Johnson: Stamps’ ferocious defensive line has Durant in its sights
Addition of veteran Stewart has added immensely to unit
The sensation, says Corey Mace, can be difficult to explain to the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday layman.
“OK. I’d say,” he reckons, “it’s up there with the first day your parents let you drive the car by yourself. We’ve all gone through that. You finally got your licence and you’ve been waiting six months to crank up your favourite song, something by Ludacris, and get out on the road, on your own.
“You finally get the car, window’s down, foot on the gas, you blast your song, and you feel this sense of exhilaration, of freedom, and you think — no, you know — you’re The Man.
“That’s what it feels like to sack a quarterback.
“That’s what it’d feel like to sack (Darian) Durant on Sunday.”
Mace and Demonte’ Bolden and/or Brian Bulcke clogging up the interior, Charleston Hughes and Anwar Stewart taking Carlos the Jackal aim out wide: The new Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Darian Durant’s apocalypse, as fate would decree.
If the Saskatchewan quarterback isn’t developing that hunted, haunted look in his eyes as the days dwindle prior to Sunday’s West Division semifinal, well, he simply has not been watching recent game film. Seventeen sacks over the closing four starts for the Calgary Stampeders’ defensive brigade, not coincidentally all wins, and also not by chance since coach/GM John Hufnagel extricated the 36-year-old Stewart from mothballs and conscripted him to inspire the pillage party.
“Crazy thing is, we’ve been playing solid all year,” sighs defensive line coach DeVone Claybrooks. “It’s just that we’ve been finishing the last four games. We’ve had opportunities, been winning our share of 1-on-1 battles, in all of our games, but we just weren’t closing the same way.
“Now, with a quarterback of Durant’s quality heading into the playoffs . . . he’s a guy we haven’t had as much success (against) as we’d like.”
As Durant goes, so goes Saskatchewan, naturally. When he’s allowed a comfort level, in a rhythm, throwing to Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf and keeping the marauding hordes off him by utilizing tailback Kory Sheets, the Riders are a different team.
“He can be hot or cold,” says Stewart, a longtime adversary. “I’ll tell you what you’ve gotta do with him: Keep him in the pocket and give him some looks, disguise coverages, hit him whenever you can. If you can do that, he’s no different than any other quarterback, he’ll throw you an interception here or there. When I was in Montreal, we said: Just everybody do their job and he’ll give us one at critical times, especially in the Grey Cup.
“He’s has a strong arm, is a strong guy with strong legs. So when we get to him we know we’ve really got to wrap him up, hold on and wait for backup.”
The Calgary front has been fitfully effective all season. What transformed the entire enterprise can best be referred to as The Anwar Effect. Stewart has acted as a knitting agent, pulling everything together.
“You mean Uncle Stew?” corrects Mace.
Uh, ‘Uncle’ Stew?
“Yeah. Can’t call him Grandpa. So we’ll settle for Uncle Stew. He’s like that old uncle who’s always BBQ’ing, got that lazy leg and always likes to talk s---. Everybody’s got one, right?
“What has he meant to us as a group? A lot, actually. Didn’t really notice it before he came. I’ve been in pro football six years and he’s shown me things I didn’t know. In technique, in the film room, at practice. He’s such a student of the game, been so successful during his career and he’s so passionate about playing.
“It’s almost like having a second coach.”
Spying Stewart ambling into the players lounge at McMahon Stadium, Claybrooks, an old teammate from their Alouette days, shakes his head in mock pity.
“Even though his body looks so bad walkin’ in here with that shirt on . . . he’s done a great job; brought a lot of leadership. There’s nothing that a team can imagine that he hasn’t seen before. With an older guy like that out there, it holds the others accountable.”
And as good as it’s been on the last month, Stewart insists they’ve only scratched the surface.
“Man, the scary part is the last four games we’ve still left some out there. We expect a lot up front. I honestly think we can blow the doors off this thing, if we go out, stay focused, stay hungry and get after these guys.
“I’ve been to eight Grey Cups. I won my first two and then I lost four in a row. That’s crazy. And then we end up winning back to back. I want to help this guys get a taste of success because it’s contagious.
“I tell you what, this playoff run I think is going to be something special. Something a lot of us can look back on and be really proud of.”
That run, defensively, starts with this new version of an old scourge, the Four Horsemen. Over the last month, the Stamps fast-tracked from a tie for sixth in sacks in an eight-team league into a tie for second.
They simply could not be in a better place at a better time.
“These last few weeks,” says Mace, “we’ve really been able to get after people. This is crunch time so we’ve got continue on the way we’ve been going, bringing the heat and getting to the quarterback.
“It’s a great feeling when you do.”
Like being out on the road, behind the wheel, for the first time on your own. Free. Exhilarated. No parents in the car, window down, foot on the gas, favourite song blasting.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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