Red zone woes doom the Ticats & 14 other thoughts on Hamilton’s 17-12 loss to the B.C. Lions

Photo courtesy: Trevor Hagan/CFL

Another week, another agonizingly close loss by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, as this time the Black and Gold dropped a hard-fought 17-12 road contest to a well-rested B.C. Lions squad on Thursday night.

The Ticats had plenty of chances to pull an upset against one of the league’s top dogs but came up just short in the end, dropping their record to 1-5 on the season and putting themselves into a win-now mode for the remainder of 2022.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Under the red hood

In a single-score loss, every mistake and missed opportunity gets magnified. The Tabbies made several mistakes on Thursday but none more costly than their lack of finish in the red zone.

Entering Thursday’s game, the Ticats had converted just four of their 13 red zone opportunities into touchdowns. After Thursday’s game, that became four of 16 as the Tiger-Cats went without a touchdown on three opportunities inside the Lions’ 20-yard line.

Hamilton settled for two field goals and had a turnover on downs on their three trips deep inside B.C. territory. In a game that finishes with a five-point margin of defeat, those failures loom large.

Their inability to capitalize was felt most on a 14-play, 89-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended without the team putting any points on the board. The Ticats took more than seven minutes off the clock and picked the Lions apart on what could have been a potentially season-altering drive. Instead, Tiger-Cats’ quarterback Dane Evans’ third-down throw into the end zone to receiver Tim White was knocked down by Lions’ defensive back Marcus Sayles.

While the Ticats had other chances to complete the comeback, that one missed opportunity felt like the knockout punch.

Not exactly the clock kings

Outside of their red zone struggles, the most critical blow suffered by the Ticats was a time-count violation on their penultimate drive.

With less than 90 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Dane Evans could not get the snap off in time and the team was forced to take a time count penalty. Making matters worse is that when under three minutes, a time count penalty means a loss of down.

The Ticats went from second-and-10 to third-and-10 and when Dane Evans’ ill-advised heave to Bralon Addison sailed over the receiver’s head, their last real chance to win the game came to a screeching halt.

Hamilton’s dark knight rises (with a new Robin to boot)

Bralon Addison is finally starting to look like the player who took the league by storm in 2019.

Agent 0 had his best game this year, catching nine passes for 83 yards and rushing twice for 23 yards. Addison produced when called upon, hauling in three catches on second down and creating 44 yards after the catch.

This is the Bralon Addison we have become accustomed to seeing and the more times he can take over a game the better the Tiger-Cats will be.

Also, it is about time we start talking about Steven Dunbar Jr. as one of the league’s top pass catchers. The second-year man out of the University of Houston is continuing to post big stat lines while also coming up big in crucial situations. The six-foot-three, 202-pound native of New Orleans, Louisiana finished Thursday’s contest with five catches for 83 yards as well as the team’s lone touchdown, which gave the rising star a tie for the league lead with four. It’s time to start giving him his flowers.

Back-man returns

The Ticats’ concerted effort to run the football against the Ottawa Redbacks a week ago produced mixed results. It would have been fair to assume the team would abandon the run game again this week but the Tabbies went in the opposite direction.

The Tiger-Cats had their best rushing game of the season on Thursday night, using multiple players to create mismatches against a Lions’ defence that probably was not expecting the Ticats to run the ball 24 times.

Don Jackson once again led the way with 36 yards, but his paltry 3.3 yards per carry is still concerning. The team also used receivers Tim White and Bralon Addison to great effect in the run game, although one of White’s rushes resulted in a fumble that ended what was looking like a promising drive to start the third quarter.

Dane Evans had six carries himself for 24 yards and the team’s decision to use multiple players in the run game instead of relying on one bell-cow back is looking like an effective strategy.

Reaching into his mad hat

With the recent hiring of former Montreal Alouettes head coach and offensive coordinator Khari Jones, many are openly wondering if the end is near for current Tiger-Cats offensive coordinator Tommy Condell.

If it is, the long-time Ticats coach is going out on his shield.

The last couple of weeks have seen the Tabbies’ play caller reach into his magician’s hat and pull up some fairly creative play calls and designs, none more so than his embracing of using two quarterbacks on the field at the same time.

Hamilton used it to much fanfare a week ago, and while it wasn’t the main part of the game plan against the Lions, the Ticats did find ways to make it work. The most notable instance was on a first-quarter play that saw backup quarterback Matthew Shiltz take the snap, and hand it off to Dane Evans, who then threw it back to Shiltz for a tidy nine-yard gain.

Condell has often been ripped for being too conservative in his play calling but over the last two games, he has started to open up his playbook a little more.

Boy Wonder baffled

After taking the league by storm during the first few weeks of the season, Lions’ wunderkind Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke has come back down to earth a little.

The Oakville, Ontario native was decent against the Ticats but far from spectacular, throwing for 250 yards on 22-of-30 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Rourke also did not utilize his feet much, rushing for just eight yards on four carries, all on quarterback sneaks.

With Hamilton having been susceptible to giving up big plays to running quarterbacks — see Caleb Evans a week ago — the Lions not using Rourke more in the run game was a curious decision.

The Tiger-Cats only sacked Rourke once but there were plenty of times when they made life difficult for the Most Outstanding Canadian frontrunner. He was baited by Ticats’ all-star safety Tunde Adeleke into throwing a bad interception late in the game that nearly cost the Lions dearly and while the makings of a superstar are clearly present, the second-year man out of Ohio University still has a ways to go before becoming a fixture in the upper echelon of CFL quarterbacks.

Penny worth of impact

A couple of big runs aside, the Ticats did what the Ticats normally do and hemmed in B.C.’s rushing attack, impressive given the start to the season that running back James Butler has had.

Butler finished with 76 yards on 13 carries but had two massive runs that accounted for 54 of those 76 yards. Otherwise, the Ticats did a great job of keeping B.C.’s rushing attack in check, giving up just 87 yards total on the ground.

Teams that continue to try to run on the Ticats are likely to come up short more often than not.

Dane hushes the critics

Ticats’ quarterback Dane Evans has, by his own admission, not been playing his best football so far this season. His penchant for costly turnovers has been the main storyline, but he seemed to turn the corner around against the Redblacks a week ago and it continued against B.C.

His numbers were not out of this world, but Evans finished Thursday’s game with 297 yards on 26-of-38 passing with one touchdown and one interception. The lone interception came on a Hail Mary heave on the last play of the game, not exactly the type of turnover you fuss about.

Other than that last throw, Evans played a clean game and looked very good for most of the game against the Lions. If he has truly turned things around after a horrendous start, the Ticats could find themselves back in the mix before too long.

A poison ivy-filled Woods

Is Lawrence Woods the best special teams player in the Canadian Football League?

While that might sound like a ludicrous question to ask on the surface, I do not know of another player who makes a more significant impact in the game’s third phase than Hamilton’s first-year speedster.

We know of his exploits in the return game — Woods is tops in the league in punt return yards, second in kickoff return yards and his 14.3 yards per punt return is behind only teammate Papi White’s 15.3 yards per punt return.

What many might not realize is that Woods is also one of the best kick coverage men in the league as well. He has five special teams tackles so far in 2022, good for 13th in the league and just two behind league leader Antonie Pruneau of the Ottawa Redblacks.

Coverage men do not normally get a lot of press but if Woods keeps up this pace for the full season, I think it will be difficult to name anyone other than him as the CFL’s top special teams player.

League of assassins

A lot of people thought Hamilton’s special teams would fall off after long-time coordinator Jeff Reinebold chose to leave the organization following their Grey Cup loss last December. The Ticats replaced Reinebold with former all-star safety Craig Butler, who has been an assistant coach with the team since retiring from football midway through the 2017 season.

You would never know the team even made a change because the transition has been so seamless. Hamilton still boasts one of the best return games in the league and their coverage units are second to none.

Lions’ speedster Lucky Whitehead averaged just four yards per return on three punt returns on Thursday night and a lot of the reason for that was Hamilton’s excellent downfield coverage.

I would also be remiss if I did not give credit to Michael Domagala, who has been excellent in his two games as Hamilton’s punter. He finished Thursday night with a net average of 47.3 yards, which would have him in the top third of the league. While the former Carleton Raven has struggled with place kicking, he may have found his role at punter.

Moldable like clay

Versatility has been one of the leading characteristics of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the better part of a decade, ever since former head coach Kent Austin took over the franchise in 2013.

Maybe no player on the team right now epitomizes that philosophy more than defensive lineman Julian Howsare. Need a pass rush? Howsare is there. Need a guy to spy on the quarterback? Howsare is there. Need a large man to drop back into coverage? Howsare is there.

Howsare did not add to his team-leading three sacks against the Leos, but he did have an incredible tipped-ball interception in the first quarter that snuffed out a promising Lions’ drive. This was not your typical tipped-ball pick by a defensive lineman either, as Howsare had dropped back deep into coverage and corralled a pass that deflected off receiver Lucky Whitehead’s body about 20 yards down the field.

Howsare has been one of the most unheralded players in the CFL during his four years in Hamilton but plays like that make him an early candidate to be the team’s top defensive player at season’s end.

Riddle me this

Whenever Al Bradbury is refereeing a game, the collective groans can be heard from coast to coast. He is, without question, the least-liked and worst referee the CFL uses consistently. His games usually feature way too many flags with more than a few being of the mind-boggling variety.

On Thursday, Bradbury’s crew made more baffling decisions. The first was an illegal contact flag on Ticats’ defensive back Jumal Rolle where the replay showed very little contact between the defender and Lions’ receiver Lucky Whitehead. The call wiped out a second-down sack by Ticats’ defensive lineman Mason Bennett.

The next questionable decision came late in the second quarter when Ticats’ defensive back Richard Leonard was called for pass interference on a play where he never touched a falling Dominique Rhymes. The Ticats challenged the call and won, erasing the flag, but it should never have been thrown in the first place.

The final head-scratching call came when Lions’ defensive lineman Obum Gwacham was flagged for a high tackle on Dane Evans. Evans was scrambling out of the pocket and Gwacham tackled him by the upper shoulder area. The way Evans was twisted might also have contributed to the flag but I also think if that was any other offensive player the laundry stays in the referee’s pocket.

These curious calls did not cost any team the game but they were mystifying decisions by the men in stripes nonetheless.

Bane of my existence

Much like my colleague Joel Gasson, I have made no secret of my disdain for Thursday Night Football.

I especially dislike twilight games on a Thursday night and loathe ones that feature the Tiger-Cats. A 10 p.m. eastern start time on a Thursday night for a game featuring an eastern team should simply never happen.

If Thursday nights are going to remain a thing — and I see no signs they won’t be — B.C. should never host them. You cannot hold a Thursday game in British Columbia any earlier than 10 p.m. EST, so it just makes for too late a night for fans in one half of the country. I am fine with 10 p.m start times on Friday or Saturday nights, but doing so on a Thursday night is just bad scheduling.

The National Football League started this trend of Thursday night madness in the mid-2000s and it was such a smash hit in the ratings — Thursday night is one of the most watched nights of television in America — that they expanded it much to the dismay of fans.

The CFL followed suit and made Thursday nights a staple of their summer schedule, but they need to figure out a way to avoid the most ratings-friendly fanbase west of Manitoba being forced to stay up until nearly 1 a.m. local time to watch their team play.

The Ticats playing in B.C. will almost always mean playing that game at 10 p.m. Hamilton time. That is fine, just never make it on a Thursday night again.

Darkest before the dawn

It is hard to be overly optimistic about a team’s future when they sit four games under .500 a third of the way through the season. However, despite a loss where the team only scored a single touchdown and squandered numerous red zone chances, the tenor of most online conversations around the Ticats has been positive.

There are no moral victories in pro sports but the Ticats losing a late game after travelling across the country on a short week against a team coming off a bye is about as close to one as you can get.

The Tabbies still have kinks to work out but I genuinely believe this team is on the right track, despite their awful record. We saw Dane Evans’ best game, an effective rushing attack, and a defensive effort that slowed down the league’s highest-scoring offence.

Fans are seemingly back on the bandwagon and I’m one of them.

Tune in next week

This next stretch of games is where the rubber meets the proverbial road.

Hamilton will play just two different teams over the next six weeks, the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts. This is the most critical juncture on the team’s schedule. At 1-5, I believe the Ticats need to go at least 4-2 over these next six contests if they want to have any chance of playing post-season football in 2022.

The craziness begins next Thursday when the Tabbies host the Als at Tim Hortons Field. Montreal currently sits one game up on Hamilton, having won their Thursday night contest over the Ottawa Redblacks, and will hope to use that momentum to put more distance between the two with a win next week.

After Thursday, it is a home-and-home set with the Argos, then a trip to Montreal to take on the Alouettes again, before this stretch closes out with another home-and-home against Toronto that culminates in the annual Labour Day Classic. Six games, three at home, three on the road, and the team’s season hanging in the balance.

Strap in, folks, this is going to be a tumultuous ride.

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.