Week 1 of the 2021 CFL season saw the new-look Toronto Argonauts debut in grand fashion by defeating the Stampeders 23-20 in Calgary. The Boatmen started fast, nearly sunk their ship with some costly turnovers and miscues, but were able to stem the tide and rally late to pull out an impressive week one victory.
The two-year layoff and a sea of new faces on the Argos left many uncertainties heading into the season. There were legitimate questions about how the team would perform at the outset of their 2021 campaign. After all, the Argonauts were debuting an entirely new coaching staff and a roster primarily filled with players who had never played together before.
Going into Calgary in week one against an established and elite franchise seemed difficult for Toronto to overcome. Saturday Night’s performance by the Argos’ answered a lot of those doubts. It’s not only how the team won but in the fashion that they did. And for longtime Argonauts fans like Lori Bursey, the team’s victory provided great promise for the upcoming season. It’s been a while since the Argos franchise has had that feeling. Saturday’s triumphant victory gives the franchise newfound hope.
It’s only one week, and there is a long season ahead of them. The open to the 2021 season for the Boatmen only gets more difficult, as Toronto will next head to Winnipeg on Friday to face the defending CFL champion Blue Bombers. In an odd scheduling quirk, the Argonauts will play the Bombers in two consecutive weeks. The game in Calgary was a great test for Toronto, but the next two weeks will present an even greater challenge.
But before we move on to week two and beyond. Let’s look back at the Argonauts who made a difference in week one’s victory and the areas where the team will need to improve upon moving forward.
Toronto Argonauts Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie
Heading into Saturday’s game. From a roster standpoint, the Argonauts on paper looked like they could match up well against Calgary. After all, Toronto has compiled great talent on their team since 2019 with several former Stampeder standouts on their roster who have jumped ship to the Boatmen to balance the tide.
But one key area that seemed like an obvious mismatch was at the head coaching position. The matchup featured one of the CFL’s best coaches in Dave Dickenson, going up against a head coach making his debut in Ryan Dinwiddie.
There’s an old adage in football that says, coaches, don’t win games, players do, but coaches can lose games for their teams, especially when it comes to preparation and in-game decisions. Based on the results from the Argos victory over the Stamps. Ryan Dinwiddie rose to the challenge on both fronts.
Ryan Dinwiddie had a challenging week of preparation for his head coaching debut. Not only was he preparing to face his former team but his offence was going up against his longtime friend and colleague Brent Monson’s defence. Both coaches know each other’s styles very well and that knowledge would play a factor.
During the week leading into the game, Dinwiddie prepped his offence and specifically practiced plays to counter the Stamps’ aggressive defence.
On Toronto’s opening drive, the Argos countered with a lot of underneath throws to combat the Stamps blitzing. You couldn’t script a better start for the Argos as their offence methodically marched down the field in 12 plays and scored a touchdown and followed that up with a two-point conversion.
Monson’s defence did make adjustments and successfully countered Dinwiddie’s play designs after that opening drive but it was a play that Ryan worked on with his team during practice, which ended up seizing the day.
Down 20-12 with time running out in the 4th quarter, Toronto had the football, facing a second and ten at Calgary’s 27 yard-line. The Stamps sent a cover zero blitz, one that Dinwiddie had anticipated. Receiver Eric Rogers came in motion into the backfield, impeded the Stamps free blitzer, and the save resulted in a 27-yard scoring pass to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. One play later, Eric Rogers would tie the game on a beautiful catch in the end zone.
In the game’s post-game presser, Ryan Dinwiddie told CFLNewshub that the play had given his offense fits in the past and that all week, the Argos had prepared for the call by Monson’s defence. “I drew it up this week, and I said, I know they’re gonna do that. So Eric (Rogers) was supposed to be on the weak side, they gave us that look, so Eric came over and trapped it and blocked it….. From my experience with Brent, I knew it was going to come because it beats our protections.”
From an in-game decision-making perspective, Ryan Dinwiddie also made a crucial call that helped his team ultimately get the victory in Calgary.
Down 14-12, in the third quarter, with all the games momentum on their side. Calgary would opt to go for it on 3rd and goal and would score on a Levi Mitchell completion to Kamar Jorden to give the Stampeders a 20-12 lead. But Dinwiddie with aid from his staff upstairs would successfully challenge the play for offensive pass interference, taking the score off the board. A Chris Edwards penalty would lead to Calgary attempting to score again but Edwards would atone for his sin by breaking up the pass attempt in the end zone.
The sequence would help keep the Boatmen’s chances of winning afloat for the rest of the game. There was another instance in the game where a Dinwiddie challenge would help aid his team. The coach called for a DPI late in the game on a quick two and out, which proved unsuccessful. However, the challenge and the delay that followed helped the Argos defence recover after spending the majority of the second half on the field. Whether that was the intention or not, the decision to throw a flag helped the Argonauts’ defence regroup physically and force a punt on their next series.
It was one of many instances during the game, where Ryan Dinwiddie’s decision-making was decisive and beneficial to his team’s chances of winning. An impressive overall showing by the first-time head coach. He had his team ready and prepared and he was as well.
Overall Grade: A
Toronto Argonauts Offence
McLeod Bethel Thompson was the game’s MVP. The veteran signal-caller was calm and cool, executing an offence that he was playing in for the first time.
There’s no doubt that extended reps in practice because of Nick Arbuckle’s injury helped expedite McLeod’s readiness for the regular season. But the showing by MBT, in game #1 of the season was impressive nonetheless. Bethel-Thompson was decisive in the pocket and accurate, completing 73 percent of his passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns.
MBT also surprisingly provided some big plays with his movement in the pocket, rushing for 24 yards but one of his best plays came on the go-ahead drive, where on second down, he scrambled to his right, avoided pressure, and connected with DaVaris Daniels on a twenty-yard completion, which put the Argos in manageable field goal range for the victory.
The Argos, John White (9-28 rushing, 3-38 receiving) got off to a decent start on the team’s opening drive, getting involved in the passing game but there was very little running room for him or opportunities for the team as a whole.
The lopsided time of possession in the game played a part in that as well. White did, however, do a good job in pass protection. AJ Ouellette, who was one of the Argonauts standouts in camp saw very little action. The game script limited him to one carry for four yards. Excluding Bethel-Thompson’s 24 yards, Toronto’s runners rushed for only 32 yards on 10 carries.
Excluding Ricky Collins (6-126) fumble into the end zone. The Argos team of pass-catchers, each made solid contributions in Calgary. 7 different Argonauts’ receivers caught passes. Most of the completions were of the short variety but players like Daniel Braverman (5-42), DaVaris Daniels (2-29), Eric Rogers (5-55), Kurleigh Gittens (2-28-1td), Llevi Noel (2-32) and Juwan Brescasin (1-9-1td) all made important receptions during the course of the game.
The play that stands out the most comes from Eric Rogers’s blitz pickup in the fourth quarter. His quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson called it “one of the best plays, I have ever seen”. It was and without it, and his follow-up circus catch that tied the game. Toronto doesn’t win.
Considering that Toronto was starting four new players up front, and one of them a rookie in Peter Nicastro, who returned home to Calgary, and played centre and guard. The Argos offensive line like the rookie held up relatively well on the road against Calgary. The line faced an aggressive defence in Calgary. There was very little running room and the line did have some breakdowns in pass protection but they only allowed one sack.
Part of that has to do with the offensive game plan of countering the Stamps blitz and Bethel-Thompson’s poise in the pocket. The veteran pivot got himself out of trouble with his legs.
However, there were some issues in pass protection, particularly with CFL rookie Dejon Allen at left tackle. CFL vet Shawn Lemon took him to school and sacked Thompson late in the game on the Argos game-winning drive. The Boatmen need to figure out who will play the blindside next week because an all-world pass rusher in Willie Jefferson is waiting for them in week two.
Offense Overall Grade: B plus
The Argos offence started off red hot and cooled off for large periods of the game until waking up late. The game-tying score was set up by the team’s defence. Because up until that point of the game, Toronto’s offensive attack was dormant. McLeod Bethel-Thompson played above his head, under the circumstances and his receivers executed the game plan extremely well. In key spots, the passing game came through. And Eric Rogers showed how clutch of a performer he has always been.
Toronto Argonauts Defence
To the Stampeders credit, despite a young offensive line. They did a good job of keeping the Argos pass rush at bay. Toronto registered zero sacks in the game on thirty-five pass attempts by Calgary. Part of that has to do with Bo Levi Mitchell’s poise in the pocket and his innate ability to sense pressure and make the correct reads.
The newcomers on the Argos defensive line, Shane Ray, Shawn Oakman, and Kony Ealy had modest debuts. 5 overall tackles and two pressures but it wasn’t the type of debut expected from them.
Charleston Hughes was held in check mostly until the end of the game. His forced fumble and fumble recovery late in the game was the type of big-time play from a big-time player that the team needed desperately.
The Argos also had some issues against the run. They missed the presence and production of Drake Nevis. The Stamps rushed for over a hundred yards in the game. (24-101). Despite the less than stellar effort from a high-profile group. The newly formed line held up in tough conditions, spending nearly 35 minutes on the field.
Overall Grade: B
Like the defensive line, this group spent a lot of time on the field Saturday. But two players particularly played at an extremely high level for this unit. Henoc Muamba registered six tackles and did an excellent job in coverage.
Arguably the best player for the entire Argos defence was Dexter McCoil. The ultimate jack-of-all-trades defender, despite not starting, made his presence felt with six tackles on the day. McCoil didn’t miss a beat in his return to the CFL. He’s the same player he has always been. Much like Muamba.
Overall Grade: A
There were some hiccups for the Argonauts in pass coverage (two pass plays over 35 yards) but for the most part, this unit held up its end of the bargain. The Argos held Bo Levi Mitchell to 252 yards passing and just one touchdown. Jeff Richards and Crezdon Butler were very active with 11 tackles in total. Shaq Richardson was excellent in coverage and made the game-sealing interception. Toronto’s scouting department hit a home run bringing Sam backer Chris Edwards late into the fold. His pass breakup in the end zone was a big play that aided the Argos’ chances of winning.
Overall Grade: B
Defence Overall Grade: A-minus
This is what you call grading on a curve. For the Argonauts defence on Saturday, The whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Lost in the performance of the team’s passing game was how the Argos defence bent but never broke. Toronto’s offence does not make a late charge and win in week one if not for their defence.
The Boatmen’s defensive unit coordinated by Glen Young, kept the Stamps offence at bay, while their own offence struggled after their opening scoring drive.
The Calgary Stampeders had six trips deep into the red zone but they only produced one touchdown, four short field goals, and turned it over once on downs.
With the Stamps threatening to put the game on ice several times in the second half, the Argos D rose to the occasion, forcing Calgary to punt and forced two turnovers.
The Argos pass rush may have never gotten home with their pass rush but Toronto doesn’t leave Calgary with victory if their defence didn’t buy their offence field position and time to get things going late in the game.
Not only did the Argonauts defence spend 35 minutes on the field against Calgary’s offence but the field position was also against them. Especially after a blocked punt gave the Stamps the ball at the Argos 19 yard line in the second quarter. The Argos D held Calgary to a 22-yard field goal to keep their team within one score.
It wasn’t perfect but all things considered. The Argos defence were unsung heroes in this victory. The game and victory could easily have gotten away from the team without them standing up against adversity.
Toronto Argonauts Special Teams
From Daniel Braverman nearly fumbling away a punt return at the start of the game to missed field goals and a blocked punt. The Argos special teams’ misadventures nearly lost this game for Toronto.
The truth is that despite Boris Bede nailing the game-winning field goal. Even that play was a near disaster as two Stampeders came dangerously close to blocking the short field goal attempt.
Boris Bede’s leg strength is a weapon that will be utilized all season long and he came through in the end but there will need to be consistency from him. His 58-yard miss had plenty of leg behind it and can easily be excused. But his 27-yard miss before the half could have proved costly.
Overall Grade: D-plus
I was tempted to give this unit an F but Bede’s two kicks, decent kick coverage and Llevi Noel’s fumble recovery earned them a D plus.
The Argos special teams led by Mark Nelson desperately needed game reps and it showed. The mental breakdowns were alarming. Players getting through A gaps and blocking or nearly blocking kicks is not something that should be happening during live-action. The team needs to strongly consider bringing up Chandler Worthy from the practice squad to return kicks. And a healthy Eric Mezzalira could be an added boost to this unit.
You have to give the Argonauts players and their coaching staff a lot of credit for coming together so quickly after a short training camp with no preseason games.
For the most part, the Boatmen were ready to set sail when the season started. Saturday’s opening win in Calgary against a top-tier franchise is a positive sign for the team’s hopes of contending this year. It’s just one step, and the Argos schedule doesn’t get any easier the next two weeks against the Bombers, but the Boat looks like it’s really headed back to relevancy again.
Overall Team Grade: A minus
The coaching coupled with the clutch plays by the Argos biggest stars, MBT, Hughes and Rogers came through in crucial moments. From a team standpoint, they could have easily withered or folded when adversity hit at several points but didn’t. So it’s hard not to give the overall team a high mark for week one.