After two straight losses and several weeks of poor starts, change may be in the offing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer and special teams counterpart Jeff Reinebold expressed their frustration at the recent play of their respective units in the wake of Saturday’s 45-38 loss to the B.C. Lions, the latest setback in a sub-.500 start through the season’s first seven games.
In his post-game interview, head coach Kent Austin criticized the number of penalties the team has taken on special teams — their 24 infractions are the second-highest mark in the CFL — and alluded to the possibility of shaking up the personnel.
“When the head coach makes a comment in the media, I take that personally,” Reinebold said Tuesday. “I explained that to our players — that’s me he’s talking about. That’s his right as the head coach, and if that’s how he feels then he should say it.
“I’m not ducking it. I’m saying we’re going to get it straightened out.”
Penalties aren’t the only issue. Hamilton is last in the CFL in punt coverage, sixth in net kickoff, and they’ve started a league-high 24 drives inside their own 20-yard line. Conversely, the average starting point for a Hamilton opponent this season is the 41-yard line.
The Ticats lost a number of key special-teams contributors in the off-season, including American linebackers Erik Harris and Taylor Reed, defensive backs Brandon Stewart, Ed Gainey and Neil King, as well as defensive lineman Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Justin Hickman. It’s been up to Reinebold to coach up replacements, many of whom have far less CFL experience.
Throw in a lack of off-season workouts, a short training camp and the unique nature of the Canadian kicking game, and the learning curve can be steep.
“This is a hard business that teaches you hard lessons the hard way,” Reinebold said. “We’re learning some of those hard lessons.”
The roster turnover has affected the defence as well, says Steinauer. Free-agent departures left the Ticats with just five returning starters from last year’s unit.
“We’re brand new, we’re a new defence. Lots of people want to bring up what we built here, but a lot of what we built here is now in other organizations,” Steinauer said. “We’re looking to find guys to play at that level but sometimes it takes time. But 100 per cent, we’re paid to win.”
Hamilton is now seventh in the CFL in points against, giving up an average of 28 per game. And while they remain tops in the league in opponents’ net offence and passing yards, they’ve surrendered 12 touchdowns through the air — only Winnipeg, Edmonton and Saskatchewan are worse.
“We’re not making enough plays. We’ve got to knock the ball down. It’s really not more difficult than that,” Steinauer said. “We’ve been really average at that and it’s dug us a hole. How do you fix it? You go to practice every day, you work on it and then you let them perform. That’s it.”
Steinauer, who has a significant say in defensive personnel, has been patient with his defensive backfield, particularly first-year corners Travis Lee and Quinton Pointer. But that patience may be running out.
“You have people on your practice roster and in your pipeline if things aren’t working out. We allow people to play through their mistakes but you have to win games in between,” Steinauer said. “Nobody is perfect but if the same mistakes keep happening then obviously you have to look at making a change.”
Notes: Austin clearly has some concerns about the officiating on special teams, both in terms of what’s being called and what’s not. He was careful, however, to avoid saying anything that would elicit a fine. “I have my feelings on it and I’ve addressed it with the league, we’ve addressed it as a team.” … Austin says the reason for the team’s slow starts varies from game to game. “You have to review everything in context — not everything that caused a big deficit in those games was the same,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had to climb back into games, but hopefully very soon that will stop.” … Austin reiterated his praise for the performance of quarterback Zach Collaros (331 yards, two touchdowns) in his first game back from knee surgery but acknowledged that the decision to throw the ball deep on Hamilton’s final play from scrimmage — a third-down incompletion that ended the team’s comeback chances — could have been better. “It’s easy to say ‘check the ball down’ and we probably should have,” Austin said. “You have to temper it a little bit because the quarterback has to play the game but also he’s got to be smart about the context of the game in that moment of time, and he understands that.”