here are no free yards – or first downs – against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence.
Five times this season, opposing teams have gone for it on third down and a yard or less to go and been rejected, forcing a turnover. While the Canadian Football League average on such conversions was 80 per cent in 2014, opponents have converted just twice in seven chances against the Ticats so far this season.
The Toronto Argonauts tried their luck twice in Monday’s 34-18 Ticat victory and were stopped both times, including a pivotal third-quarter play that saw defensive end Eric Norwood bring down Toronto quarterback Trevor Harris behind the line of scrimmage. Four plays later, the Ticats were in the end zone.
“We live for those short-yardage situations, ” Norwood said afterward. “It allows the team to feed off our energy.”
It starts with preparation.
Defensive line coach Dennis McPhee is responsible for the short-yardage and goal-line game plan, determining each team’s tendencies and scheming against it. But, after that, says linebackers coach Jeff Reinebold, it’s all up to the players.
“There’s some structural things that we do but it really comes down to mindset, ” Reinebold said. “Third-and-one isn’t just about lining up and letting them move on to the next set of downs, it’s an opportunity for us to get off the field.”
It starts in the middle, where defensive tackles Ted Laurent, Bryan Hall and Hasan Hazime have been adept at thwarting the initial surge from the offensive line.
Norwood says that Laurent, in particular, has been effective at getting early penetration and disrupting the play.
“Our defensive line has the leverage advantage and we get underneath guys, ” Norwood said. “Once the quarterback sees the middle collapsing, he’s like ‘Oh crap, where do I go?’ ”
That’s what happened to Harris on the key third-quarter play Monday, Norwood said.
“I thought it was a normal quarterback sneak, but he didn’t just try and dive over the middle, he went slow, ” he said.
“He was tiptoeing along the line and I grabbed him and pulled him back and the rest of defence just swarmed.”
Reinebold also says the league’s pass-first mentality – teams are running the ball just 34 per cent of the time so far this season – is also a factor. “One of the tough things for offensive lineman in the CFL is that they don’t run block very much, ” he said.
“All of sudden, it’s third-and-one and they have to get lower and play a different kind of football.”
With a series of short-yardage stops already this season – the Ticats also stonewalled the Montreal Alouettes three times from the one-yard line in a July 16 loss – the team leads the CFL in turnover ratio at plus-8. The defence is simply unwilling to concede a single inch.
“We have some guys up front that are full-grown men, strong guys who can’t be knocked around, ” Reinebold said. “When you boil it all down, it’s about that proverbial line in the sand.”