Redblacks at Ticats game preview

Jeff Mathews
Two things, one good and one not so good. First, the good. With Toronto’s loss last night to the BC Lions, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats can finish no worse than second in the East Division. That means that for the fifth time in seven years, Hamilton will be host to a playoff game.

Now the bad: this game against the Ottawa Redblacks, and the rematch next Saturday, just got HUGE! Basically, the winner of the two-game, total-point series will finish first in the East and host the division final. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

First up is tomorrow’s game in Hamilton, and here are a few things to keep in mind as the Ticats and Redblacks tussle for East Division superiority.

Will he or won’t he

The big question coming into this game is the status of Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris. Burris missed all three days of practice this week and his playing status is up in the air. If the future Hall of Famer can’t go, the Redblacks will start Thomas DeMarco at quarterback. No matter what way you slice it, that is a downgrade for the Redblacks. DeMarco’s career numbers are not great, and he hasn’t seen much action since starting a handful of games for the BC Lions back in 2013. He has just one pass completion this season, and while that speaks more to Burris’ stellar play than anything else, it still shows how little DeMarco has actually played. If Burris can’t go — and despite not practicing, I would be very surprised if Burris didn’t start this Sunday — the Redblacks will have suffered a major blow as they sit on the precipice of their first ever division title and the first for an Ottawa team since the Rough Riders won the East in 1978. DeMarco may one day be a capable quarterback, but Burris he is not, and the Ticats defense, which has given veteran QBs fits this year, will not make life easy for Ottawa’s potential new starting quarterback.

Limit YAC

Regardless of who starts behind centre, Hamilton’s defense will need to be at their tackling best. Ottawa’s talented receiving group has excelled this season at producing yards after the catch (YAC). The top two YAC men reside in Ottawa in Brad Sinopoli and Chris Williams. The Ticats simply cannot allow the Ottawa receivers to break tackles and pick up extra yardage. Hamilton has been a very sure-tackling team most of the season, but they seemed to forget how to tackle in last week’s loss to the BC Lions. If the Ticats defenders once again don’t wrap up, Ottawa’s receivers will make them pay.

Williams vs. Page

Speaking of Chris Williams, the former Ticat will be making his return to Hamilton, the team he somewhat spurned back in 2013. A lot has been written about Williams’ departure from Hamilton, so there is no need to rehash that, but expect a lot of boos being rained down on No. 80 tomorrow.

Covering Williams most of the game will be rookie Cleshawn Page. Page is a first-year player out of Boise State who has seen limited action after being signed back in July. Page is fast — he ran his 40 in 4.2 seconds at his pro day in March — and it is that speed that the Ticats hope will counteract Williams’ similar blazing speed. Rare do you see a rookie go up against a veteran, award-winning, former-all-star player, but the Ticats are banking on Page being able to keep up with Williams. It will be an interesting matchup to watch. If Page can mostly get the better of Williams, a very tall task, the Ticats will have a great shot of winning the game.

Limit turnovers

It should come as no surprise that since Jeff Mathews has taken over a quarterback, the games where he keeps turnovers to a minimum have been the ones the Ticats have won, whereas the ones where he commits multiple turnovers, the Ticats have ended up on the losing end. Last week, Mathews tossed two interceptions, both to Ryan Phillips, and the Ticats lost. Mathews will be facing a ballhawking secondary, Ottawa’s 24 interceptions has them tied for the league lead in that category with Hamilton, and he will need to be at his ball-protecting best if the Ticats are to beat the Redblacks and move one step closer to a second straight division title.

Pound the rock

One way to ensure that the Mathews doesn’t throw interceptions is by running the football. While the game got away from them early, the Ticats did look like they were going to try to establish a running game against the Lions last week. And prior to last week, no team had run the football more over the previous three weeks than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Shocked? I know I was!

With C.J. Gable now back in the fold, expect to see him be a much more featured part of the offense against Ottawa. He had a decent game against the Lions last week, picking up 45 yards on nine carries, good for a five-yard average. If the Ticats can get the ball in Gable’s hands 15-18 times against the Redblacks, their chances of victory will greatly improve.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.