The Toronto Argonauts will find out Monday night if they are ready to be considered a CFL contender or, in the words of their head coach, “just a team that’s 3-and-2 and done some good things.”
When the defending Grey Cup champions, the B.C. Lions, visit the Rogers Centre, they will bring the same 3-2 record as the Argos, but a much taller reputation even though both teams sport the same statistics at this point in the season. Defensively, the Lions are No. 1 in most categories with the Argos close behind.
But most of the pressure will be on Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray and the offence to show, in their toughest test of the season, they are ready to play to the standard of the Argo defence.
“They are the Grey Cup champs and we haven’t proven anything,” Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said after Friday’s practice. “We’re doing a lot of great things and the guys are coming along. Honestly, it’s not coach-speak. I don’t believe we’re where we need to be yet. We need to put a full game together.
“We need to have that consistent killer instinct throughout a full game. Until we do, they’re still the champs.”
This means the Argo offensive line has to find Ray the time to throw against a defensive line that features CFL sack leader Keron Williams (six sacks in five games), and has to spring running back Cory Boyd against a defence that’s allowed the fewest average rushing yards a game at 77.2.
The Argos’ last game, when they hung on to beat the Montreal Alouettes, illustrated what Ray and the offence need to do as well as what Milanovich is concerned about. After a monster first half, the Argo offence was smothered in the second, but hung on to win 23-20.
While bad luck was an issue (the Alouettes got away with two pass-interference infractions in the second half), the bigger problem was that offensive lineman Wayne Smith was lost when he injured an oblique muscle. His replacement, Cedric Gagné-Marcoux, had his problems trying to guard Ray’s blindside.
This position will be even more critical against a defensive line as relentless as the Lions’. Smith is still not completely recovered, but with three days of practice left before the game, the Argos are hopeful he can play.
“It’s tough,” Ray said of the disruption Smith’s injury created. “Those guys are a pretty tight unit. There’s a lot of communications going on. The centre is making the calls but everybody has to relay it. Everybody has to be on the same page.
“You get one guy not going to the right guy or is unsure of their assignment and it messes everything up. We all know that’s where it starts, with those guys up front, if we want to be successful.”
One of the stranger statistics in the CFL: The Lions’ secondary has yet to intercept a pass despite its status as the best in the league. Milanovich dismissed that as just a quirk of the young season.
“That means nothing,” he said. “I know what they can do in the secondary. You talk about [Ryan] Phillips and [Byron] Parker, those guys have always been well respected, if not the most feared in the league. If you let them get their hands near a ball, they’ll pick it. Ricky knows that. Ricky has to be accurate and guys have to run precise routes.”
Ray is aware of the dangers of throwing into the Lions’ defence, which will, like almost every CFL defence that faces him, be playing zone rather than man-to-man almost all the time.
“You want to be careful because those guys have good hands in the secondary,” Ray said. “But you don’t want to get too conservative because you’ve still got to find a way to make plays down the field. You still have to trust when the receivers are one on one, they will go out and make plays for you.”