June 22, 2018

Hogan: The Men in the Middle

Dylan Wynn (98) of the Toronto Argonauts during the game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Tim Horton's Field in Hamilton, ON, Saturday, September 30, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

It was the second defensive play of the Toronto Argonauts season-opener.

Facing second and eight, quarterback Zac Collaros – making his debut for the hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders – dropped back to pass. Before he had time to set his feet he found himself surrounded by three members of the Argos front four.

Collaros immediately started to run for his life, but the QB could not get back to the line of scrimmage before he found himself on the ground.

The fourth member of the Argos D-line had recorded the group’s first sack of the season. Cleyon Laing read the play and used his strength to stand up veteran centre Dan Clark, before exploding to his left to tackle the former Toronto signal caller.

It was the team’s first sack, but it came in somewhat unusual fashion. Often it’s the role of a defensive tackle to collapse the pocket, allowing the ends an opportunity to clean up. This time Laing benefitted from his teammates flushing the quarterback toward him.

Such is the life of a defensive tackle, living in relative obscurity, but vital to a defence’s success. They do the dirty work on the interior, sometimes lost on the casual fan because there’s so much going on around them.

Laing is cool with that.

“Ya man, that’s fine,” Laing told Argonauts.ca, “As a defensive line we have an expectation of just being the best defensive line in the league. Whether it’s leading in sacks, or whether it’s just striking fear in other offensive linemen. As long as we get our shine as a unit we’re good, we’re happy.”

Laing seems older than his 27 years. Maybe it’s because he’s been dominant since bursting onto the scene with the Argos in 2013. It might be because he missed some CFL time when he headed to the NFL in 2016 before returning just in time to win a Grey Cup with Ottawa. It could be that he’s become so dependable that you get the feeling he’s a ten-year veteran.

One person that Laing’s talent is not lost on is the man who usually lines up next to him at the other tackle spot, Dylan Wynn.

“I would say he’s the best Canadian d-lineman in the league,” said Wynn. “He pulls double teams off of you because he’s such a threat. Our entire D-line is stacked, it makes for fun times.”

That’s the biggest nightmare for opposing offences. The Argos not only have quality, but quantity along the line. It makes them virtually impossible to shut down because any double team means someone is being blocked one-on-one, and any of the Argos down linemen like their chances in that situation.

Wynn got his chance to start last season when Ken Bishop was injured and parlayed that opportunity into an Eastern All-Star selection, along with Laing.

Bishop is back, as are a pair of Canadians – Linden Gaydosh and Jeff Finley – both of whom played well when given the chance last season.

Laing has won back-to-back Grey Cups and last year’s All-Star nod was the Edmonton native’s second such honour.

Head Coach Marc Trestman knows what he has in Laing and was happy to talk about the tackle’s attributes.

“His quickness,” said the coach, “He’s relentless to the ball, he split some double teams (in Regina) and made some plays. He’s brought to us what we saw last year, a guy who practices relentlessly and sets a tempo for our defence up front, him and Dylan and Bishop.”

For tackles who head north they find it’s a different game. In the States tackles play at a heavier weight because there’s a greater emphasis on running the ball up the middle. Playing a bit lighter in Canada helps with all the extra running tackles are required to do. Wynn enters his second season in Canada at about the same weight, but he’s carrying it differently.

“I’m still around 285, 290,” said the Concord, California product. “But I was able to lean out a little bit more in the season so I’d like to think it’s a bit better weight. This off-season I focused a lot on explosiveness and really being able to handle my weight a lot better.”

Just the news his opponents wanted to hear.

His fellow All-Star loves seeing what Wynn brings to the team.

“Dylan’s a dog,” said a broadly smiling Laing. “Dylan’s an animal. Dylan runs to the ball hard, works hard, he’s strong, he’s a jack of all trades.”

Laing, Wynn and company are a major component of what the Argos do defensively. Every opponent they face is aware of that, even if their efforts occasionally get lost by those who don’t focus on the men in the middle.