On opening night, back on June 28th, the Toronto Argonauts' special teams coverage gave up a touchdown on the very first kick return they faced in the regular season. Since Hamilton's Lindsey Lamar roasted them for a 104 yard major score, however, the hatches have been securely battened down.
On that night, at that moment, you could forgive an Argos observer for thinking 'here we go again.' Because in 2012, it seemed, returners were routinely finding big holes in coverage and either setting the opposition up with great field position or taking it all the way back for touchdowns.
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"Five," said special teams coordinator Mike O'Shea without hesitation, when asked if he knew how many majors his unit gave up last season. Guess that kind of thing sticks in a guy's mind.
While the 2012 special teams crew struggled for pretty well the entire season (although they tightened up considerably in time to be a crucial factor in the Argos' successful run to a Grey Cup championship) this season tells a much different story.
At the completion of Week 10, Argos' special teams were covering punts better than any other group in the Canadian Football League. With an average return of just 4.1 yards, opposition ball carriers have been well-smothered. Only Saskatchewan's punt coverage team had a comparable number at 5.6 yards against per return. All others were averaging at least 8 yards against per return, with the Montreal Alouettes dead last at 11.7 per.
4.1. yards. Contrast that with the Argos of 2012 and you see immense improvement. Last season's special teams unit yielded and average of 10.1 yards per punt return and gave up two touchdowns (The 2013 punt return average was dented slightly in Montreal on Sunday, with Alouette returner Tyron Carrier gaining 41 yards on 5 returns).
There's improvement elsewhere, too. In 2012, the Argos gave up an average kick-off return of 25.2 yards. The team has shaved a full five yards off that stat this season (Even better against the Alouettes in Week 11, where the Als were held to an average of 18.8 yards).
Missed field goals were a nightmare last year. 10 of them. Tougher to cover, 3 were hauled back for touchdowns while the overall return average worked out to 47.6 yards. In 2013, 4 missed field goals have been returned for a paltry average of just over 14 yards.
“It’s come along," says O'Shea, understating the improvement of special teams coverage.
Coming along has meant the continued good play of vets like Jason Pottinger, who is tied for the team lead in special teams tackles (STT) with 10, Matt Black and James Yurichuk (8 STT each), long-snapper Chad Rempel (7 STT) and Jeff Johnson, who is in his 12th season of tracking down enemy returners as an Argo.
"Everyone, deep down inside, wants to lead the team in tackles," said Pottinger, although he's quick to add that any competition is friendly and that the unit's success trumps personal interests.
Rookie Jermaine Gabriel, the back-up safety who is tied with Pottinger with 10 STT, has injected his own brand of hell-bent for leather attitude. Proud of the unit's accomplishments, he maintains it can only get better.
“We’re gelling right now as a unit. We know what each other’s going to do. It’s easier now," he said.
"We don’t say much about it. But, I’m trying to lead the team in special teams tackles," said Gabriel. "I’m trying to be up there in the league in special teams tackles."
That's a mission that can help spur Gabriel and those around him to greater heights on special teams. But he - like Pottinger - pointed out that individual stats do not take precedence. It's a theme embraced by others, too.
“It’s not always the tackle," said O'Shea, when asked about the importance of the plays made that lead up to a returner being stopped cold.
Yurichuk, the former B.C. Lion who joined Toronto as a free agent in the off-season, agrees:
“Most important is to limit those yards. I’ve seen guys sacrifice their bodies in order for me to make a tackle and I’d do the same for them."
He continues the point, explaining what he and his mates observe when watching game film:
“The average viewer might just see who got the tackle. But we’re looking at who created that play to open up that guy to make that tackle. I think that’s why we’ve had a lot of success so far on our covers.”
The addition of Yurichuk to Argos' special teams gives O'Shea another seasoned set of legs and eyes with which to work. When asked to describe what Yurichuk brings, O'Shea replies “quite a bit of comfort," and then immediately goes on to flesh that answer out.
"He’s just very reliable. Extremely reliable. That’s not to downplay it. People want to hear terms like ‘great’ and ‘awesome’ and he is all that. But he is at that level where he is a very, very good special teams player consistently.”
While Gabriel continues to impress, he is not the only first-year player that has caught the attention of fans and teammates alike. When asked if there is a 'spiritual leader' on cover teams, Gabriel nods towards Shane Horton and says “he loves special teams. He’s always amped up and ready to go.”
Horton's motor is always humming. That kind of energy level and willingness to jump full speed into special teams engagement has always been a favourite trait for O'Shea and he claims Horton has plenty of it.
A freelance broadcaster and writer, Don is also the in-stadium announcer for Toronto Argonauts home games. A familiar voice to Toronto sports fans, he hosted the morning show at The FAN for more than 10 years. Follow Don on Twitter @CFLLandry