While driving down to Michigan to see his wife and daughter over the weekend, Toronto Argonauts’ free safety Matt Black was feeling uneasy. It was a bothersome feeling that did not completely dissipate, even after he’d reached his destination and had his daughter’s birthday to celebrate.
One of the Argos’ veteran defensive leaders, Black couldn’t shake the tortured memories of opening night, in Winnipeg, when Toronto was blasted, 45-21, by the underdog Blue Bombers.
“I was sick the whole weekend thinking about this film. That this was going to be absolutely horrible,” he said.
Welcoming the Champs
The Toronto Argonauts will kick off their 2014 home schedule by welcoming the Darian Durant and the 101st Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders to Rogers Centre at 3pm ET on Saturday.
Black was referring to the inevitable game film session that he and his defensive teammates would face on Monday morning. With the Blue Bombers racking up 459 yards rushing and passing, as well as five major scores, this wasn’t exactly going to be popcorn fare for Argos’ defenders.
“Then, I got in and I watched the film and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” continued the 29-year-old Toronto native. “There were a few mistakes that we made that they exploited.”
Don’t for a moment think that Black is happy, at all, about the turn of events last Thursday. He’s clearly not, but as has been stated many times before and repeated by Black after a Canada Day practice session: “Film never lies. But it’s never as bad as you think and it’s never as good as you think.”
He gives Winnipeg quarterback Drew Willy and his teammates their due. Admitting that there were plenty of mistakes made by the Toronto defence – “We weren’t proud of the showing that we put on Thursday night” – Black maintains that those kinds of mistakes can be gotten away with sometimes. That it’s up to the other guys to take advantage and they do not always do that with the force and effect that the Bombers’ offence displayed.
“It wasn’t like we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off, you know, we (just) weren’t making plays. Those guys (Bombers’ receivers) made some phenomenal catches. There were a couple of times that we just didn’t do what we were supposed to do and if we did, the outcome would have probably been different.”
Penalties, missed assignments, bad positioning. All of them, says Black, led to the inglorious pratfall on opening night. He’s determined not to let it happen again.
So are his mates, he said.
“Guys are chomping at the bit. Getting in for early meetings, staying late. Guys really want to redeem themselves. Not only to ourselves but to our fans.”
Throughout our conversation, I could detect his intensity and passion rising the more he talked about his team making amends for its problematic fist sail of the season.
“A lot of it was self-inflicted wounds with penalties keeping drives alive, giving them good field position, backing our offence up,” Black said, explaining why he thinks the Argos can quickly get back in the swing of things, in this Saturday’s home opener, against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
In football, while a talent gap is a lethal thing, assignment mistakes can be overcome. And Black is certain the Argos’ defence has the talent.
“We have a lot of guys that can run and can cover. I’m very confident in the ability of the guys. These guys have my utmost faith. It’s not a (problem) of talent,” said Black, assuring that it’s just a matter of a lot of new defensive parts needing to learn to trust each other and take care of their own business.
“It’s just carrying your own sack of rocks,” the sixth year Argo explained metaphorically, with that Monday film session on his mind.
“Sometimes, a guy was out of position and someone else tried to cover and then he ended up getting exposed. It’s understanding that ‘if I do my job on every specific play, then these schemes and this defence will work,'” he added.
Certain that a much better performance is right around the corner, Black confirmed that he can’t wait to hit the field against the Roughriders on Saturday.
That might sound odd, wanting to take on a defending champion team the week after they laid a beating on their opponents, while your own side suffered through its own challenges on opening weekend. Black maintains that a high quality opponent is the type of tonic you need when trying to put a crummy one behind you. Perform well, this Saturday, and all will be forgotten.
“They have a very good team from top to bottom,” he said of the Roughriders. “We know it’s going to be a dogfight and we’re going to have to bring our “A” game. We’re excited about this opportunity and this challenge. We’re ready to show that we are a much better football team than was our showing on Thursday.”
Specifically, Black looks at stopping the ‘Riders’ double threat quarterback, Darian Durant, as a large challenge.
“He will make you pay for all those mistakes. So, guys understand the importance of being assignment sound on every single play and doing the little things.”
“Every single play,” he reiterated, drawing each syllable out slowly for emphasis.
It’s not just Argos’ players that are both eager and ornery coming off a 22 penalty performance (nine of those by the defence alone) in Manitoba. Black says Head Coach Scott Milanovich and his staff are feeling the same way and that it shows.
“Our coaches are competitors. They’re just like us. So, yeah, they’re pissed. But they’re not going to throw the baby out with the bath water. They’re very level headed, very reasonable.”
“They’re hard on us. They coach us very hard. If you mess up you’re going to hear about it. As you should. That’s one of the things that I love about this coaching staff, especially Coach Milanovich. When they keep you on this team, they know what you’re capable of. He expects you to bring that and deliver that every single day.”
As the week wears on and the Toronto Argonauts’ home opener inches closer and closer, that Monday film session will fade into dust, the adjustments that came out of it taking hold.
Black’s final rating of the film session he was so dreading, last weekend? Not exactly ‘two thumbs up,’ but not quite the horror show he was expecting. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would have been on film but there were definitely glaring mistakes that cannot happen,” he concluded.
His teammates – those that are new to the Canadian Football League especially – have learned a valuable, valuable lesson from last Thursday night. Black sums it up this way:
“A missed assignment or wrong alignment can cost a touchdown in this league very, very quickly.”
The Extra Point
Black is enjoying football life with his little brother Eric, who made the squad after being selected by the Argos in the fifth round of the 2014 CFL draft. With Eric being six years Matt’s junior, the two had never before had a chance to play on the same team other than, say, a little pick up now and again.
“It’s awesome,” said Matt. “It’s really, really fun. It’s great to hang out with him every day.”
Little brother does not get special treatment from his older sibling, however.
“I’m hard on him just like I am any other guy,” said Black, who could not hold back on gushing a little bit about Eric’s progress.
“I’m proud of what he’s doing and how hard he’s been working. He’s made a lot of strides since he stepped in here.”