HAMILTON - The Toronto Argonauts will have starter Ricky Ray back when they meet the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Monday but must ground the CFL's top aerial attack minus one of their top defenders.
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Cornerback Pat Watkins, whose five interceptions leaves him tied for the CFL lead, and defensive back Demetrice Morley, who started in Toronto's 33-19 home loss to Hamilton last weekend, both won't play for personal reasons. Argos head coach Scott Milanovich wouldn't offer specifics but said he knew last week neither would suit up.
"They have some personal issues to take care of," Milanovich said. "Nobody is in any trouble.
"I wouldn't read too much into anything. They're excused."
Watkins, 30, a native of Tallahassee, Fla., also missed training camp due to unspecified personal issues. He rejoined the defending Grey Cup champions in time for the start of the regular season.
The loss of Watkins, a team captain, is big. The six-foot-five, 205-pound cornerback was a league all-star last year and is not only the Argos' top pass defender but also a threat to blitz off the edge.
Rookie Neiko Thorpe will make his first CFL start at cornerback and be one of five Argos in new defensive positions Monday at Alumni Stadium in Guelph, Ont. Jamie Robinson replaces the injured Matt Black at safety, Ricardo Colclough moves from linebacker to halfback with Major Culbert taking Colclough's spot and rookie Auston English starting at defensive end.
Toronto running back Chad Kackert (shoulder) also won't play while receiver John Chiles (hamstring) is a game-time decision.
Milanovich expects Hamilton will test Thorpe but said Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones will make it tough for the Ticats to single Thorpe out.
"The hard thing with our defence is Chris will match guys up so you're not maybe ever sure where a guy is going to be," Milanovich said. "I'm not sure, sometimes, where guys are going to be.
"I'm sure, definitely, they'd like to go after the new guys but they'll have to find them first."
A fact not lost upon veteran Ticats quarterback Henry Burris, who anchors an offence averaging a league-best 315 yards passing per game. By comparison, Toronto is ranked last in pass defence, allowing 294.5 yards per contest.
"We'll see who the new guy is and how he plays in that area and who they're going to match up against because we know Chris likes to match up guys on certain guys in man-to-man coverage," Burris said. "But (Watkins) is one of the best DBs in the league, that's definitely a loss for anybody.
"We won't change what our gameplan is but it does open up some things that weren't as clearly there (last week)."
Toronto and Hamilton have cemented playoff berths but Monday's game is big for both. For starters, the winner clinches the season series and earns the first tie-breaker should they finished tied in the East Division standings.
Toronto (9-5) can earn a home playoff game with a victory and move closer to cementing top spot in the East Division. Hamilton (7-7) must win to not only remain in the hunt for first but also stay ahead of third-place Montreal (6-8), which plays Winnipeg (2-12) on Monday.
"This is our opportunity to really send a true blow," Burris said. "They are the Grey Cup champions, they're still the king of the hill here in the East so we're expecting their best.
"If we want to get a mental edge on them with the playoffs still ahead — and you'll have to beat Toronto to get to the Grey Cup — we need this game for that mental psyche as well."
Ray will play his first game since suffering a shoulder injury in a 35-14 home loss to Calgary on Aug. 23. Toronto went 4-2 under sophomore Zach Collaros but Milanovich said the Argos are buoyed by the return of offensive leader.
"We built this offence around him and to suit him and put in the pieces of the puzzle that we thought would complement him best," Milanovich said. "Having him back certainly gives us a lot of confidence and a little bit of a comfort level just that we can kind of go back to how we built this offence.
"Having Ricky back will be big."
When Ray was injured, he was the CFL's hottest passer, having completed 148-of-189 passes (78.3 per cent) with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. If Ray can maintain that completion percentage, he'd break Dave Dickenson's single-season mark of 73.98 per cent set in '05.
"It (shoulder) is feeling pretty good," Ray said. "Most of the rust was just getting back into it, seeing things a little bit faster and getting back into the flow.
"Really, I didn't have any issues with my arm."
It's fitting Ray's return comes in a game involving Burris. The two were longtime West Division rivals when Burris was with Calgary and Ray played in Edmonton before becoming East Division foes last year when Ray was dealt to Toronto.
"He's a great decision-maker, that's why he hasn't thrown any interceptions this year," Burris said of Ray. "Ricky has been given the keys to that Ferrari and he's doing a great job of managing it.
"With the playmakers he has, he's doing a great job of just taking what the defences give him."
Burris, 38, has thrown for a league-high 4,173 yards with 22 touchdowns but has also surrendered a CFL-leading 16 interceptions. But Ray said during his time in Edmonton he often watched helplessly from the sidelines as Burris rallied Calgary to late victories.
"He's a tough quarterback to play against because he's going to go out and put up points," Ray said. "The other thing to is when it has come down to the last few minutes and you're on the sidelines, he has led game-winning drives and come back to haunt you.
"Offensively you have to be away of that and know you have to go out there and put up points against them."