EDMONTON - Their postseason hopes have come to an end, but their ends are far from finished.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive ends Phillip Hunt and Odell Willis come into this weekend first and second overall in sacks this season, setting their sights on Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Jared Zabransky on Saturday.
“They’re a good group, top to bottom,” Eskimos centre Aaron Fiacconi said of the Bombers defence, which leads the league with 47 sacks. “Even their linebacker (Joe) Lobendahn has got a pretty nice pass rush on him.
“We know the key to success is to keep them off balance and get the running game going, move the pocket a little bit and don’t give them a chance to tee off and get zeroed in on Jared.”
Priority No. 1 and 2 are stopping Hunt, who has 15 sacks, and Willis, who is tied for second place with 11 so far.
“It’s going to be a challenge up front, we have two new faces in there this week,” Fiacconi said of left guard Kelly Bates and left tackle Patrick Afif, who are starting in place of injured Kyle Koch and Jeremy Parquet. “We just have to rise above our challenges.”
What happened to the Bombers last week, losing two quarterbacks to injury in the same game, is the worst-case scenario, times two, for any offensive line.
“They’re the commander of your offence and you’ve got a rhythm with them and you’ve got a rapport over the course of the season,” Fiacconi said. “When there’s a change at that position it’s going to take some time to get used to.”
But considering Ricky Ray was placed on the one-game injured list this week, the Eskimos are only ahead one game when it comes to playing under a new quarterback.
“You can’t say enough about Jared and what he’s done here,” Fiacconi said of the sophomore CFL pivot’s first win last week. “That’s a prime example of how hard work pays off. He was thrown into the position where he had to play last week. He managed the game, didn’t make any mistakes and that’s all you could ask for.
“He commanded us on the offence and brought us up a notch. He’s a fiery competitor and he wants to win.”
And the O-line intends to give him every opportunity to do so.
“He has a lot of confidence in us, that’s a good thing,” Fiacconi said. “He expects nothing but the best from us and expects us to perform and rise to his level and we have to do that.
“We have been the last few weeks, fortunately, we’ve been playing pretty good up front and we need to continue this. Our playoffs started weeks and weeks ago and we’re actually starting to play like a team worthy of being in the playoffs.”
The postseason appeared almost out of reach after finishing the first half of their schedule 2-7.
“Our offensive line, they’ve taken a lot of ridicule this year,” said Eskimos head coach Richie Hall. “They’ve been carrying us the second half of the season. They’ve been controlling the tempo of the game, they’ve been controlling the flow, being able to run the football, being able to protect the quarterback.
“Therefore it gives us a chance offensively to score points, so I’ve been very happy regarding the production and just the temperament of our offensive line.”