With third-straight win, Ticats make it known they are for real

A few weeks ago I openly wondered if the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were a bad football team. They had lost back-to-back games against the Saskatchewan Roughriders and did not look particularly good in either outing. It was as fair a question then as this statement is now: the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are a really good football team.

Winners of their last three, including two fourth-quarter comebacks, the Ticats have established themselves as the team to beat in the East Division. While they are tied with, and technically behind due to the tiebreaker, the Ottawa Redblacks at the moment, those two teams could not be going in more opposite directions, and Week 13 bore that out. While the Ticats won their last two by double digits, the Redblacks fell to the last place team in the East one week and the West the next. The Ticats are trending upwards, the Redblacks are trending downwards.

The reason for the change in momentum was on display against the Argos on Saturday. The Ticats were an offensive juggernaut against Toronto. They moved the ball seemingly at will, controlled the clock when they had to (even though they lost the time-of-possession battle, which is rare for them this year) and once again featured a balanced attack that saw them run the ball as many times as they threw it. The Ticats have hovered around the 60/40 pass-run split in recent weeks, with a few dipping close to 50/50, but this was the first game where the Ticats ran the ball as often as they threw it. When you have that type of offensive balance, opposing defences cannot key on one player and pass rushers can’t just go after the quarterback.

That takes nothing away from the defence, which is establishing itself as one of the league’s top units, with the league’s best pass defence and an improving run defence, which held last year’s top rookie, James Wilder Jr., to 76 yards on Saturday.

Hamilton is playing elite-level football on both offence and defence, and if that keeps up they could find themselves perched alone atop the East Division before too long.

*Yawn* Banks and Tasker do it again

A week ago I said it was becoming hard to find new ways to lavish praise onto the Ticats’ two best receivers, but here I am doing it again because both Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker were once again studs. Banks snagged six balls for 156 yards and two touchdowns, including a 78-yard beauty that he went up to get in between four defenders and blasted his way past all of them on route to the end zone.

Tasker didn’t crack the century mark, but hauled in seven passes for 91 yards and a score. These two are quickly forming the game’s best 1-2 punch at receiver and if they keep this up the sky is the limit. Banks is making an MOP case for himself each and every week, and his main competition for the East nomination is the guy who throws him the ball. Speaking of which…

Putting the Masoli debate to rest… for good

It’s over, folks. Even the last of you hangers-on, clinging to the notion that Jeremiah Masoli is not a starting-calibre QB need to button it. Aside from winning a Grey Cup — which he obviously can’t do until the end of the year — he has done everything you could possibly want a QB to do. He got the comeback monkey off his back in the last two games, and what he did on Saturday against the Argos was get a lead, watch the Argos gradually and incrementally try to chip away, but answer ever Argos drive with a drive of his own. The Ticats took the lead on their second drive and never gave it up. Masoli’s numbers were stellar, 18 of 25 for 307 yards, four touchdown and no interceptions, and he also contributed with his feet to the tune of 51 yards on eight carries. Masoli is, right now, the top pick for East MOP and sits just behind the two top dogs in the West for league MOP. It’s time we all stop talking about the ifs, ands and buts, and just appreciate the stellar play we are seeing out of No. 8.

Unamba one guy

As I outlined last week, the Ticats had a SAM linebacker question for what seemed like forever and they finally found the answer in Don Unamba. Unamba continued his all-star level play against the Argos, with solid coverage and some key plays, including a pass knockdown on third down that essentially sealed the game for the Ticats. His numbers don’t pop off the page, but Unamba does things the stat sheet doesn’t pick up and he has become the missing piece to the Ticats’ linebacking puzzle.

Where’s the pressure?

The CFL no longer tracks QB pressures, but even if they did it is doubtful any Ticats would be near the top of the league, especially if they play along the defensive line. While the team was without all-star Ted Laurent, the defensive line was once again a non-factor for the Ticats as it has been even when Laurent was in there. The Ticats did not register a sack against the Argos, and finish the week with the second-fewest on the season with just 15 in 11 games (two ahead of the last-place Argos). While sacks are not the be all and end all, Hamilton did not get any sustained pressure on Toronto QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson at all on Saturday afternoon, and it allowed McBLT to have a pretty decent game throwing for almost 300 yards and two scoring strikes. Hamilton’s inability to get a sustained pass rush is going to cause them trouble against the league’s better teams, one of which just so happens to be the next opponent for the Ticats. The black and gold need to find a way to engineer more pressure on the quarterback and they need to find it soon.

The Sometimes-Fly Zone

Hamilton’s vaunted secondary, which I have dubbed the No-Fly Zone (but is going to be up for debate on the next episode of Podskee Wee Wee), wasn’t their usual stellar self against Toronto. As said above, the Argos gained nearly 300 yards through the air and had one player go over 100 yards — Armanti Edwards, 112 yards on nine catches — and one nearly reached triple digits — S.J. Green, eight catches for 97 yards — which is a rare feat to accomplish against the Ticats. A shout out also needs to be given to third-year Canadian receiver Llevi Noel for his not-insignificant 53 yards on four catches in this game. The former U of T Varsity Blue and Windsor AKO Fratman toiled on special teams to begin his career, but worked his way into the offence and has seen his role grow over the last few weeks. Noel came up with some clutch catches in the second half that kept an Argos drive alive when they really needed any kind of spark offensively. It’s nice to see a Canadian kid earn his way into more playing time, and hopefully, we see a more prominent role for Noel as the season goes on because he has earned it.

Love or hate: the onside-kick call

Your feelings on the Ticats’ unsuccessful attempt at an onside kick will depend on whether you think the outcome of the play determines whether it was a good call or not. I do not subscribe to that way of thinking and I will almost always praise a coach for taking a gamble and playing to win as opposed to playing not to lose. The situation was fairly low stakes as well. The Ticats had just scored, so even if they Argos did find the end zone the game would have been tied. It also came early on, where the team could have recovered if the worst was to have happened. The problem wasn’t with the call, but with the execution. If Lirim Hajrullahu had kicked it three yards further, the Ticats recover and people go nuts. But Hajrullahu kicked it poorly and it went out of bounds before going the required 10 yards. I liked the call, and love when coaches get aggressive, but I imagine that won’t be the case for everyone.

Looking ahead

The Ticats are over .500 for the first time since their Week 3 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers put them at 2-1 on the year, and as a reward they get the league-leading 9-2 Calgary Stampeders coming to visit Tim Hortons Field on Saturday afternoon.

In what I am sure will be the big talking point when hyping up this game, the Ticats have not defeated the Stampeders since a 55-36 win in the second Touchdown Atlantic game in Moncton back in 2011. Seven years is a long time to not beat a team. In fact, not a single member currently on the Ticats was with the team when they last defeated the Stamps. Not one. Streaks were made to be broken, and it’s long past time that the Ticats played Brock Lesnar to Calgary’s Undertaker.

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