The Montreal Alouettes made a few moves defensively in 2023 that proved to be extremely important down the stretch and on their playoff run. Three names added this year in particular stick out when looking at the Alouettes defense; Reggie Stubblefield, Darnell Sankey, and Shawn Lemon.
Free Agents Pay Dividends for Montreal Alouettes
During the regular season this trio and several others have helped turn around the fortunes of the Alouettes by making big-time plays when needed the most. These three men combined for 5 interceptions, and 13 sacks during the regular season, but their performances in the playoffs are really what should be looked at.
Originally facing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Alouettes defense held the Ti-Cats to just 12 points on the day. During this first playoff game the three men listed above combined for 20 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 interception on the day. Marc-Antoine Dequoy also managed to intercept his 6th pass of the season.
In the second game of their trip to the Grey Cup, they were tasked with facing the 16-2 Toronto Argonauts. The Argos had to that point looked nearly unstoppable on offense they had totaled the second most points in the league next to only Winnipeg, (594 to 591). Walking into the playoffs averaging 32.8 points per game, the last thing I expected to see was the Montreal defense taking over the game and holding them to nearly half as many points as their regular season average.
Playoffs Are No Easy Path for the Alouettes
Montreal found their way to a 38-17 victory, in large part due to more big plays from the players who got them there. Reggie Stubblefield led the team with 11 tackles on the day, intercepting a pass, and logging 1 tackle for a loss. Darnell Sankey added 6 tackles, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble to his playoff resume. Shawn Lemon added 2 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 fumble recovery. Marc-Antoine Dequoy added another interception. His 7th interception of the season that he returned for his third touchdown.
The Alouettes certainly had their work cut out for them against the Blue Bombers who have been in the last four Grey Cup games dating back to the 2019 season. Montreal hasn’t appeared in a Grey Cup since they won back-to-back championships following the 2009 and 2010 season. This game was a match-up of two of the best defenses in the league as Winnipeg allowed 377 points on the season the least in the CFL, while Montreal allowed 392 the second least. However, the big question was could Montreal corral Winnipeg’s offense enough to allow their offense to outscore them?
On the first drive of the game it looked like the Alouettes might give up an early touchdown. Brady Oliveira was finding running room, and produced 32 yards on 4 carries, including a 14 yard long. Zack Collaros was 3/3 for 17 yards. The Als defense stepped up in the red-zone holding the offense to a field goal from Sergio Castillo who once had an XFL, CFL, and NFL stint all in one season thanks to Covid 19. Ironically the well traveled kicker, had never experienced the playoffs until the 2021 Grey Cup trip with Winnipeg.
Shawn Lemon Continues to Collect Sacks
Montreal couldn’t get anything going on their first drive moving the ball just 3 yards. Winnipeg took possession on their own 38 yard line. With Winnipeg moving the ball 55 yards, Shawn Lemon would register his first sack of the game after registering a tackle for a loss on the first drive. They would not stop them from finding the end-zone this time, but Montreal answered back immediately after. The following drive the first two and out for Winnipeg of the game.
This gave Montreal a chance to take the lead or tie the game beginning the second quarter but the drive stalled after a couple decent plays. A poor punt allowed Winnipeg to take control of the ball in good field position. The Montreal defense would sack Collaros again on this drive, but it wouldn’t be enough to stop them completely. A forced fumble by Ciante Evans recovered by Kabian Ento gave Montreal another chance, unfortunately once again the offense stalled and it led to a punt by Joesph Zema.
On the following Winnipeg drive they found the end-zone again after a 9 play 78 yard drive. Montreal drove all the way down to the one yard line late in the half and put the ball in Caleb Evans’ hands twice to see if he could bring the game within one score. They would turn the ball over on the one. Winnipeg put Prukop in, ran a 1 yard quarterback sneak, and then kneeled on it to send it to halftime up 17-7. The game was far from over.
Reggie Stubblefield Makes Another Big Play
On the first drive coming out of half, Montreal took possession on the 50 yard line thanks to a 32 yard return by James Letcher Jr., from there it only took three plays for the Alouettes to score. Two big plays from Fajardo to Austin Mack, and Cole Spieker led to a 56 yards and a touchdown. Kabion Ento would again find the ball in his hands when he intercepted a Zach Collaros pass on the following drive.
Montreal and Winnipeg would trade punts to close out the quarter and head into the fourth quarter separated by just a field goal. On the first drive of the fourth quarter, Fajardo threw an interception giving the ball back to the Blue Bombers at their own 21 yard line. Stubblefield would get in on the sack party and collect one of his own on second down leading to a Winnipeg punt.
Darnell Sankey Seals the Deal With a Sack
Taking the ball back on a short field the Montreal offense again found the end zone fast. Another three play drive led to a touchdown pass to Austin Mack his sixth reception putting him over 100 yards on the day. On the following drive Winnipeg would score another touchdown, this time taking a 24-21 lead over Montreal late in the 4th quarter.
Montreal took possession once again, this time knowing this could be their last chance to defeat Winnipeg. Starting on their own 35 yard line, William Stanback immediately bit off a chunk of yardage when he scampered for 12 yards on first down. On First down again, Montreal found just 3 yards, followed by an incomplete pass on second down, and Zema was asked to punt once again, his fifth of the game. With just 3:18 remaining in the game, Montreal was putting the game in the hands of their defense once again.
Winnipeg’s next drive produced exactly -6 yards. Shawn Lemon stuffed their run play on first down for no gain, and on second down Darnell Sankey collected his first sack of the game forcing a third down punt. Montreal’s defense did their job, and gave their offense one last chance to win this game.
Montreal came out firing on the next drive; starting with 13 and 8 yard completions before Caleb Evans entered the game and rushed for 7 yards as well. Finally Winnipeg was able to slow them down with an 8 yard loss thanks to a Gauthier sack. On the next play, Fajardo took the drive in his own hands and rushed for 13 yards to keep Montreal moving. Fajardo continued his heroics finding Cole Spieker for 31 yards on the next play, capping the drive with a 19 yard touchdown pass to Tyson Philpot. David Cote added the extra point, and Montreal kicked the ball off to Winnipeg with just 13 seconds remaining.
On first down Collaros found Dalton Schoen for a 13 yard gain, then on the next play Winnipeg got creative, throwing a 14 yard pass to their punter who then booted the ball 35 yards on an open field kick that was recovered by Marc-Antoine Duquoy who was extremely fired up about the victory after the game.
Playoff Performances of Key Defensive Additions
Following this three game playoff stretch resulting in a championship victory, I wanted to look at the performances put up by the three players listed in above. Reggie Stubblefield collected 5 tackles and 1 sack in this game, bringing his playoff totals to 23 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 sack, and 1 interception. Shawn Lemon managed 3 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 tackle for a loss meaning he contributed 10 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 tackle for a loss, and 1 fumble recovery. Darnell Sankey, the man who won an XFL and CFL championship in the 2023 Calendar year, managed to lead the team with 8 tackles, and 1 sack on the day. This brought his playoff totals to 22 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble. What an unbelievable run for this defense, and in particular these three men.
Darnell Sankey in particular should be applauded for his ability to play in 12 XFL games, and 9 games for the CFL. He collected a total of 64 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, and 2 pass break ups during the regular seasons. In the playoffs he did his best work finishing with 30 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble in a total of 5 playoff/championship games played. Talk about an iron man performance. Listen to Darnell and I discuss his future goals after he had been granted his release by the Arlington Renegades which allowed him to pursue and sign a deal with Montreal.