WINNIPEG - The Toronto Argonauts minus Ricky Ray could equal a golden opportunity for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, as they try to claw their way back into the CFL playoff race this weekend.
But to walk away with their first back-to-back wins in 2012, quarterback Buck Pierce has told the Bombers (3-9) they will still have to deal with a tough Argos defence.
"That defence, in my opinion, is one of the best in the league," he said Friday after the morning walk-through.
"They want to get up and after our receivers and meet our running backs at the line of scrimmage. I think it's a good challenge for us."
For Pierce, making only his second start since he went down with a foot injury in July, this is what football is all about. He's had a positive return that started with a 34-12 decision over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last week.
"It's a fun week for me," he said. "This year, it's no secret we haven't been great against man-coverage football teams."
The Argos (6-6) are relying on backup quarterback Jarious Jackson, who Pierce knows well from their days with the B.C. Lions. They even roomed together as CFL rookies.
"I expect him to play well and lead his team tomorrow," Toronto coach Scott Milanovich said after arriving Friday.
"Jarious does have a big arm. He can throw it a long way and he has some mobility and he's a big strong guy so he can break tackles."
Jackson stepped in early after Ray went down with strained knee ligaments in last week's loss in Montreal.
"I think it was very, very important that he got the amount of reps he did in that game," said Milanovich, who added he doesn't know for certain whether Ray will start next week.
"It felt good to be live . . . because they're going to try taking my head off tomorrow, so I'm glad I'm prepared for it," he said.
Toronto kick returner and receiver Chad Owens, who leads the league in both categories, says the team has confidence in Jackson.
"I have trust and faith that Jarious is going to get me the ball, on time, like Ricky did," he said, admiring the way Jackson came off the bench when called upon in Montreal.
"It was almost as if he's never missed a snap. . . He's very locked in mentally so I'm excited."
Winnipeg has its own Chad. Rookie running back Chad Simpson, whose 134 yards on the ground were a big part of last week's win.
"It's going to be a fun game," said Simpson. "When we played them last time, it was a close game. This time we've got Buck back. It should be a good one."
Simpson, who has battled some minor injuries that have limited his playing time and kept him from racking up more yards, is just starting to make serious waves for the Bombers.
Simpson laughed at the notion of a battle of the Chads and paid Owens his due for his outstanding combined record over the last two years as a receiver and kick returner.
"That's a great honour, even to be compared with someone who's done 3,000 yards, back to back years," he said.
It's been a tumultuous year for the Bombers, coming off an appearance in the Grey Cup last season. Their new stadium failed to open on time and the team's on-field stumbles cost coach Paul LaPolice his job.
He was replaced by defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke, who says he sees things finally turning around.
"They've found they can be the team that we thought they can be," he said Friday.
One of the things Burke did after taking over as head coach was make practice a lot more competitive. He said the Bombers had the best week of practice they've had all year.
"You know the old saying practice makes perfect? It's perfect practice makes perfect," he said. "That's been part of my mantra since I became head coach, we have to improve our practice habits in order to play better."
For his part, Simpson agreed practice was good, but the true test comes Saturday.
"It's practice. You're going to have to see what we're going to do with the game," he said.