Calgary Stampeders defence has answered questions all year
It was an off-season of upheaval for the Calgary Stampeders.
Especially on defence.
Remember the good ol’ days — them Grey Cup ones — with Alex Singleton, Micah Johnson, Ja’Gared Davis, Ciante Evans and Jameer Thurman stuffing opposition running backs and shutting down aerial attacks?
The hope is those good times have returned — with different names and faces attached — just in time for this year’s pursuit of Canadian football’s holy grail.
It’s a hope that seemed far-fetched a scant six months ago when there were so many holes to fill on what was a vaunted defensive unit that anchored the champions of the 2018 Canadian Football League season.
“I think we’re close,” said Stampeders defensive coordinator Brent Monson, when asked if his corps is ready for the CFL post-season that culminates with the Grey Cup game at McMahon Stadium on Nov. 24.
“There’s been a lot of good flashes throughout the season where we played three good quarters. But obviously, we’ll want to play a full 60 minutes now.
“We’ll want a better performance throughout the playoffs.”
Yes, now is when Monson & Co. will have to bring their best.
But do they have the goods to do that?
Really, it’s just one more question they’ll have to answer in a season that began with so many questions for the Stamps defence.
“We gelled tremendously,” said Stamps defensive back Brandon Smith, on how his crew quickly — and in mostly a positive way — answered many of those queries.
“We grew a lot,” the veteran continued. “We had a young team, and people pretty much counted us out early with all the departures we had. But guys just hit the ground running — came in and just grinded week-in and week-out to get better and prove all the naysayers wrong.
“Just to see all the guys gel the way we did to become one of the top defences and teams in the league, that’s a tremendous tribute to those guys putting in all the work.”
Indeed, the Stamps roll into the CFL playoffs — into Sunday’s West Division semifinal against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMahon Stadium (2:30 p.m., TSN/News Talk 770 CHQR) — with a defence that, for the most part, is ready for prime-time.
Such a notion certainly seemed distant without the likes of Singleton and the other defensive stars who moved on from the Stamps in the off-season.
But yet, the defence — made up of primarily a bunch of no-names when this campaign kicked off — found its way to helping the Red & White finish second in the division.
“Obviously bringing new guys in is always tough, especially when learning just little nuances of the defence,” Monson said. “But guys around them have helped get them up to speed, and the individual coaches have done a great job of just getting them ready to go. It’s always been our motto to ‘plug-and-play,’ and we just have keep doing that. But I think the young guys who have stepped in have done a great job.”
There were games that the defence won almost singlehandedly behind the leadership of Smith and Cordarro Law with breakout years from young talents such as ballhawk Tre Roberson and CFL rookie-of-the-year finalist Nate Holley.
And sure, there were other games where the inexperienced defence took a step back.
“We’ve done a good job for the most part,” Monson said. “We’ve got to fix some things so we don’t have those lapses.
“But I think all the position coaches feel the guys have all bought in to what we’re coaching, so everyone’s locked in. We have a great group of guys who have bought in and have been flying around. The heart and the effort has always been there. That made it easier for the coaching staff to get to where we want to be.”
The Stamps finished the regular season in the top four of most defensive categories, including first in forcing turnovers (47) and second in yards-per-play allowed (5.75).
They’ll need all that success and more in facing a Bombers offence Sunday that’s second-best in the league at putting points on the board and the best at controlling the ball.
That’s, of course, due to its vaunted run-game, paced by the CFL’s top rusher in Andrew Harris (1,380 yards).
“We’ve got to be ready for anything,” Monson said. “But yes … obviously, first things first in every game is to stop the run. To me, you have to stop the run and try to make the other team one-dimensional.”
A forecast of -13C likely puts the run-game at the forefront of Sunday’s affair.
And Monson knows how his defence responds to Harris and, quite possibly, QB Chris Streveler — if he’s ready for action after suffering an injury against the Stamps on Oct. 19 — is key to the contest and moving onto the West final.
“I give a lot of respect to (Bombers offensive coordinator) Paul LaPolice and what they do over there,” Monson said. “With their offence, they have a lot of different weapons, and they have a great scheme. You have to cover every angle when you’re playing against them. It’s not just stopping the run. You’ve got to do a good job in all the aspects of the game.”
They’ve proved they can do that … at times.
But now in the win-or-go-home season, they’re playing for keeps.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Smith said. “Even if we won every game, we can find some area that we can find to improve to become a better team. We want to keep climbing until we get to that ultimate goal.
“It’s been a dogfight week-in and week-out. Every game, you go back and look at the season, has been within striking distance. There hasn’t been any blowouts. So every game has shaped us to what we are now and the type of team we have now.
“We’re battle-tested, and we’re ready to go in the post-season.”