The highs and lows of the Ticats’ 21-15 loss to the Redblacks

I asked a week ago if the Ticats were a bad team. I said I didn’t know the answer. But after Saturday’s ugly 21-15 loss to the Ottawa Redblacks I think we are getting ever-so-closer to being able to say they are a bad team.

Or at the very least they are a bad offensive football team, which is even more damning considering their head coach is a noted offensive guru.

Just like a few weeks ago in Saskatchewan, the Hamilton offence ruined a stellar performance by the defence, and they lost a game where the opposition never found the end zone. You just can’t do that. If your defence pitches a touchdown shutout, you have to win those games. Period.

The Ticats did not do that on Saturday and the answer to whether this is a bad team or not is trending towards the negative.

Here are some more thoughts.

Low: Offensive ineptitude

Another week, another game of mediocre offensive production. The yards look great — Jeremiah Masoli threw for over 300 yards after having his streak snapped a week ago — but those yards aren’t getting converted into touchdowns and that’s an issue.

Hamilton’s main problem seems to be red-zone production. The Ticats march the field at will a lot of the time but settle for three far too often. They had three red-zone trips in this game and settled for field goal tries all three times (hitting just one). That’s three times inside the 20 to come away with five points. That’s why you lose football games.

Low: Masoli making bad decisions

Jeremiah Masoli’s decision making needs to be discussed as well. The first quarter interception that extended his streak to six straight games with a pick — he has thrown one interception in every game this season after throwing just four in his 10 starts a year ago — was a pass he probably shouldn’t have thrown. There were three Redblacks defenders in the vicinity of Chris Williams, so when Williams got hit and the ball went up in the air it was inevitable that an Ottawa player would get his mitts on it.

But the bigger mistakes were the two sacks he took on the final two plays of the game. It is becoming the theme of this team, the Ticats marched the field and came away with nothing. With two chances to heave it to the end zone, probably three had he not taken a sack on the game’s penultimate play, he never even got a pass off. The worst possible thing to do in that scenario is take a sack, much like a week ago when the worst possible thing to do on a free play after the opposing team jumps offside is get an intentional grounding call. It looked like Masoli shook a lot of his trademark bad habits last season, and for that he was given the keys to the franchise. But after six games it looks like those old habits have come back, and they have come back to bite the Ticats square in the rear. I keep waiting for Masoli to go back to being 2017 Jeremiah Masoli and for the first time I am wondering if that is ever going to happen.

Low: Run game? What run game?

One part of the offence that you can’t peg on Jeremiah Masoli is the lack of a rushing attack. The Ticats made the run game a hallmark of their offence after Labour Day last year and they have seemingly completely abandoned it the last few weeks. Against Ottawa, in a game that was within one score for most of the afternoon, the Ticats ran the ball just 11 times. That’s it. John White, who we know is capable of handling a full workload, saw the ball a measly eight times. Perhaps Masoli’s struggles have emerged because he feels the need to put the team on his back. When the pass-to-rush ratio is 38:11 (more accurately 43:11, since Masoli was sacked five times) and the Ticats are at their best when those numbers are less skewed towards the pass. I’m not saying the team needs to be 50/50 or even 60/40, but something like 65/35 is a lot better than nearly 80/20.

High: The most underrated player in the CFL

Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about something positive: Jalen freaking Saunders! Saunders posted another massive game, eight catches on eight targets for 154 yards and the game’s lone touchdown. The former Sooner now sits third in the league in receiving yards after finishing fifth (and leading the team) a year ago. With Luke Tasker missing the last two games, and Terrence Toliver missing this one, the Ticats needed someone to step up and fill the void. Jalen Saunders did just that and then some.

Unfortunately, we also have to talk about his roughing penalty after the Masoli interception. He takes a completely unnecessary shot at a downed defender and the hit brought back memories of the Dylan Wynn hit on C.J. Gable from a few weeks ago. Wynn was suspended, rightfully, for the shot and it wouldn’t surprise me if Saunders missed a game for his hit as well. We don’t need stuff like that in the game and Saunders is too good of a player to be making boneheaded plays like that.

Low: Hajrullahu’s struggles

In a one-score loss every mistake is amplified, and for Lirim Hajrullahu his two missed field goals loom large over the final score. Had Hajrullahu made those kicks, the Ticats are playing to kick a winning field goal on the final drive, not trying to score a touchdown. Even if he makes just one, the Ticats are driving for the tying field goal. The second miss, the one that sailed just wide, was more concerning. That’s a kick he has to make. The first one was blocked, and that happens sometimes, and it came from the 15-yard line where he never should be kicking from anyway because if the offence gets that close they should be scoring touchdowns, but I digress. But when all was said and done those two misses from the usually reliable Hajrullahu made a big difference in this game.

High: Defensive excellence

While the offence may suck right now the same cannot be said about the defence. Despite the loss, the Ticats’ defence was fabulous against Ottawa. The already mentioned zero touchdowns surrendered is impressive enough, but Ottawa has a very potent offence and pretty much everyone was kept in check. Trevor Harris, just 228 passing yards; William Powell, just 47 rushing yards (though he did have 61 through the air, most of which came on one play); Greg Ellingson, just 34 yards on three catches, despite being targeted 10 times; Diontae Spencer, just 18 yards on four catches. Brad Sinopoli was his usual efficient self, hauling in nine passes for 82 yards, but he was the only Redblacks offensive player to really make any impact on Saturday. If the offence ever gets its stuff together, mixed with this defence that pretty allows teams next-to-nothing, the Ticats could be pretty good.

Low: Missed turnovers

If there is one criticism to be made about the Ticats’ defence, it is the fact that they just have some weird inability to create turnovers, even when the chance to do so is literally right in their hands. Twice in this game, the Ticats had an opportunity to get an interception and twice the ball hit the turf. The first was a deep pass that was excellently knocked away by Richard Leonard (who in fairness is having a bit of a tough sophomore season) that nearly ricocheted into Mike Daly’s hands. Daly must lead the CFL in near interceptions because I have lost count of how many times he has almost made a pick. The second came when Trevor Harris threw a pass right into the hands of Cariel Brooks, but Brooks couldn’t bring it in. These types of missed opportunities have hurt the Cats all year, and they hurt them again in another one-score loss.

Low: Newcomer non-factors

The big trade last Sunday netted the Ticats a pair of veteran players who both made their debuts with the team against Ottawa, and both had rather quiet games.

Chris Williams had two catches for 22 yards, and was the target on Jeremiah Masoli’s interception, but was mostly ineffective in his return to Hamilton. I’m sure Williams will start to produce more once he gets comfortable in the offence, but his impact in his first game back was minimal, which we probably should have expected.

Jamaal Westerman also had a quiet game, expect in ways you don’t want to. Three tackles, including one for a loss, is not bad for a defensive end, but he took two horrible roughness penalties that extended drives. The flags only netted Ottawa three points, though one did allow the Redblacks to punt later and pin the Ticats deep (and we know that starting field position has been a problem for this team all year). It’s not exactly the Steeltown debut Westerman was hoping for.

Looking ahead

The battle for first did not go the Ticats’ way, but perhaps the battle for second will. Yes, believe it or not Hamilton’s game on Friday against the 1-5 Montreal Alouettes is now a game that will determine who will be in a playoff position after Week 8. With the way the Als have looked, and with the way most pundits have talked about the Ticats (myself included), you wouldn’t think this matchup would be all that meaningful. But here we are after the Ticats lost three straight to sink to 2-4, they are forced to win a game against the Alouettes to ensure they don’t fall out of a playoff spot this week. That thought would have been inconceivable a few weeks ago, but that is the cold, hard truth right now.

And of course, depending on what happens during the week, we could see the very first start of Johnny Manziel’s CFL career come against the team where he began his career just a couple short months ago. After hearing fans in the stands at Tim Hortons Field call for Johnny Manziel on Saturday (no, seriously, that happened), you know the angry horde are just waiting for Manizel to light it up against the Ticats to prove to everyone how right they were.

But whether Manziel plays or not, the Ticats have got to find a way to get back on the winning track and fast. Because after the Als come the red-hot Bombers (who may be the most complete team in the CFL right now) and an Edmonton team that the Ticats may have already beaten, but haven’t swept in the season series since 2006.

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