September 15, 2017

Game Day Preview: Eskimos at Argos

A four-game losing streak – the Eskimos longest in four years – has put a damper on a season that got off to an exciting 7-0 start despite a bizarre run of injuries throughout the team.

Maybe the Argonauts will be the cure for what ails the Esks when they visit Toronto’s BMO Field at 2 p.m MDT Saturday. The Argos have lost five of their last six games and 18 of 23 over the last two years.

Meanwhile, Edmonton has won its last three games with Toronto over the past two seasons, and West Division teams have won 20 of 24 inter-divisional games with the East Division this year, losing only three times and tying the other contest. The West’s winning percentage of 85.4 is the highest in CFL history since interlocking play began in 1961.

“I keep telling people just be patient with us,” said Eskimos second-year receiver Brandon Zylstra, who was named a CFL player of the week after catching 10 passes for a season-high 187 yards (with a longest gain of 67 yards) in the Labour Day rematch game with the Calgary Stampeders at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium last Saturday.

“We are battling all these injuries,” Zylstra continued. “We have some disciplinary actions that are going on in games. But all that is going to be cleaned up. We’re going to figure this thing out.

“Nobody is panicking. Nobody has a frown on their face. Everybody feels like we are where we need to be. Obviously, if we clean up these things, the season will look a lot better, but it’s going to come.”

One of the things the Eskimos have to “clean up” is penalties; they lead the league with 111 for 1,069 yards. Head coach Jason Maas said this week that penalties “have been our Achilles heel” and that a new standard and a new focus on taking infractions have been set.

“It’s up to us as the veteran players to really have it hit home how important it is to be more disciplined,” said quarterback Mike Reilly. “It sucks when it costs you games in the early and middle part of the season, but it really sucks when it costs you late in the year, so that’s something we need to eliminate, there’s no doubt.”

Reilly acknowledged that penalties often happen when a team puts as many new players on the field every game like the Eskimos have this season because of injuries, “but those mistakes you expect to go away as the year goes on and, unfortunately for us, they haven’t at this point.”

The Eskimos will also try to get off to a better start after being outscored 29-3 during the first quarter of their last four games, all losses. The Esks were only down 3-0 last Saturday against Calgary when they came within “a fingertip” of snapping their losing streak.

“With all the errors that happened, with all the problems that happened, we’re still a third-and-five, one finger away from knocking the ball down (on Calgary’s winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter),” Maas said. “Sometimes that’s the fine line between winning and losing, a fingertip.”

Reilly also liked how the team played, for the most part, against the Stamps.

“We played with that emotion at times that maybe we were lacking in the previous couple of games and with that confidence and just coming out and giving ourselves an opportunity to win a football game at the end,” he said. “Saturday’s game looked a lot more like the first seven games that we played than the three leading up to the rematch game. I thought we played good enough football to win the game. We made a few little mistakes over the course of the game that cost us.

“If we can continue to play how we did on Saturday and cleaned up a couple of things that are holding us back, then we’re going to be in very good shape.”

Zylstra has certainly been doing his part to help the Eskimos cause. The physical 24-year-old receiver led the entire CFL with 19 catches for 314 yards over the last two weeks, with eight of those receptions converting second-down plays. He has had six 100-yard receiving games and ranks third in the league with 916 yards on 63 catches.

“I definitely feel comfortable out here because the coaches do a great job of preparing us,” said Zylstra, who played only six games at the end of the 2016 season and nine this year, missing two contests because of injury. “I feel like I’ve done a good job of preparing myself. I’ve been leaning on the (veterans) a lot since I got here. I’ve taken so much stuff from Chris Getzlaf, (Adarius) Bowman and (Derel) Walker. I just take little things that they do that I think would work well with my game and just build off that.

“One thing I’ve really taken away this year is just the discipline of actually hitting your routes, all the timing of the offence because everything is timing in this offence. If you’re off the slightest little bit, it throws everybody off. So just paying attention to the little details is what brought my game up to the next level.”

Despite having played only 15 games in his young CFL career, Zylstra has already made 97 catches for 1,424 yards and five TDs. He was also the Eskimos international receiver with the most CFL experience on the field at times this year.

“He plays like a veteran guy,” said Reilly, who added he sometimes has to remind himself that Zylstra hasn’t even played one full season at this point. “He continues to improve. He gives defences a lot of trouble just based on his ability physically, but he’s also a very smart player. He’s able to make good adjustments on the field. He had a big catch that set us up for the touchdown in the fourth quarter on an adjustment that he made based on what he saw. I thought he did a great job with that.”

The Minnesota native is excited to have both Bowman and Walker back in the lineup with him.

“We’ve been saying all week, ‘We’ve got the band back together from last year,’ ” Zylstra said.

Bowman has played the last two games after missing six starts with a hamstring injury while Walker rejoined the team last week after an unsuccessful tryout with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“It feels like he didn’t even leave,” Zylstra said about Walker, referring to the chemistry needed among the receiver group. “We run the no-huddle offence so it’s all this communication stuff and you have different communication skills with different people who are out there, so it’s just learning to adjust with all the new guys who are coming in.”

Three of the Eskimos lineup changes this week involve the secondary, with rookie Mercy Maston and defensive halfback Garry Peters both going on the six-game injured list. Because of the injuries, 2017 fourth-round draft pick Jordan Hoover had to play corner for most of the last game while backup defensive back/kick-returner Chris Edwards took over at the other corner.

Edwards will remain at corner against the Argos while Hoover is once again a backup safety, this time behind Neil King, who returns from the six-game injured list. Johnny Adams comes off the one-game injured list after missing the last two games to man the other corner position.

Ahmad Dixon, a former Dallas Cowboys draft pick who only signed with the Esks on Tuesday, will be the backup defensive back. He played in five games with the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 2014.

Other changes include the return of international running back Travon Van (shoulder) from the six-game injured list and the addition of special teams player James Tuck, who had been released last week and then rejoined the team on Tuesday.

To accommodate the roster moves, running back LaDarius Perkins and place-kicker Chris Milo were moved to the one-game injured list. That means Hugh O’Neill will handle all of the kicking duties this game.

SHORT YARDAGE: Did you know that 14 of the last 19 CFL games entering this week’s play were wire-to-wire victories, where the losing team never held the lead during the entire game? … Six of the 19 players on the Eskimos six-game injured list are defensive backs, and five of them have been starters this season … This will be only the fourth time that Toronto’s Ricky Ray and Edmonton’s Reilly have played against each other as starting quarterbacks, and Reilly lasted all of two plays before he was injured in one of those games in August 2014. The last time the two pivots actually played against each other was Oct. 4, 2014.