In 2015, the Edmonton Eskimos passing defense was 2nd in yards and 1st in touchdowns given up. Against the rush the Eskies were 2nd in yards and 2nd in touchdowns surrendered. The Chris Jones schemed defense was widely accepted as one of the top two defenses and that defense led the Esks to a Grey Cup win. The key to the defense was man-to-man secondary that boasted Dex McCoil, JC Sherritt, Otha Foster, Pat Watkins, Aaron Grymes and John Ojo. The ability to play man allowed Jones to run an attacking front seven and even blitz off the edge for 48 sacks good enough for 3rd best in the CFL.
Then it happened, Jones left and the secondary scattered to the wind except for Sherritt and Watkins, with the later turning 34-years-old going into the 2016 season. With so many gaps in the secondary and a full on rebuild of the defense needed the Esks floundered in 2016. Ojo was injured in camp, Watkins struggled and so did Marcell Young. Both Cord Parks and Brandyn Thompson were parachuted in after the younger DB’s brought in simply could not grasp the zone coverages of the Eskies new scheme. The Esks dropped to 6th against the pass and 6th against the run, but even more importantly the team dropped to 8th in sacks in 2016.
Coach Benevides continued the defensive rebuild in 2017 by redistributing the national ratio by making the WIL LB spot a national position. This allowed the Esks to move to an inside pocket collapsing pass rush and Da’Quan Bowers and Euclid Cummings were signed. At the same time the secondary was completely revamped. National 2nd rounder Arjen Colquhoun would be signed to play the field corner next to Thompson and Kenny Ladler. On the boundary side Aaron Grymes returned from the NFL part way through the season to play halfback and Johnny Adams was signed to play corner. Adam Konar ascended into a starters role at WLB with the ability to cover, tackle and blitz occasionally. The Esks jumped to 4th in sacks with mostly four-man pressure, 2nd against the pass, but still 8th against the rush.
In 2018 the goal must be to continue to evolve the four-man pressure with the use of twists that allows new comer Alex Bazzie to swing inside and Bowers to swing outside while Sherritt or a newcomer like Ahmad Dixon shoots the gap created. Some may not know that Bowers and secondary year player Mike Moore can and have played both DT and DE. That is important to the Esks ability to run a decent twist as essentially Bowers, Bazzie and Moore can be interchanged to surprise the offensive line by doing the unexpected. The key to this more creative look will be Sherritt and Dixon who will be run stuffers and QB blitzing LB’s.
On the opposite side of the line it is critical that the stay in your lane philosophy continues with well liked second year defensive end Kwaku Boateng who gets a vote of confidence to be the national edge setter. As Almondo Sewell continues to draw double coverage Boateng will be one-on-one with the LT and must find ways to flush the QB or RB back over to Bowers, Bazzie and Moore chaotic side of the line.
The physicality of the nickel DB will be paramount in 2018, but this same player must be multi talented and be able to cover in space on the field side. Ahmad Dixon has already played this role at Baylor and in the NFL making him the front runner. However, don’t count out Alex Gray or Chris Edwards both big bodies and fast. Edwards also can return kicks and could be brought in on sub-packages or might outright win the camp battle.
Most Esks fans expect Johnny Adams, Aaron Grymes, Neil King, Brandyn Thompson, and Arjen Colquhoun to be penciled in as starters and that is probably the case. However, the health of Neil King and Brandyn Thompson must be considered. With Thompson suffering a season-ending ruptured left Achilles then Forest Hightower who be considered the incumbent starter. Hightower could be pushed by veteran Buddy Jackson, newcomer Money Hunter and even Edwards who has also played the position. Neil King did make a comeback, but will be pushed by Josh Woodman, Jordan Hoover, and even recently selected Jordan Beaulieu.
Coach Benevides continues to look for aggressive cover guys in his secondary that can read and break on the ball. The entire secondary success is predicated on two things, working as a unit and players that close quickly to pass defend. In 2017, the Esks had 57 pass defense and in 2016 the secondary had 50 both were up over 2015 which saw 43 pass defenses. Adams and Grymes is simply the best the Esks have at this and as such both should be expected to start. Of the newcomers Dixon, Hunter and Hoover all fit the bill as aggressive cover guys. So does recently selected Godfrey Onyeka, but Onyeka will be given time to grow into the corner role behind Colquhoun.
What does all this mean? Expect Adams – Grymes – King (with Hoover taking over eventually) – Hightower (with Hunter taking over eventually) and Colquhoun in the secondary. The nickel DB will be Dixon with Edwards platooning playing next to Sherritt and Konar. This group should drive 60 pass defenses and 20 interceptions behind a defensive line that should push for 50 sacks of a twist with to Boateng, Sewell, Bowers and Bazzie as the starts on the front four.