Here’s a little clue that it’s not quite business as usual for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, now that Zach Collaros’s season for the ages is heading for imminent surgery.
Michael Ford will take over at running back, despite incumbent Ray Holley being ready, willing and able.
“He’s a bigger, stronger back, ” Kent Austin says of the 25-year-old who was with the team earlier, was released in early August, attended training camp with the Atlanta Falcons and was re-signed this week. “He’s a downhill runner, and an aggressive runner who’s excellent at pass protection with decent hands out of the backfield.”
Emphasize the downhill and pass protection part, even though Austin didn’t. Ford himself said he’s probably in the lineup because he’s bigger than Holley, backup Anthony Woodson and Nic Grigsby, who was released this week.
The Ticats know that the Calgary Stampeders, Friday’s foe at Tim Hortons Field, will treat the prospect of a debut start by a rookie quarterback – Jeff Mathews – like all defences would: They’ll come after him, hard, fast, often, unpredictably and likely in numbers.
And this is one of the best defences in the Canadian Football League, despite the critical losses to injury of tone-setting middle linebacker Juwan Simpson and boundary corner Joe Burnett. Defensive end Freddie Bishop III has sacks in five straight games and the other end, Charleston Hughes, ranks third on the CFL sack list.
The Ticats need to counter pressure however they can, to allow Mathews to slow the game down enough that he doesn’t repeat the mistakes (three interceptions and a fumble) he made in relief of Collaros against Edmonton two weeks ago.
So the straight-ahead running game has to be effective enough to keep the Stamps a little on their heels, and the pass-protection blocking – which is likely to include a lot of help from the tailback spot – becomes paramount.
Having receiver Bakari Grant back from injury will help because of his hands, experience and willingness to block.
Doing things quickly would also help. Yesterday, a couple of Ticats, including Ford, mentioned the speed of Brandon Banks and Terrell Sinkfield as potential antidotes to aggressive defence.
And, Mathews will likely have to deliver the ball quickly, but not so rapidly that it will affect his decision-making, which wasn’t acceptable against Edmonton.
“Go ahead, try it, ” a confident Ford said of the likelihood of multiple blitzes. “Let’s see if it works. Then we’ll just go speed game.”
Even with Collaros, Friday’s match would have been a major challenge for the Tiger-Cats, who have lost seven straight games to Calgary and 11 of the last 12. If the Stamps don’t own the Cats, they’ve got a long-term lease.
“I feel like the offence will put points on the board, ” says Ticat middle linebacker and defensive leader Simoni Lawrence. “We can only control what we do: Get the offence the ball in great field position and stop the other offence. I feel our O will do a great job. Jeff’s looked great all week. Our defence believes in our coaching staff and our offence and we’ll play our best whether it’s Jeff, Zach, Jacory or Jeremiah in there.”
“What you get from Calgary is they make you play disciplined defence, ” Lawrence says. “They’re very sound, they do a lot of shifts and motions. I compare them to our defence the way they move around. If you want to stop their run you’re going to have to use everybody, if you want to stop their pass you’re going to have to be disciplined with your eyes. It’s assignment football.”
The Ticats special teams need to contribute their part too, particularly with field position and particularly with a strong wind likely to be a factor again.
Justin Medlock, who will kick and punt, needs to work the boundary on unreturnable punts and continue his accuracy on field goals.