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Ticats bring CFL-leading offence to Edmonton to face undermanned Eskimos

The Edmonton Eskimos have leaned heavily on their CFL-leading defence this season, but they may not have that luxury against the high-flying Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday (9 p.m. ET).

Starting QB Reilly, No. 1 RB White out with injuries

Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, left, has his face mask grabbed by Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Eric Norwood during fourth quarter CFL action in Guelph, Ont., Sunday, July 7, 2013. (Aaron Lynett/Canadian Press)

The Edmonton Eskimos have leaned heavily on their CFL-leading defence this season, but they may not have that luxury against the high-flying Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Hamilton not only brings the league's highest-scoring offence to Commonwealth Stadium on Friday (9 p.m. ET), but the Ticats also have a defence that comes close to Edmonton's in most categories.

The main thing is they have great team speed on defence so they don't let you catch and run for a lot of yards so you have to sustain drives.- Eskimos backup QB Matt Nichols on the Tiger-Cats

That means the Eskimos might need a big game from a middle-of-the-pack offence missing starting quarterback Mike Reilly and No. 1 running back John White.

Backup Matt Nichols said Thursday that one of the keys for the offence is to get yards on first down and improve on the Eskimos' second-down conversion rate of 42.7 per cent, second worst in the CFL.

"The main thing is they have great team speed on defence so they don't let you catch and run for a lot of yards so you have to sustain drives," said Nichols, who ranks last in passing among the league's starting quarterbacks with a 61.1 per cent completion rate and 1,350 yards. In his last two games he has thrown four interceptions and only two touchdowns.

"For us it's converting on second and medium and on first downs making sure we get ourselves in second and manageable positions. They can do some things on defence that make it very difficult to get first downs if you don't get yards on first down."

With Nichols at quarterback, spelled off occasionally by rookies James Franklin and Jordan Lynch, the Eskimos have managed enough offence to post a 5-2 record, tied for top spot with Calgary in the West Division.

While the Eskimos offence ranks fourth in overall yardage, sixth in passing and third in rushing, veteran receiver Adarius Bowman, back in the lineup after missing last week's 15-13 win in Montreal, figures the offence is still ahead of last year when the team was running at a 7-1 won-loss pace.

"Last year it took us to about week 11 before we figured out our offence," said Bowman who missed last week with a hip injury. "In terms of the knowledge and concepts we put in we are ahead. Guys are still switching positions and things and everybody has to learn, but in terms of the information we're way ahead of last year."

6 newcomers on offence

The Eskimos have six newcomers starting on offence — linemen Tony Washington and Danny Groulx, running back Shakir Bell and receivers Kenny Stafford, Cory Watson and Derel Walker who made his CFL debut last week in place of Bowman.

"We've had a lot of changes but I feel we've played strong through adversity," added Bowman, the team's No. 1 receiver. "With all the changes we've had and we're still sitting here No. 1 in the west. It's always a work in process but we're in a great place to be successful throughout this season."

The return of Bowman, second in team receiving with 400 yards and three touchdowns on 28 catches, should be a big boost to the offence, especially if Nichols is again replaced by rookie Franklin.

"He's a big target, got a lot of experience so you definitely feel more comfortable throwing him the ball because he brings something to the table that not a lot of guys can bring because of his experience and the quality of player he is," said Franklin who has completed 20 of 31 passes for 279 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The game, which head coach Chris Jones said will be a good measuring stick for his team, is Edmonton's first of five straight against teams that currently all have 5-2 records — Hamilton, Toronto, Calgary back-to-back and Hamilton again.

The Ticats are coming off a 52-22 thrashing of B.C. last week at Tim Hortons Field, where they have never lost. Hamilton is on a four-game winning streak, but is vulnerable on the road at 2-2.

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