At first, Justin Hickman thought it was weird.
The Ticats defensive end had spent his entire college and professional career meeting mainly with his position group and their coaches, breaking down film and going over assignments. But in Hamilton, the defence meets as an entire unit every single day: linemen, linebackers, defensive backs and coaches all together, all the time.
“At first it didn’t make any sense,” Hickman says. “Now I get it. For this team, it works.”
The point isn’t to inspire camaraderie (though there’s plenty of that, too) but to encourage the versatility and accountability that has made this defence so dominant – and dangerous – in the early going. The Ticats lead the league in takeaways with 22 and have an astonishing eight defensive touchdowns in just seven games. The CFL record for an entire season is 11.
It starts up front. Hamilton is the league’s stingiest group when it comes to allowing yards on the ground, holding teams to an average on 73.1 yards per game. Getting out to a series of early leads has certainly helped but Ticat defenders talk constantly about “earning the right” to rush the passer through stopping the run.
Defensive tackles Ted Laurent and Bryan Hall, along with linebacker Taylor Reed, have been adept at clogging the middle, forcing running backs to try and bounce outside where they find linebacker Simoni Lawrence and a physical secondary lying in wait. Lawrence’s 33 tackles leads the team but is only ninth in the CFL as the Ticats bring ball carriers down by committee: 13 players on the team have at least 10 takedowns.
With the run game under control, the Ticats are free to rush the passer at will and often use blitzes to bring added pressure. That’s not particularly unique but the unpredictably of who’s coming – and from where – has confounded offensive lines so far this season. The Ticats have 11 players who have registered at least one sack this year – only Edmonton has more diversity on their stat sheet – and Hamilton is second in the league with 22 quarterback sacks.
Again, versatility is key. Hickman and Eric Norwood are both quality pass rushers (four sacks apiece) but are often asked to drop into coverage while linebackers or defensive backs chase the quarterback (Lawrence also has four.) Safeties Craig Butler and Mike Daly are regular blitzers and corner Donald Washington delivered a highlight reel hit when he slammed Toronto quarterback Trevor Harris into the turf three weeks ago. The Ticats will come with anyone, from anywhere.
The confusion and chaos created by the constant pressure also goes some way to explaining the Ticats’ remarkable turnover numbers this season. Among those 22 takeaways are 11 interceptions, tied with – who else? – Edmonton for tops in the CFL. Opposing quarterbacks are being forced to make very quick – and sometimes very bad – decisions.
Defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer – a former all-star defensive back himself – also encourages his pass defenders to be aggressive. Instead of teaching them to backpedal away from the receiver, Steinauer has them position their hips at an angle, giving them a better chance to read, react and respond to the football. It’s a subtle, but significant, difference.
It does, however, require the Hamilton defensive backs to have faith in their teammates: if the pressure doesn’t get there and the quarterback has time to survey the field, a DB without help is in a potentially vulnerable position. It hasn’t happened often, though: the Ticats have given up just six pass plays of more than 30 yards this season, the best mark in the CFL.
Then there are the intangibles. One of the other residual benefits to the defence meeting as a group is enhanced accountability: not only do they to have to know the entire scheme but they must believe that every other guy in the room will do his part to make it work. Hickman says that’s real genius of the Steniauer approach.
“Every defence takes on the personality of its coach to a certain degree and ours certainly does: smart, aggressive, professional,” Hickman says. “He has a way of getting players to believe in him, believe in the scheme and believe each other.
“That’s the whole package, right there.”
Notes: Receivers Bakari Grant and Luke Tasker as well as defensive back Donald Washington missed practice on Monday, though Tasker is expected to be back on the field on Tuesday. Canadian safety Craig Butler, who has missed the last two games with a lower body injury was back on the field on Monday… Eskimo quarterback Matt Nichols, who left last Thursday’s win over Montreal due to injury, will start Friday against the Ticats.