June 9, 2024

O’Leary: Trench battle leads Argos vs. Lions storylines

BCLions.com

You wait almost six months for the season to return and in what feels like the blink of an eye, Week 1 is nearing its close. 

The Toronto Argonauts host the BC Lions tonight at BMO Field to put the wraps on kickoff weekend. Last year this was viewed as a potential Grey Cup matchup. This year, it doesn’t exactly have that vibe — not in Week 1, anyway — but there are still a lot of things in this game that I’m excited to see.

Let’s jump into a few of them.

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Putting their dukes up for Dukes

In some regards, Cameron Dukes is in an unenviable situation. The Argos’ backup QB last year is now the starter in the wake of Chad Kelly’s suspension. That’s a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a second-year pivot with 63 pass completions to his name. The one thing that Dukes and Argos fans can count on, though, is that he’ll get elite protection to do his thing. The Argos have kept their 2023 offensive line — a group that allowed a league-low 19 sacks all last year — intact. That’s the kind of protection that every quarterback in the league dreams of. To put the Argos’ o-line success into perspective, just look back at the 2023 stats and you’ll see that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, long the standard of QB protection in the CFL, were second to the Argos last year in sacks allowed, with a distant 33. We don’t know exactly what Dukes will do from that starting spot, but we do know that he should get an excellent chance to show what he’s capable of.

Trying to break through that wall…

The Lions’ defensive line went through its share of change through the off-season. Losing Mathieu Betts and the 18 sacks he provided last year was a blow, but co-GMs Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell have made some intriguing moves to keep the line strong. It started with signing Pete Robertson in free agency. In three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Texas Tech product recorded 21 sacks over 42 games, with a career-best of nine (and five forced fumbles) in the 2022 season. Late in the off-season, the Lions managed a homecoming with Vancouver native Christian Covington. The team drafted him in 2015 and after Covington spent nine seasons in the NFL, suiting up in 104 games, he headed to his hometown team looking to extend his pro career. Robertson, Covington and the Lions’ d-line will get a tough test in Week 1. If they can get to Dukes consistently, they’ll be off to a great start this year.

Picking your spots

Slowed by injuries last year, Ka’Deem Carey heads into a tremendous opportunity this year with the Argos at tailback (Argonauts.ca)

Ka’Deem Carey signed with the Argos looking to fill the void left in the run game by AJ Ouellette. With Dukes starting at quarterback, Carey’s significance in the offence could ramp up, especially in the early weeks of the season. You often see offensive coordinators simplify the playbook for a still-learning quarterback. That could benefit Carey, a dual-threat running back who had two very productive years in Calgary that saw him go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2022. After injuries slowed him down in 2023, Carey has a tremendous opportunity with the Argos, where he could be a de-facto centre of the offence.

Don’t call it a Stanback

William Stanback goes into the 2024 season with chipped up shoulders, a thing or two to prove, a score to settle, take your pick. He’d seen everything in four seasons with the Alouettes: the bad, the good, the ownership changes and finally a Grey Cup win in 2023. He had an 1,176-yard rushing season in 2021 and came back from injury in 2023 to post 800 yards in the season and  had a touchdown in the Als’ Grey Cup win. Still, the team wanted to go in another direction in free agency, so Stanback went as far in the other direction as he could, signing with the Lions. It could be a perfect fit for the 29-year-old. The Lions missed an impact running back in 2023 and it cost them in the Western Final. If Stanback can continue to produce in BC, a strong team gets stronger. Let’s see what he can do against what stands to be a good Argos’ defence that lost some big names in free agency over the winter.

Does a MOP season begin here? 

Vernon Adams Jr. enjoyed the best season of his seven-year career in 2023. Taking over starting duties from the departed Nathan Rourke, the Lions didn’t miss a beat, posting a 12-6 record and making their second straight trip to the Western Final, where they were once again sent home by the Blue Bombers. With the likes of Alexander Hollins, Justin McInnis and Jevon Cottoy at receiver and with Stanback there for the handoff this year and with another year working with offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic, Adams goes into the season as a favourite to take a run at the award this year. He’d love to make the six-interception showing he had at BMO Field in Week 4 last year a distant memory with a strong game on grounds that weren’t very welcoming to him last year.

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