What kind of roster can, and should, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats field this Saturday night against the Montreal Alouettes?
As far as this game’s impact on the CFL East standings, the Ottawa Redblacks — heavily abetted by the Ticats themselves — ensured there wouldn’t be any, sweeping the recent home-and-home series to leave Hamilton (8-9) yet again below .500, and locked into second place. So, eight days after the Alouettes visit here Saturday night, the Ticats will host the B.C. Lions in the Eastern semifinal.
Let’s say Saturday is a “transition” rather than the more apt “lame-duck” game. So, if it’s the Ticats’ bridge from the regular season to the playoffs, how do they cross it?
Do they rest a slew of key players, in the interest of rebuilding their energy before the playoffs while also limiting the chances of increasing the injuries, especially among receivers and pass rushers, which have been major contributors to this team’s as yet unfulfilled promise?
Or do they treat the Montreal game as if it matters, and try to regain the offensive rhythm and defensive influence that has emphatically flown the coop over their most recent six quarters of football?
They’ve still got a trio of starting receivers — Terrell Sinkfield, Marquay McDaniel and rookie Justin Buren — with no more than three games’ experience in the June Jones offence, and they probably require more live-game timing with Jeremiah Masoli to maximize how effective they can be.
And without Brandon Banks, Jalen Saunders, Chris Williams, and Terrence Toliver — the four horsemen of the injury apocalypse — once the elimination games begin, it will be of the utmost importance to milk the remaining receiving corps to the very last drop.
On that latter train of thought, the secondary also needs to rediscover the co-ordination and cohesion that has been missing for a couple of games, while the pass rush has to find consistent ways to get into the pocket more quickly and destructively.
That usually can only happen under game conditions, but that benefit may be compromised by the Alouettes’ season-long propensity to fling open the doorway to their quarterbacks without much prompting.
Jones has been quite clear that he wants to head into the playoffs on a winning note at home, and that note was not struck, in any way, over the weekend.
If you put your ear to the ground, though, you will always hear the organizational hoof beats that argue there’s lots to be said for resting and regrouping. As always at the end of a long schedule, key players on both sides of the ball are playing through pain and could use some downtime before the games that can end your season for good.
Ultimately, the overall choice belongs to Jones, so you’d expect at least the offence to look fairly whole — at least for the first quarter or first half.
All philosophical decisions, though, will be influenced by a couple of other factors.
The first is availability. Offensive tackle Ryker Mathews appeared to hurt his elbow against Ottawa, and receivers Mike Jones and Marquay McDaniel both left the game hurt … but both also returned later. Coaches often don’t learn until a few days after a game who has a good chance of playing the next one.
Limited CFL rosters and, more significantly, the hard salary cap all weigh against a large-scale resting of players by shifting their nicks and bruises to the one-game injury list. The Ticats never reveal how much cap wiggle room they have, but they didn’t move No. 3 quarterback Bryant Moniz to the practice roster last month just for the thrill of it.
So, depending upon who’s physically able and who isn’t, perhaps a few core players like Larry Dean, Simoni Lawrence, or Ted Laurent see partial or no action and some others like Masoli, Luke Tasker, Alex Green and an offensive linemen or two start but then rest when, and if, the coaching staff is satisfied with the team’s progression.
For a while now, some of those players have already been going lightly during early week practices.
This game isn’t either of the two things the Ticats hoped it would be: a lame-ducker because they’d clinched first, or still meaningful because a victory could still land them first.
But if they can combine rest with regaining a sense of direction, it can still have some benefit.
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