HALIFAX – McLeod Bethel-Thompson isn’t breathing any easier about facing a short-handed Saskatchewan Roughriders defense.
The CFL’s top-ranked defense will be without starting defensive linemen Pete Robertson and Garrett Marino on Saturday afternoon when Saskatchewan faces the Toronto Argonauts. The 2022 Touchdown Atlantic contest will be held at a sold-out Raymond Field in Wolfville, N.S.
Robertson, who leads the CFL in sacks (seven) and fumble recoveries (three) is out four-to-five weeks with a foot sprain suffered in last week’s 28-13 win over Ottawa. Garrett is serving the first of a four-game suspension he received for a low hit on Redblacks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
Sophomore Keion Adams takes Robertson’s spot at defensive end while third-year player Charbel Dabire replaces Marino at defensive tackle.
“They’ve got a front that’s very good and very deep,” Bethel-Thompson said. “They also have three great linebackers in (Larry) Dean, (Darnell) Sankey and (Derrick) Moncrief.
“You definitely can’t let those guys get a taste of you because then they get hungry and keep coming so we’ve got to start early.”
That depth allows Saskatchewan to weather the storm created by the two absences while not handcuffing defensive co-ordinator Jason Shivers.
“They’re a well-rounded group,” said Riders head coach Craig Dickenson, who’s 3-0 versus Toronto. “We want to get pressure on the quarterback and we want to stop the run.
“Anything outside of that we feel we can adjust.”
Dickenson admitted having Dean (28 tackles, 38 defensive plays, both CFL highs), Moncrief (tied with teammate Nick Marshall for most interceptions with three each) and Sankey (league-best 97 tackles last year) certainly helps.
“Those guys are good and kind of the conductors of the orchestra,” Dickenson said. “They get everybody lined up … we feel if we can be good up front we can make some plays in the backfield.”
The good news for Toronto is the six-foot-five, 312-pound Isiah Cage comes off the injured list to start at left tackle. And defensive back Chris Edwards will make his ’22 debut
Edwards, a league all-star last season, received a six-game suspension for his role in a fan altercation following Toronto’s 27-19 home loss to Hamilton in the ’21 East Division final. It was later reduced to three games.
“Isiah brings a little nasty to us,” Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. “He’s a bookend on that left side and that’s huge for us.
“Chris has some physicality to him, a lot of confidence. When the ball is in the air and he gets a chance to make plays, he makes plays. When there’s a chance for an interception or fumble recovery, the ball seems to find him.”
A fact not lost upon Riders’ starting quarterback Cody Fajardo.
“He’s obviously an all-star for a reason,” Fajardo said of Edwards. “They’ve definitely got healthy through this bye week, they’re a much better football team now than they were before.
“We definitely have our hands full.”
Saskatchewan’s defense has been dominant this season. It leads the CFL in sacks (23), fewest offensive points (16.2 per game), turnovers forced (19) and fumble recoveries (six) while being tied for most interceptions (eight).
Saskatchewan (4-1) has yet to allow more than one touchdown in a game this year. The defense has surrendered a CFL-low five offensive TDs in 70 possessions (seven percent).
But the Riders’ offense boasts the CFL’s top rushing attack (131.4 yards per game), anchored by league rushing leader Jamal Morrow (335 yards, 5.4-yard average, two TDs). Fajardo is 3-0 as a starter versus Toronto, 10-6 on the road and 25-9 overall.
Saskatchewan has also won eight straight against Toronto (1-2), the last three by an average margin of 21.3 points. The Argos are coming off a second bye of the season – their last game was a 23-22 home loss to Winnipeg on July 4.
“We have to try to control the line of scrimmage,’ Dinwiddie said. “They’re going to try to pound the rock on us.
“It’s not a surprise they’re No. 1 in the league in sacks, they have a great front and a darn good defense so we know what we’ve got. We have to go out there and execute and play our game.”
Saturday’s game will be the fifth in the Touchdown Atlantic series and first since 2019. It’s the second contest in Nova Scotia but first during the regular season.
“I’ve told our guys to have fun,” Dinwiddie said. “These guys get to go do something together, bonding, and I’ve told them to do it the right way . . . let’s come together as a team.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction that way.”
The Riders, too, have striven to maintain that balance between business and pleasure. Fajardo, for one, has enjoyed a lot of seafood during his stay.
“I love lobster and all the fish, that’s been great,” he said. “Being a Southern California boy I’ve grown up around a lot of good fish and this definitely rivals it.
“It’s been a great city, (we’ve) been trying to enjoy it but also trying to prepare for a football game. You’ve got to kind of find that happy medium where you’re not all in on one side.”
Seating capacity at Raymond Field was expanded from 3,000 to roughly 10,000 for the game, which was sold out in about an hour. The contest will be the first of back-to-back games for the two teams as Toronto visits Regina on July 23.
And both Dickenson and Fajardo are fans of the 2 p.m. ET kickoff time.
“We’re ready to play,” Dickenson said. “It’s tough the day of the game to play late at night, you don’t know what to do all day.
“I like when you get up in the morning, eat a breakfast and go to the ballpark and that’s what we’re doing.”
Added Fajardo: “It’s going to have that college atmosphere feel, which I’m real excited about. It’s been a while since I felt that so I think it will be a lot of fun.”