No doubt, revitalized defense is the key to CFLs' Grey Cup quest

November 13, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Elfrid Payton was shouting over the music and noise in the Baltimore CFLs' locker room.

"I don't think any defense is playing better than we are right now," he said. "For the last four or five weeks, we're at the top of the league. I don't think there's any doubt about it."

Well, there might be some doubt in Calgary, where the Canadian Football League's top-ranked defense plays. But there is no doubt that Baltimore's defense, a shaky item in the first half of the season, has emerged as the centerpiece of the team's surprising run to the Final Four of three-down football.

"We've put everything together as a defense," said Payton, a rush end, after the CFLs' 34-15 defeat of the Toronto Argonauts yesterday in an Eastern Division semifinal at Memorial Stadium. "It's going to be real hard for someone to beat us."

The Argos couldn't come close. After building a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter, they were unable to make a first down on seven straight possessions, and didn't score again until early in the fourth quarter. That was the game right there. The CFLs had grabbed the game with both hands, leading by 17 points, by the time Toronto finally moved the scoreboard again.

"We talked among ourselves when we were down 10-3 about turning this thing around," Payton said. "They [Toronto] really couldn't do much of anything once we got it going."

The usual blueprint for success was used. Payton and O.J. Brigance harried Toronto rookie quarterback Marvin Graves. Jearld Baylis and Robert Presbury stuffed the run. Matt Goodwin and the linebackers flew around the field making plays. The secondary, led by cornerback Karl Anthony, shut down the Argos' receivers with man-to-man coverage.

"They should have expected something like this," Goodwin said. "They came in here talking about how they'd rather play us than Winnipeg. Personally, I wasn't about to take that."

Said Payton: "It was just our base defense, but with the personnel we have, that's enough. When you look at what we have, we have everything. We have quickness where we need it, speed where we need it, toughness where we need it. And we have a nice blend of youth and experience. It's the complete package."

The CFLs' defensive personnel is indeed of a rare order for this league. Baylis, playing for Saskatchewan, won the league's defensive player of the year award last season. Anthony, playing for Calgary, was all-CFL a year ago. Brigance had 20 sacks in British Columbia. It was almost as if Baltimore had put together an all-star team.

Still, the pass rush was inconsistent and the defense as a whole was not playing that well until Payton arrived at midseason after fleeing expansion Shreveport. The runner-up to Baylis as the league's top defensive player a year ago, he gave the CFLs a devastating, two-pronged pass rush, with Brigance on the other side.

"Since Elfrid got here, the whole defense has really picked it up," Anthony said. "They put so much pressure on the quarterback up front that we can play man-to-man in back. I've been in the league five years and I've never played nearly this much man-to-man. But we can get away with it."

As complete as yesterday's performance was, the defense's best show of the year came two weeks ago in the CFLs' 57-10 wipeout of Winnipeg at Memorial Stadium. The Blue Bombers' offense, led by quarterback Matt Dunigan, is almost as prolific as Calgary's, with Doug Flutie. "It was truly shocking that we could hold them to 10 points," Payton said.

If the CFLs are to succeed in making the Grey Cup as an expansion team, they'll probably have to beat Winnipeg again -- this time in cold, wintry Winnipeg -- in the division title game. (If the Bombers beat Ottawa today, the game is set for next Sunday.) The bulk of the pressure will be on the defense.

"It's not easy to stop them two games in a row," said Payton, who played in Winnipeg for three years before 1994. "But we got to [Dunigan] with our pressure in the last game. We made him throw before he wanted. It'll be the key to the game, and I think we can do it again with the way this defense is playing."

For Payton, the season is ending as beautifully as it started in Shreveport, where the team wound up losing its first 14 games.

"I'm just glad to be out of there," he said. "This is the reason I came to Baltimore. I wanted to be in position to compete for the championship."

He can't wait to get out there and play against his former teammates with a berth in the Grey Cup at stake.

"Good 'ol Winter-peg," he said. "Let's see if [the Bombers] are 47 points better at home."

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