Argos’ QB situation demands different style of football: 11 thoughts on Toronto’s preseason loss to Montreal

Photo courtesy: Ben Grant

Not every question was answered on Saturday night in Montreal when the Toronto Argonauts dropped their preseason opener 30-13 to the defending Grey Cup champion Alouettes, but both encouraging signs and potentially serious concerns emerged for the Double Blue.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

The Argo way

Fans in Toronto may have to brace themselves for the fact that the Argonauts are not going to be able to play the same style of football they did last year, at least until Chad Kelly returns from his suspension.

In 2023, with the league’s Most Outstanding Player at the helm, the team’s average margin of victory was just short of 14 points en route to their league-record-tying 16 wins. With an aggressive passing attack, Kelly was able to air it out, and for all intents and purposes, end most games by halftime.

This Argos team is capable of winning a lot of football games in 2024, but with Cameron Dukes, Nick Arbuckle, or Bryan Scott at quarterback, the Argos will have to grind out victories by playing mistake-free football, winning with guile and intelligent decision-making instead of deep 50/50 balls. They need to win with defence, field position, and tactical strikes that play off an effective ground game.

QB1?

The primary concern for the Argonauts, and one that likely won’t go away anytime soon, is at the quarterback position. They have three players I’d currently classify as very capable backup quarterbacks, but none emerged from Saturday night’s game as “the guy.”

Cameron Dukes remains the team’s best option at quarterback. He still scrambles when he doesn’t need to and throws the ball late, but he played with a spark the other two quarterbacks didn’t show. He connected on four-of-six passes for 51 yards with a touchdown and an interception, all of which appeared to be against the majority of Montreal’s projected starting defence.

His touchdown was spectacular, a “Cameron Dukes special.” It’s his ability to make plays like this that will likely land him the starting quarterback job to open the season. His interception, however, was exactly the kind of throw he needs to avoid making if Toronto is to remain competitive.

The touchdown came on Toronto’s second possession of the game, an eight-play drive during which Dukes was a perfect three-for-three, also running it himself twice for 15 yards. On third-and-two, from the Montreal 13-yard-line, Dukes sidestepped blitzing safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, who came in untouched off the edge. Knowing the middle of the field was open, Dukes floated the ball up for receiver Justin Marshall for the touchdown, tying the game at seven.

His interception came on his very next throw, again intended for Marshall. Having only watched the replay on the grainy stadium scoreboard, I can’t be positive but it looked like Marshall was lined up outside and had a skinny post against Cover Three Hold. I don’t have a problem with the read but with the deep defenders facing the quarterback, the ball needed to come out early, right at Marshall’s break. Dukes had play-action to Ka’Deem Carey, but he has to cut that short in this situation or look elsewhere.

QB2?

Nick Arbuckle was up second and looked nothing like the quarterback who raised eyebrows with his electric performance at the team’s Double Blue Game earlier in the week.

He went seven-of-13 for 93 yards but simply wasn’t on the same page as his receivers — a product of having spent only a week with the team, one would think. A number of passes came up short and off the mark, though, to his credit, he never put the ball in danger either. His third and fifth drives ended in field goals, the latter closing the half with the Argos trailing 20-13.

QB3?

Bryan Scott played the entire second half, going 10-of-20 for 109 yards, though three of his passes were dropped. He was also the team’s leading rusher with three carries for 31 yards but coughed up the ball on his final scramble after getting the necessary yardage to convert a third-and-long deep in Montreal territory. As with Dukes’ interception, these are mistakes Toronto quarterbacks can’t afford to make.

What I did like about Scott, which probably wasn’t caught on the broadcast, was his leadership. From the very first drive of the game, he had a tablet in hand, briskly walking the sideline to talk to every receiver he knew would be out there with him in the second half. With rookie receivers Trea Shropshire, Makai Polk, and first-round draft pick Kevin Mital, he appeared to be reviewing Montreal’s alignments against different formations, probably outlining his expectations in terms of where they should break their routes, look to sit, or expect the ball in various concepts.

Star Search

In each of the past three years, a player few Argos fans had ever heard of emerged during training camp before becoming a starter and, eventually, a star. Justin Marshall certainly hasn’t made that leap yet, but his inclusion in the starting lineup and his play on the field Saturday night didn’t hurt.

The six-foot-three, 210-pound receiver out of Buffalo signed with the club late last season and must have done something right to find himself starting out wide alongside DaVaris Daniels in what most view as Damonte Coxie’s spot. Marshall had two catches for 28 yards and a touchdown and didn’t look at all out of place with the starting unit. Of the six-foot-three outside receivers, Marshall has more size and speed than Coxie, as well as rookies Trea Shropshire and Makai Polk.

Snaps

Peter Nicastro started at centre against Montreal in place of Darius Ciraco. Nicastro is an all-star guard who played at that same level as a centre in his rookie season, but his snaps have concerned me over the past year, as limited as they’ve been.

I first noticed it last season during training camp and on Saturday night at least two errant snaps put Cameron Dukes in a less-than-ideal position. The first was over a yard outside, forcing Dukes to lunge and one-hand it. The poor snap appeared to throw off his timing, and he subsequently scrambled and gained a few yards. A few plays later, Nicastro bounced a snap back to Dukes on what was supposed to be a running play for Ka’Deem Carey, but Carey was well past the mesh point by the time Dukes picked up the ball.

This is a concern because, as I said before, this isn’t a team that can afford to make mistakes. It has always been assumed that Nicastro could easily slide over and play centre in the case of an injury to Ciraco, but I’m less confident in that than I was previously. And none of Braydon Noll, Anthony Vandal, or Daniel Shin have shown me enough to think it wouldn’t be Nicastro replacing Ciraco if he went down.

The vet

I don’t know what conversations were like between coaches and Tarvarus McFadden but if I were him, I might have been concerned about the fact that I was the only experienced starter on defence dressing in Montreal. However, he responded by having an excellent game.

His cover skills have always been strong going back to his time at Florida State where he won the Jack Tatum Award as the best defensive back in the country. To me, though, what really separates McFadden from the competition –- and there is plenty this season –- is his ability to slip past or shed blocks and blow up quick screens and passes to the flats. McFadden was constantly involved on Saturday night, leading the team with six tackles despite only playing a few series on defence.

The rook

It’s too soon to say, but rookie defensive back Tyshon Blackburn could turn into a valuable player. He’s not ready to take Royce Metchie’s job but Blackburn showed me far more yesterday at safety than I was expecting to see.

He made mistakes and he was late to react to what he saw, but his skill is undeniable and he has great size at six-foot-two, 203 pounds. What separates him right now from the more experienced Metchie is his difficulty in disguising coverage, which made Cody Fajardo’s job easier Saturday night.

On a third-and-three situation on Fajardo’s opening drive, it looked like Blackburn came down into the box too early, showing the veteran quarterback a Cover Zero look at a critical moment. Blackburn appeared to have drawn David Dallaire in coverage, but when Fajardo called Walter Fletcher and Dallaire in for maximum protection, it looked like Blackburn was unsure as to what to do. He didn’t rush the quarterback on what is sometimes called a “green dog” or make himself useful in coverage. Montreal receiver, Kaion Julien-Grant, meanwhile, easily secured inside leverage on a post route off a waggle against a flat-footed Jonathan Edouard, and was wide open for Fajardo in the middle of the field for the game’s first touchdown.

Depth

What stood out Saturday night is how little known depth the Argos have as a team compared to the last two seasons. It is probably still above the league average, but fans were spoiled when guys like Jonathan Jones, Tarvarus McFadden, and Shawn Oakman were coming off the bench.

There are exciting new players at most positions, but backup offensive tackle remains a concern. The Argos mixed in a number of players along the offensive line after Isiah Cage and Dejon Allen were done for the night, and while rookie Americans Darta Lee and Nick Amoah remain the favourites to back them up, both gave up pressure and neither was able to claim the job.

The heat is on

The Alouettes and Argonauts both blitzed a lot for a preseason game. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was the result of some animosity between the two teams, but it was likely coaches wanting to evaluate their young defenders in action.

It made for a far more exciting game than preseason generally yields, filled with big hits and big plays as well as some late flags for after-the-whistle extracurricular activities.

Preseason for everyone

The players and coaches aren’t the only ones shaking off the rust right now. Preseason is a time for everyone involved to get themselves in game shape, from officials, to networks and broadcasters, to stadium hosts and scoreboard operators.

There were undoubtedly many small mishaps in Saturday night’s game, but two in particular caught my eye. Global kicker Alfredo Gachuz Lozada’s first field goal attempt appeared to be waved off by one official while the other signaled it was successful. It ended up counting.

The other was the scoreboard at Percival Molson Stadium, which on many graphics had the Alouettes playing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats instead of the Argos. Oops.

Next up

The Toronto Argonauts wrap up their preseason at Alumni Stadium on the University of Guelph’s campus on Friday night at 7:00 p.m. EDT against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.