November 16, 2012

Landry: Line of scrimmage key battleground for Argos

Adam Gagnon

TORONTO – There are match-ups galore to look at ahead of this Sunday’s Eastern Final between the Argonauts and the Montreal Alouettes. One on one battles among the so-called “skill” players that you can dissect and explore for hours and hours on end.

Makes for good conversation and in the end, one or more of those match-ups may well provide the biggest moment of the game and a touchstone that sends one of these two teams into the 100th Grey Cup.

Know this, though. It’s not exactly splitting the football atom, but, it bears repeating: The most crucial competitions in Sunday’s game at Olympic Stadium will come in the vaunted football trenches and, once again, the battles fought along the line of scrimmage will chiefly be the authors of the outcome.

“It has been that way for decades, ever since football was invented. And it’s going to keep going that way,” said first-year Argos guard Marc Parenteau.

“You win championships on the offensive and defensive lines. It’s true,” added 7-year veteran defensive lineman Ronald Flemons.

Eastern Final Playoff Centre
EF Playoff Centre

The 2012 Eastern Final matchup is set as the Montreal Alouettes host the Toronto Argonauts. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.

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If Ricky Ray connects for 3 touchdown passes, if Anthony Calvillo finds Jamel Richardson or S.J. Green for 100 yards receiving, if Evan McCollough grabs a pick-6, if either Chad Kackert or Chris Jennings rush for 120 yards, whatever memorable performance might emerge, the genesis of that performance can be found in the brute force administered at the line.

There is pressure being placed on the Argos lines ahead of this game. Particularly, on the offensive line. Although a check of the league stats shows that the unit placed 4th in number of sacks given up with 36 (a mere 6 more than the B.C. Lions and Alouettes, who tied as league leaders) what has not been quantified is the number of times quarterback Ricky Ray had to get rid of the football much too early in order to avoid taking sacks.

Often and through most of the season, a Ray release was met, a split second later, with him being bumped, jostled or knocked to the ground.

Keeping Ray upright and as unbothered as possible has been a year-long project, one that the Argos hope is entering a new, successful phase as they head to Montreal to face a team of defensive aggression and trickery.

“We’ve known that from the beginning of the season,” said centre Jeff Keeping. “That our season was going to be dependent on the line of scrimmage, both O and D line. And we’ve taken that as a challenge. We feel that we’re peaking at the right time.”

Ray had, for the most part, time enough to make his progression reads and to select, target and fire passes to the proper receiver in last week’s Eastern Semi-Final win against Edmonton.

“I was proud of the guys,” began Keeping. “We knew the challenge we had, both of their defensive tackles were named all-stars (Ted Laurent and Almondo Sewell) and they’re big, active guys. Their front as a whole was a really, really good front and that was a challenge that we prepared for.

At the end, looking at the tape and the score, I was just real happy for our guys.”

Parenteau was pleased as well, although cautionary. They’ll need to be even better against the Als.

“There’s always stuff you can improve on,” he said. “We had a good game but there was stuff that we messed up, that we missed. So, there’s stuff that we have to clean up and get better at.”

For Flemons and the Argos defensive line, which has seen the emergence of rookie East all-star Armond Armond Armstead, the traditional barometer of success – number of sacks – shows the Boatmen to be at least a trifle shy oin the quarterback pelt department. 27 was the team’s count, a full 20 behind the league-leading Lions. Not all of that total is gathered by defensive linemen, of course. But Flemons knows that if the front four is clicking, good things can come from other parts of the field.

“If we bring our ‘A’ game, the rest of the defence will bring its ‘A’ game,” he nodded.

Effective line play would allow the Argos’ linebackers and secondary to focus on trying to negate the routes run by Montreal’s formidable stable of receivers. A marauding lineman or two could upset the delicate timing Anthony Calvillo has enjoyed most of his career in Montreal and again this season as he passed for over 5,000 yards for the seventh time in his hall of fame career.

Ask Flemons what the key is to Calvillo enjoying life without being dumped on his keester very often and he’ll tell you the answer is a little from column A and a little from column B.

“All of them are really good offensive linemen,” he said of a unit that includes reigning lineman of the year Josh Bourke (the East nominee for the award again in 2012). “And they leave guys in to protect him. And, he’s not going to let you hit him, either. It’s a combination of things.”

“He’s seen so much stuff,” Flemons said, of Calvillo. “He’s the smartest quarterback you’ll see out there. You’ve got to change up your looks. You can’t do the same thing all the time.”

Not doing the same thing all the time is a hallmark of Montreal’s defence and has been for years. Defensive coordinator Jeff Reinebold, Like his Argo counterpart, Chris Jones, likes to try to daze and confuse with the schemes he concocts. It’s a big part of the challenge facing that Argo offensive line, says Parenteau.
“They’re a team that likes to move around a lot, be it with a last second shift before the snap, twists, late blitzes, zone blitzes and they do a really good job at disguising some of it. So, as a line we have to make sure that we understand where everyone’s going.”

“They’re athletic, they can move well,” he continued. “That’s why they’re in that system. They have to be able to twist and loop around and stuff like that. They’re a very athletic front seven where guys can play different positions. Linebackers move to end, end moves to linebacker, big guys drop out in coverage.”

Keeping, in his 8th year as an Argo, further illustrated the importance of the offensive line moving as a fluid, consistent unit against the Als: “They’re kind of an unorthodox front, compared to what most teams play,” he explained. “With that five man front, and, obviously, (linebacker) Shea Emry has had a hell of a year, so he’s someone we have to keep our eyes on and know where he is on the field. But, again, it comes down to us and executing those things that gave us success (against Edmonton).

Communication and cohesiveness and everyone knowing each other’s jobs but at the same time just doing our own.”

“This week we’ll be big on awareness,” advised Parenteau. “Don’t play with blinders. Look around and see who’s moving around and listen to the guy next to you. Don’t get zoned in too much. Know what the guy next to you is doing. Once you get to where you’re supposed to go, you have to be physically able to do it. Execute your assignment once you get there.”

Simple, right? Except that the guys in the other team’s uniform are doing their damnedest to outthink, outmanoeuvre, outmuscle and outflank you.

In this Eastern Final, as has been the case in every one before it, the pitched battle on the line of scrimmage will tell the tale. Everything else radiates out from those little victories, snap after snap after snap.

The Extra Point

Flemons will be playing the Alouettes in an Eastern Final for the third time in his career on Sunday, having suffered losses to Montreal in both 2006 and 2010. The past does not concern him.

“It’s different guys. Not the same team as the ones that beat us. It’s the same quarterback, yes, but he’s older, too. We take it as a new challenge.

I don’t look at the past and think ‘oh, in 2010 we couldn’t do it or in 2006 we couldn’t do it,’ I don’t look at it that way. It’s a new team. We’ve got Ricky Ray. I feel better about our chances than I ever have before.”