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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

WEEK 11 OPENS WITH LIONS AT ARGOS

TORONTO - The Toronto Argonauts will be leaning heavily on kicker/punter Lirim Hajrullahu on Wednesday as they try to contain the B.C. Lions' dangerous return game.

Toronto (4-4) hosts B.C. (6-3) looking for its first win in three games and just its second this season at BMO Field. And with Lions' star Chris Rainey leading the CFL in punt returns (17.8-yard average, two TDs), Argos head coach Scott Milanovich feels Hajrullahu's directional punting will be a crucial factor for the Double Blue.

"He's scary,'' Milanovich said of Rainey. "He does a great job of finding a seam straight up the field and once that happens it opens up the entire field for him.

"A huge part of the game will be Lirim's ability to directional kick and kind of pin (Rainey) inside the numbers where he doesn't have as much space to do the things he wants. Our guys are really going to have to run and understand their responsibilities in their lanes. That's common sense but Lirim has a huge part in that as far as putting our guys in situations where they don't have to cover the 65-yard width of the field.''

Toronto did a solid job of containing Rainey in its 25-14 road win over the Lions on July 7. Rainey had six punt returns for 37 yards, including one for 23 yards. He also returned four kickoffs for 100 yards and a missed field goal 27 yards.

Hajrullahu also played a big role in the victory. He not only made six-of-seven field goals but also sported a 47-yard average on six punts.

But B.C. leads the CFL in punt returns (615 yards, 15.4-yard average) while Toronto is ranked seventh in punt coverage (610 yards, 12.4-yard average).

The Lions usually deploy a second punt returner in Canadian receiver Marco Iannuzzi. While that gives teams the option of kicking away from Rainey, Milanovich said there are risks with that strategy.

"The risk you run is once you start punting it to the field it's harder to cover,'' he said. "When you put two returners back you have less on the front line which can be a positive from a cover standpoint because maybe your guys aren't all getting matched up and you might get free releases.''

B.C. is also a solid 4-1 on the road this season while Toronto is just 1-4 at BMO Field. The Argos were outscored 80-40 over their last two home games against Winnipeg and Edmonton.

B.C. will make no roster changes for Wednesday's game. But Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray returns after missing three starts with a knee injury while Dan LeFevour comes off the practice roster to replace injured rookie Cody Fajardo as the short-yardage quarterback.

Ray threw for 283 yards and a TD in Toronto's first meeting against B.C. This marks the third time in four games the Lions have faced an elite quarterback returning from injury, beating Hamilton 30-24 in Zach Collaros's return Aug. 13 before downing Ottawa 29-23 on Thursday night with Trevor Harris back under centre.

"They're tough because they mix it up very well on defence,'' Ray said of the Lions. "They don't give you a ton of opportunities to get down the field a lot.

"With their linebackers, when you throw an underneath pass they come up and make the tackle and don't let you make those extra yards. And they cover sideline to sideline.''

Ray will have another big offensive weapon at his disposal. Tori Gurley, a six-foot-four, 230-pound receiver, returns to Toronto's lineup after suffering an ankle injury in the Argos' first meeting with B.C..

"In the past year and a half he (Gurley) is the guy we've thrown the ball up to in order to make plays,'' Milanovich said. "He's a very intense guy, very competitive and hates to lose.

"I think he's going to bring an edge to our offence that we need.''

Milanovich said Toronto heads into Wednesday's game with a solid week of preparation under it's belt. Coincidentally, that followed the surprising release of veteran linebacker Keon Raymond last week.

"It (Raymond release) wasn't for us to send a message,'' Milanovich said. "When someone the team cares about and likes, that I like, is no longer in the room it does tend to affect the demeanour for some.

"But this is how we need to prepare every week. I think we were humbled by the last two losses we've had. I think we're in a position now where we know what it takes.''

(Canadian Press)

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