THE BENCHMARK for an exciting Essendon season could be set over the next fortnight, with coach Ben Rutten challenging his promising and developing young group to show what it is capable of over the next two weeks.
Having beaten Hawthorn on Sunday to continue its unlikely surge towards the top-eight with a fourth win in five matches, the club is set to face the ladder-leading Melbourne and an in-form Geelong in its next pair of fixtures.
The Bombers, tipped for a drop-off this season after the departures of key trio Joe Daniher, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia during last year's Trade Period, improved to 6-7 on the campaign with a grinding 13-point win over the Hawks.
But just one of their six wins so far this year has come against a side currently occupying a position in the AFL's top-eight, with Rutten suggesting the next fortnight could ultimately define its improvement.
"That's the journey we're on as a footy club," Rutten said.
"It's to keep striving to find our best footy more often and then start to grow that and stretch it into what our group is capable of.
"There have been periods throughout this season where we've shown some really positive signs, but also some other periods where we've dropped away for whatever reason and we haven't been able to get that full four-quarter performance that we'd like.
"We haven't beaten a top-four team yet this year, so the next couple of weeks and in particular against Melbourne next week, it will be an opportunity for us to be able to do that."
Essendon's victory over Hawthorn was inspired by a supreme performance from Jake Stringer, who was pushed into the midfield in the absence of the injured Andrew McGrath and flourished in his new role.
Stringer won 29 disposals and kicked four goals, while he also racked up six clearances, laid seven tackles and had 12 score involvements and 10 inside-50s in what proved to be a career-best display.
"He played a bit of midfield and a little bit forward as well," Rutten said.
"We're really pleased with his four-quarter effort. We love the fact he's hitting the scoreboard, but we're most pleased with the fact he had seven tackles and he's pressuring the ball well.
"He's one of those unique players in the competition, he's got the ability to do that. What we need to keep supporting Jake to do is understand that it's a standout performance, but we need him to keep producing his best footy and understanding what that is.
"Tonight was a great look at what he's capable of doing. He's been training really hard and he's committed to producing that type of performance, so it's fantastic reward for that."
Hawthorn led the game early in the final quarter and then reduced the deficit to a single kick with just two minutes remaining, but couldn't overrun Essendon in the contest's dying stages.
A series of early set-shot misses proved a crucial factor in that, with the Hawks lamenting their inability to make 23-21 scoring shot differential and a 50-47 inside-50 differential count on the scoreboard.
"Some of it comes because of pressure, but some of the set-shot misses that we had in the early parts of the game were misses that we expect our guys at this level to be able to convert," Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson said afterwards.
"We'll work on that, but the most pleasing part for us was that we gave ourselves the opportunity to score.
"I think Essendon would walk away from this game perhaps a little bit relieved that they won the game. It was a contest from go-to-whoa. We didn't quite get there in the end, but we sure gave it one hell of a shake.
"We're pleased with our efforts. We just know that if we hang in there for a bit longer and fix up some of the things forward of the ball, we'll be OK."