The East Division's Biggest Fish
Through one week of the regular season, the Toronto Argonauts find themselves all alone in first place in the East Division despite not having played a game yet. Hamilton played Saskatchewan tight before things got out of hand late in the fourth, Montreal could easily have come out on top in Calgary, and Ottawa should have defeated Winnipeg, but shot themselves in the foot at every opportunity. So, what can be made of Toronto’s East Division rivals after one game?
Just about any reaction one game into an 18-game season is an overreaction, but that doesn’t mean notes can’t be taken. None of the other three teams showed any indication of being an unstoppable powerhouse, but all three appear poised to battle it out all season long in what could be the most competitive East Division since Ottawa rejoined the league.
Just as it was in 2021, the Montreal defense doesn’t look like it’s going to win a lot of games for the team. Calgary isn’t exactly the offensive juggernaut they were a few years ago, but they had very little trouble putting up 30 points against the Als.
Offensively, Montreal will have to hope they can tread water while they wait for William Stanback to return. He was placed on the six-game injured list today with what seems to be a serious ankle injury. Jeshrun Antwi carried the ball seven times for 98 yards, but 70 of those came on one long run made possible courtesy of a mental mistake from former Argos linebacker Cameron Judge. With Stanback out, Calgary eased off the line of scrimmage in the second half, holding Montreal to a mere three points as Vernon Adams’ completion percentage took a dive.
Stanback is the best running back in the CFL, and his absence impacts the passing game just as much as it does the rushing attack. If Montreal is still in the mix when he returns, their offense is good enough to challenge for top spot, but what shape will they be in by then?
The Ottawa REDBLACKS should be 1-0. They dominated the Blue Bombers in just about every category, but ultimately lost the game. It’s easy to look at this performance against the Grey Cup Champions and declare the REDBLACKS the team to beat in the East, but knowing how to win is one of the biggest intangibles in football.
The Ottawa defense was dominant, holding Zach Collaros to under 200 yards passing, and lead back Brady Oliveira to 1.7 yards per carry. But when the game was on the line with under a minute to go, facing a backup quarterback, they were hesitant in coverage and forgot how to tackle.
The offense and the coaching staff are also to blame for the loss. Jeremiah Masoli threw the ball at will between the 20s against a great defense, and that has to be encouraging for Ottawa, but his production fell off in the redzone. Also, coming away from the final drive of the first half without any points was an embarrassing display of incompetence in what would end up being a two-point loss. Masoli obviously knows better, as does Paul LaPolice, and yet it still happened. They surely won’t repeat those time-management mistakes, but not knowing how to win can be contagious for a team trying to recover from two straight disastrous seasons.
Can Ottawa learn how to win tight games? A helpful evaluation metric will be their rushing productivity once they play someone other than Winnipeg, but most importantly, they need their coaches and veteran players to be leaders in crunch time. Ottawa is a team to fear in 2022, but until further notice, they’re their own worst enemy.
There is no one more popular on a football team than the backup quarterback, and no one knows this better than Dane Evans. The Roughriders have a good defense, but for Hamilton to only score 13 points, and for their only touchdown to come on a 71-yard bust midway through the fourth quarter has to be concerning. Where was the Dane Evans who put together the best half in CFL history just a few months ago against the Argos in the Eastern Final? Very little of what happened to Hamilton on Saturday can be blamed on Dane Evans, but it didn’t help that Jeremiah Masoli looked like an MVP at times.
Worrying about Hamilton’s offense this season after one bad game is definitely an overreaction, but an overreaction can quickly become a reality. The Tiger-Cats have to be concerned about their offensive line after giving up eight sacks and producing only 26 rushing yards on 11 carries.
Something that probably went unnoticed by most is how outstanding Hamilton’s defense looked. They allowed 30 points, but most of that came near the end of the game, and much of it off the four turnovers surrendered by the offense. The Tiger-Cats defended the run extremely well, holding Saskatchewan’s backs to 24 rushing yards on 13 carries. Cody Fajardo put up great numbers through the air, but much of it on contested catches off broken plays. Hamilton’s pass rush got home with frequency, but couldn’t quite wrap up Fajardo all night.
Hamilton’s offense probably won’t look this bad again all season, but their stellar defensive play is something that should repeat itself. The Tiger-Cats aren’t going away this year.
The Early Verdict
Unlike the past few seasons, no teams in the East Division can be written off, but they all have concerns as well. Can Ottawa learn to win? Will Hamilton’s line hold up? Will Montreal be able to put up enough points without Stanback?
Hamilton remans the team to fear most until Ottawa can prove otherwise. Both teams have tough matchups this week as the REDBLACKS complete their home-and-home with Winnipeg and Hamilton hosts Calgary. If Toronto can beat Montreal at BMO, and they really should, they’ll find themselves in the drivers seat early on, and the pressure may start to mount on their East Division rivals.