Ferguson: Planning against perfection
Football at its core is a game about tension. The stress, strain and intensity of micro moments within a game, resulting in macro wins and losses which can define a season or even a legacy.
Within each down, distance and score differential there are choices to be made for better or worse. The rigidity of these moments flows through the stands, through a coaches headset and onto the field where it is either released or builds up further and further until eventually there is no alternative besides a combustible conclusion.
2022 CFL PLAYOFFS
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In Sunday’s Eastern Final from BMO Field between the visiting Montreal Alouettes and hometown Toronto Argonauts, there is no moment, matchup or dynamic more tense and fraught with landmines than this.
How do you stop something which refuses to allow you to stop it?
Without getting too philosophical and looking at everything from the classic 10,000 foot view, let’s zero in on the matchup that I believe perfectly summarizes this concept: Montreal Alouettes quarterback Trevor Harris versus the Argos defence.
Defensive football is about many things, but at its core the premise is to stop opposing offences from gaining momentum, yardage and points. In order to do this, defensive coordinators spend endless hours watching film, deciphering weaknesses and attacking them through blitzes and coverages in order to force mistakes from the opposing quarterback. If those mistakes, errant throws, bad reads and untimely sacks are taken advantage of then the defence has done their job.
This season no team has done a better job of creating adversity and capitalizing in moments of opposition error, than the Double Blue defence, led by Jamal Peters‘ CFL-high six interceptions. Overall Toronto’s pass rush brought down opposing quarterbacks less than you might expect given the hype surrounding Ja’Gared Davis, Shawn Oakman, Shane Ray when healthy, Dewayne Hendrix and Robbie Smith. But the buzz on that front was valid with the number of pressures they applied leading to forced or rushed throws which the back end profited from this season.
So, Toronto will just go about their business, confuse Trevor Harris and force him into mistakes right?
Here’s the problem for Toronto, on about 90 per cent of offensive snaps Harris refuses to make mistakes, or rather doesn’t allow himself to put the football in harms way. Which once again begs the question as No.7 in Alouettes rouge, blanc et bleu takes the field Sunday, how do you stop someone who refuses to leave themselves vulnerable to getting stopped?
This is not to say the 2022 Montreal Alouettes offence is unstoppable as evidenced by the second half against Hamilton in the Eastern Semi-Final where they gave up three sacks and Harris completed one pass on just two attempts in the fourth quarter, but they won.
Montreal can be stopped, by their own conservatism and hesitancy, but they much prefer to celebrate that orientation to the game by taking a sack and running the ball on second down to get back some field position rather than throwing the ball 30-yards down the field ten times a game and giving up a couple interceptions.
Since giving Harris the reins to the offence, the Alouettes have attempted 23 per cent of passes at or behind the original line of scrimmage. That is the highest rate of any team in the CFL with the premise being that defences like Toronto can’t stop what they can’t touch, or more accurately, they can’t intercept what isn’t available for interception.
With the three headed monster of Jeshrun Antwi, William Stanback and Walter Fletcher carrying the ground game and Canadian receivers Kaion Julien-Grant and Tyson Philpot being primary receivers in the quick-screen game, Montreal has carved out a steadfast identity heading into the Eastern Final.
Their one change of pace has been Most Outstanding Player finalist Eugene Lewis, who makes 50-50 throws down the sideline look like 90-10 balls in his favour. With Harris refusing to put the football in vulnerable positions throughout the game, a rare deep shot to Lewis might be the Argo secondary’s only chance to make a game changing play. That or a tipped ball over the middle intended for Jake Wieneke as seen last Sunday in a brief moment of hope for Hamilton.
How do you stop something which refuses to leave itself open to being stopped?
In this instance, the answer is likely that you can’t. The path to victory for Toronto is creating knockdowns at the line of scrimmage, rallying to the football, dominating receivers attempting to block in the quick screen game and making open field tackles in order to limit the damage as Harris gets the ball out of his hand before you can say, fait du bruit.