The Toronto Argonauts offence has been the toast of the CFL this year; for understandable reasons. The team has scored over 30 points in six of its seven games, while quarterback Chad Kelly has been mentioned as an early contender for the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
There’s been much less talk about the Argos defence.
The group leads the league with 14 interceptions, is among the league’s best with an average of 20.6 points against per game, while it enters Week 10 with 24 sacks; just 3 behind CFL leading Winnipeg, with the Bombers having played one more game.
So how are they doing it?
“We’re so much faster,” defensive coordinator Corey Mace told Argonauts.ca, placing major emphasis on the last word. “I think part of that is just guys getting comfortable in the system and being able to play faster.”
Even though the team won a championship in 2022, the goal in the off-season was to increase the team’s speed. The Argos did that by signing free agents Flo Orimolade, Thomas Costigan and Adarius Pickett, while trading for Jordan Williams.
“We’ll always look to do that,” said Mace, in regard to improving a team’s overall quickness. “There’s no such thing as too fast. We like the guys that we have; even the depth behind the starters, those guys are fast too and they play hard.”
One of Mace’s returning players is defensive end Robbie Smith, one of the heroes of last year’s Grey Cup win. He’s watched the defence evolve since Mace introduced it after being hired in January of ’22.
In Smith’s eyes, Mace has released the hounds.
“I think we’re blitzing a lot more,” he told Argonauts.ca. “He’s a lot less conservative so there have been a lot more pressures and zone blitzes. We’re dropping out a lot, so he’s asking the defensive ends to do that a lot more, which I like. I really enjoy the way our defence is this year and what we’re running. I think it puts us is position to be successful.”
More successful than last year’s championship team’s defence?
“Only time will tell,” he answered, sporting a broad smile. “I think we added a lot of great pieces and I think we’re trending upwards, so at the end of the year I’ll get back to you on that.”
The Brampton native has been a steady contributor to the Argos D this season. He’s on pace to surpass his career highs in both tackles and sacks. Part of that success is due to his improved quickness, something Mace says did not develop by accident.
“He worked his butt off this off-season to get more explosive. He’s always been a big, fast, player; but I think his explosion, his get off, is much quicker.”
This week’s task is not easy for the Argos. The Ottawa Redblacks visit BMO Field for a Sunday night game, led by quarterback Dustin Crum. Crum is a defensive front’s potential nightmare; a QB who can lead a strong passing attack, but also beat you with his feet. Crum leads the CFL with an average rush of 8.5 yards per carry.
It also presents a potential problem for the crew of defensive ends; getting pressure on Crum while not getting too far upfield, creating escape lanes for him.
“It’s a gift and a curse of having a running quarterback,” said Mace. “They tend to give up more sacks, but at the same time it tends to get guys undisciplined in their rush plan. We have to do a good job; we’ve been working on it all week to make sure we have a coordinated rush plan and keep this quarterback in the pocket. He’s gotten out every game, so we wouldn’t be surprised, but we know we’ve got enough speed to go get him.”
Smith agrees. He has a great deal of respect for Crum’s scrambling ability but knows the Argos speed on defence is a great equalizer.
“He scrambles a lot, but with the way that he plays – he’s a very physical player – he likes to keep his eyes downfield and he gives up a lot of sacks, so we definitely have to keep him in the cup (the pocket) this week, but we will never think of slowing down our rush because when you don’t pressure a quarterback, that’s when he has all day. We still have to get after him, we just have to keep him in the cup.”
Easier said than done, but the Argos do have the speed needed to pull it off.