HAMILTON — Shawn Lemon, a veteran of eight CFL seasons, a two-time Grey Cup champion, and a one-time CFL all-star defensive end, didn’t even hesitate when asked to sum up the Alouettes defence this season.
“This is the best defence I’ve ever played on,” the 35-year-old sack-master said on Tuesday at Tim Hortons Field, site of the 2023 Grey Cup.
“It’s an underdog mentality. We embrace it, we enjoy it, and we just play fast and physical.”
Lemon has been a big part of Montreal’s defence evolving into one of the very best in the CFL.
He recorded nine sacks in 13 games this season and helped his team win its last seven games, including a 38-17 dismantling of the defending Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final last Saturday.
His team is an underdog, again, in this Sunday’s Grey Cup game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but that Alouettes defence needs to be respected.
It’s a group that was solid coming out of training camp, got stronger when Lemon signed a contract six games into the season and seemingly went over the top when middle-linebacker Darnell Sankey came on board for the final six games of the regular season.
The Alouettes won their last five games of the season, took down the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Argos in the post-season and have their sights set on a Bombers team that is playing in the Grey Cup for a fourth straight season.
“Words can’t even describe it,” Sankey said, when asked how much the Montreal defence has grown. “Every single game since I’ve been here, we’ve been improving. We’re flying to the ball, being ball hawks. Something we’ve really been harping on is creating turnovers, being disruptive, not just being tacklers. When you get to the ball, make a play. Don’t just make a tackle, make a play. We’ve definitely improved on that and we’re going to be better.”
Lemon and Sankey are two of the more unlikely players to be chasing a Grey Cup with an East Division team this season.
Lemon was the West Division finalist for Most Outstanding Defensive Player last season with the Calgary Stampeders, but was not offered a new contract for 2023.
He signed with the B.C. Lions, but was released during training camp.
He was a free agent right up until July 24, when he joined the Alouettes.
“It was very difficult,” Lemon said. “But you can’t control that. I’m just looking back and being thankful. Everything happens for a reason, you know.”
Sankey spurned the Roughriders after leading the CFL in tackles in Saskatchewan last season, choosing to sign a contract to play in the XFL for the Arlington Renegades.
He won a championship with that team in May, asked for and received his release in August, and signed with the Alouettes on Sept. 10. Montreal was looking for a replacement for injured middle linebacker Tyrell Richards, and Sankey fit the bill perfectly.
“I’m just blessed and thankful for them letting me come here and be their middle linebacker,” Sankey said. “As the middle linebacker you have to take a leadership role, so I wanted to come in here and show that I’m a team player, first and foremost, and I’m going to do my job. (Defensive co-ordinator Noel) Thorpe put me in an amazing position to be the leader.”
Sankey, Lemon and company will have their hands full against the Bombers, who sport the CFL’s most potent offence and can pile up yards and points on the ground, with all-star running back Brady Oliveira, and through the air, with elite quarterback Zach Collaros.
Montreal has been particularly good at picking off passes and they scored two defensive touchdowns in the Eastern final, just as they did the last time they played the Bombers, on Aug. 25 in Winnipeg.
There’s much more to this defence than just Lemon and Sankey, but those two are clearly drivers.
“It’s experience,” Alouettes head coach Jason Maas said. “When you need that and you look out there and there are guys like Lemon and Sankey available, you get after it.
“They provided that leadership that we needed at the time and a veteran presence at both positions. Obviously it has paid off, with the stretch run that we’ve had. In a game like this, you want as many guys as you can who have that experience to help you out.”
Sankey will play in his second championship game of the season, which is an impressive feat in itself, while Lemon, who was feeling squeezed out just a few months ago, will get a chance to experience that sweet taste of victory once again.
And man would one more win feel good after such a bitter start to the season.
“You always have a chip on your shoulder,” Lemon said. “I’ve always been like that, played my whole career with a chip on my shoulder. I don’t see that stopping this week.”
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