On Saturday night at BMO Field, the Toronto Argonauts strolled to a 29-14 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats despite looking out of synch most of the evening offensively.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
The tables have turned
It wasn’t long ago that Argos fans would dread watching the Tiger-Cats come to town, or cringe at the thought of travelling down the QEW to Tim Horton’s Field.
With the win Saturday, the Argos completed a four-game sweep of the Tabbies, and have now won 10 of their last 11 games against Hamilton. Fans I talked to after the game still aren’t interested in seeing Hamilton in the playoffs, but Toronto’s domination of the Tiger-Cats as of late has tempered their feelings significantly.
New kids on the block
Having clinched first place in the East Division last week, the Argos started the process of resting players week-to-week, some of whom need time to recover from injury, and some of whom were healthy scratches.
True rookies receiver Rajae’ Johnson and running back Deonta McMahon both got their first CFL starts on Saturday, filling in for Cam Phillips and A.J. Ouellette respectively. At six-foot-four, Johnson is a huge target, and his stellar play in the preseason meant expectations were high. Chad Kelly targeted him three times, twice deep in Hamilton territory, but they couldn’t quite get on the same page, leaving Johnson with only one reception for 17 yards.
McMahon’s outing was more impressive, carrying the rock 12 times for 43 yards and bringing in all three of his targets for 26 yards through the air. It looked as though the plan was to give McMahon a variety of different looks. He ran Toronto’s usual assortment of inside and outside zone runs, but he also ran a counter, a power, a lead, and a jet sweep.
McMahon has the potential to be a deadly outside slasher, perhaps the lightning complement to A.J. Ouellette’s thunder next season. The Argos haven’t had a true thunder-and-lightning combination for a few years, and this year’s backfield has been nothing but thunder with Ouellette, Andrew Harris, and Daniel Adeboboye.
First round talent
Former second-overall pick, Dejon Brissett, had his best game as a pro. He caught six of his seven targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns. In his three-year career, the Argonauts have made use of Brissett’s length and his ability to box out defenders on contested catches, but on Saturday they let him run. Brissett scorched Dexter Lawson Jr. on a post route for a 70-yard touchdown against a two-high look.
Kelly ➡️ Dejon 💰 pic.twitter.com/5q5EXwibjJ
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) September 23, 2023
His second touchdown was from nine yards out after he was able to shake free of Lawson’s coverage once again.
Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie attributes Brissett’s chemistry with Kelly to the work they put in together in the offseason.
“Dejon lives here year-round, Chad does as well, so they got plenty of time together, they’re at the bubble at Lamport [Stadium] working. Chad could see it coming.”
The Toronto Sack Exchange
After getting sacked last week for the first time since July, Chad Kelly’s offensive line kept him clean against Hamilton. Toronto only sacked Hamilton quarterback Taylor Powell twice, but they still lead the league in both sacks (47) and sacks allowed (12).
This +35 team sack differential would establish a team record if maintained. Their previous best differential was +30, which they achieved back in 1997.
…and then McManis got hot
Based on his statistics and the weekly player grading I do, Wynton McManis is having a very good season, but he’s not quite playing at the extraordinarily high level he was in 2022 when he was one of the leading candidates for Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Against Hamilton on Saturday, Wynton looked like he had gone back in time. He had two crafty interceptions, one of which he returned 58 yards for a touchdown, while the other generated a 50-yard runback to the Hamilton four-yard line.
HOUSE CALL FOR WYN ☎️ pic.twitter.com/DA3JU2Mbz3
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) September 23, 2023
McManis was also instrumental in holding James Butler to 32 yards on 13 carries. He led the team in tackles last season despite missing the final four games of the regular season with a knee injury, also missing the Grey Cup due to a torn bicep. He had surgery to repair his bicep, but he had recovered physically from both of his injuries by the start of this season. The mental recovery from injuries such as these sometimes takes longer. His return to form as of late could simply be related to finally feeling confident in his bicep and his knee.
Not surprisingly, the Argonauts didn’t show anything new on either side of the ball, but that’s also what makes this win so impressive over a team that desperately needed it.
Defensive coordinator Corey Mace ran a very vanilla-looking defence. They blitzed quite a bit early on, but the blitzes weren’t cleverly disguised like they usually are, and they spent most of their time in generic cover two, three, and four looks they’ve shown all season. This is probably what both the offence and defence will look like for the remainder of the regular season as the Argos don’t want to show their future playoff opponents their hand.
No place like home
The Argos are now 7-0 at BMO field this season and 17-4 at home since the cancelled 2020 season. BMO Field is a difficult place for visiting teams to play. Its metal roofing and exuberant fans make it a surprisingly loud facility regardless of the attendance figures. Hamilton had four illegal procedure penalties in this game, all likely due to crowd noise.
It’s also the only natural grass surface in the CFL, which gives Toronto an edge in terms of traction. Argos’ equipment manager Danny Webb always has them in the right cleats, and in Saturday’s game, I noticed Toronto’s players go directly to the cleat boards when they came off the field and during timeouts, while Hamilton didn’t even have their cleat boards out. Defensive back Dexter Lawson Jr. lost his footing in the endzone on Dejon Brissett’s second touchdown.
The 2023 Argonauts are only the sixth team in CFL history to start 12-1. No team has ever gone 17-1, which, though unlikely, is still technically in play for Toronto with five games remaining. Since moving to an 18-game season, Toronto’s best regular season finish is 15-3, something they did twice with Doug Flutie under centre in 1996 and 1997. Both of those teams won the Grey Cup.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but this statistical anomaly continues to amaze me each and every week. The Argos have had better average starting field position in all 13 of their games this season. This is due primarily to having the league’s best kickoff average, punt return average, and turnover differential, but it’s still incredible this trend has held up this far into the season. Against Hamilton, Toronto’s average starting field position was their own 46-yard-line, with the Tiger-Cats starting on average at their own 31.
It’s a challenge
After winning only two of 13 challenges last year, Ryan Dinwiddie seems to have decided to keep his red flag in his pocket as much as he can this season. But when Chad Kelly was hit in the head by Simoni Lawrence, he couldn’t help himself.
I’ve given Dinwiddie a hard time about challenges, but I thought this was as clear as day. I don’t think Lawrence intended to hit Kelly in the head, and it certainly wasn’t vicious, but rules are rules. Chad Kelly was the quarterback. He was hit in the head. These facts are undeniable. Yet, for the third time in three attempts, Dinwiddie lost his challenge. It may be a while before he pulls that flag out again.
Early for Halloween
Argonauts’ mascot, Jason, stole the show on Saturday, not only dressing up in a full Thor costume and posing with A.J. Ouellette, but also donning an inflatable suit that made it look as though he was riding a tiger. Jason “rode” the tiger behind the Hamilton bench and stopped to pet it every so often. The implication was clear.
The Toronto Argonauts (12-1) travel to Winnipeg to take on the Blue Bombers (10-4) on Friday. This Grey Cup rematch is the only regular-season meeting between the two teams, but Ryan Dinwiddie downplayed the matchup in his post-game press conference, saying Toronto would try to win, but he would also take this opportunity to rest a few players as he did against Hamilton on Saturday.