Edwards: Five things I learned on the eve of the East Semi-Final

The Ticats and the Esks held the media availability today at Tim Horton’s Field before Sunday’s East Semi-Final and here’s what I learned: Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly likes bowler hats. 

And we’re done. 

Well, maybe I learned a few other things. Here are four more.

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1. Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer took his unit into the stands at Tim Hortons Field for most of the team’s walkthrough today. Steinauer has done this before big playoff games. Players are typically reluctant to discuss what’s said and today was no exception. But typically, Steinauer gives every player the opportunity to speak, to talk about their motivation, who they are playing for, or what the game means to them. Players tell me it can be very powerful.

One Ticat I talked to today described it to me like this: “It allows you to understand the magnitude of the moment for other people.”

Professional athletes are hyper-competitive, generally speaking. That’s the primary motivation (it helps that winning is good for job security and income earning potential.) But I also believe they play for each other, more than they play for the team (which can and does change) or the fans (who can be fickle) or coaches (who are, at the end of the day, bosses.) Steinauer’s exercise assumes the will to win as a given and strengthens that sense of playing for each other.

2. Ticat head coach Kent Austin has made a risky roster decision by starting Cleshawn Page at the boundary corner over Cassius Vaughn. Page played four games last season but was cut in training camp, then re-signed Oct. 10: he hasn’t played in a CFL game this season. Not only did Vaughn – who is healthy – lose his starting spot on the boundary, but he’s out of the line up altogether: the Ticats will start Chris Davis on the field side. 

I asked Austin about the move and he touted Page’s compete level, saying “we needed somebody competitive on the edge.” Vaughn’s struggled at times this season and while the Ticats seemed to be willing to live through his growing pains – not unusual for a rookie CFL defensive back – it sounds like this move may been motivated by his perceived effort. 

But Page’s inexperience could be a liability in a game where the Ticats will be facing the CFL’s top two receivers in Derel Walker and Adarius Bowman. Edmonton moves both guys all over the field and will test Page – and likely Davis, too – early. Davis will need to show he can make a tackle in space on the island that is field corner: if he can’t, Bowman and Walker could be running for quite some time before help arrives. 

The other interesting roster move is dressing just one extra offensive lineman, Landon Rice. The Ticats have generally used two this season but Mathieu Girard is hurt and Brandon Revenberg is now starting at right tackle so that’s left the Ticats with precious little Canadian depth. The worst case scenario is usually an injury to an American offensive tackle but on Sunday the Ticats will be scrambling if centre Mike Filer goes down. Not only is Girard the back up centre – he started several games when Filer was out earlier this year – but he’s also the reserve long-snapper, too. 

3. Edmonton head coach Jason Maas has made a risky roster decision of his own by opting to dress two American running backs and the expense of a dedicated return man. Kenzel Doe was the team’s primary kick returner for the first 13 games (he’s 10th in the CFL in combined yards despite having just one catch) but was replaced the last five weeks by Troy Stoudermire. But now he’s off the roster, too.

Instead, Maas says he plans to have running back Shakir Bell perform kick returns with receiver Brandon Zylstra handling the punts. Bell doesn’t have a single CFL kick return and registered just two in his college career. Zylstra, third on the team in receiving yardage, has returned just 16 punts this season.

Adding Bell gives the Eskimos a chance to deploy a two-back set on offence – something Austin said they expected Edmonton to do – and that seems to be the primary reason they’ve done it. The risk is that inexperience in the return game can lead to mistakes – especially if it’s windy, which it’s going to be – and those mistakes can often lead to turnovers.

4. Maas said the only thing that could possible be construed as bulletin board material. He was asked if there was a danger in having his team look ahead.

There’s no looking ahead. I’m going to talk to my team tonight about throwing as may haymakers as you can. There’s no jabbing, there’s no feeling out process. This is giver everything on every single play,”Maas said.

Our whole deal is to knock them out every single play.”

I Tweeted the last part of the quote and it was reTweeted by Ticat linebacker Simoni Lawrence, without comment. Not sure what that means.

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