alouettes and Argos by only six and five points, respectively.
If running back Kory Sheets and receiver Weston Dressler are contained, the Riders offence stalls. Although Taj Smith has stepped up of late, fellow pass catchers Greg Carr and Chris Getzlaf will need to be productive if they are to have a chance. Additional movement in the backfield often grabs the attention of linebackers and might go a long way in creating space for Sheets and Dressler. It would also slow down the pass rush to give quarterback Darian Durant additional time.
As well, running back Brandon West is a multi-dimensional player who should be utilized. The movement of West in the backfield will slow down Calgary's blitz package and decrease its ability to double-team Dressler.
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