The Argos live la vie en rouge and 11 other thoughts on clinching first in the East Division

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Toronto Argonauts clinched first place in the East Division in the most Canadian way possible: with a rouge.

Before I get into my thoughts and observations, no, it’s not embarrassing to win on a missed field goal. In that situation, Boris Bede is simply trying to get enough loft to launch it over the uprights and enough distance to get it through the endzone. It’s a tough kick because he has to boot it as hard as he can just to be safe.

I’ve received a lot of questions about the play after the game because there wasn’t a lot of clarity from the TSN broadcast as to what happened. The rouge was awarded because when the field goal sailed right, Worthy was standing on the back line of the endzone when he caught it. The Montreal penalty for having 13 players on the field didn’t matter and was therefore declined.

It was suggested to me that Coach Dinwiddie should have opted to punt on that play instead of attempting a field goal, but that doesn’t really stand up. The ball was snapped at the Montreal 40-yard line, 60 yards from the back of the endzone. Bede’s field goal attempt travelled 61 yards for the rouge. That’s not an unusual distance for him. His pregame warmup has changed recently, but he used to routinely kick field goals out of the stadium, so he can get 60 yards of distance on demand. John Haggerty, on the other hand — while he’s the best punter in the CFL — averages 48.4 yards per punt, which wouldn’t have been nearly enough.

This was Toronto’s seventh win in the past eight games, five of which were on the road, and their first win in Montreal since 2015. Here are my thoughts:

We’re not Worthy

After being embarrassed last week in Edmonton, there was an expectation that Toronto’s special teams unit would lock down return specialist and former teammate Chandler Worthy at all costs. He didn’t win it for Montreal, but he certainly had some explosive moments.

I would imagine Argos fans weren’t thrilled when they turned on their TV just in time to see Worthy open the game with a 38-yard kickoff return. He took Toronto’s first punt back 33 yards, added a 41-yard punt return later, and returned a missed field goal 28-yards.

The good news for the Argos is they finally saw some production from their own return game. Javon Leake took a kickoff return back 50 yards, a team-high in 2022, and he also worked his way to a 13-yard punt return. That may not sound like much — and really, it’s not — but for a team averaging a league-low 7.1 yards per return, I half-expected to see a Gatorade shower.

Fired up

Henoc Muamba was an absolute monster on the field today, leading by example for the Toronto Argonauts. I haven’t seen him this animated in a game since he arrived in Toronto. He decided the Argos were going to win this football game and seemed to have made it his personal mission to stop William Stanback.

On Montreal’s opening offensive play, they gave the ball to Stanback out of a two-back set, and Muamba knocked him flat after a short gain. He then stood there in front of the league’s best back flexing and screaming.

This possessed version of Muamba is the best version Muamba. He had a game-high nine tackles, a violent sack, and a tipped ball that almost resulted in an interception by Maurice Carnell IV.

No flag on the play

Montreal’s opening drive ended with Trevor Harris being picked off by linebacker Jonathan Jones at the Toronto 10-yard line. Montreal challenged the play and there may have been enough evidence to throw a flag for pass interference, but not enough to overturn it.

We have seen pass interference called on similar plays this season, but the referees seemed determined to keep their flags in their pockets, which I appreciated. I also observed Toronto’s receivers getting an early jump on a number of plays, none of which were called. Sideline officials always give receivers the benefit of the doubt in the CFL, but the limits were pushed on a few occasions.

Toronto was penalized only three times for 25 yards, while Montreal was hit five times for 39 yards, both low numbers for these teams. It resulted in a football game with better flow than we generally see.

Testing 1, 2, 3

Toronto’s opening offensive play was just a four-yard run, but it was out of a diamond formation I’ve never seen them line up in under head coach Ryan Dinwiddie.

Cam Phillips, Markeith Ambles, and Kurleigh Gittens Jr. were lined up in a wide bunch (we’ve seen this part before), and Brandon Banks was lined up behind them such that their formation made the shape of a diamond (thus the name). They were testing Montreal here to see how they defended this look. The diamond drew over the middle and strong-side linebackers, the boundary halfback, and the boundary corner, while DaVaris Daniels, who was isolated to the field, had the field corner overtop of him with the field halfback a few yards away and the safety cheating to his side.

In terms of numbers, the correct call against this alignment is to run at the five defenders left in the box, which they did. Interestingly, they never came back to this look, which suggests they didn’t get what they were hoping for. Knowing Coach Dinwiddie’s offence and how he thinks about the game, I’d imagine he was hoping to get a numbers advantage to the diamond side so Bethel-Thompson could fire a quick screen to Banks.

A line in the sand

After the Toronto defence turned Montreal over on their first drive, they were faced with a third-and-goal situation from the one-yard line on their second.

Montreal was automatic in short-yardage situations earlier this season, but they’ve struggled since losing centre Sean Jamieson to a knee injury. It has obviously rattled them a bit because instead of going with Dominique Davis on the sneak, they handed it off to Jeshrun Antwi for his only carry of the night.

The entire defensive line got a great jump on the ball — yet another factor in playing with a backup center. Dewayne Hendrix fired out sideways into a roll, an old short-yardage tactic which really did jam up the middle. Robbie Smith drove left tackle Nick Callender along the line of scrimmage into the hole where Antwi crashed into his back. When Antwi went to leap over the pile, Henoc Muamba came flying over top and Jack Cassar came around the outside to get him off his feet. It took a full team effort to stop that touchdown in what would end up being one of the most important plays in the game.

The Replacements

This “bend-but-don’t-break” Argos’ defence bent a lot more than usual in this game. They allowed an astonishingly-high 513 yards of offence, including 413 through the air. It looked like Montreal was targeting Tarvaris McFadden in their passing attack, and Jonathan Jones on the ground. McFadden was filling in for Chris Edwards, who was a late scratch from the game, and Jones has been in for Wynton McManis since his injury in Calgary a few weeks ago.

McFadden was just named to the 2022 CFL All-Rookie team by 3DownNation’s JC Abbott, and rightly so. He has generally been strong in pass coverage this season, and had flashes once again, but also looked lost at times. Montreal was doing what they could to match him up against Eugene Lewis. He was late to react on a few occasions with the ball in the air, and he got turned around a few times, but he also broke up a few balls intended for Lewis.

Jones actually had a solid game as a pass defender, including the interception I mentioned earlier, but he was exposed a few times against the run. In what looked like a tendency the Alouettes observed on film, Montreal’s backs continually ran at Jones and then bounced it to the outside before hitting the hole. Jones’ aggressiveness led to him overcommitting and ultimately getting stuck in the wash, unable to continue pursuit to the outside.

Safety Dance

Late in the third quarter, Trevor Harris appeared to shovel a pass toward William Stanback as he was being brought down by Ja’Gared Davis. The ball fell short of its intended target and was pounced on by Royce Metchie at the one-yard line.

There was some confusion as to the result of this play, both on the broadcast and in the stadium. Eventually, it was ruled an incomplete pass, so Coach Dinwiddie threw his challenge flag, looking instead for either a safety or a recovered fumble. Coach Dinwiddie won his third challenge of the season in twelve attempts.

I criticized his decision to challenge a play last week as well as the entire system they have in place for challenges, and this win doesn’t change my opinion. I still have no idea how this was a safety unless the play was blown dead with Harris in Davis’ grasp. Harris clearly has control of the ball and gets it out toward Stanback before he is thrown down. No information was communicated to the fans in attendance or the TSN audience other than that Toronto was being awarded a safety after a successful challenge.

Stanback vs Ouellette

William Stanback tallied 106 all-purpose yards on Saturday, yet it felt like the Argos held him in check. This is because almost half of those yards came on Montreal’s last drive of the first half with Toronto in a soft shell as the Alouettes tried to run out the clock. So, while he averaged 6.5 yards per carry, that’s a misleading statistic.

What’s more surprising than Toronto limiting Stanback is that they outrushed Montreal with 109 yards on the ground. A.J. Ouellette had another impressive outing with 92 yards on 14 carries with another 31 yards receiving. Amazingly, he left at least 20 more yards out there on the field, running toward contact instead of away from it.

Coaches struggle to teach explosive backs not to bounce everything outside. Players like Javon Leake, oozing with talent, are difficult to find a role for sometimes because everything ends up outside and defences key on it. Ouellette has the far more unusual problem of being magnetically drawn to linebackers. He took a screen pass, and instead of following his blocks and a numbers advantage to the sideline, he cut right back into a linebacker. And on the play where Bethel-Thompson fumbled the snap and Ouellette picked it up for a seven-yard gain, there was an empty field to his left. Empty! But instead, he cut directly towards two linebackers.

The Hunter Effect

Toronto is still second last in the CFL in rushing yards and second last in per-carry average at 4.7, but things started to change when Ryan Hunter made his debut at left guard four weeks ago in Calgary.

In Hunter’s four games, Toronto has 44 rushing attempts for 293 yards. That’s 6.7 yards per carry, which would easily be first in the CFL over a full season.

To kick or not to kick

Coach Dinwiddie made a game-management decision I believe almost cost Toronto the game.

Leading 16-6 with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter, he elected to punt from Montreal’s 40-yard line. He punted because the defence was playing well, he had a two-score lead, he wanted to pin Montreal deep in their own end, and he didn’t want to give Chandler Worthy a chance to make a game-changing play on a missed field goal the way Mario Alford did weeks ago in Regina. I get all that. But when you’re at the 40-yard line and weather isn’t a factor, you have to give Boris Bede a shot. If you don’t, you’re telling him you don’t believe in him, because range clearly isn’t the issue at all when it comes to him kicking a 47-yard field goal.

Worthy returned the punt 41 yards, which didn’t help matters, and momentum swung completely. The next three drives ended in a Montreal touchdown, a Toronto turnover, and a Montreal field goal.

You’re hot then you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no

It was another emotional day watching McLeod Bethel-Thompson perform miracles and then make highly questionable throws.

The fact that Toronto’s opening touchdown came off a CFL record-tying 109-yard drive, yet they were unable to generate points on drives that started from their own 50-yard line, Montreal’s 52-yard line, and Montreal’s 50-yard line is the most McLeod Bethel-Thompson thing ever. On that 109-yard drive, he was brilliant, completing all five of his passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. That three-yard touchdown pass to Markeith Ambles gives MBT 14 touchdown passes inside the opponent’s 25-yard line this season with only one interception.

And yet, this same quarterback bounced his first pass of the game to an open Brandon Banks, and threw a head-scratching interception after Montreal closed the gap 16-13 in the fourth quarter. Toronto was running a double-tight look, hoping to see man coverage, and Montreal obliged. In max-protect, off play-action, Bethel-Thompson starred down Ambles, pumped towards Ambles, and then threw to Ambles. The safety, Marc-Antoine Dequoy, had plenty of time to stroll over and pick off the pass. It travelled 44 yards downfield, so it wasn’t the end of the world, but I’d rather see an “arm punt” on second down not on first down after Montreal just strung together a lengthy scoring drive.

But there he was in the end, with the game on the line, being incredible. Tied 16-16, he was perfect once again on an 11-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to put the Argos ahead. And then after Montreal tied it up 23-23 with 34 seconds remaining, he was perfect again on all three passes for 39 yards to set them up for the winning kick. How is this the same quarterback that bounced his opening pass?

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.