Ticats’ uninspired play leads to first loss of the season

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats went into Montreal on Thursday with a 3-0 record having just come off a 31-point win over the team they were about to play.

Things were looking good for the Tabbies getting to 4-0 for the first time since 1989.

Then William Stanback happened.

The Als tailback was a beast against the Ticats, picking up 203 yards on the ground (on 22 carries) and adding another 46 through the air. He was a one-man wrecking crew that wrecked the Ticats undefeated started to the season.

The Ticats just didn’t play well. Point blank. Period. Offensive execution was lacking; the defence couldn’t get a stop; and the penalties. So. Many. Penalties.

But as bad as the Ticats played, the Als just played better. Full credit to them for the win. They came out and played a great game, executed when they had to and were the better team on the field outside of about a 10-minute stretch in the second quarter.

Sometimes it helps to be humbled early in the season, but the Ticats losing to a team they beat by more than four touchdowns a week ago is still a disappointing outcome.

Here are some more thoughts on the game:

First STE, then CVZ (with a little LT and Speedy B)

Injuries reared their ugly head for the Ticats on Thursday. Luke Tasker played his first game since Week 1 and it was clear he wasn’t at 100 per cent. Same with Brandon Banks, who looked noticeably hobbled as the game went on. But the big injuries were the ones that came during the game to Chris Van Zeyl and Sean Thomas Erlington.

Van Zeyl left the game late and didn’t return, his loss would mean some big changes for the Ticats’ ratio. Kay Okafor replaced Van Zeyl and played well, even if a somewhat phantom holding call snuffed out a potential Ticats scoring drive. That said, the team is obviously better with Van Zeyl in there (“I’ll take, ‘No, duh,’ Alex, for $200).

The injury to STE, however, looks a lot worse. Thomas Erlington left the game in the first quarter after taking a low hit from Montreal’s Tommie Campbell. No, the hit was not dirty, so let’s dead that narrative now. STE left the game and did not return, with ice on his knee for the remainder of the contest. If this is a long-term injury — and while I have no medical degree, I suspect this will be — this is a huge blow to the Ticats offence. STE had been brilliant over the first three games and was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the league’s premier tailbacks. That could now be all gone. This probably won’t do much to the ratio, as the Ticats still have two Canadian tailbacks on the roster (rookie Maleek Irons and second-year man Jackson Bennett), but it is a tough pill to swallow after watching Thomas Erlington run roughshod over opposing teams to start the year.

The Ticats could also lean on Anthony Coombs, who saw his first extended action against the Als. Coombs touched the ball 12 times (six through the air, six on the ground) and produced 112 total yards on his 12 touches. If the Ticats need a replacement for STE, Coombs could be the guy. Coombs was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sloppy game.

Slow starts continue

We all were concerned with the slow starts the Ticats were getting out to so far this year, and it finally caught up with them. While the Ticats had their most productive first quarter of the year — their six points doubled their total from the previous three games combined — it was another instance of letting a team stay in a game.

Hamilton had used superlative second and third quarters to put opponents away, but that didn’t happen in this one either. Slow starts put teams in holes of which it can be tough to dig out. The Ticats had been lucky over the first three weeks. They weren’t lucky in Week 4.

The death of the punt block

Let’s make it clear: the Ticats did not lose this game because the new punt blocking rule took away a potential game-tying (or game-winning) drive away from them in the late stages of this contest. The Ticats did next to nothing over the previous 59 minutes and deserve the outcome they got.

That said, the new punt blocking rule sucks.

It sounded good in theory when it was introduced in the off-season, but in practice it is extremely limiting and makes blocking a punt damn-near impossible in the future. Chris Frey made a tremendous play and gave his team a chance to make the comeback, but because of the new rule — which states that even if you block the kick you can still not make contact with the kicker — the block was negated and the Als were able to kneel it out to secure the victory.

It was a bummer ending, and I hope that after seeing it in action that the CFL and the rules committee will look to change the rule in the next off-season. I doubt they will, because removing a rule put in place for player safety reasons is hard to rescind, but they took a once exciting play and all but eliminated it from the game. That’s a shame, not just for this game, but for all games in the future.

Swiss cheese run D

While this obviously is a product of the fact they have played four games, the Ticats have by far the worst run defence in the CFL currently. At 144 yards per game, the Ticats are surrendering nearly 20 yards more than the next closest team and their 576 yards surrendered are nearly 250 more than the next closest team.

They’ve given up over 200 yards on the ground twice this season — to the Riders in Week 1 and Montreal on Thursday — and it is clear that teams should, and probably will, lean on the run when playing Hamilton. With games coming up against the Bombers (with Andrew Harris), the Riders (with William Powell) and the Lions (with John White, even if they don’t use him as much as they should), the Ticats will need to find a way to be better against the run, and quickly.

Good numbers, but what does it mean

It feels weird to complain about an offence that had a receiver over 100 yards (Jaelon Acklin, with 120 on eight catches), a QB throw for over 400 yards for the second straight week (Jeremiah Masoli, with 401 on 29 completions) and score 29 points, but yet the offence felt completely off for most of the game.

Brandon Banks, even with seven catches for 86 yards, felt like a non factor; Luke Tasker caught all six passes thrown his way for 56 yards, but didn’t feel like much of a threat for most of the game; and the aforementioned Acklin had his breakout game with those 120 yards and found the end zone for the first time in his CFL career. The ground game was nothing special, but, as talked about above, Anthony Coombs played well when thrust into action.

But it just wasn’t a good game by the offence. They went long stretches without making much of a dent, and had more two-and-outs in this game than in any game this year. The offence just felt off, and while I don’t think it will be a problem going forward, it was a bit of a letdown knowing what this unit is capable of.

Silver linings and dark clouds

It is not all bad in Ticats Land, however. The team still sits atop the East Division with a 3-1 record, two points up on the Ottawa Redblacks (though the Redblacks have a game in hand). If you asked Ticats fans if they would have taken that after the season’s first four games, I’m sure almost all of them would have taken it. A 4-0 start would have been nicer, obviously, but you can’t really quibble about 3-1.

The downside, however, is that the Ticats do now enter a very treacherous part of their schedule. The next seven weeks sees the Tabbies play five games against the West, with one game against Ottawa (on the road) and a bye sandwiched in there. Next week, the Stamps come to Tim Hortons Field (possibly without Bo Levi Mitchell), a team the Ticats have not beaten since a game in Moncton in 2011. They also host the Bombers and Lions during that stretch, while heading to Saskatchewan for a tough matchup with the Riders and another away game at B.C. The Lions might be struggling now, but you have to expect that they will be playing much better football when they meet the Ticats.

We are about to find out just who these Hamilton Tiger-Cats are over the next month and a half.

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