Argos prove there is no such thing as a meaningless win and nine other thoughts on stunning the Elks

Photo courtesy: CFL

Following Montreal’s win over Ottawa on Friday night, Toronto’s game in Edmonton was essentially meaningless from a mathematical standpoint. Win or lose, the Argos would need to take one of their final two games of the season against the Alouettes in order to clinch the CFL’s East Division.

But football is about a lot more than numbers, and I lost sight of that this week.

In head coach Ryan Dinwiddie’s shoes, I would have started Chad Kelly at quarterback and rested veterans like Henoc Muamba, Philip Blake, and DaVaris Daniels, and the Argos would almost certainly have lost this “meaningless” contest. I realized how wrong I was when the excitement from Toronto’s locker room spilled into the media area after the game.

Defensive coordinator Corey Mace crashed Muamba’s press conference yelling, “Henoc Muamba! Woo!” at the top of his lungs. Smiles were ear-to-ear. This wasn’t a meaningless win for a team that hadn’t won in Edmonton since 2013. The team clearly needed this from an emotional and psychological standpoint as they head into their most important game of the season in Montreal, where they haven’t won since 2015.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

It’s been a challenge

The Toronto Argonauts may need to stage an intervention when it comes to head coach Ryan Dinwiddie throwing his challenge flag.

Toronto’s bench boss is 2-for-11 this season. The game wasn’t even four minutes old when he was charged a timeout for losing his only challenge on a 12-yard completion to Derel Walker near midfield. He felt Dillon Mitchell was blocking downfield too early and he may have been, but just by a fraction of a second.

When I asked Coach Dinwiddie about their challenge process, he explained that receivers coach and passing game coordinator Pete Costanza generally looks at the replays from the booth and lets him know when to challenge a play. However, on this occasion, he saw it himself from the sideline and felt it was a blatant penalty.

Coach Dinwiddie doesn’t generally lose challenges because he’s wrong, he loses them because he contests plays that rarely get overturned. These low-percentage challenges might be worth the risk with the game on the line, but not early in the first quarter on a 12-yard pass.

Not-so-special teams

Toronto is last in the league in kickoff returns, averaging 19.5 yards per return. It’s not surprising then that special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan wanted to inject some life into his unit with a bit of trickery in this game, but it backfired terribly.

Jeremiah Haydel fielded the kickoff at Toronto’s 29-yard line and immediately looked to throw it back across the field to fellow returner Javon Leake. For those old enough to remember the Music City Miracle, it probably looked something like that on paper. In the game, however, Haydel fired the ball five yards over Leake’s head. Instead of smothering the football, Leake tried to pick it up and fumbled it again. Not only did Edmonton recover the ball, but Toronto was also penalized for throwing an illegal forward pass.

The team’s other two kickoff returns were only marginally better with Haydel turning it over again when he collided with a teammate, and Dejon Brissett taking the only “successful” return of the night back seven yards.

This unit has performed poorly all season. They simply don’t block very well and they don’t have a dynamic returner. Instead of running trick plays, they should focus on ball security and taking whatever yards they can get. Toronto’s offence and defence are good enough to win games as long as the special teams unit doesn’t lose them first.

The six

The Argos seem to have decided to keep their best six defensive backs on the field regardless of their natural positions. This hasn’t been an option for Toronto most of the season because of injuries, but when healthy, they have a tremendous amount of positional flexibility.

On first downs, Chris Edwards played field cornerback in place of Tarvarus McFadden. McFadden is probably a slightly better corner, but Edwards is a better player overall, so in accordance with this new philosophy, he stayed on the field while changing positions. For second-and-long situations, Coach Mace generally shifted to a 3-4, so McFadden came in and Edwards moved inside as a cover linebacker. It allowed for all sorts of creativity with Shaquille Richardson sometimes dropping back from the strong-side linebacker position.

Unfortunately, an injury to Robert Priester at the end of the first quarter curtailed this experiment, but expect to see more of it when either he or Maurice Carnell IV returns.

Pickup line

Toronto’s offensive line had arguably their best game of the season on Saturday. It’s a bit hard to quantify because Edmonton is a poor football team, but they were dominant all night, especially in the run game.

What makes their performance even more impressive is that starting right tackle Dejon Allen missed the game so he could be at home for the birth of his first child. Shane Richards filled in for Allen and had his best performance as an Argonaut. He and the rest of the line kept McLeod Bethel-Thompson clean all night. The one sack allowed was due to a missed assignment from Javon Leake, who failed to see former Argo Treston Decoud on a halfback blitz.

Since his highly touted arrival a few weeks ago, Ryan Hunter has been platooning at left guard with rookie Gregor MacKellar, but he played the entire game there against the Elks. Edmonton wasn’t running anything too exotic, but Hunter and center Justin Lawrence demonstrated improved communication in picking up blitzes and working downfield together on combo blocks.

I Ran (So Far Away)

A.J. Ouellette ran wild against the Elks with nine carries for 91 yards and a touchdown. He’s a high-effort, high-energy guy so his play looked the same as it always does, but he actually had space in which to maneuver today.

Some of his success was due to the blocking of the offensive line, as mentioned above, but Toronto also showed some new looks in their run game. Declan Cross, who has seen his usage decline significantly under Coach Dinwiddie, lined up at tight end, as an H-back, and in a more traditional fullback set to serve as an extra blocker for Ouellette.

What impressed me most about Ouellette, however, was the mental aspect of his game. Following his 25-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds remaining in the game, Twitter exploded with questions about whether or not he should have gone down before reaching the endzone in order to run out the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal. As the Argos were trailing at the time, he did the right thing. When I asked him if he considered going down, he said he asked the coaching staff prior to going in on that final drive.

There might not be another running back in the world who would ask their coach if he should go down instead of getting a touchdown with time still remaining on the clock. He’s an easy guy to cheer for and undoubtedly a favourite of the coaching staff.

Blue Peters

Jamal Peters may have been the best player on defence for the Argos in Edmonton. That probably isn’t surprising since he’s having an outstanding second season in the CFL.

Peters leads the league in interceptions and deserves to be a CFL All-Star, but he’s been pretty quiet recently. Against Edmonton, we saw some of the flashes he showed early in the year when he thrust himself onto the national stage. He had four tackles, two beautiful pass breakups downfield, and almost jumped out of Commonwealth Stadium tipping away a floater that Taylor Cornelius almost completed to a wide-open Dillon Mitchell.

A tale of two halves

Henoc Muamba commented after the game that the plan on defence was to be very vanilla, which they were for the opening half. But with a sudden sense of urgency at halftime, trailing by 10 points, plans changed.

In the second half, they sent pressure on two-thirds of Edmonton’s offensive snaps, including the two plays which resulted in interceptions and the momentum-swinging sack from Jonathan Jones. Seeing blitzes in a football game shouldn’t be surprising, but it is when it’s Toronto. They don’t blitz.

We’re going streaking

McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s streakiness has been well documented. He only had 34 passing yards in the first half. He was 5-of-8, which doesn’t sound bad, but all three misses were to open receivers. Then, in the second half, he caught fire, finishing with 273 yards and a touchdown.

Trailing by eight points with under five minutes remaining in the game, MBT went on one of his streaks. He didn’t miss a pass for the remainder of the contest, leading his team on two touchdown drives in the process to steal a win from Edmonton. He already has a career-high in passing yards and will likely finish with the most in the CFL this season with a legitimate shot at reaching 5,000 yards.

Old friends

This didn’t end up being a revenge game for former Argos Treston Decoud, Martez Ivey, Kony Ealy, Jeff Richards, Llevi Noel, and Derel Walker, but it easily could have been.

Decoud looked alive in coverage and picked up a sack, Ivey was effective at left tackle, and Walker caught all seven passes thrown his way for 114 yards. Toronto fans have become accustomed to watching former Argos have career games against them, but beating Nick Arbuckle twice this year seems to have calmed things down.

After a rough day at the office, you can bet that the coverage teams will be focused this week on shutting down former Toronto returner Chandler Worthy as they set their sights on Montreal.

Ben Grant has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years. He has covered the CFL and the Toronto Argonauts since 2019.