Milton: Ticats need better ground game

CFL

Six sacks. Eleven rushing attempts. And if you can’t connect those dots, maybe football isn’t your game.

Thursday night was not a good night for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in general and the offensive line, in particular, as Zach Collaros was generally on the run, and six times could not evade the posse. Had he not been the elusive piece of work that he is, the total would have climbed even higher.

The Cats were outplayed by a more significant margin than the 26-23 loss to the Alouettes indicated, as Montreal arrived more prepared to play and maintained that readiness advantage for most of the game. They had the ball in their possession for 10 more minutes than Collaros’s offence did.

Much of that came because they actually handed the ball off to someone who was not a receiver or a quarterback, which the Cats did a mere five times: twice to Holley and thrice to Nic Grigsby. That was not a running game, or even an echo of one. It’s like saying you’re a painter because you know the difference between yellow and blue.

The Alouettes, by contrast, rushed 31 times for 123 yards, nearly a football-field length in a game which was decided by less than a touchdown. True, Als’ running back, the former Ticat Brandon Rutley, had only a 4.3 yard average — remember, the Cats’ defence has been the best in the league against the run — but running plays, on which blockers are essentially the aggressors, allow the offensive line a break from pass blocking where they either maintain their spot or drop a bit backward. Plus, running plays eat up far more clock, thereby keeping the ball out of the hands of a Hamilton offence which has demonstrated all year that it can dismember you in a play or two.

The Ticats, under Kent Austin and like-minded offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell, are never going to be a running team, and despite that have reached the past two Grey Cup games. But the east is far tougher this year and every team in it has gone to school on the film details of how the Alouettes defence got to them so easily Thursday night when the Eskimos, theretofore acknowledged as the best defence in the league, were destroyed by the same offence the week before.

Well not quite the same offence, as important national guard Ryan Bomben went down fairly early in this game. The offensive line had been one of the ascending stars during the Cats’ five-game winning streak but that was based on all five starters playing together and playing it well, with savvy veteran Tim O’Neill playing in certain key, pre-determined situations.

Bomben’s ankle injury upset that perfect rhythm and the line already wasn’t playing that well. And that’s not us talking, it’s the line itself. Linemen take sacks personally, as individuals and as a group and after the game they were staring at the floor as if someone had stolen all their huntin’ dogs.

“Of course (they take it personally),” said centre Mike Filer after his first game as No. 51. “A bad performance. I myself did not have a good game. We were on our heels the whole night. What’s to explain? They came to play. We didn’t come to play tonight. They’re a good defence, give them credit, but we have to take this loss and make something positive out of it right?”

The Cats had allowed five sacks against Winnipeg in a wide-open affair four weeks ago, but surrounding that were a bunch of low-sack outings. But as O’Neill said, Hamilton spent a lot of time Thursday night on second down when they had eight, 10 or more yards to go. A team that isn’t running isn’t going to run in those situations. It does beg the question, though, why the Cats tried only one screen pass, and a botched one at that, while the Als used a screen pass as a nice antidote to the most ferocious rush in the league, scoring the game’s first touchdown with it.

The loss of CJ Gable and Mossis Madu to injuries is a factor here as both are three-way threats in the backfield, with their pass catching, ball carrying and pass blocking acumen. The current pair of Ray Holley and Nic Grigsby aren’t as well-rounded and the Cats can’t seem to decide between them.

But the biggest thing here is that the opposition now doesn’t really have to worry about the Cats running with any seriousness, although there is still the threat of the reverses and end-arounds they used with Brandon Banks and Terrell Sinkfield. That’s not the same, though, as a straight-ahead, or counter-based, running game. Doesn’t keep the middle, where much of the damage was done, off-balance enough.

It’s hard to argue with an offence that has been able to score almost at will, but, perhaps, it’s become a little too philosophically rigid on the run and, perhaps, if Gable isn’t ready soon, the Cats may have to go find something closer to a Gable clone than they have now. But if the weather gets dirtier earlier, the teams with an established ground game will have an advantage.

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