The Argos defence has been decimated by injury, yet continues to play well. After shutting out Montreal’s offence two weeks ago, Toronto’s D held the powerful Stampeders to just nine first-half points last week in an eventual 23-7 loss in Calgary.
How banged up in this group? Just compare Monday’s lineup to what we saw Week One against Hamilton. On the defensive line, Victor Butler and Cleyon Laing are out, while Ken Bishop finally returns this week.
The secondary will be missing Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Jermaine Gabriel, Johnny Sears Jr., and Josh Mitchell. Rico Murray has moved inside from field corner to field half. Cassius Vaughan is dropping back to safety from his Sam linebacker spot this week. He’ll be replaced at LB by Terrance Plummer.
Only Shawn Lemon, Bear Woods and Marcus Ball will start in the same position they patrolled in the season opener. Defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin has done a masterful job rearranging the pieces of the puzzle.
The key to Monday’s game
Let’s face it, this has been a tough week in the Hammer.
Between the Art Briles story, the Johnny Manziel caper, the benching of Zach Collaros in favour of Jeremiah Masoli, the trade rumours surrounding Collaros, and this being the first game for new head coach June Jones after Kent Austin was moved upstairs, it’s hard to believe the Ticats had time to practice.
This could be advantageous for the Boatmen. The Ticats are 0-8 and have had a hellish week off the field. If the Argos can jump out to a quick two-score lead it would be hard to believe that self-doubt wouldn’t be at a season high on the Hamilton sideline.
Every team talks about jumping out to an early lead. That may be even more important than usual on Monday.
Big plays in hibernation
Bear Woods was a gift to Toronto from the football gods. Released by the Alouettes after one day of training camp, the Argos said merci beaucoup and signed him on May 31.
Woods has played as he was expected to play. He’s been a tackling machine, creating a huge presence in the middle of the Argos D. His 59 tackles rank third in the CFL, hardly a surprise for anyone who has watched him play.
But for the most part, he’s been quietly effective. Steady more than spectacular, as it were. While never being a turnover machine, he had five sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles a year ago. He has one sack this year while being shutout in the other two categories.
That’s not to be perceived as a knock, far from it. Woods has played the style that has made him the East’s Outstanding Defensive Player of the Year twice, most recently last year. One would think that at some point his exceptional play will be rewarded with a turnover or two.
It’s hard to believe that won’t come sooner rather than later.
Next man up
It’s not just the defence that has been banged up. While most of the discussion surrounding the health of Toronto’s offence has focused, deservedly so, on Ricky Ray, a more serious injury has forced the Double Blue into seeing if a raw rookie is game ready.
Anthony Coombs suffered a shoulder injury in the game against Montreal at BMO. It was tough to see on several levels, mainly because he was having a breakout year in his fourth season with Toronto.
Through nine games he was closing in on career highs in receptions and receiving yards. He had already breezed by his Yards After Catch mark and had become one of the top players in the CFL in that category.
He’s now on the six-game injured list which opened up an opportunity for someone else to start at the “R” receiver spot, which requires a versatile athlete who can line up in several positions, including in the backfield.
Enter Jimmy Ralph.
The Raymond, Alberta, native was a virtual unknown when he arrived at training camp. Undrafted, the Argos signed him in mid-May as a free agent. He was named a USports Second Team All-Canadian in 2015 year despite playing for the 2-6 Alberta Golden Bears.
During training camp he did the next to impossible, he earned a roster spot. You’d have to try to not notice him in camp. It became apparent early that he had exceptional hands. A pair of strong exhibition games sealed his fate. He led the Argos in receiving yards against Montreal, then finished second in the same category at Hamilton, catching a TD pass in each game.
Ralph is someone who is flying under the radar. Given the position that he’s playing, that could change in a hurry.
This shouldn’t be a fun weekend.
The summer is over, it’s back to school, the nights are a little cooler and winter is getting closer. But to Canadian football fans, this long weekend is something to be celebrated. Three CFL rivalry games in two days. A celebration of geographical match-ups that add fuel to a fan’s fire, the perfect way to prepare for the second half of the season.
The Argos rivalry with the Ticats is something to be revered. It has history and instances of bad blood along the way too numerous to count. It also allows fans of both teams to make a short trek down the QEW to cheer on their boys in a road game.
Monday’s game is unique. There’s a buzz at the Classic that simply doesn’t exist any other time the two teams play in Hamilton or Toronto, even in a playoff game.
This is a special date on the calendar. The players and coaches know it – even if they try to talk down its significance – and the fans in the Hammer sure as hell know it.
For some this is their late summer version of Christmas Day. It will be a boisterous crowd, filled with Hamilton fans who know this is the last thing they’ll probably have to cheer for this season. There will be more than a smattering of Argo fans who will proudly don the Oxford and Cambridge blues in enemy territory.
Enjoy the game on Monday, it’s an event to be savoured. If you can’t make it to Tim Horton’s Field, watch the game on TSN or join Jeff Johnson and me for the radio call on TSN 1050.