TORONTO – At times, football can be a cruel game; one night you’re unbeatable and the next you find yourself with your back pushed against the wall, unable to execute or capitalize on any opportunities.
For the Toronto Argonauts defence, 2013 has been a roller-coaster ride, a constant work in progress with newcomers attempting to find their way and Chris Jones shuffling the deck on several occasions in search of the ideal personnel groupings.
Following a disappointing start to the season in which the Double Blue surrendered 30+ points in two of their first three games, the Argonauts’ new-look defensive unit responded by conceding fewer than 20 points in three consecutive contests.
However, last week presented yet another hurdle for the Double Blue defence as Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly torched the Argonauts’ secondary for 511 yards passing and three touchdowns.
A noticeable deficiency on the defensive side of the football, Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich and defensive coordinator Chris Jones made it a point of emphasis this past week to improve their team’s pass defence ahead of their 100th Grey Cup Championship rematch with the Calgary Stampeders.
Despite the absences of Nik Lewis, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against the B.C. Lions on August 17, and reigning CFL Most Outstanding Canadian Jon Cornish, the Stampeders, led by Kevin Glenn, methodically dissected an Argonauts squad that is currently ranked last in the Canadian Football League in pass defence, yielding an average of just over 300 yards per game.
Already missing their No. 1 receiver and star running back, the Stampeders received another major scare when starting quarterback Kevin Glenn was forced to leave the game early in the fourth quarter after being tackled down to the turf by Argonauts’ defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell.
“I had a little headache so the biggest thing was them taking precaution,” commented Glenn in the aftermath of Calgary’s 35-14 victory on Friday night. “It wouldn’t look good for me to go back out there and something was wrong. This stuff is serious so you have to be cautious when it happens.”
Prior to exiting the game, Glenn completed 14 of 20 pass attempts for 228 yards and two touchdowns. In Glenn’s absence, Bo Levi Mitchell filled in admirably as he connected on 4 of 6 pass attempts for 24 yards and added a touchdown along the ground.
Although the Argonauts defence did not have to contend with the CFL’s second-best rusher in Jon Cornish, the Stampeders still managed to tally 177 yards along the ground, providing further indication of the Argonauts’ defensive woes.
Winners of four straight heading into Friday night’s game, it appeared as though the best was yet to come for an Argonauts squad that was just beginning to find their rhythm.
It even looked promising in the early stages of Friday night’s affair as defensive back Antareis Bryan, who was making his second career CFL start, forced a fumble on the game’s opening play from scrimmage. Bryan jarred the football loose, knocking it out of the hands of Calgary slotback Marquay McDaniel, providing the Boatmen with favourable field position just beyond midfield.
Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray quickly capitalized on the turnover as he delivered a 19-yard strike, a perfectly timed pinpoint pass to slotback Jason Barnes for his sixth receiving touchdown of the season, and his fourth in as many games.
However, what happened next was a moment that Argonaut fans have witnessed far too often over the course of the past two seasons. With the pocket collapsing around him, quarterback Ricky Ray shuffled to his right looking for an open receiver. As he launched the football out of bounds – just hoping to air it out of harms way – Stampeders’ defensive lineman Charleston Hughes pummeled Ray down to the turf, leaving the Argos’ veteran signal caller clutching his right shoulder in considerable pain.
Along with Ray’s injury, the Double Blue were also without linebacker Marcus Ball, who sustained a head injury during last week’s 36-33 win over the Edmonton Eskimos, leaving a gaping hole in the Argonauts’ defensive front.
“He got hit in the head last week and we thought he was going to be okay, and he had an evaluation scheduled yesterday (Thursday) at three or four o’clock,” said Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich. “I’m not sure to be quite honest with you if it was Marcus feeling apprehensive or if it was the doctors that helped him out and when it comes to that, I think everybody’s being as cautious as they possibly can nowadays.”
Even following Ray’s injury early on in the first quarter, the Argonauts defence had several opportunities to make game-changing plays, but ultimately failed to do so.
Second-year defensive back Jalil Carter was beaten twice for touchdowns as both Marquay McDaniel and Tim Hawthorne each registered major scores in the second quarter.
For Milanovich, the Argonauts’ second-year bench boss is not making any excuses. Despite a short week of preparation accompanied by various injuries on both sides of the football, Milanovich says that there is no legitimate justification for his team’s poor performance on Friday night, and assures that his squad will be ready to play the next time they take to the field on September 3rd in a crucial divisional matchup with the Montreal Alouettes.
“I really don’t have a lot of answers. It’s never easy to come off the bench with no reps, particularly in a short week, but that’s the job you have,” said Milanovich in reference to Zach Collaros, who entered the game in relief of Ricky Ray.
“It was what we were able or unable to do with the opportunities we had at that point in the game and certainly it felt like the momentum of the game swung after they got that one touchdown,” added Milanovich. “They had the same issues, though. They had a bunch of receivers out, quarterback got hurt, and you still have to play the game. Against B.C. (a few weeks ago), we were able to do that but we weren’t tonight.”
Fact is, the Argonauts’ offence has carried much of the load thus far in 2013 and if the Boatmen are to make a run at back-to-back Grey Cup titles, the defence will have to do their part as well.