Ben’s Breakdown: analyzing Toronto’s trick plays against Edmonton Elks

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym/RFB Sport Photography

A lot of football coaches enjoy chess and military history. They’re drawn to the planning, the tactical complexity, the foresight, and learning from past games and battles to help inspire innovative approaches to the next conflict.

In my experience, most coaches don’t like to run trick plays often, but sometimes they’re the correct tactical move based on something a particular team has shown in the past, in which case, they won’t hesitate to draw one up and send it in.

Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie has been known to sit on trick plays for extended periods of time, waiting for the right moment to strike. In the 2022 East Final against Montreal, he called a fake quarterback sneak that resulted in a 46-yard touchdown pass to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and later admitted they’d spotted a vulnerability on film and almost ran that play in their previous encounter with the Alouettes, but wisely opted to save it for the playoffs.

On Saturday night against the Elks, the Argos ran two plays I’d consider “trick plays.” Let’s take a look at them both.

Trips Left King, Fake 16 GT Counter Weak, 37 Naked

As complex as my play name may sound — and as busy as the Xs and Os appear on paper — this was essentially a naked bootleg, which we see quarterbacks run all the time, except this time it was being run by a running back.

Quarterback Cameron Dukes took the shotgun snap, turned his back to the defence to hand the ball off to Deonta McMahon, and then carried out his play-fake to the offensive right while McMahon took the ball and ran outside to the left.

There were two major keys to this play’s success. The first was that Dukes was viewed as a threat to run. His rushing stats are muted because the lion’s share of his runs have been quarterback sneaks, but his mobility was certainly something Edmonton schemed for.

The second key was the pulling action from left guard Ryan Hunter and left tackle Isiah Cage. From grade school onwards, defensive linemen and linebackers are taught that pulling linemen will lead you to the football. Defensive tackles are drilled to stick to a pulling guard’s hip and follow him to the ball-carrier. Linebackers, meanwhile, are often taught that a pulling guard shifts their gap responsibility in that direction.

On this play, Edmonton defensive end Elliott Brown appeared to have contain responsibility, meaning one of his jobs was to prevent anyone from getting outside of him. He should have, at the very least, redirected McMahon back inside to the waiting middle linebacker, Nyles Morgan. Not only did Hunter and Cage’s pull lead Brown to freeze and blow contain, it caused Morgan to vacate the middle of the field as well. By the time they realized what happened, McMahon was gone.

You don’t often see runs out of shotgun that require the quarterback to turn his back to the defence, but in this case it was to hide the mesh point so the defenders couldn’t visually pick up the exchange. No one on the defence could have been sure who the ball-carrier was, and because the blocking indicated it was a quarterback run, the defence reacted accordingly.

Interestingly enough, Dinwiddie called this play again with just over two minutes remaining in the game, but this time with Ka’Deem Carey in the field. The handoff to Carey was fumbled and recovered by Dukes for an eight-yard loss, but based on how the Elks responded, that play could have gone the distance as well.

Trips Right King, Z 9-Delay 38 option

There are many versions of this popular trick play, which has been around for decades. In this rendition, Deonta McMahon lined up to the right of Cameron Dukes and took a toss out wide to the right sideline before throwing it downfield to Tommy Nield. His pass was intercepted by safety Loucheiz Purifoy and returned for 18 yards.

The aim of the play was to convince the secondary it was a run, resulting in them abandoning coverage down the sideline. All alone, Tommy Nield would, in theory, catch McMahon’s pass and race to the end zone for the touchdown.

Dinwiddie clearly saw on film how aggressively the Edmonton secondary responded to outside run threats and thought the Argos could pull a fast one on them. Dinwiddie wasn’t wrong. When McMahon broke to the outside, both boundary cornerback Kai Gray and boundary halfback Darrius Bratton came up to defend the run, leaving Nield all alone down the sideline. Purifoy, who intercepted the pass, shouldn’t have been able to come all the way over from his deep-middle responsibility if the play was executed perfectly.

McMahon has a great arm for a non-quarterback, but he doesn’t have a professional quarterback’s timing, ball-speed, or accuracy, and that’s where the risk was in this sort of play call. McMahon threw the ball late and it was underthrown — a dangerous combination.

A quarterback is accustomed to releasing the ball prior to the receiver appearing open, knowing they’ll be open by the time the ball arrives. Non-quarterbacks attempting this sort of pass typically want to see the receiver open before they throw the ball, but you simply can’t do that when there’s a player of Purifoy’s caliber roaming the secondary. McMahon’s delay also allowed linebacker Nyles Morgan to close on him, forcing him to throw before setting his feet, which impacted his accuracy and ball-speed.

If McMahon had led Nield, Purifoy wouldn’t have been able to get there in time and the play would have gone for a big gain, if not a touchdown. I don’t know how many times the Argos have run that play in practice, but I’ve personally seen them run it twice. McMahon threw a perfect strike the first time for an easy touchdown, but the most recent time I saw them run it, he overthrew Nield by five yards. I can’t help but wonder if that was in his head, which may have contributed to the underthrow that Purifoy was able to undercut.

After the game, Dinwiddie took responsibility for putting the team in a bad position, but a play like that may have a long-lasting positive impact for the Argos. Even though it didn’t work, it’s on film now, and defenders will know they have to be careful when McMahon’s behind the line of scrimmage. That, in turn, may buy him some extra space on outside runs.

The Toronto Argonauts (2-0) host the Montreal Alouettes (3-0) on Friday at 7:00 p.m. ET at BMO Field in a rematch of last year’s East Final.

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