Pumped: Two goals topped a great game for Sam Lonergan against Brisbane.

Pumped: Two goals topped a great game for Sam Lonergan against Brisbane. Photo: Getty Images

WHEN Essendon trudged off a soggy Carrara three weeks ago, having only just outlasted a determined Gold Coast, you could mount a solid case that the Bombers' unbeaten status flattered to deceive.

The Dons had looked a real chance to lose to the Suns until the last five minutes.

The week before, they'd been in trouble into the last quarter at home to Port Adelaide. And only Hamish McIntosh's post-siren miss had spared them from defeat in round one.

At that point, even they must have been anxious about the next month in which they'd take on Carlton, Collingwood and West Coast. That's certainly not the case now. In fact, far from breaking Essendon, the tough run may just have helped make it.

The Bombers go into this week's match-of-the-round against the Eagles not only having satisfied the doubters, but also having positioned themselves as a very serious contender for the top four.

Carlton was dispensed with pretty methodically. Anzac Day proved a moral triumph of sorts, even in defeat, given the weight of injury and the way the Pies had picked Essendon apart previously.

And while no one is arguing that the Brisbane Lions are anything like a sizeable scalp, it was the way the Bombers manufactured Saturday's 67-point smashing that turned more heads still.

There's been a lot of focus on the beefing up of the Essendon list under new fitness man Dean "The Weapon" Robinson (as he's said to call himself) at Windy Hill, and a further tightening of the defence, which has reduced the Dons' average points against tally from more than 100 a game last season to just on 83. What hasn't received as much attention, but is no less significant, is the improvement in Essendon's skill level.

Against Brisbane on Saturday the Bombers looked as slick as at any time in the past decade, consistently hitting targets as the Lions, put under constant heat, consistently failed to hit theirs.

No one typifies the improvement more than Brent Stanton, who played another cracker on Saturday. The relentless runner is evoking memories of Robert Harvey with the amount of territory he covers. And the player once heavily criticised for the quality of his disposal, also leads the AFL for effective kicks.

Essendon's midfield has had a healthy share of grunt and perhaps not enough polish in recent times. But the gap between the two qualities is closing quickly, and not necessarily just through the addition of dashers such as David Zaharakis or more doses of Dyson Heppell.

The workhorses have a bit more finesse about them now. Sam Lonergan laid more tackles and won more clearances than any of his teammates on Saturday, but also chipped in with a couple of goals and used the ball as effectively as any of his midfield colleagues.

Heath Hocking has been doing similarly for a while. Zaharakis and Heppell, meanwhile, are becoming a lot more effective in the clinches. And up forward, so has Leroy Jetta. He and Alwyn Davey have rarely clicked on the same day for the Dons. When they did on Saturday, the result was a collective six goals and an enormous amount of defensive heat.

With less division between "inside" and "outside", there's a real balance about the Bombers. There's plenty of run and rebound out of defence, and a more flexible forward set-up, which on Saturday managed 19 goals even without a genuine key position forward, thanks to Stewart Crameri and the smalls.

Once David Hille returns from injury, there are ruck options, too, with Tom Bellchambers, the most technically adept of the Dons' ruck trio, playing a blinder against Brisbane.

A horses-for-courses policy with him, Hille and Paddy Ryder, is another handy ace up the sleeve of coach James Hird, Mark Thompson and co., as will those returning from injury, Mark McVeigh and David Myers among those available next week.

Essendon will give itself every chance on Saturday night, even allowing for the calibre of its opponent and West Coast's vastly improved recent form at Etihad Stadium, where the Eagles have won five of seven games this last year and a bit, one of those two defeats at the hands of the Dons.

Of course Hird is going to play down top-four speculation and, with his side still to play the top two teams, Geelong or Hawthorn, he has a point.

But that constant improvement to which he has consistently referred is now visible. And while the coach would be loath to admit it, so is a potential double chance.

THE WRAP

ADELAIDE
Won game and might have won over sceptics with gritty performance against undefeated Swans. Mids impressive, forwards potent.

BRISBANE
Never in it, effort wanting and skills and decision-making poor. Looked good in round one, been ordinary since.

CARLTON
Put the foot down in second half after ordinary effort in first. Form of Hampson and Robinson a plus in absence of Judd.

COLLINGWOOD
Win's a win, but Pies well down on Anzac Day levels. Good signs at least from lesser lights such as Sinclair and Keeffe.

ESSENDON
As polished as Dons have looked for a long time. Great rebound and finding right mix of grunt and glitter midfield.

FREMANTLE
Big fright for Freo against the Suns. Dockers will need far better efforts to start challenging competition heavyweights.

GEELONG
Cats are getting the job done, but not with same sense of ruthlessness as last year. Trip to Adelaide this week will test.

GOLD COAST
Plenty to admire again about the Suns. Won moral if not match points without stars and experience of Bock.

GWS
Staying competitive for longer. Split a quarter against Blues. Veteran McDonald inspiring, Greene and Adams best of kids.

HAWTHORN
Hawks got harder edge back. Strong finish made a point, and brilliance of Rioli and Franklin the game-breaker.

MELBOURNE
Third respectable loss on end doesn't alter 0-6 scoreline, but effort more consistent, and McDonald a ray of hope.

NORTH MELBOURNE
Like plenty of visitors to Subiaco, Roos did a lot of things right but still came out on the wrong end of the result.

PORT ADELAIDE
Power served up their first genuine shocker of season. Never in the contest and flattered even by a six-goal loss.

RICHMOND
Finally jagged win after near-misses. Ruckman Maric a standout, Nahas a livewire and Deledio all class.

ST KILDA
Gave it a crack for three quarters, but class told in end, and injuries to Fisher and McEvoy will stretch Saints' depth.

SYDNEY
No reason to panic, and loss of Goodes pivotal, but Swans pipped by team that wanted it just that little bit more.

WEST COAST
Did well to shrug off the mounting casualty toll and a determined opponent. Bigger test awaits away to Essendon.

WESTERN BULLDOGS
Dogs have played better in a couple of losses than both wins. Griffen, Lake and Boyd couldn't have done a lot more.