Winnipeg defensive back T.J. Heath does well picking off passes, but doesn’t expect Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray to add to his reputation when the Argonauts visit the Blue Bombers on Thursday.
With a league-leading three interceptions in just two games this year, Heath is well on pace to exceed last year’s seven, which was good enough to tie for tops in the CFL.
Heath accumulated that number in both Toronto and Winnipeg. He was traded to the Bombers after 10 games with the Argos last season and still earned a CFL all-star berth.
After watching Ray up close, Heath says the wily veteran knows just about everything there is to know about football. But Heath says the 37-year-old Ray looks even better this season, as the Argos (2-1) look to strengthen their hold on top spot in the CFL East.
“He’s showed me a lot of good things the past couple of weeks,” Heath said Wednesday. “He looks like a better player than he was last year.”
Ray laughs off that suggestion but concedes he feels like his throws are more consistent this season.
“That’s given me a little more confidence,” he says, along with an offensive line that has been giving him solid protection.
He has completed 89-of-127 passes for 1,199 yards and just one interception, with S.J. Green a favourite new target.
Meanwhile, the Bombers have yet to prove that they can do better than last season, when they made a quick exit from the playoffs after missing the post-season four years running.
They opened with a hard-fought win over Saskatchewan but as they bowed 29-10 to the Calgary Stampeders last week, failing to score any points in three out of four quarters.
Among other things, their running game, a prominent part of offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice’s scheme, hasn’t yet found its legs.
Although he isn’t alone, running back Andrew Harris is quick to accept blame and agree they need to make the ground game more successful.
“I need to do better in my reads and be more decisive,” said the Winnipeg native, picked up from B.C. as a free agent before the 2016 season.
“For the team, I think once the running game gets better it’s going to open up the pass for us.”
Harris has 89 yards in 27 carries, and that almost triple the next closest player.
Winnipeg Coach Mike O’Shea said the Bombers have to do a better job capitalizing on their opportunities in general.
“Finishing plays, finishing drives, finishing blocks, finishing tackles,” he said.
It doesn’t help that Toronto has 14 sacks.
“Obviously that poses a lot of challenges,” said Winnipeg quarterback Matt Nichols.
“It starts with the quarterback and protection,” he added, and that also means not holding onto the ball for too long. “It’s easy to say, you’ve just got to go out and do it.”
A running game that poses a legitimate threat would help as well in forcing the defence to spread its focus, he said.
While the Bombers have had consistent coaching and management over the last few seasons, the Argos hired veteran Marc Trestman as head coach just before the CFL draft.
Some suggested the Argos might struggle again after a 5-13 finish in 2016, but that hasn’t happened. Trestman gives full marks to Ray.
“The rest of us are not as important as him,” said the coach. “Each and every one of us feel fortunate that he decided to come back and has come back with the enthusiasm and passion that he has for playing the game.”
“Any time you can be successful out there you’re going to have fun … In this game it’s definitely about improving,” said Ray.
Notes: Veteran linebacker Ian Wild is out and Kyle Knox is in after Wild hurt his arm or wrist in last Friday’s game. Wild finished second last season with 70 tackles for the Bombers and is expected to be out for six weeks. Defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo is also out on a week-to-week basis.