After a 44-32 loss at home to the Bombers last weekend, the road doesn’t get any easier for the Argos, who hope to host their first playoff game since the 2007 East Final.
The good news for the Argos is All-Star pivot Ricky Ray returned under centre last weekend and played as though he never even left, throwing for 383 yards and four touchdown passes in arguably his best game as an Argo so far.
On the other hand, with temperatures expected to drop well below freezing on Saturday along with the usual heavy gusts of winds of Mosaic Stadium, it might be difficult for the Argos to try and win this one on the arm of Ray alone.
That means the result could come down to each team’s ability to run the ball, and stop the run.
While Chad Kackert had just 50 yards, he did it on eight carries and boasted an average of more than six yards per carry. Head Coach Scott Milanovich simply opted to rely on a red-hot Ray in the second half, which didn’t appear to be a bad choice.
Of more concern will be the team’s run defence, which is now amongst the worst in the league after spending the first half of the season as one of the CFL’s best.
The players stress getting that unit back on track isn’t about defensive coordinator Chris Jones’ scheme, but making more plays on the field themselves.
“We can’t blame Chris Jones’ defence if we didn’t do what he asked us to do,” said rookie defensive lineman Armond Armstead, who has 41 tackles and leads the team with five sacks. “It is because we didn’t do our jobs.”
The Argos defence has allowed 32.6 points and more than 430 net yards of offence over the five recent defeats, a deterioration that Armstead has witnessed from his nose tackle position.
Over six weeks, the 22-year-old thinks trepidation has crept into every player.
Small but repeated missteps have exposed holes, while the distrust between players that followed has made problems comprehensive. One small mistake begets a catalogue of errors.
Armstead did not deny that perhaps the pressure of the regular season’s final weeks has flustered he and his teammates.
“It is not even that [one player] wants to make the big play, they just want the play to be made,” Armstead said. “[Players] are trying to do everything they can to make a tackle, and they might not do their technique right and they might not be in their gap.”
“It happens to me sometimes, ‘I need to make this tackle because [the opposing player] might make a first down.’ It is like a basketball player trying to shoot when he knows he can’t make it. It is not a good shot but he is reaching because he thinks his team needs the shot.”
The young lineman knows the most important thing for the Argos right now is to make the playoffs, and it might have to come without help from elsewhere.
A win in Saskatchewan, or a Hamilton loss to Winnipeg later on Saturday, and Toronto will host the East semi-final. That should be enough motivation to inspire improvement.
“What I appreciated from everyone was more focus this week,” Armstead said. “Guys have brought more focus and attention to detail. That is all it really takes.”
For the Riders, while they’ve already booked their ticket to a division Semi-Final, it remains uncertain whether that will be in Alberta or southern Ontario.
Still, a collective sigh of relief could be heard across the province following the Ticats’ loss to Calgary last weekend, as the Green and White would be going back to the playoffs after winning just five games a season ago.
Now the attention will be turned to wrapping up third place, and just as importantly, managing the roster heading into the final two weeks.
According to first-year head coach Corey Chamblin’s plan, everything on Saturday will remain status quo.
“We’re still going to practise the same we’ve been practicing,” Chamblin said after Tuesday’s practice at Mosaic Stadium. “As far as playing time for the guys, some of those things could be adjusted, but not for this game.”
The biggest thing that means is that quarterback Darian Durant will be going under centre for the Riders on Saturday, as they look to hold their home turf against an Argos team hungry for a big late-season win.
The last time they met
Last Meeting: Monday, October 8, 2012 Riders 36, Argos 10
Kory Sheets had 113 yards and a long touchdown run, while Darian Durant threw for 276 yards and a touchdown as the Riders cruised to a 36-10 win over the Argos at the Rogers Centre. The Boatmen kept the game close in the first half, but the inability to sustain drives on offence cost the Argos big time in the second half as the Riders put the game away in the third quarter on Weston Dressler’s 78-yard touchdown catch. Jarious Jackson was held to just 162 yards through the air on 16-31 passing for the Argos.
The Riders received a scare last Saturday when Durant was helped off the field after being sacked by John Bowman on the final play of a 34-28 loss to the Montreal Alouettes. Durant told reporters on Saturday that the injury wasn’t serious, but he did have a bag of ice on his bruised right shin.
Durant said this week he felt fine considering the time of the season.
“The good thing about football is you have a week between each game,” he said. “The closer we get to game day, the better I feel.”
The Riders are in position to rest Durant until the divisional Semi-Finals on Nov. 11, but it sounded like Chamblin would rather see him play down the stretch. They close out the regular season on Nov. 3 in Vancouver against the Lions.
“We have to finish the season,” Chamblin said. “We’ve clinched the playoffs, which is a good thing. There are still some things left out there, like the timing of the offence, so it’s not a time to let off.”
“You can get hurt on any given play,” he continued. “We just have to make sure that we’re smart about things that we do and that we continue to play good football.”
Durant, meanwhile, feels the final two regular-season games will provide an opportunity to tune up for the playoffs.”
We want to make sure that we clean up some of the areas where we’ve been struggling,” said Durant, whose Riders have lost two games in a row after winning five of their previous six contests.
“We want to make sure that, whatever we did on the winning streak, we get back to that,” he continued. “This is the time where you want to make sure everything is rolling. We have a couple of tune-up games to clean up our mistakes and hit the playoffs running.”
The 30-year-old continues to enjoy a career season for the Riders after a disappointing 2011 campaign, now sitting with quarterback rating of 93.5 and a completion percentage of 64.5, both of which would mark career highs.
He’s thrown for 3,626 yards this season and with 19 touchdowns is six off his career best of 25, but has also thrown a career best 11 interceptions so far.
Kickoff is at 4:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.