Ticats need to put the special back in special teams

There has been a lot of good for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats so far in the 2018 season. They sit tied atop the East Division at 2-2 with the Ottawa Redblacks, they have the fourth-highest-scoring offence, allowed the second-fewest points on defence and numerous players near the top of the league in various statistical categories. Given where this team was 12 months ago, it feels like night and day.

But despite all the good vibes, there is one area where the Ticats need to see marked improvement in if they hope to stay in the Grey Cup conversation as the season goes forward.

That area is special teams.

Once a hallmark of the Ticats’ attack, the team’s special teams unit has struggled mightily in the early portion of the 2018 season. Gone are the days of long returns, excellent field position and scores.

As has been written and talked about a lot, the Ticats have yet to start a drive in their opponent’s territory. Some of that has to do with the defence not creating turnovers — they have forced just five all year — but a lot of it has to do with poor returns, both on kickoffs and punts.

Their punt return average is just 7.5 yards/return, which puts them in the bottom third of the league, while their kickoff return average of 20.9 yards/return has them eighth of out nine teams (and maybe this stat doesn’t mean all that much considering Calgary, the lone unbeaten team left in the CFL, is ninth). But for a team that is struggling to create turnovers, getting better field position via returns is needed.

While the cover units have done well to hem in returners on kickoffs — the Ticats are allowing the third-fewest yards on average on kickoff returns — the same can’t be said about their punt coverage squad. The Ticats rank ahead of just the Argos and Alouettes on average yards surrendered via punt returns. The three yard difference between return yards gained and return yards allowed might not seem like much, but over time it adds up.

It also doesn’t help that Hamilton is in the bottom third of the league in both net punting and gross punting average. While Lirim Hajrullahu has been mostly stellar in the other aspects of the kicking game (more on that in a second), his punting needs to improve slightly.

All of these bottom-of-the-league numbers is why the Ticats have yet to start a drive on the positive side of half.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom as Lirim Hajrullahu has been a very bright spot for the Ticats. His kickoffs have been excellent, he is second in average yards per kickoff, and his placekicking has been near perfect. He has just one missed field goal and one missed extra point on the year, and his 11 field goals leads the league in that category. Preferably, you would rather score touchdowns than rely one your kicker to make field goals, but points are points and when Hajrullahu lines up for a field goal, 11 times out of 12 he has made them.

Based on where the Ticats were after four games a year ago — to refresh your memory, they were 0-4, had lost those games by a combined score of 141-89 and gave up at least 31 points in all four contests — to be 2-2 is something most any Ticats fan would have taken.

But, like any team, they still can get better and if the team wants to take the next step and go from competitive to contender they need to be getting contributions from all three phases of the game. The offence and defence having been doing their part (mostly) and now it is time for the unheralded third phase of the game to start making life easier for the other two.

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