A change in direction for the 2014 Toronto Argonauts' defence is, in essence, a complete one. Not just personnel-wise, but in construction and execution as well.
It's a collective change that will see new faces, new on-field approaches and a difference in how the players are managed by their boss. It will include a reliance on reaction, rather than scheming, and on defensive line play that will be unlike others in the CFL.
The man overseeing the facelift, Defensive Coordinator Tim Burke, is brimming with optimism, thrilled with the talent at his disposal, but also cautious not to get hopes too high, too early.
There will be growing pains.
"I don’t think we’re gonna be as good in the first game as we’re gonna be by mid-season," Burke said just after the Argos had wrapped up a humidity-soaked practice at York University. "My hope is that we’re good enough, as we get into the opening part of the season, that we don’t have to rely on the offence to hold us in games. I’m hoping we can get the offence back on the field because we have such a high-powered offence."
After a moment, he qualified that reply, just in case it sounded at all too pessimistic.
"I didn’t mean to make that sound like we’re not going to be good enough on game one. I think we will be. But, I think by mid-season we’re gonna be an even better team. Probably eight starters will be new. By mid-season they should be really humming along.”
Burke needn't worry, I don't think. Anyone expecting the Argos' defence to be a league best unit immediately has their hopes too high. Realistically, even if Burke's high regard about the abilities of these Argos' defenders is warranted - "I think this is the most talented defensive group I’ve been around," he said - football defences take some time to solidify. Even when they're veteran laden, never mind filled with rookies and sophomores.
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With that in mind, the Argonauts' defence will begin in a trimmed down manner.
"We have a base defence that we really coach hard; the basics of that defence and the reads and all that," said Burke, before adding: "We will add schemes as far as blitzes and things like that."
"I think if you look at a team like Montreal, they’re pretty much all scheme-based and they don’t really care a whole lot about technique," he continued. "They’re just gonna keep blitzing you, or fake the blitz and (have) everybody drop. We’re much more of a base defence than that."
So, for now, it's all straight line and simplified for these Argos. The football equivalent to baseball's 'see ball, hit ball' philosophy.
"Coach Burke likes to just let us fly, come downhill and let the D line rush," said second year linebacker, Shane Horton.
It's not a secret that the Argonauts' defence needs to improve over its standing from the 2013 season. Last in passing yards given up per game, at 298. Second-last in rushing yards given up per game, at 109. Last in total yardage surrendered per game, at 389. Second-last in sacks with 38, a full 25 quarterback pelts behind the league-leading Calgary Stampeders.
Within that misery, there were bright spots. The Argos were third in defensive takeaways (50) and tied for third in interceptions (22). However, those numbers were bolstered by departed players such as linebacker Marcus Ball and defensive back Pat Watkins, who had 8 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles between them.
That productivity will need to be replaced.
That's where Horton, for one, comes in. Like Ball, he has a motor that knows no low gear and a propensity to blow up ball carriers with jarring hits. With 4 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries in 2013, he'll be expected to pick up even more slack and just might do it, with the increase in field time he's due.
"I really like what I see out of Shane as far as talent goes," an enthused Burke said. "I love his attitude. He’s happy, loves football, loves to be out there every moment. He’s an intelligent guy. He lives and breathes football and I love that about him."
Horton likes this new Argos' defence, and hints that Burke's attitude towards his players could have them playing with more confidence and comfort. When asked to compare the current D.C. to last year's (Chris Jones, now Head Coach of the Edmonton Eskimos), Horton replied:
"He’s a little change up from last year with Coach Jones. Coach Burke is kind of like a philosopher. He kind of sits back and understands everything and makes sure everybody’s in the right spot. He’s not a yeller, unless you’re really doing something wrong. I think a lot of guys have less pressure on them. They don’t feel real tense about messing up and stuff. It’s a laid back mentality but it’s stern in that you’ve gotta get your job done because Coach Burke is back there observing everything. he’s not missing anything."
Burke's job with the Argonauts is a just a trifle different than the missions he faced when taking over as defensive coordinator with the Montreal Alouettes (2008) and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2011). When asked to talk about those postings as compared to this new challenge in Toronto, he contrasts the experience of the players at his disposal.
"I think it’s different in the respect that we’re gonna have so many new starters on defence," he explained. "In Montreal we had pretty much a veteran defence when we got there. In Winnipeg we did have kind of a group of guys who’d been there for a year and so it was just polishing those guys, more than anything else."
With veteran groups, Burke was very successful. Other than a dip in the Alouettes' pass defence in 2010, the units he coordinated were tops in a clutch of key categories. In particular, his defences were at or near the top in quarterback sacks as well as defensive takeaways. While it can be said that he walked into a team that was already a sack power in Winnipeg in 2011, Burke's designs helped the Bombers go from a near league low of 37 takeaways in 2010, to a league leading 54 in 2011. "That’s what happens when you have a good athlete with a lot of confidence," said Burke of healthy takeaway numbers.
Confidence is something that an exceptionally green Argos' defensive line is still working on. Burke serves up heady praise for the group and then tempers it with a progress report that indicates the unit is suffering through hiccups.
"I think, talent wise, this could be the best defensive line of all the defensive lines I’ve been associated with. It’s just that they are so far away as far as accomplishing their technique. It’s like two steps forward, one step back as we go through practice. We get better and then we resort to old habits."
Again, this was not unexpected. It does mean, however, that the defensive line is Coach Burke's most pressing area of attention right now.
"I think it is," he said. "You look at Cleyon Laing and he’s the veteran of the group. He’s been here a year. So, everybody else is a rookie and we’re trying to go out there and pretty much replace a whole defensive line."
The goal is for the Argonauts' defence to have such a formidable rush from the front four that they won't need to blitz so much from other positions unless, really, they feel like it. To achieve that goal, Burke has his young linemen learning techniques that he claims will stand out in a crowd.
“It’s radically different from what everybody else does in the league," he said.
While the design and execution of what a front four is up to can be complicated, it's fairly safe to say the Argos' version will be one of good ol' aggression and speed. In keeping with Burke's philosophies, it's straightforward.
"We’re just trying to get them to play as hard as they can play, to rush the pass/run every snap and tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback," said Burke.
So far, Laing approves.
"It's just go, go, go," he said. "It's fun playing this defence."
Things will really get fun if Burke has not overestimated the talent of his charges on this new-look Argos' defence. If it rises to the occasion then a complete package in double blue will have emerged.
If not, then an explosive Argos' offence will be asked to fill the team's sails in 2014.
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