Measuring Up: Defensive Line

Not something that the Eskimos will need to worry about this year.

No one can argue with the ability or results produced by the Eskimos offense in 2009. They were pretty good.  The defense was not as spectacular. Yes, they had their moments where they made big plays that helped the team win some games, but early in the season, they struggled to produce. The Eskimos were pretty stingy against the run, ranking second in the league behind only Montreal, but getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and defending the pass were not strong points. Management took note, and of the 21 players brought in during the off-season, not including draft picks, 15 were on defense.

The Eskimos have a decent amount of talent returning along the defensive line from the 2009 team with Dario Romero, Greg Peach, and Kai Ellis all back. It will be the new players that will be interesting to watch in camp. Kenneth Pettway has the NFL pedigree to make him a possible starter or at the very least, a good situational player this year.  The same goes for Larry Birdine, Andre Coleman, and Anthony Maddox. Add in Adam Braidwood, who is returning from an injury that cost him two years, and the defensive line should be in good shape for the upcoming season.

BC Lions

Kingston, Ontatio native Brent Johnson continues to be a strong presence along the Lions defensive line despite the departure of several talented players over the past couple of years to the NFL. The departure of Cameron Wake allowed Ricky Foley to step into the starting lineup, and now that Foley has signed with the Seattle Seahawks, it will be interesting to see who will start opposite Johnson in 2010. Keron Williams, who signed with the Lions in the offseason from the Alouettes, could make push to fill the spot although he could also end up at defensive tackle, but will face a strong challenge from a variety of first year CFL players that BC has brought to camp. At defensive tackle, veteran starter Aaron Hunt returns in 2010 along with Stephen Williams and Jeremy Gibbs, both of whom started alongside Hunt during parts of the season. The Lions gave up the most yards against on the ground last year at an average clip of 138 yards per game. They did however lead the league in the number of sacks recorded by their defense with 45. It will be difficult to repeat that performance without Foley, who tied for the league lead with 12 sacks in 2009.

Calgary Stampeders

The Stampeders return nine out of a possible 10 players along the defensive line in 2010 with Alain Kashama the only one missing from the 2009 group. Like Edmonton, Calgary struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks last year and have signed a strong group of imports in the hopes of finding someone who can help to bring a more effective pass rush in 2010. Their two leading sack masters from 2009 were linebacker Charleston Hughes and  defensive tackle JimDavis with six apiece. Davis has retired, leaving the Stampeders with a need to find a player who can get to the quarterback along the line. The Stampeders have decent non-import depth with Mike Labinjo, Justin Phillips, Miguel Robede, Osie Ukwuoma, and Fernand Kashama all returning, giving the team options with its import ratio.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Removing 23 sacks from your lineup from the previous year will certainly be a challenge for the Roughriders with the departure of Stevie Baggs and John Chick to the NFL. Starting tackles Marcus Adams and Keith Shologan return, so there will be some continuity from last year. The Roughriders did draft Shomari Williams with the first overall pick in the CFL Draft and he will certainly help to fill the void left by the departures, but other players will need to step up if Saskatchewan wants to compete for the Grey Cup in November. The team was not strong against the run last year, giving up an average of 123.8 yards a game, good for second worst in the league. With their pass rush gone, Saskatchewan could have some difficulties along the defensive line in 2010.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Despite missing the playoffs last year, the defensive line for the Bombers played reasonably well, finishing the year with stats that put them in the middle of the league. Odell Willis led the team in sacks last year with 10, although six came while he was still a member of the Calgary Stampeders. Phillip Hunt also return at defensive end, giving the Blue Bombers a decent pass rush. On the interior, veteran Doug Brown continues to be a staple for the Blue Bombers. Dorian Smith could fill the other defensive tackle spot, as he did for a good part of last year. The Blue Bombers have brought some new faces into camp as well, but the group is not overwhelming. Look for a middle of the pack year from the defensive line.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Khari Long had an outstanding rookie season in the CFL for the Tiger-Cats recording 34 tackles along with 10 sacks. Justin Hickman, who fills the other defensive end position, played quite well in his own right last year while recording 7 sacks. On the interior of the line, Demonte Boldon and Darrell Adams will most likely fill the defensive tackle spots after the club elected to release Montez Murphy in April. Import Garrett McIntyre can play both defensive end or tackle and had a strong showing in his rookie year in the CFL. The Tiger-Cats also have good non-import depth with Jermaine Reid, Matt Kirk, and 2010 draft pick Eddie Steele all capable players. It will be interesting to see how Steele transitions to the CFL after being ranked highly in pre-draft rankings, only to fall to Hamilton in the third round. Much like Winnipeg, Hamilton’s line produced in the middle of the pack in 2009, but they should be an improved bunch this summer and could surprise a few people.

Toronto Argonauts

Surprisingly, the Argos defense was not that bad last year as they ranked second against the pass and third against the rush. Now that could be because opposing teams were usually working with a short field, but the fact that were able to post decent numbers certainly leads to some hope that the team can at least progress in 2010. Andriano Belli is a nasty defensive tackle that plays extremely tough while using every trick in the book to get under the skin of opposing linemen. Playing right beside him, Kevin Huntley recorded nine sacks last year to lead the team. The Argos also added Eric Taylor from the Eskimos in a trade for receivers Andre Talbot and Brad Smith, which will add depth to their interior line. On the outside, Ronald Flemons will man one of the defensive end spots, while the other position will probably up for grabs in training camp.

Montreal Alouettes

Going into last year’s Grey Cup, everyone was talking about Saskatchewan’s defense; however, when you look at the stats, Montreal was the class of the league. First against the rush. First against the pass. Not to mention that they also had the co-leader in sacks with John Bowman recording 12 over the course of the season. And unlike Saskatchewan, defensive ends Bowman and Anwar Stewart are both back this year. Montreal did lose Keron Williams to the BC Lions along with his eight sacks, but Eric Wilson and Darrell Campbell are back to fill the defensive tackle spots.

Final Thoughts

Montreal’s defensive line certainly benefits from having a top flight offence that can stay on the field, but they are a talented a group that should continue to produce in 2010. Saskatchewan certainly has the most question marks, as losing two of the top defensive ends in the league from a year ago will certainly set them back. Calgary, if they can find some players that can get to opposing quarterbacks, should be able to improve from last year while BC will need to find a replacement for sack master Ricky Foley. As for Winnipeg and Toronto, both defensive lines played reasonably well last year, but both organizations have undergone coaching changes, which means that the defence must learn new systems and new schemes. Expect Hamilton to be very good along their defensive line this year, especially if Khari Long can improve on his rookie season. He could lead the league in sacks this year. Edmonton certainly should be able to match up well with any team in the league as they have improved their personnel from a year ago. If they can find a consistent pass rush, then the Eskimos could have one of the top three defensive lines in the league this year.

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