Now this is going to be a bit of a challenge.
Six games. One at home, then four in a row on the road followed by a home date with the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The obvious goal for the Toronto Argonauts while quarterback Ricky Ray is out with a shoulder injury is to keep hold of first place in the East Division. If not first place outright, then a strong second, with a chance to rise to the top with a late season surge similar to last year's.
It's an attainable goal, but one that needs a confluence of three essential ingredients mixing in harmony in order to come to fruition: 1) Quarterback Zach Collaros must be solid, if nothing more. 2) The Argonauts' running game needs to be brought out of dry dock. 3) The defence absolutely must rise to the occasion.
|On the Mend|
Not only are the Argos forced to move forward without their starting quarterback, but they've been without their starting tailback for the last several weeks as well, as Chad Kackert continues to recover from his knee injury. While on the mend, the Argos will be looking towards Curtis Steele, Quinn Porter and potentially Jerious Norwood to un-dock their running game.
Holding on to first place will be a challenge for a number of reasons, the most notable of them being the absence of the pivot who was displaying the most uncanny of senses when it came to marshaling the offensive toys he had around him.
No quarterback in the CFL was playing at Ray's level. It would be unwise to expect his understudy - and now Argos' starter for the forseeable future - Collaros to come close to matching the prowess of Number 15.
That is no knock on Collaros. That's just how sublime Ray had been, with his 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions. His quarterback efficiency rating of 134.0.
It's still too early to know what Collaros can be over the long haul in the CFL and his 2013 resume is dotted with ups and downs. The good news is that in the limited sample we have of how he does as a starter, Collaros performed beautifully. In a Week 5 win over the BC Lions, he threw three touchdown passes and only four incompletions out of 25 pass attempts while spinning and darting his way out of the clutches of would be sackers time and again.
However, in two relief appearances since, Collaros has looked less than stellar. Against Montreal and Calgary, his quarterback efficiency numbers - 70.4 and 72.8 respectively - were well below the incredible 154.3 he posted in the win against the Lions.
Head coach Scott Milanovich doesn't blame Collaros for the below average relief appearances, saying that a game plan that more closely suits the sophomore pivot's scrambling style had not been installed.
Wisely, the Argos' offensive scheme now has, according to Milanovich, "65 to 70 per cent of the plays would be plays that Ricky would be running." That means 30-35 per cent would be more suited to Collaros' comfort zone, stylistically speaking.
If you're worried that a change in quarterbacking style would inevitably lead to a little 'sugar in the Argo offence's gas tank,' slotback Andre Durie isn't.
“Our offence is built in a way that we’re kind of always moving. Having Zach in there, it compliments that movement," he said.
Collaros doesn't have to put up gaudy numbers the way he did against the Lions. He just needs better numbers than his recent relief appearances have provided.
The second element to providing the Argos with as rosy a picture as possible over the next six games is one that would also help Collaros move the sticks.
The Argos' running game has been criticized by some this season, amusingly so. Amusing because, it's not (necessarily) that the Boatmen CAN'T run the ball, it's that they've CHOSEN not to.
|Battle of the Backups|
Toronto is second last in the CFL in rushing attempts at around 16 per game, while they rank second in passing attempts with 33 per game (Only Hamilton rushes less and passes more, by the way). The Argos' rushing average is exactly five yards per carry, about a half yard away from being a perfectly acceptable number.
The prospects of an increased rushing load are a given, with Collaros adding his feet to the mix. With Chad Kackert expected back in the next few weeks, the ground game will get a boost and in the meantime the likes of Curtis Steele, Quinn Porter and perhaps Jerious Norwood will see an increase in touches.
Expect to see that average of 16 carries a game move up, while the average of 33 passes comes down (Collaros threw 25 passes in his start against B.C. while the team made 20 rushing attempts).
Can Collaros and the Argos' offence generate 27 points a game? Based on the season stats so far, that's exactly what they'll have to do, in order to win. Which brings us to the third essential key: The Toronto defence.
The Argos have given up an average of 26.1 points per game this season, which ain't half bad, ranking them fourth in the CFL. That's a trifle surprising considering the inflated numbers that have dogged the defence so far. If there's extra pressure on the unit due to having a relatively inexperienced quarterback at the controls of the team's offence, linebacker Marcus Ball doesn't feel it.
“Regardless of who’s at quarterback for our team, we’re gonna try and get them the ball in the best field position possible," he said, brushing off the idea of the need to do even more.
“We (already) put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We hold ourselves to a high standard. We try to be the best defence in the league each and every game."
The Argos' defence, chock full of new faces - not just after a busy off-season but also since the 2013 season began - is near the top of the CFL in a very important category. It's given up 18 touchdowns this year, just one back of the league's stingiest crew, the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Good to know that the team's defence can stiffen as the shadows of their own goal posts creep towards their backs. However, Toronto's given up 22 field goals, just three less than the league-worst Montreal Alouettes. As they say, 'points is points,' and improving on that number is important.
Improving on these numbers is important, too: 417, 130 and 301. In order, those numbers are: Yards per game, rushing yards per game and passing yards per game. The Argos defence ranks last in the first, and second-last in the other two.
A decently productive Zach Collaros. An invigorated running game. A tighter defence. Get all three of these things - none of them a given, that's true - and Ricky Ray would likely return to a happy place. Known as first.
THE EXTRA POINT
One of the things Milanovich has been stressing in practice this week more so than when Ricky Ray is at the controls, is the 'scramble' mode on pass patterns. With Collaros expected to dipsy doodle out of danger in the pocket, Argo pass-catchers might have to improvise on the run and bust out of their tailored patterns.
"Based on where they are on the field, there's a set of rules as to what they're to do," said Milanovich of the receivers.
“There’s obviously a little scheme to every scramble rule," echoed Durie. "With different routes and different plays that we run, there are different scramble rules that are attached to them.”
So rather than just heading for the nearest open patch of green, Durie says, there are assignments to be adhered to even in that scenario.
“Well, I don’t want to give away our secrets," he laughed.
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