Defense in spotlight for Colts' CFL debut

June 24, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

Four months after Baltimore formally was annexed into the Canadian Football League, it's time for another milestone.

Four weeks after the CFL Colts first assembled as a football team, it's time to play a game.

Tackling the unknown and the Louisiana heat, the Colts mark their CFL debut against the expansion Shreveport Pirates tonight at 8:30 in an exhibition opener at Independence Stadium.

It's not a minute too soon.

Not for marquee quarterback Tracy Ham, who is eager to go against a defense that doesn't recognize his audibles.

Not for nose tackle Jearld Baylis, who is eager to pursue a quarterback in earnest.

Not for coach Don Matthews, who is eager to see what havoc his new defense can induce under game circumstances.

"It's the first acid test for the experiment we've been doing with changing [defensive] personnel," Matthews said yesterday. "The acid test is if we can hold up against the run."

The defense Matthews devised over the past four months puts a premium on speed at the edge. In the name of catching the quarterback, he moved oversized defensive backs to outside linebacker. Then he moved athletic outside linebackers to rush end.

That's why O. J. Brigance, 6 feet, 218 pounds, will line up at left defensive end tonight and Ken Benson, 6-2, 220, or Malcolm Goodwin, 6-2, 235, on the right.

And also it's why veteran CFL halfback Tracey Gravely and former NFL safety Alvin Walton will play outside linebacker spots.

Speed against speed is the concept. With Baylis and defensive tackle Robert Presbury pushing in the middle, the theory is that the quarterback will be flushed outside to charging rush ends.

In four weeks of training camp, the concept showed great potential. But until tonight, the Colts have not had to stop a running game in anything more than a no-tackle scrimmage.

"This defense gives us more speed to be able to do things," said Brigance, a linebacker for the British Columbia Lions last season. "We'll get up the field faster. It may seem like it will leave us more susceptible to things like the draw, but it also gives us the speed to get back on those plays as well.

"With the push we get up the middle from Baylis and Presbury and the speed we have on the edge, I think we have the opportunity to be a dominant force in this league defensively."

Baylis, the CFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1993 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, figures to be a beneficiary, too. In Matthews' scheme, he will move around in the defensive line to avoid the constant double team at nose tackle.

"I can be freed up and have more movement," he said.

The Edmonton Eskimos and the Calgary Stampeders have used elements of the scheme before. Karl Anthony, the Colts' All-CFL cornerback, said his former team, Calgary, was the first to put six defensive backs on the field at one time.

"We always had a quick defensive team in Calgary," Anthony said. "We could have matched up with anybody on any team. Here, I think we have more of that because we've got a lot of guys that played in the secondary and are going to be linebackers. They're thinking like defensive backs."

What helped Matthews was the freedom to use all Americans on his team. In Canada, CFL teams are limited by the import rule to 17 Americans.

How quickly might the defense jell?

"I think we could be one of the best defenses in the league by midseason," Anthony said. "Going into the playoffs, I think we can be on top of our game."

Ham, a seven-year veteran, likes what he sees from across the line of scrimmage. "Our defense is as good as any I've faced in camp," he said.

Partly for that reason, Ham is eager to face another defense, without restrictions. He, too, has had a good camp.

"I feel real comfortable with the people I'm playing with," he said. "The attitude has been great. Now, we need to translate that into a game. This will give me the opportunity to open up and play. I think the guys want to see how I'll play."

The answers await.

COLTS TONIGHT

Exhibition opponent: Shreveport Pirates

Site: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.

Time: 8:30

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)

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