CFL Pass

Alouettes need boost on defence to become CFL contenders in 2020

A player, or team, can catch lightning in a bottle and turn things around for a season, defying the odds and exceeding expectations.

The Alouettes did precisely that in 2019, finishing with a 10-8 record despite losing their opening two games. In reaching the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2014, and posting its first winning record since 2012, Montreal managed this with Khari Jones, a rookie head coach who replaced the fired Mike Sherman less than a week before its opening game — and without a general manager following the mid-July firing of Kavis Reed. And, of course, without ownership.

While the Als were one of the league’s feel-good stories, the team played with house money. Nothing was expected from this group, which was virtually under no pressure.

But the bar has been set and more will be expected in 2020. The Als might not yet be in the same class as the East Division-champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but the pressure will be on to remain ahead of Toronto and Ottawa. And there’s no guarantee Montreal will again reap the benefit of playing in an extremely weak division.

At this point, there’s no reason to believe the Als will be anything more than a one-year wonder, with many potential questions again facing the organization. The honeymoon is over for the personable Jones, who was signed to a three-year contract extension following the Grey Cup. And some of the dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks the team orchestrated might not be possible with Montreal no longer capable of catching the opposition by surprise.

“I know there’s a lot of improvement that can be made overall,” Jones said after his new contract was announced. “To turn things around is one thing. To keep building on that is another. I’m excited about the challenge.”

Much of the uncertainty surrounding the Als will continue until a general manager is hired and the ownership situation reaches a resolution. Not only will the new GM be faced with signing a slew of potential free agents — many CFL teams are in the same predicament — the Als don’t have a first-round draft choice the next two seasons, after being traded away by Reed to acquire quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2018.

As well, according to a source, the new GM will be left with a mess he inherited from Reed. The source said many players who were injured at the end of the season are owed bonuses in January. While most, if not all, those players could be medically cleared by May for training camp, the source said Reed simply didn’t manage the team well.

“While there’s talent, there also are some serious gaps on their roster,” the source said. “You look at who they could lose in free agency. The players won’t (simply) trust just Khari (any longer). There’s no ownership in place. The GM is now fourth or fifth tier. How will this be a good situation if they’re owned by the league? Things will be done on the cheap.

“Your hands are tied because of Reed. Any GM has to clean this up. This is heavy lifting for at least two or three years.”

While the Als finally seem to have found a quarterback in Vernon Adams Jr., who wasn’t even the starter when last season began at Edmonton, he could be missing some key offensive pieces.

Leading rusher William Stanback was released by the team on Jan. 1 so he can try his luck in the NFL, and quickly signed a futures contract with the Oakland Raiders. Fellow tailback Jeramiah Johnson is a potential free agent, while leading receiver Eugene Lewis also has indicated his desire to test NFL waters. Should Lewis fail — and provided he re-signs with Montreal — the Als should have a decent receiving corps, considering B.J. Cunningham will return from his fractured elbow. Cunningham had an 1,100-yard season in 2017.

While it’s unlikely the Als will lose centre Kristian Matte or right guard Sean Jamieson, both potential free agents, it’s important to re-sign both so the unit doesn’t lose its stability.

It’s on the defensive side of the ball where the Als must most improve if they’re going to take the next step and become a contender for years to come.

Edmonton quarterback Trevor Harris exposed Montreal’s defence in the East Division semifinal, when he completed his first 22 passes — one shy of tying a league record — and shredded the unit for 421 yards in a 37-29 victory.

Too many big plays and too many yards surrendered were the Als’ defensive Achilles heel in too many games. Montreal’s defensive backs can cover, but too often were left on an island simply because of a lack of pressure up front.

The Als were last in the CFL in sacks, with 27, and must attempt to find an elite pass rusher, perhaps through free agency in February. The team is also faced with re-signing some important cogs or it could face attrition through free agency.

Defensive-linemen Woody Baron and Fabion Foote, linebackers Chris Ackie and Patrick Levels, along with defensive-back Ciante Evans all are potential free agents. It’s imperative management re-signs non-imports Ackie and Foote.

The Als start the season with a pair of road games, at Calgary and Saskatchewan, so they could be facing another 0-2 hole to start the 2020 season.