Argos' special-teams coverage better

Larry Taylor darts between Argonauts' Mike Bradwell (right) and Kyle Jones en route to 441...

Larry Taylor darts between Argonauts' Mike Bradwell (right) and Kyle Jones en route to 441 all-purpose yards during their game in Toronto early last month. The Argos, led by Bradwell, kept Taylor in check during the rematch last Saturday. (QMI Agency/DAVE ABEL)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:31 PM ET

TORONTO - The Argonauts admit they messed up. Big time.

But, let it not be said that they have not learned from their mistakes.

“Guys are caring a bit more now,” said receiver and special teams handyman, Mike Bradwell on Tuesday. “Special teams are a big part of the game and it’s been kind of our identity here in Toronto and we lost a bit of that at the start of the season.”

The Argonauts’ coverage unit has ramped up its performance the past two games against B.C., and Calgary, containing two of the CFL’s most dangerous return men in Larry Taylor and Tim Brown.

They have come a long way since the first couple of games when special teams coordinator Mike O’Shea was so upset, that he pointed the finger of blame at himself and the way he had prepared his unit.

The problem wasn’t so much the players or O’Shea, as it was circumstance. The retirement of Bryan Crawford and a half dozen other veterans including Willie Pile, Jeremy Unertl and Kevin Eiben, left the Argos searching for a special teams identity, and someone who could tackle.

“Those guys knew the system. They been in it for years. A lot had played with (O’Shea) and they had an inherit knowledge of what the guy next to him was doing,” said head coach Scott Milanovich. “There was that and also we had so many new guys who hadn’t even played in the CFL.”

A lot of those eager, fresh, but untested CFL faces were looking at each other with confusion and exasperation. Now, almost halfway throught the season, there has been a lot of team building — mentally, and with the addition of veteran special team players such as Etienne Boulay.

“A lot of understanding, trust, relationship building was going on the beginning of the season. Guys didn’t know the guys around them. That affects your decision-making,” said Jeff Johnson, “and your belief that: ‘Okay, if I go in and take a shot, am I going to be covered on either side. If I miss, is there going to be someone to make the play.’ If you don’t trust the teammates around you because you haven’t played together, you will hesitate and then the blocker gets in there. You can’t do that. On special teams, you have to play full-tilt.”

That wasn’t happening when Taylor, Calgary’s stud returner, had 441 all-purpose yards in Toronto during the Argos’ home opener, including a 125-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown. It wasn’t happening when Hamilton’s Chris Williams had an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 119-yard TD off another missed field goal return in a Tiger-Cats win.

“There was a learning curve and some growing pains,” said Bradwell. “I think guys are getting it now and it showed a bit against Calgary (last weekend). It takes time. Very rarely do guys step in and not miss a beat. But we didn’t panic. We knew we’d get it. We’re on our way.”

So it would seem. For the Argonauts. And, for Bradwell himself.

Twice in Saturday’s 22-14 win, he put a crunching hit on Taylor. In the third quarter, Swayze Waters skied a 54-yard punt with Bradwell hitting Taylor after just a one-yard return. In the fourth, he stopped Taylor for five yards on another punt.

“It definitely felt good to get a couple of shots on him because he tore us up pretty good the first game,” said Bradwell. “As a unit we wanted top get down there and get on him.”

Against B.C., they held the dangerous Brown to 21 yards on four punt returns and 41 yards on two kickoffs. Toronto’s special team unit won the field position game against Calgary. And, after surrendering those 400-plus yards in the home opener to Taylor, four Argos jumped all over him on the opening kickoff Saturday. It was an omen of plays to come.

“That’s a big part of special teams, knowing the tendencies of the guy next to you,” said Bradwell. “You want to be the reason you win games not the reason you lose games. And that seemed to going on at the start of the year. It’s definitely satisfying to have picked our game up.”

Argos goin’ all Rambo

For Mo Mann and Jason Barnes, this has been a season of feeling hamstrung.

But, for very different reasons.

Barnes has been playing, but rarely seeing the football, catching just 16 passes in seven games.

Mann has been seeing the football, but only in practice, as he has not played even one game.

On Tuesday, the receiving corps’ situation turned even a little more complicated when the Argos announced the signing of former West Division all-star Ken-Yon Rambo.

Mann looked set for a productive season until he gashed his leg in a training camp accident. Dontrelle Inman took his spot and has been playing well enough not to get bumped from the lineup ever since. Now, Rambo, a 1,000-yard wide receiver in 2008 and ’10 will begin workouts Thursday after rehabilitating an Achilles injury.

He has been signed to the practice roster. Where that leaves Mann is a mystery.

This is the second season Mann has lost his job after being injured. Last year, he got bumped out of Hamilton by Chris Williams.

“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” said coach Scott Milanovich. “The hard thing for Mo is everyone has been healthy. That’s how Dontrelle got his break. (Mann) hasn’t had that same break where he can get back in and hold on to his job. He just needs to keep plugging. His time will come.”

Question is, will it come in Toronto?

There doesn’t seem to be a spot opening any time soon and, as happened in Hamilton, it’s questionable how long Mann will be willing to accept his role as a spectator.

And, where Rambo fits and how well he’s recovered from his Achilles injury, may now influence Mann’s future.

Barnes’ season has been a disappointment after coming over with Ricky Ray from Edmonton. But, unlike Mann, his fortunes seemed to be changing with four catches against the Stampeders.

“A couple of big second and long conversions,” said Milanovich. “He blocked much better. A much better night for him which was good to see.”

Seeing red in the zone

The good news is the Argonauts lead the league in field goals.

The bad news is the Argonauts lead the league in field goals.

It is good because Swayze Waters has been better than just a fill-in for Noel Prefontaine, showing a strong leg and accuracy. Thus, Toronto has kicked 24 field goals and has needed every one of those points to record four close victories.

It is bad, because it indicates that the Argonauts aren’t taking advantage of their offensive opportunities. If they weren’t the worst team in the CFL at converting scores in the red zone, chances are they’d have a couple of more wins. And, chances are, the wins they do have wouldn’t have been nearly so close.

“We’re just not making the plays,” said quarterback Ricky Ray on Tuesday. “Bottom line, when you watch the film, we’re not getting it done.

“As boring as the explanation is, it’s just minor details holding us back. Our effort last week (a 24-26 win in Calgary) was better, but the result wasn’t as good as it needs to be.”

It was another game in which Toronto’s rebuilt offence moved the ball well enough through midfield, but bogged down once it approached the end zone. Some suggest defences have a natural advantage playing with their backs to the goal line, when there just isn’t so much room for an offence to operate.

Ray isn’t so sure about that argument.

“The windows could be a bit smaller because they’re defending the goal line. They’re playing a bit tighter and the zones aren’t as open because they don’t have to cover as much field,” he said. “But, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s such a factor in this league with the bigger end zones. Down south, there’s not so much room in the passing game. Up here, there’s plenty of space to do almost anything you want.”

But it certainly seems that way for Toronto’s offence. Ray ranks third in net passing in the league, Toronto is fourth in average yards gained per game and sits middle of the pack in many offensive categories. Yet, the Boatmen languish second-last in points scored, ahead of Winnipeg by a mere single.

Both Milanovich and Ray are in a bit of a quandry. They believe this offence will find a finishing touch. Eventually. They just aren’t sure when.

“We just didn’t execute well,” Milanovich said. “We had a guy wide open and just didn’t get it to him. For sure, it’s a first down, maybe a touchdown. One play was supposed to be a rub route man-to- man and we didn’t rub,. Then, we didn’t have the right personnel on the field, had to take a time out. Then when we don’t get lined up right on the two we don’t have a time out and we have to take a delay. It was execution.”

Or, rather, the lack of it.

“As coaches we need to find easier ways to get into the end zone,” said Milanovich. “It’s taking some time but slowly, surely we’re getting it. By later in the season we should have it rolling pretty good.”


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