It’s a little like winter driving – you can be careful, you can make all the requisite preparations, sometimes it’s just your turn to slide sideways into the ditch.
We speak of the perils associated with attempting to defend Montreal Alouettes receivers Jamel Richardson and S.J. Green.
Big, sure-handed, and lethal in the open field, these men will kill your playoff hopes should you give them the slightest opening.
The Toronto Argonauts were reminded of the considerable hazard posed by Richardson when the teams last met in the regular season – his 75-yard touchdown catch and run essentially won Montreal a game in which the Argos had played fairly hermetic pass defence to that point.
The Argonauts are in Montreal on Sunday to face the Alouettes in the East Division final.
And now that Richardson is joined by a healthy Green for a home playoff game – last week third option Brian Bratton showed he is also back to something nearing full health – there is a bounce in Richardson’s step.
“It’s time to do this, man. When the lights go on we feel we’re the best out there, we feel we’re the best show on turf,” said Richardson, whose bond with Green both on and off the field is fraternal.
The 2009 Grey Cup MVP serves as the team’s emotional sparkplug – a role he once shared with since-departed running back Avon Cobourne – and he’s keen to overcome last season’s home playoff disappointment in the East semi-final against Hamilton.
“We’ve got one game to get to the Grey Cup, we like our chances,” he said. “We have to win one game here, my team is depending on me and I’m going to show up. That’s just what it is.”
Living up to those words – or not – will have a major influence in a game that will surely hinge on whichever team comes up with big passing plays.
Montreal is well stocked with receivers who are experts on the subject.
It’s been a below-average season for Richardson, a dominant receiver who didn’t really find his feet until the last Argos meeting, his first 100-yard receiving game of the year.
Having his sidekick Green out of action with a knee injury – he’ll be wearing a brace Sunday – hasn’t helped.
“Just having him back period is a blessing for this offence ... he was the leading receiver [in the league] at the beginning of the year, only injuries prevented him from being the leading receiver at the end of the season,” Richardson said. “He’s a big-play guy, he’s liable to take it all the way at any time.”
Green, who led the team in receiving despite missing more than a month, said, “I’m excited to be back, I feel good cutting and running out there.”
In the regular-season finale against Winnipeg, Richardson, Green and Bratton played together – it was a loss, but still a worthwhile tune-up, Green said.
“It feels like our starting core hasn’t really played together since the third week of the season, it’s been frustrating as a group because we haven’t been able to get into that groove we normally get into, feeding off each other, but we’re getting there,” he added.
The Argos’ secondary presents a stiff test for the Als, corners Patrick Watkins (6 feet 5 inches) and Pacino Horne (6 feet) have size and speed, halfbacks Evan McCullough and Ahmad Carroll are able cover men, and safety Jordan Younger is a ballhawk who brings veteran savvy and matched Watkins, an East Division all-star, with five regular-season interceptions.
“When we played them last time it was a big game, it was for first place so they showed a bit of their hand, it was mostly man-to-man coverage,” said quarterback Anthony Calvillo. “We feel that’s going to be part of their package, they usually put their DBs on an island with no free safety help, so we have to make sure we’re designing stuff to give us the biggest play possible.”
Toronto allowed 27 touchdowns through the air in the regular season – second fewest in the CFL.
A major question is whether the defensive line – dead last in sacks – will apply enough pressure on Montreal’s veteran offensive line to give the defensive backs some manoeuvring room.
The physical match-up in the secondary is a good one for the Argos, but it’s tricky to shut down Calvillo’s passing attack – the second most prolific in the CFL in 2012 – and it’s not like the first-place Als are exactly cowed at the prospect of facing them.
Green, asked if he enjoys the challenge of playing against a big, fast secondary, said: “I don’t care.”
It’s not an exaggeration to describe the facial expression while he said it as stony.
The challenge will still be considerable for Toronto – it would be foolhardy in the extreme for the Argos not to base their defensive game plan around stopping Green and Richardson.
Their task is made a little bit simpler because the Montreal offence is deprived of its two Brandons – running back Brandon Whitaker and receiver Brandon London, who thrived in Green’s absence.
But the burly Chris Jennings – he’s 230 pounds or so – gives them a solid ground game and secondary receivers Bratton, Noel Devine and Eric Deslauriers have take on more responsibilities of late, combining for 16 catches and 282 yards in the last four games.
“There’s no team in this league that doesn’t look at 18 [Richardson] and 19 [Green] as our premier receivers ... yes, we do have to make plays, but it’s not so much because they’re going to be watching those guys, I just have to do my job to help us win,” Deslauriers said. “If they choose to double and bracket them, obviously we’re going to have to make sure to get a couple more balls. But I guarantee that 18 and 19 will still get their touches.”