July 12, 2018

Hogan: Special teams a work in progress

June 23, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Calgary Stampeders defeat the Toronto Argonauts 41-7 in season opener at BMO Field. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski

It can be easy at times to forget there are three facets of a football team. The offence gets the glory, the defence gets lauded for big plays, while the special teams chug along without getting proper recognition from the casual fan.

In Canadian football special teams are a key factor in a team’s success. With one fewer down than the U.S. variety, the opportunity to flip field position happens more frequently. Negating an opponent’s ability to break a big return is not particularly exciting, but it is vitally important.

For the Toronto Argonauts it hasn’t been a stellar start to the 2018 season, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. According to Kevin Eiben, the Special Teams Coordinator, that light is getting much brighter.

“Each game we’re improving,” the coach told Argonauts.ca. “We’ve had some guys that have gotten nicked up, so we’ve had to get guys that are not the starters up to speed quicker. Right now with our scheme it’s not very complicated, so it’s easy to teach and guys can play fast and play physical.”

Eiben singled out Frank Beltre, who’s currently on the six-game injured list, as a newcomer to the Argos who performed well before getting hurt, adding tremendous physical play to his group.

The coach also recently singled out a relatively anonymous member of the Argonauts for his contributions.

Matt Webster joined the Double Blue last year as a free agent after spending his first three CFL seasons in Saskatchewan. A defensive back by trade, the 26-year old is a graduate of Queen’s, the same university that produced Bryan Crawford, who anchored the Argos special teams for almost a decade. Webster was named Special Teams captain by Eiben for last week’s game against Edmonton.

“He’s consistent,” explained Eiben. “He’s a guy that puts in the work and he’s a guy that players go to and ask for advice. He’s got a few years under his belt now. He’s a little guy who doesn’t say very much, but he plays like a big player. I thought it was time for him to get recognized as being one of our top special teamers.”

When did Webster find out from Eiben that he had been selected as one of the Argos captains?

“It was the day before the game,” said the Calgary native. “We rotate special teams captains throughout the year. It’s a real honour to represent the team in that way, but in that same breath is means you’re held in a higher regard and you’ve got to perform and go out and do your job and help lead the others.”

The Argos special teams have not started the season the way they’d like, including some cringe-inducing moments. There’s has been some shoddy tackling and the return game has not been particularly effective̶, miscues on placekicks, including a dropped ball on a convert attempt. Terry Williams returned a punt 102 yards for a touchdown in the Calgary game.

Most of the mistakes can be corrected and there’s been a measurable improvement from week to week, with the unit’s best effort to date coming in the win over Edmonton.

“We’re taking the coaching, we’re making the corrections and we’re trusting each other,” said Webster. “We’re trusting our ability, we’re trusting the coaching, and trusting that we’re going to be fresh on game day. Special teams is a battle. You win some, you lose some, but you’ve got to be resilient.”

That’s been the case for kicker Ronnie Pfeffer. He’s been one of the league’s best punters so far this season, but there have been a couple of misses when placekicking.

Pfeffer’s punting has been fantastic. He’s second in the CFL with a 48.7-yard average, but more importantly, the kicks have been directionally solid and have at times seemed high enough to present a potential problem for incoming flights to Billy Bishop airport. He’s come a long way from his freshmen season at Laurier, where he, shall we say, struggled.

He progressed from being a field goal kicker who didn’t know how to punt – his freshman average was 29 yards per kick – to a senior who led the country with a 42.3-yard average, to where he is now.

“It goes to show that hard work pays off,” said Pfeffer. “It’s perseverance through adversity.”

The Kitchener native’s resiliency is getting a bit of a workout right now in terms of place kicking.  He couldn’t connect on a 28-yard attempt against Calgary, he missed the conversion attempt of the first Argos TD in the game against Edmonton, both of those kicks missing to the left. Another convert attempt in the Calgary game was nullified by a dropped snap.

“You just move on from it,” said Pfeffer, showing that a kicker’s best attribute is a short memory. “You know what you did wrong, you study it and just move on from it and not let it get in your head and just get ready for the next game.”

Eiben can relate to that aspect of the game. He was a long-time holder for field goals and coverts while playing linebacker for the Argos. What has he said to his kicker about his recent missed opportunities?

“All I’m saying to Ronnie is keep on booting it,” the coach told Argonauts.ca. “Don’t overkick it. In certain situations he doesn’t need to take the paint off the football. Just go through his nice motion, get his routine, keep his head down and stay focused.”

The advice seems to be in line with everything the Argos are trying to do on special teams right now. Start with an uncomplicated scheme and master the basics.

Once that occurs, more consistency from all special teams should be the norm.