The Marshall plan

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:01 AM ET

What's the biggest difference with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this year?

The answer is simple: their defence is no longer the joke of the CFL.

In fact, when the Edmonton Eskimos roll into Canad Inns Stadium on Saturday, fans across the league will see the head-to-head matchup of the week: the Eskimos' top-ranked offence against the Bombers' No. 1 ranked defence.

"Their front four is a pain to deal with," said Eskimo head coach Danny Maciocia yesterday.

"We are going to have our hands full."

After the first two games of the 2006 regular season, the Bombers are only giving up an average of 169 yards per game.

In 2005, Winnipeg's so-called defence usually gave up that many yards by early in the second quarter of every game.

In stunning fashion, the Bombers allowed 458 yards of total offence per game on average last year, the worst in CFL history.

This year it's a completely different story. The Bombers lead the league in 13 defensive categories, including fewest first downs, most sacks, fewest net yards passing, etc.

But the most incredible stat is this: Winnipeg has yet to allow a touchdown through the air this year.

Why the sudden change?

That's easy to figure out: a change at the top, in the middle and on the line.

Former Eskimo Greg Marshall is now calling the defensive plays - and he has an all-star in the middle, with new linebacker Barrin Simpson, and on the defensive line with Ron Warner.

"Greg Marshall is an outstanding defensive co-ordinator," said Maciocia.

Added quarterback Ricky Ray on Winnipeg's defence: "They are very fast and physical up front.

"They also mix it up very well. They give you a lot of different looks.

"So, we have to mix it up, run the ball at them, move the pocket and run some play action passes - keep them from pinning their ears back and coming at us."

In the Bombers' first game of the season, their new-look defence held Montreal's high-powered offence to just 265 yards of total offence.

Granted, the defensive statistics were padded last week because the Blue and Gold played the struggling Toronto Argos.

Without Damon Allen but still saddled with a very suspect offensive line, the Argos are definitely hurting.

However, Marshall knows the competition is tougher this week - and is getting his troops fired up for the bigger challenge.

Edmonton enters Week 3 averaging 415 yards per game on offence, the most in the league.

In the air, Ray is averaging 392 yards per game - again the highest in the league.

"Absolutely, it's a different kettle of fish this week," said Marshall. "The Eskimos are the defending Grey Cup champions and have one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, if not the premier one.

"We're trying to get our guys ready."

If the Bombers answer the bell Saturday like they did in Week 1 against Montreal - which boasts Anthony Calvillo, Ben Cahoon and Robert Edwards - it should be a dandy tilt to celebrate Canada's birthday.


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