Three-phase failure sinks Ticats: 11 thoughts on Hamilton’s 34-20 loss to the Toronto Argonauts

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats followed an all too familiar script on Saturday night, coughing up a double-digit second-half lead only to lose 34-20 to the Toronto Argonauts in front of 11,623 fans at BMO Field.

It was a typical 2022 Ticats gameday experience. They played well early, hung on for dear life in the middle, and folded late to add another notch in their loss column. This team is following the samhow week.

While the losses piling up are a massive concern, what is more worrisome is the manner in which they’ve lost. Forget learning how to win; this is a team that simply knows how to lose. These collapses are embedded in their DNA at this point.

This is who the 2022 Hamilton Tiger-Cats are: a team that is perhaps just mediocre enough to make the playoffs in a putrid East Division but not one that will end their season by playing in a third straight Grey Cup game.

Saturday night’s loss was a three-phase defeat and now the Ticats find themselves four points back of their fiercest rival with the hopes of finishing atop the division vanishing like Marty McFly’s siblings in his family photo from Back to the Future.

Here are some more thoughts on the game.

Phase 1: Offence

Stop me if you’ve heard this before but the Ticats’ offence was dormant in the second half against the Argos.

The trend of horrendous second halves, and especially fourth quarters, continued while the offence, which scored on their first three drives of the game, went into hibernation.

After a field goal midway through the third quarter made the score 17-6 for Hamilton, the team mustered just a single scoring drive over their final seven series and watched as the Argos scored 28 of the game’s final 31 points.

This game seemed to turn for the offence when the coaching staff decided to insert Matthew Shiltz for a drive after the team staked out a 13-0 lead. This was a colossal mistake.

The Tiger-Cats had all the momentum, with Dane Evans looking like the player the team paid handsomely in the off-season, and it evaporated after that. Matthew Shiltz would complete one of his two passes and the team punted after just two plays. You live by the two-quarterback system and you die by the two-quarterback system, as that decision seemed like the catalyst for the black and gold’s downfall on Saturday night.

The overall offensive output shows a Ticats team that accumulated more total yards, more first downs, and held the ball for over eight minutes more than their opponent. The Tabbies even out-rushed the Argos — not something you would expect given they were going up against Andrew Harris and the Ticats seem to steadfastly refuse to run the football.

It wouldn’t matter according to the only statistical metric that actually counts: the scoreboard.

Phase 2: Defence

Hamilton’s defence was mostly good on Saturday — of the 34 points surrendered, 16 of them cannot be blamed on them.

If you hold your opponent to 18 offensive points, that is usually good enough to win a game in the CFL. Where the defence takes blame for this loss, however, is in their inability to make the game-changing plays when necessary.

It started early. On McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s first pass of the game, Ticats’ defensive back Ciante Evans dropped an interception that would have given the team excellent field position, if not a defensive touchdown. Later in the game, Jumal Rolle failed to come down with another interceptable throw from McBLT. Those two pass breakups becoming interceptions could have swung momentum Hamilton’s way.

The most back-breaking sequence was when Mason Bennett failed to bring down Bethel-Thompson on the Argos’ first touchdown drive. The Argos’ pivot had rolled out and Bennett had him dead to rights, only to allow the far-from-elusive 34-year-old to escape his grasp and find Cam Phillips in the end zone. It was a massive missed opportunity, as a takedown would have forced the Argos into another field goal try.

Much like the offence these moments individually did not lead to the loss but when you add them up in a death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts kind of way, you see why the Ticats failed to get the win on Saturday.

Phase 3: Special Teams

The third phase that paved the way for the Ticats’ demise was special teams. The obvious place people will look is the blocked punt in the fourth quarter that gave the Argos a lead they would not relinquish but Lawrence Wood’s decision to field a punt inside his own five-yard line was just as harmful.

Woods has been mostly excellent in his rookie season as the Ticats’ primary return option. He has had an issue with fumbles — he lost the ball in this game but it was recovered by his teammate Mason Bennett — but his game-breaking speed and ability to make players miss has been a key part of Hamilton’s two victories.

Rookie players are going to make rookie mistakes, however, and Woods’ decision was a prime example of that. Had he allowed the ball to bounce into the endzone for a single, it would have cut Hamilton’s dwindling lead down to two. The resulting field position the team could have received — scrimmaging from the 40-yard line instead of their own three — would have erased the conceded safety the team gave up instead.

Legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells once said that playing rookies usually equals mistakes and that for every rookie on your roster you can count one extra loss on your record. Lawrence Woods made his most glaring rookie mistake on Saturday.

Local medical facility

I have been covering the Ticats for 3DownNation since the site’s inception back in 2015 and was doing so independently since 2010, but I am not sure I can recall a game where I’ve seen more Tiger-Cat players go down with injuries.

Hamilton had at least six players helped off the field by training staff against Toronto. Some injuries, like Micah Johnson’s, were not so serious. Others, like Bralon Addison’s, most definitely were.

Whether watching at home or in the stands, almost everyone knew when they saw him crumble to the ground after not being touched that Addison had suffered a season-ending injury. While I am no doctor, it certainly looked like an Achilles injury. You watch enough football and see enough non-contact injuries, you just get a feel for these types of things.

Addison will be a free agent at the end of the season and you have to wonder what this type of injury — which usually takes upwards of a year to rehab — could mean for his future with the team.

The Ticats also lost a pair of stout special teams players in Bailey Feltmate and rookie Anthony Federico. Hamilton has been dealt numerous blows to their Canadian special teams’ depth, with Nic Cross being on the six-game injured list and Tyler Ternowski missing this week’s game. Losing guys like that might not register to the average fan but they are massive when it comes to a CFL team’s roster composition.

The team also lost Mike Jones, playing in his first game since the team re-acquired him earlier in the week. Jones was playing well against the Argos, catching three passes for 30 yards before he left the game in the second quarter. Rookie Kiondre Smith filled in admirably, catching three passes for 38 yards.

Running back Sean Thomas-Erlington left the game twice, once on the opening kickoff and again with just over two minutes left in the game.

The team lost a superstar player and one of their only real threats offensively in Addison, and saw four contributing Canadians helped off the field. Those are not the types of injuries you want to see happen in a season, let alone in one game.

Bulls of the woods

After a demoralizing loss such as the one the team suffered on Saturday, people do not usually want to hear about the positives. However, there were a few bright spots, starting with Hamilton’s defensive line.

The Ticats front four is starting to come together, with Dylan Wynn playing perhaps the best football of his life over the last month. Wynn, along with battery mates Micah Johnson and Ted Laurent, accounted for two of the team’s three sacks and did most of the heavy lifting in holding Argos’ running back Andrew Harris to 47 yards on 14 carries. Harris made almost no impact on the game — his longest run was just nine yards — and a lot of the credit for that goes to the big guys up front.

The group made life miserable for McLeod Bethel-Thompson in the first half, though their pressure seemed to disappear later in the game. While the group up front deserves credit for how they started, they do bear some of the responsibility for how things unfolded late.

Hoss fight

As good as Hamilton’s defensive line was, their offensive line might have been their best positional group against Toronto. The Argos have a very talented front four of their own and Hamilton’s five big men kept them at bay all night.

Toronto’s star trio of Shane Ray, Shawn Oakman and Ja’Gared Davis combined for six tackles and zero sacks against a not-at-its-peak Tiger-Cats offensive line. Ray had two tackles himself and I do not recall hearing his name once on the broadcast. The best play Davis made was a downfield pass breakup in the first quarter that the former Ticats could, and maybe should, have hauled in for an interception.

Travis Vorkahl has made the most of his second chance to start at left tackle and for the second straight week, he was mostly invisible in the best way possible. The Ticats allowed zero sacks and not a ton of pressure while also having maybe their most efficient game running the football.

Can you dig that, sucka?

It took nine games but we finally saw the Don Jackson that fans have been waiting for.

Jackson’s rushing totals do not pop off the page, just 47 yards on 10 carries for a good but not great 4.7 yards per carry, but he added tremendous value in the passing game, catching a team-high eight passes for 67 yards and scoring the team’s only touchdown.

Jackson’s “Spinaroonie” celebration after scoring his second major of the season was a highlight in a game filled with very few of them.

With Bralon Addison likely lost for the season and the team dying for someone to help Steven Dunbar Jr. out in the passing attack, the multi-talented Jackson needs to become a bigger focal point of the team’s offence.

Walking weaponless

Going into the season a lot of observers were high on Hamilton’s cadre of pass catchers but besides Dunbar, the team has failed to get any type of production out of their receivers.

Tim White, who a lot of people had high hopes for coming into the season, has been a complete non-factor. He had just one catch against the Argos for six yards and his continued inability to make routine catches is playing a major role in the team’s offensive ineptitude.

After finishing sixth in the league a year ago, a breakout into the upper echelon of receivers was expected. Instead, White is 13th in the league after eight games and has had just a single 100-yard game in 2022. The 2021 East Division all-star has seen his role dwindle in recent weeks as well.

A lot of people are going to lay the blame for the team’s inability to be consistent on offence at the feet of embattled offensive coordinator Tommy Condell. While he deserves his share of criticism, the fact that the team has no reliable weapons outside of Dunbar — and even calling him reliable might be a stretch — is a problem not even the greatest offensive minds in football history could fix.

The Ticats have had to resort to using gimmicks like two quarterbacks because they cannot rely on their regular skill position players to make the plays they need to win games. When you are throwing wide receiver screens to your backup quarterback, you know there is a problem.

The team has also gotten next to no production out of former first overall pick Jake Burt. The team selected him with the top pick in the 2021 draft and he has three catches for 15 yards. Burt’s backup, Felix Garand-Gauthier, who the team selected in the same draft just 36 picks later, has 39 yards receiving this season. A searing indictment of the team’s usage of Burt, but also a telling sign that the team might have overextended themselves by selecting him with the top pick last year.

If ya smell what the Dane is cookin’

“Let Russ Cook” was a mantra of Seattle Seahawks fans in the last couple of years of Russell Wilson’s tenure with the team and it initially looked like the Ticats were going to “Let Dane Cook” against the Argos. When they did, he played maybe his best football of the season.

Evans was superb in the first half against Toronto; he looked decisive, he bought time when he needed to and he was making the Argos pay by picking up decent chunks of yardage on intermediate routes. His deep ball was ineffective most of the night but he used that to set up throws underneath that worked… until they didn’t.

Evans did throw a late interception again but played a clean game for the most part, tossing for 303 yards and one touchdown while completing a respectable 67.4 percent of his passes.

The Ticats only went to Matthew Shiltz once — albeit in a spot that I believe completely killed the momentum Evans had been building to that point — and gave Evans plenty of rope to win or lose the game. The Ticats didn’t emerge with the victory but I do not believe you can put much of the blame on the quarterback for that.

Sweetening the crowd

I was all ready to praise what sounded like a loud crowd at BMO Field when I saw a tweet from popular Tiger-Cats fan Laura Stewart, who was in attendance last night, claiming that the Argos were piping in artificial crowd noise during Saturday’s game.

“I’ve been sitting in near empty sections at BMO and it’s louder than any stadium I’ve been to (IGF included). Embarrassing that the Argos stoop to this. Why is this allowed?”

Now, this is just an accusation from one person at this point and I would find it highly unlikely that the team would admit to such wrongdoing if asked, but given how loud that stadium has sounded during games it does reach a level of curiosity with me.

The Argos would not be the first team to use artificial crowd noise. The B.C. Lions we accused of this for years, as were the Indianapolis Colts. The Atlanta Falcons were fined and stripped of a draft pick in 2015 for being found guilty of pumping in fake crowd noise.

Home teams will do anything to gain an advantage — the New England Patriots have been accused of a wide array of nefarious actions from deflating footballs to tampering with headsets to videotaping their opponents — so to think a team would not go to these lengths is naive.

Whether it is true or not that the Argos were using fake noise, the accusations sure do add another layer to an already spicy rivalry.

Don’t cha dare miss it

By now everyone knows what is up next: a rematch with the Argos, this time at the friendly confines of Tim Hortons Field on Friday night.

What makes Friday’s game a little more interesting is that this will be the return to Hamilton for both Brandon Banks and Ja’Gared Davis. Neither player made much of an impact in the first meeting, with Davis recording just a single tackle and Banks, who was relegated to a backup role, notching just one catch for 15 yards. You have to think both will want to show out in front of a crowd that used to cheer for their every move.

When the Ticats were set to begin this run through the East Division a few weeks ago, I stated they needed to go at least 4-2 for me to have any faith they could turn this season around. While I now think any sort of meaningful playoff run is out the window, the team can still solidify their spot as the No. 2 team in their dreadful division.

For that to happen, the Tiger-Cats need to win their games at home and that includes Friday’s rematch with the double blue. Hamilton has been better at home than on the road this year and they will need to keep that up against an Argos team looking to bury their biggest rival before we get to Labour Day.

As I have said time and time again, must-wins do not exist unless a loss ends your season or eliminates you from playoff contention. This Friday’s game is neither of those but a second straight loss to the Argos would put a significant dent in the black and gold’s chances of rising up the standings.

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.