A funny thing has happened on the way to the Toronto Argonauts' offence carrying the defence for the first half of the 2014 season.
Well, not so funny as it turns out. With that offence staggered by injury heaped on injury, heaped on injury, the defence did its fair share of pulling together, and is carrying its own weight decently well right now.
A look at the CFL's league wide stats shows the Argo defence - chock full of new faces as the 2014 season dawned - is near the top in some important categories, in the mix with elite defences in Calgary, Saskatchewan and B.C.
Toronto stands third in a number of categories, including average yardage given up per game (316) and passing yardage given up per game (228). As well, the unit is third in denying an opponent on its second down conversions, stopping them from getting to the first down marker just shy of 64% of the time. The Boatmen defence has also forced the third highest number of two-and-outs (56).
Nice stats, but they don't impress Argos' defensive captain and middle linebacker Shea Emry.
"It doesn't make a difference if we're not winning games," he said, bluntly. "You need to win."
At 3-5, the Argonauts are not winning as much as they feel they should be. It's a blessed thing to be a three win team in the East this year, though, as they still find themselves four points clear of the pack and in first place despite that record.
As the Argonauts' defence congeals, a few reasons for that increasing cohesion can be plainly seen.
For one, Emry's presence at middle linebacker has been more noticeable over the last two or three weeks. In a win over Winnipeg, he flashed his old Alouettes' form when he destroyed Bombers' receiver Romby Bryant with a hit near the sideline in the late stages of the game. Perhaps his best game as an Argonaut came in Sunday's loss to the Lions. Emry shrugs that off but does admit he's had some growing to do in coordinator Tim Burke's defence.
"It took some getting used to being in the open field a little more, but now I’m enjoying the fact that I have the ability to make those plays,” said the seventh year veteran, explaining that his last two years in Montreal had him playing up tight and close to the line of scrimmage.
In the Argos' scheme, Emry plays back farther and is asked to seek, react and destroy.
“I’m excited about playing off the ball and being able to fly around to the football. If it’s showing, that’s great. But at the same time, we need to be winning those close games.”
The full-time move of Jalil Carter from halfback to corner has proved to be a very successful one for the Boatmen, too. As I've written before, Carter looks comfortable and very tough to beat since being installed there a few weeks back.
Second year safety Jermaine Gabriel has blossomed in the absence of injured starter Matt Black. A little wobbly at first, the 24 year old looks very solid at rover and has been used often on the blitz and fake blitz.
When Black returns - which could be as early as this week in Edmonton - Toronto's defence should be even stronger. His experience will be a boost. The Argos will continue to reap the benefits of Gabriel's trial by fire, as his confidence seems to be soaring.
The addition of Dwight Anderson has been key as well. It is absolutely true that he can take the odd ill-advised penalty and that his aggressive nature sometimes leads to some costly decisions, but his veteran presence and abilities to find seams on the blitz have been big bonuses.
Another thing that's tough to argue against: Anderson's surly on-field nature causes opposing receivers to be wary on every down. "He's been a huge piece of the puzzle," said Emry.
"He came in and made some big hits early and gave our defence a little bit more of a personality," Emry continued. "He's done a great job at leading the guys and making sure everyone's in the right position. Just being a leader by example."
Newcomer Tristian Okpalaugo has been a force along the Argonauts' defensive line and shows no signs of slowing down.
The defence has been as advertised in 2014, style wise. More aggressive in getting after opposing quarterbacks. Blitz packages have been plentiful and the defensive line has been, at times, overwhelming and getting better.
A year ago, the Argos had accumulated 16 sacks after 8 games. This season, they've tallied nearly fifty percent more, with 23, ranking them third in the CFL (Montreal and Calgary are close behind, it should be noted, each with a game in hand).
Rookie defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo (pronounced Opa-la-OOH-go) is among the league leaders in sacks, with 7, tied with Montreal veteran John Bowman and B.C.'s own super-rookie, Alex Bazzie, 5 quarterback pelts back of the league leader, Saskatchewan's John Chick.
“A lot of great coaching, a lot of great play calls,” said Okpalaugo, modestly.
Along with second year tackle Cleyon Laing and first year line mates Aston Whiteside and Logan Harrell (with veteran Ivan Brown rotating in), the Toronto defensive line has been surging and Okpalaugo is hoping for more.
“I feel like we’ve come a long way from the first game. I feel like we have a ways to go but we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “We’re going to get to a point where we’re unstoppable.”
Not all is rosy on that improving defence, however.
While the unit scales the heights in the categories mentioned above, it bumps along near the bottom in a category that is very important: Run defence.
Giving up an average of 5.6 yards per carry, the Argos rank just - and I mean just - ahead of both Winnipeg and Ottawa, who each give up a league worst average of 5.7. Ripped for 145 yards by the Lions' Stefan Logan on Sunday night (sure, some of that was gotten on a tiring team that had also played just five nights earlier), Toronto's average yield of 111 yards per game will only go up as teams begin to run even more on them.
That is, unless they can stiffen the ramparts. Emry says that is something that needs coordination between the front four and the linebackers.
“With regards to stopping the run, we really need to be improve on playing together as a unit and that’s what we’re focussing on. Making sure those guys and the linebackers are all making our fits and being in the right gaps.”
“The guys take a lot of pride in stopping the run. It’s the fun part of the defence ‘cause once you stop the run you’ve earned the right to get after the quarterback. We just need to make sure that that’s our mindset."
Beginning the year with all those new faces on defence meant that Emry and his mates needed time to get to know each other's tendencies, strengths and moods. Seems that part of building a defence may have been accomplished.
"Personalities shine through on game day," said Emry, adding that Argo defenders now know each other well. "Learning how to interact has been a fun process.”
The Extra Point
Okpalaugo isn't getting caught up in his heady sack stats.
“I feel like I’m not doing as great as I should be right now,” he said.
Currently, the 24 year old native of Livemore, California is relying on plain old speed and strength to get to the quarterback.
“I haven’t been working a lot of moves," he explained. "I have a lot to focus on. The coaches keep telling me ‘you know what you’re supposed to do, you gotta just do it.’ I’ve got the technique, I’ve got the tools. I’ve just got to use them.”
Through college, Okpalaugo played almost exclusively at left end. Being flipped to the right side as an Argo hasn't seemed to faze him at all and there may yet be more upside coming.
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