Cameron Dukes, DL dominate as Argonauts beat B.C. Lions (& 10 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

The Toronto Argonauts opened the regular season with a 35-27 win over the high-flying B.C. Lions on Sunday night. Second-year quarterback Cameron Dukes played a near-perfect game in his third career start, going blow-for-blow with Vernon Adams Jr., who was an absolute magician in his own right.

With the help of a swarming defensive line, the Boatmen were able to hang on in the end and secure the win at BMO Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Duke of York

I felt relatively confident the Argos would win this game, but I believed it would be due to the strength of their defence and special teams play. Instead, it was Cameron Dukes who was the driving force.

The 25-year-old native of Shepherdsville, Ky. completed 78 percent of his passes for 254 yards with three touchdowns along with five carries for 37 yards with a rushing touchdown. Through one week of play, he has the best quarterback rating in the CFL.

What made Dukes so good was his ball placement. He doesn’t have a strong arm, but he hit multiple receivers in the hands on mid-level crossers, allowing them to maximize their yardage after the catch. Against man coverage, he did a great job finding the best matchup, whether it was a taller receiver against a shorter defensive back or Ka’Deem Carey on a choice route out of the backfield against defensive end Amir Siddiqi, which resulted in the game’s first touchdown.

Dukes made one mistake all night as he put the ball on the ground for a B.C. Lions scoop-and-score. Rolling to his right, there was nothing open downfield, and he tried to cut back inside to buy himself more time. With defenders closing in, Josh Archibald spun Dukes around and, in trying to keep his feet, lost his grip on the football.

Global defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie ran it in from the 20-yard line to give the Lions a 14-point lead, but Dukes didn’t panic and calmly brought the Argos back into striking distance. In a difficult situation, the young quarterback showed tremendous poise and ability, as well as a short memory.

Carey the mail

As expected, running back Ka’Deem Carey emerged as Toronto’s lead back with 16 carries for 65 yards. He looked in fine form, reminiscent of the 2022 season when he was considered the best back in the league as a member of the Stampeders. Carey also hauled in four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown. More impressive than his stats, however, was his pass protection. The Lions sent a lot of heat in the second half, and Carey played a huge role in keeping blitzers away from Dukes.

The addition of Carey, an all-purpose back, to the roster gives Toronto a nice variety of runners. Dan Adeboboye, a hard-running pounder, was used at the end of the game against a tired B.C. defensive line, while the shifty Deonta McMahon was used sparingly on Sunday night but can turn even the most innocent-looking play into a big one.

The Toronto Sack Exchange

Two days after four members of the Toronto Argonauts rang the closing bell at the Toronto Stock Exchange, five defenders closed in and rang Vernon Adams Jr.’s bell as part of the Toronto Sack Exchange.

Folarin Orimolade participated in both events, registering a sack along with Jake Ceresna, Theadric Hansen, Wynton McManis, and Jared Brinkman, who had two. Adams was under siege all night and, truth be told, may have been the best player on the field for either team, escaping at least another four sacks and taking crushing hits immediately after releasing the ball.

The Lions don’t have the strongest offensive line, but Toronto showed how deadly this unit can be with the addition of Ceresna. Adding Shawn Oakman, who was a healthy scratch, to this unit should only serve to make them more dangerous.

Cornering the Market

This is a very different-looking team at cornerback this season. With the release of Tarvarus McFadden, Jamal Peters signing in Hamilton, and Qwan’tez Stiggers now a New York Jet, the Argos turned to Benji Franklin, who signed with the team late last season, and rookie Leonard Johnson.

Johnson was tested repeatedly by Adams, resulting in him leading the team in tackles with seven. He wasn’t the best player on the defence by any means, but he handled himself well. He was a bit late to break on the ball in zone coverage, but didn’t look at all out of place shadowing Alexander Hollins most of the night in man coverage.

There was one horrible bust in coverage where three Lions receivers were wide open deep downfield, resulting in Travis Fulgham’s first career CFL touchdown, but it’s hard to determine who was at fault.

Deep middle

Mason Pierce, Royce Metchie, and DaShaun Amos did a good job holding down the middle of the field against a tall and talented receiving corps. They each give up at least half a foot of height to B.C. receivers Justin McInnis and Jevon Cottoy and were often tasked with defending them one-on-one.

Amos had an interception off a ball that Metchie helped deflect, and Pierce had an unbelievable batted ball on a crucial third down after he raced all the way across the field in pursuit of Alexander Hollins.

Big McManis

With the defensive line as dominant as it was and the secondary making big plays, Wynton McManis’ play may have gone unnoticed by some, but he was the spark that lit both Toronto’s defence and special teams cover units all night. With five defensive tackles, two special teams tackles, and a sack, McManis was all over the field.

The 29-year-old was also used a lot more in coverage than usual after Fraser Sopik came in to replace linebacker Jonathan Jones. McManis looked absolutely gassed after the game, leaving everything he had on the field to help secure the win for the Argos.

Special K

The most disappointing performance of the night for the Argos came from an unexpected place: veteran kicker Lirim Hajrullahu.

The Grey Cup champion, who spent the last three seasons in the NFL, connected on all three field goal attempts but missed two of his four convert attempts. Those points were sorely missed late in the game when B.C. trailed by eight, keeping it a one-score game.

History suggests Hajrullahu will be fine, but for a squad hoping to count on special teams to keep the pressure off their young quarterback, this performance wasn’t encouraging.

1-0

Ryan Dinwiddie has already been recognized in his short career as a head coach, winning Coach of the Year honours last season and being highlighted on the TSN broadcast as having one of the hottest starts to a CFL coaching career.

None of them, however, had a different starting quarterback going into each of their first four season. Dinwiddie is now 4-0 in season openers and 4-0 in home openers, the latter coming with four different quarterbacks under centre.

The Argos won their home opener in 2021 against Winnipeg with Nick Arbuckle at the helm, against Montreal in 2022 with McLeod Bethel-Thompson, against Hamilton in 2023 with Chad Kelly, and now against B.C. with Cameron Dukes. A lot has been made of the 1-0 mentality the head coach preaches, but what he really deserves praise for is catering his offensive game plan to suit the strengths of his quarterback, whoever that may be.

Time after time

As good as Ryan Dinwiddie is as a head coach, I was critical of his time management late in games throughout his first two seasons. There was an incident in 2022 against these same B.C. Lions during which the Argos took a knee with too much time remaining, allowing Sean Whyte to attempt a game-tying 41-yard field goal. It hit the upright.

On Sunday night, I thought we might see something similar, this time with an eight-point lead. The Argos took possession with 54 seconds remaining and the scoreboard showed the Lions as having one timeout remaining. I was stunned, therefore, when Dukes proceeded to take a knee.

The scoreboard turned out to be incorrect, but, even so, there were six seconds still remaining on the clock when Dukes snapped the ball on third down from his own 41-yard line. Instead of taking a knee, however, the Argos ran a clock-killing play I’ve seen them practice over the past few years but never use in a game.

Dukes took the snap, spun around, and fired a ball back to Dejon Brissett, who was standing back at the Toronto 10-yard line. Brissett ran around for the final few seconds and took a 39-yard loss on the play to end the game. It worked, but there are certainly less stressful ways to conduct those final 54 seconds.

Next up

The Toronto Argonauts (1-0) head into their first bye week of the season during which they’ll prepare to welcome back former Argonauts McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Kurleigh Gittens Jr., Boris Bede, Javon Leake, and friends as the Edmonton Elks (0-1) come to town on Saturday, June 22 for a 7:00 p.m. EDT kickoff.

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