The Toronto Argonauts dropped their preseason opener 27-22 to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday night at Tim Horton’s Field. Here are my thoughts on the game.
The People’s Elbow
Chad Kelly was expected to start and play the first two series at quarterback for the Argos, but he never took the field. Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie revealed after the game that Kelly reported feeling tightness in his throwing elbow during warmup, so the team decided to rest him as a precaution.
According to Dinwiddie, the medical staff looked at Kelly and didn’t believe it to be serious. But with the Argos seemingly all-in on their first-year starter this season, any issue at all with his throwing arm should sound alarm bells.
With a first-week bye on the horizon, the team could choose to get Kelly some extra rest, so a decision to play him this Thursday night in Guelph against the Redblacks would signify his elbow tightness has dissipated.
On the second drive of the game, quarterback Ben Holmes appeared to misread the coverage, throwing receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. into the waiting helmet and shoulder pads of Hamilton cornerback Lawrence Woods III. Gittens dropped immediately to the ground and remained there for some time.
It looked like the kind of play that often results in a broken arm, but the early indication is that KGJ sidestepped serious injury. He seemed in good spirits on the sideline for the remainder of the game and Dinwiddie commented he probably could have returned if it weren’t a preseason game.
Projected starting cornerback Robert Priester suffered what appeared to be a leg injury in the early stages of the first quarter. Dinwiddie didn’t feel this would be a long-term injury either but acknowledged that he hadn’t yet had an opportunity to sit down with the medical staff.
21 Jump Street
The injury to Priester led to an earlier-than-expected appearance for the youngest player on Toronto’s roster, Quan’tez Stiggers.
Just turned 21, with no college football experience, Stiggers is unsurprisingly raw but can match anyone on the team in terms of athletic ability. The assumption has been that he’d need to spend a season on the practice squad developing, but turning to Stiggers in this situation instead of a returning player with corner experience like Caleb Holden may mean the coaching staff’s projection for the youngster is that he will play meaningful snaps this season.
Stiggers showed both his tremendous promise and his inexperience on Saturday. He stuck to Tiger-Cats receiver Justin McGriff on a deep route, getting his head turned in time to pick off quarterback Taylor Powell, but he also missed a tackle in run support and committed an unnecessary roughness penalty after getting into a heated shoving match with Hamilton’s Kenneth George Jr. on a punt return.
Is He the McMahon for the Job?
The Argos may have found something in Deonta McMahon. The shifty running back has been one of the stories of training camp with his ability to make defenders miss. He was used late, and in a limited capacity, but he made something out of nothing every time he touched the football.
The issue Toronto has in keeping him is that they’ve already got Americans A.J. Ouellette and Javon Leake at the position, as well as Canadians Andrew Harris and Daniel Adeboboye. Could McMahon beat out Leake for a job? It will be difficult with Leake currently serving as the team’s primary punt and kick returner.
In the search for a backup to Chad Kelly, Bryan Scott did everything he could to separate himself from Ben Holmes and Cameron Dukes. He was accurate, made smart decisions, used his legs well to buy time, and led the Argos on an impressive scoring drive. The issue in assessing his contributions is that he played against lesser competition in the second half.
Cameron Dukes was definitely the most exciting of the three quarterbacks, executing jump shovel passes, rugby-style offloads, and underhand windmill passes on two exciting touchdown drives – one that culminated in a gorgeous bomb to RaJae’ Johnson on a corner route, and one to B.J. Byrd on the last play of the game.
As exciting as he was, this style of play isn’t sustainable. Dinwiddie felt there were positives in the energy Dukes brought and the sheer athleticism he possesses, but that there were better reads earlier in plays that didn’t require circus passes.
Ben Holmes had the clubhouse lead in the backup quarterback competition following the Double Blue scrimmage last Monday, and so logically got the start when Kelly was pulled late. Unfortunately, it was one of his worst days in an Argos uniform, practice or otherwise. He threw two interceptions that were both on him, and he put Kurleigh Gittens Jr. in harm’s way.
Holmes is a much better quarterback than what he showed Saturday night, but if he can’t prove that conclusively in the team’s final preseason game, he’ll go from being the favourite to a long shot to earn the backup job.
Where are Ace and Junior?
Already a favourite among older fans for sharing a name with the Toronto Blue Jays’ original mascot, receiver B.J. Byrd may have made the team with his performance against the Tiger-Cats.
He has flashed at times during camp but was held to one catch for 15 yards in the Double Blue game last week, significantly overshadowed by fellow American Lonnie Moore IV. On this night, Byrd had five catches on six targets for 44 yards and a pair of touchdowns, one of which was a sensational grab.
Royal Canadian Air Force
It looks more and more like the Argos are thinking about starting a second Canadian receiver next to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. No one ran away with the job, but David Ungerer III, Tommy Nield, and Dejon Brissett each made a solid case for themselves.
Ungerer showed speed and looked like a threat to score against his former team on a couple of occasions, but he also took a costly holding penalty. Nield played like the reliable possession receiver he generally is with four catches for 38 yards, but didn’t do anything to strike fear in future opponents. Brissett, meanwhile, was only targeted twice, but one of those receptions was a highlight reel catch in the back of the endzone on a two-point conversion.
As players were filing into the locker room, defensive back and consummate teammate Josh Hagerty told Brissett that his catch would stand at season’s end as one of the plays of the year — and he’s probably right.
Linebacker Jordan Williams is going to be a lot of fun for defensive coordinator Corey Mace to play with due to his speed and level of comfort in coverage.
Williams didn’t take a lot of snaps on Saturday, but Mace had him all over the place. From the middle linebacker position, Mace even dropped Williams out into deep zone coverage on a cover-two look that was masterfully disguised pre-snap.
Neither Henoc Muamba nor Wynton McManis were dressed for this game, and it remains to be seen how Mace plans to use all three linebackers. However, he’s clearly got some creative ideas, reminiscent of how Dexter McCoil was used as Toronto’s third linebacker in 2021.
Less is More
If you look at John Haggerty’s punting stats from this game, they look fantastic, with three punts that travelled over 53 yards. The problem wasn’t distance, however, it was hang time.
He crushed two 59-yard punts, but both gave returners all kinds of time to build up speed before evading defenders. One was returned for an 84-yard touchdown, and the other was a 14-yard return that also could have gone the distance were it not for a clutch tackle from Tiggie Sankoh.
His three shortest punts were his best of the evening, one bouncing out of bounds at the four-yard line, and the other two giving his coverage team an opportunity to shut down all possibility of a return.
Kick it to Pickett
The Argos may rethink how they deploy Adarius Pickett on the kickoff return team going forward.
Pickett, a great lead blocker in this unit, was lined up opposite Javon Leake, a role he played last year for Chandler Worthy in Montreal. Hamilton seemed to have decided, however, that if Toronto was going to put one of their most valuable defensive players back there, they were going to take the opportunity to hit him.
When Pickett was back there, all of Hamilton’s kickoffs went to him, some ending in cringe-worthy contact, and one ricocheting off Pickett into the endzone. It wasn’t pretty.
The Argos are going to have to decide if the value Pickett adds as a blocker from that spot is worth exposing him to additional contact.