Argos vow to tighten up special teams

Argos defensive back Brandon Isaac chases down Stampeders wide receiver Larry Taylor at the Rogers...

Argos defensive back Brandon Isaac chases down Stampeders wide receiver Larry Taylor at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont., July 7, 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:52 PM ET

TORONTO - The Toronto Argonauts congratulated Larry Taylor Tuesday on his selection as the CFL’s special team player of the week.

Then, they vowed not to let it happen at their expense again.

“He’s a great returner and we have tons of respect for the guy but we could’ve cut a lot of those yards if we’d done our jobs,” said Jeff Johnson, after reviewing the film that showed Taylor amassing a Calgary club-record 441 all-purpose yards — including 222 on kickoff returns. “A performance like that hurts. It hurts in the heart and we need to clean it up because that’s not the Toronto Argonauts.”

It hasn’t been the Argonauts’ style in the two seasons since Mike O’Shea took over as special teams co-ordinator, moulding the units into perhaps the team’s greatest strength.

So, while Toronto squeezed out a 39-38 win, Taylor’s ability to shred the Argonauts’ cover team has to be just a little unsettling. It included a 125-yard missed field goal return for a TD. And Taylor’s 441 combined yards was the highest single-game total in CFL history behind the 474 yards registered by Winnipeg’s Albert Johnson III in 2000.

So, what happened?

That depends on who is doing the analyzing. For starters, Toronto’s special teams have changed — and nobody yet knows if it will be for the better.

“This is just mistakes that every team goes through at the beginning especially with new guys. We’re not panicking,” said kicker Noel Prefontaine.

There have been huge changes. Captain Brian Crawford retired. Gone also are Jeremy Unertl, Lin-J Shell and Willie Pile, all huge contributors the past two seasons. Head coach Scott Milanovich is convinced, though, it’s not lack of talent. “Sometimes you have to give the returner the benefit of the doubt. Chad Owens does the same thing for us sometimes.

“(The Argos special teams) have been dominant and feared for two years under (O’Shea),” said Milanovich. “We expect that to remain the same.”

Another suggestion is that the Argonauts were victims of their own success. Ricky Ray and Milanovich have the Argonauts going where few have tread in recent seasons — an enemy end zone.

The Argonauts special teams had to cover eight kickoffs.

Toronto’s special teams haven’t had to cover that many in one game since the invention of the rouge — or, so it would seem. But, with Ray, Toronto suddenly has an offence.

“We only punted twice and kicked off (eight) times. Which is something we’re not really accustomed to here in Toronto. Because you have to score a lot of points,” said Prefontaine, with a wry grin that spoke of an untold reference to years of offensive stagnation. “It’s not an excuse but there are adjustments we need to make. I don’t know how far back I’d have to go to find a game where we scored 39 points here.”

It was the biggest offensive show by an Argonauts’ club since July 12, 2007 when they beat Calgary 48-5.

In his 11 seasons, Jeff Johnson said he couldn’t recall a single time the team had gone the entire first half of a ball game without being forced to punt. Prefontaine had two in the second half.

What it meant is that the cover team was on the field a lot in some unfamiliar formations, with some unfamiliar players. Six of the top 10 special team tacklers from 2011 are no longer with the club.

And, Tuesday, O’Shea wasn’t there himself either, needing to make the sad journey back to North Bay to attend the funeral of his father.

That left Johnson moving from his normal up-back position to standing behind the formations — watching and directing the snaps. “(O’Shea) wasn’t here so I was making sure guys were getting their responsibilities down. Just looking at the front side of our protection. Make sure everyone is sound. If I’m in there making the calls I can’t see what everyone is doing. So I just took a step back ... and make sure we’re getting our jobs right,” said Johnson.

Toronto’s special teams are used to getting those jobs done right. Crawford’s absence can’t help but be felt after he led the league with 27 special team tackles in 2010 and last season had 14 more as a special team’s captain.

“It’s a blip. We have a young group and there’s a lot of learning going on. We can coach out the mistakes,” said Johnson.

Patience, said Milanovich. “It was a little off here, a little there. It’s nothing we’re concerned about for the long run.”

Said Johnson, “There’s no doubt we should have the best special teams in the league.” Or, failing that, at least the best special teams this side of a Larry Taylor cut-back.


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