TORONTO - They are the CFL’s version of riverboat gamblers. And, Sunday, Toronto’s defence came out a winner.
A late-season defensive blip is now just a distant memory in the wake of a 42-26 Eastern semifinal win against the over-matched Edmonton Eskimos.
The defence’s return to favour began with a Ron Flemons’ fumble recovery. Better yet, it came against former Argonauts running back Cory Boyd, and it turned what had been a controlled Edmonton attack into a Toronto blitzkreig.
When Kevin Huntley ripped the ball from Boyd’s grasp and into Flemons’ paws it changed the entire complexion of a game that seemed to be slipping away from the Argonauts.
Edmonton had silenced a bouyant crowd with an opening-drive touchdown. For a whole quarter it seemed as if the Toronto offence was playing in a haze. Chad Owens was a non-factor. They couldn’t move the ball; for 13 minutes they never once managed a first down; they turned a third and inches into a fumble.
“We could not have started worse than we did,” head coach Scott Milanovich said.
But then Flemons jumped on the loose ball.
“It was a definitely a turning point,” Milanovich said. “We weren’t playing well on offence to start the game. So many times it felt like we came up a yard short of first downs. He kind of got us going. We kind of slopped it in (for the touchdown) and the tempo of the game changed from there.”
Like when Marcus Ball stepped in front of a Kerry Joseph shovel pass with Edmonton sitting on Toronto’s 24.
“It was a pressure call,” Ball said. “Me and Brandon Isaac, we pride ourselves on racing to the quarberack. He beat me to the quarterback so I just made a play on the ball.”
Ball would twist, turn and stumble for 53 yards.
“I was trying to score but I just ran out of room, and gas,” Ball said with a laugh.
Ray would take it in for a 21-7 lead and the Eskimos were never close again.
After allowing 88 yards in an ugly first quarter, Toronto shut down both Boyd and Hugh Charles with Edmonton finishing with 133 yards rushing. Toronto’s front four and linebackers were getting constant pressure and the secondary limited Fred Stamps to three catches for 51 yards - 46 of those coming on one play.
“That’s high-risk, high-reward defence that we play,” Milanovich said. “When you play man to man you get a bunch of two and outs but you’ll also give up some big plays. It’s what we believe in. We need to play .... aggressive.”
Sometimes that aggression gets them into trouble.
Toronto’s defence — after being the team’s strong suit early in the season, hit a low spot against Saskatchewan on Nov. 6 when they were disected in a 36-10 loss. Kory Sheets and Weston Dressler blew apart the defence with 48-yard and 78-yard scores.
At times they have been overly aggressive. But Sunday they appeared to be mostly in control. Flemons and the rest of his defence knew the Eskimos wanted to pound the ball, avoid predictable passing situations and try to get the ball to Stamps.
They kept the Eskimos from doing all of that.
In the secondary, Ahmad Carroll got burned early for a touchdown. There was a 46-yard completion to Stamps when he out-ran Evan McCullough. But that was it.
“(Defensive coach) Chris (Jones) changed things up a bit after the first (Edmonton TD) drive,” Milanovich said. “We had played some coverage on that first drive. After that we started coming after them and giving them some different looks.”
Ball was a terror, finishing with four tackles; Huntley got credit for the forced fumble, Ricky Foley had a sack. Linebacker Robert McCune had four tackles. In the secondary, Evan McCullough blanketed Stamps and Patrick Watkins had five tackles and a knockdown.
“Once we got our confidence going with a couple of big plays we just seemed to build on it,” Ball said. “Yeah, we had a slow start but this team; we never stop. If it’s not working good, we’ll just work harder to make it work. Today we saw something good from all that work.”
There does remain one downside. Penalties. There were another 10 for 105 yards. In three games against Edmonton they had 41 penalties this season, a stunning number. Sunday, Isaac, Watkins and McCune - when he knocked Joseph into the sideline promo signs - were called for unnecessary roughness. It’s the kind of undisciplined play that has hurt this year, if not in Sunday’s game.
It is also the kind of mistake that a better team like Montreal in next week’s Eastern final will make them pay for dearly. “It didn’t hurt us today but we just can’t do that (next week against Montreal). We have talked about it and guys know,” said Flemons, “it’s just we play on the edge and sometimes ...”
He just smiled. Shook his head. Even in victory, some things are better left unsaid.