The Hamilton Tiger-Cats don’t need another reason to keep improving their protection for Zach Collaros, but here’s one anyway:
Collaros needs the time to let Saunders do what he does best … beat defenders downfield.
Not only is the fleet 24-year-old rookie out of Oklahoma the only Ticat receiver in the CFL’s top 25 in terms of total yardage, but he leads all league receivers who have 200 yards or more in average gain per reception at 18.5 yards.
Saunders is a legitimate deep threat and has 15 receptions in the three games he’s started since 1,000-yard receiver Terrence Toliver went down on opening night. He had that all-alone 60-yarder against B.C. in the home opener that lifted everyone — at least those not already standing in the beer patios — out of their seats.
But equally important as the number of times Saunders has caught the ball is the number of times (26) that Collaros has thrown it to him, considering that most of the passes involve length.
That demonstrates that the Ticats are serious about going downfield, and defences have to respect that. It’s a similar equation to the running game: the more you hand it off, even without a successful result, the more the opposition thinks you might do it again, and they have to keep that front of mind.
It’s not a complete co-relation, because different plays and defensive coverages affect who’s targeted, but in general if you have to respect a true deep threat, which Saunders appears to be, something might loosen up in the mid-range where Ticat receivers have often been heavily blanketed. As in all things football, the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone.
“My speed will stretch a defence,” Saunders says. “I think it stretches the field and helps the others, and me, underneath, too.”
Inside receivers Luke Tasker, who was thrown to only twice the previous game, and Junior Collins combined for 15 targets and 10 catches against Edmonton when Collaros went to Saunders eight times.
“That (stretching the field) is an element that’s been missing with Toliver’s departure,” head coach Kent Austin said this week. “We’re trying to manufacture that in different ways and trying to replace Terrence’s production, and Jalen’s helped in that regard.
“Jalen’s going to get a lot better. He has no experience. The best is still in front of him.”
Which is exactly what Saunders feels. In two of the three games he’s played, he has been the leading Ticat in yardage gained, and he’s grasping CFL coverage patterns, but it’s not bred in the bone yet. Until this month, he hadn’t played a regular season game in more than two full years.
“I feel like I’m doing what I’m capable of doing, but could it be more? Yes,” Saunders says. “The best is yet to come. It’s learning the league, learning the defences and coverages. It’s still ball, but it’s a tad different than the U.S. I feel that as soon as I’m more on top of my A-plus game, I can play free, free, free on the football field.
“I’m recognizing coverages, but I’m not a vet. They’ll really recognize and feel something that they’re used to seeing. This is something that’s still new to me but not brand-new, if that makes any sense.
“Let’s say that the food is in my system … but it’s not broken down yet.”
After four Ticat games, three of which he’s played, Saunders has 278 reception yards, putting him on a pace to surpass 1,100 yards on the season.
Collaros was saying this week that “the more ways we can get him the ball, the more productive we’ll be.”
And, as every Ticat fan knows, they need to be more productive.
Notes: Defensive halfback Abdul Kanneh took reps for the second straight day, which Austin said was an encouraging sign … Austin also corrected a timeline mistake he made Tuesday when he said Keon Lynn would be out 9 to 12 weeks with a broken leg. It’s really 9 to 12 months.
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