What we learned from Hamilton’s nail-biting loss to the Edmonton Eskimos

So close, yet so far away. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, coming off a 59-point loss to the Calgary Stampeders one week ago, went into Edmonton and very nearly knocked off the undefeated Eskimos.

In a game the Esks dominated — they won the time of possession battle by 13 minutes and picked up 32 first downs to Hamilton’s 17 — the Ticats still had a chance with no time left to win the ball game, but Zach Collaros’ pass to Mike Jones fell incomplete. And with that, the Ticats remain winless, sitting at 0-6.

But unlike last week, there are some positives to take from this game — plenty of negatives, too, don’t get me wrong — so here is what we learned.

There is lots of fight left in these Cats

After getting thumped 60-1 a week ago, many left the Ticats for dead, but they showed that they still have plenty of fight left in them. After turning the ball over on a crucial third-down gamble, it would have been easy for the Tabbies to fold their tent. But they didn’t. They fought back, forced a much-needed turnover, got the game to within one score and then drove the field with 42 seconds left to give themselves a chance to win on the game’s final play. The win didn’t come, but when playing on the road against one of the best teams in the league, it is hard to ask for much more than a chance to win with one play left.

Near misses hurt

By my count, the Ticats came close to notching three interceptions against Mike Reilly. Justin Rogers made a play on pass and came oh-so-close to picking it off (side note: has any one player had as many near interceptions as Justin Rogers has had this year?), but he didn’t.

Later, a Mike Reilly pass floated in the air and was converged on by two Ticats, I believe it was Dominique Ellis and Richard Leonard, but neither could snag it.

Finally, Leonard again had a chance at an interception, but was falling to the ground and failed to bring it in. Good teams need to be lucky sometimes, but teams fighting to get their first win one-third of the way through the season really need those bounces to break their way

But the missed picks weren’t the only near misses that didn’t go Hamilton’s way. John Chick forced a Mike Reilly fumble and while the result of the play was Edmonton in a ridiculous third-and-42 (a down and distance I don’t think I have ever seen before), a recovered fumble that would have been deep in Edmonton territory, would have been a lot better. Instead, the Eskimos punted and the Ticats did enough to get a field goal out of it, but it was once again another possible game-changing play that did not go in the Ticats’ favour.

Zach Collaros actually looked like Zach Collaros

For the first time since last Labour Day, Zach Collaros actually looked like Zach Collaros. He finished the game with 282 yards on 24-of-35 passing with three touchdowns and one interception. That one interception was a crippling one, as it came on a third-and-three from Edmonton’s three-yard line, but this was easily the best game Collaros has played in 2017. This is the type of game he can build off (even if he doesn’t feel that way), and perhaps we saw the turning point for him this season. If Collaros ever gets even 85 per cent of the way back to who he was in 2015, the Ticats will start winning some football games.

Too much soft coverage

As was pointed out by Glen Suitor (as well some astute people on Twitter), the Ticats played a lot of soft coverage and it allowed the Eskimos to pick up big yardage, especially on second down.

Allowing opposing offenses to pick up second-and-long has been a problem for the Ticats all season, and it was once again a problem against the Eskimos. Edmonton converted six second downs with seven yards to go or more, which is too many for any team to give up. If you want a key reason why the Ticats are still winless, this is as good a place to start as any.

Youngsters continue to impress

The Ticats have been rotating players in the lineup a lot, and while that is causing problems, it is also unearthing some gems. We have seen Jalen Saunders emerge as a viable threat for the team in the receiving corps, but this week we saw another newcomer make a name for himself, Damarr Aultman. The former Maine Black Bear had quite the debut, leading the team in receiving with 74 yards and catching his first CFL touchdown in his first CFL game on his second CFL catch.

Brian Tyms also had himself a pretty decent day. A lot was expected of him this season, and while he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, perhaps his six-catch, 67-yard performance against the Eskimos is just what he needed to break out of his early season funk.

The offensive line needs to be better

I will preface this by saying that Edmonton’s front four is darn good, but Hamilton’s offensive line needs to get a lot better in a hurry. Four sacks were surrendered, and Zach Collaros spent the entire game either running for his life or showing tremendous guts by staying in a collapsing pocket. The offensive line simply is not giving the franchise quarterback enough time to make the plays he needs and wants to make. This has got to change, and change fast.

Looking ahead

The toughest part of Hamilton’s schedule is now over. It would be a lot better, obviously, if the team had a win or two, but despite the 0-6 start, this team still has a chance to climb the standings. Three of their next four games are against East Division opponents. With the Redblacks at 1-5-1 and seemingly finding new ways to lose on a weekly basis, the Als a bit of a Jeckyl and Hyde outfit right now, and the Argos possibly without Ricky Ray for the next four-to-six weeks (or maybe not), the Ticats are, incredibly, still very much in this race.

The East Division is once again a massive dumpster fire and that works to the Ticats’ advantage. Two games out of second place is not exactly the equivalent of climbing the Niagara escarpment barefoot while carrying cinderblocks on your back. The Ticats are absolutely not out of this, despite what some people may think or say.

Next week, the 4-2 Winnipeg Blue Bombers make their lone trip to Tim Hortons Field in 2017. The Bombers are a tough team to gauge, as they haven’t looked all that impressive, but like the Eskimos, they keep finding ways to win (especially in thrilling, come-from-behind fashion). But the Ticats are at home, and even at 0-6, this is a game they can, and maybe have to, win.

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.