Losing late has been the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ modus operandi in 2022 and their latest late-game collapse — a 29-28 defeat at the hands of the Montreal Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium on Saturday afternoon –may have been the most painful.
The Ticats were their own worst enemy against Montreal, allowing the Alouettes to score 10 points in the game’s final three minutes and let a winnable game slip away.
A number of unforced errors cost the Ticats dearly, including a high snap by Coulter Woodmansey — who was filling in at centre after Alex Fontana left the game with an undisclosed injury. That pushed the Tabbies into a second-and-29 situation from which they could not convert, leading to an illegal punt out of bounds by Michael Domagala and the loss of crucial field position.
A time count violation on the next set of downs before the three-minute warning was immediately followed by a critical drop from wide-open receiver Steven Dunbar Jr. on second down that could have extended the drive. The Alouettes answered immediately with a Trevor Harris touchdown pass to Reggie White Jr. to go up one point.
Hamilton was able to overcome those mistakes and retake the lead with just 37 seconds remaining after Ticat kicker Seth Small nailed a 51-yarder but Montreal marched back into field goal range in just three plays. All the black and gold could do was watch as Montreal kicker David Côté booted the winning field goal from 48 yards out as time expired.
This game was a stark reminder of who this year’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats are; a team good enough to compete but one that will come up short more often than not.
The Ticats made too many errors and now find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff race in the East Division.
Aside from offensive coordinator Tommy Condell, Hamilton’s coaching staff has mostly skated by unnoticed despite the team’s 3-7 record indicating some issues with the men leading them.
In particular, defensive coordinator Mark Washington has not seen anywhere near the amount of scrutiny that his offensive counterpart has, even though his defence has been just as responsible for Hamilton’s plethora of second-half collapses.
Saturday afternoon was a perfect example. After the offence did their part in restoring the lead with 37 seconds left in the game, Washington’s defence went into prevent mode, playing way too far off the line and giving easy throws to Trevor Harris.
The Alouettes began their final drive on their own 34-yard line and were kicking the game-winning points three plays and 36 easy yards later. The defence gave up 20 yards after the two catches made by the Als, including 18 yards after the catch on a five-yard throw from Harris to Eugene Lewis.
This has been an issue with the Tiger-Cats for the three years that Washington has been the team’s defensive play caller, with Hamilton constantly giving big cushions to receivers late in games. In 2019, no one cared because the team was winning. It bit them a couple of times in 2021, but it was glossed over because the team got hot and made another run to the Grey Cup.
This year, it has become a glaring problem; one that now needs just as much attention as the offensive issues have been garnering.
The Ticats’ defence, like most defences, has been at its best when it is aggressive. They’ve become a passive unit late in games and have now surrendered second-half leads in four of the team’s seven losses this season.
To kill or not to kill
If you thought Hamilton’s offensive coordinator was going to escape this column unscathed, you thought wrong.
While I have not joined the growing mob calling for his head, I have had my questions about Tommy Condell’s play-calling this year, particularly in late-game situations.
When Hamilton was gifted a first down that moved them almost into field goal range on their final drive, the team had two options: stay aggressive to get the most yards possible or get conservative and drain the clock.
The Ticats opted for the latter and it did not work. After two plays netted just seven yards, Hamilton was forced to try a 51-yard field goal to take the lead. Seth Small made the kick but left 37 seconds for the Alouettes to do their thing. We know how that ended.
While I understand the idea of taking as much time off the clock as possible, I do know why the Ticats were not more aggressive on their second-down play. If they had picked up a first down, they could have milked the clock to zero and tried for their own walk-off field goal. Instead, they gave the Als new life.
Hamilton’s penchant to get too conservative on both sides of the ball in late-game situations has now cost them a crucial intra-divisional victory; one that could come back to haunt them if they fail to make the playoffs this season.
The Matthew plan
With the loss, I think any burgeoning quarterback controversy in Hamilton is on the back burner but given how well Matthew Shiltz played against his former team on Saturday, you have to wonder if a few more starts could make it a difficult decision for Hamilton’s coaching staff.
Playing in his old stomping grounds for the first time since the team released him last winter, the former Alouette carved up his old team, completing just over 69 percent of his passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns. Critically, he also committed no turnovers.
Shiltz felt in command of the offence, making good reads and not forcing things. It helped that he faced almost no pressure — Hamilton’s offensive line has been mostly excellent the last few weeks — but once again did his damage without much of a running game to speak of.
I am not sure if Shiltz could keep this up over a full season if he ever gets the keys to the franchise, but being an effective short-term answer while the incumbent is out injured is exactly what the team was hoping they would get when they snatched him up back in February.
Welcome back Tim White
It took longer than many wanted but the Tiger-Cats finally saw the 2021 version of receiver Tim White against the Alouettes.
White was spectacular on Saturday, catching 11 passes for 145 yards and both of the team’s touchdowns. His second touchdown of the night was typical of what we saw last season, catching a lob pass and taking it 64 yards to the house. His first was even more outstanding, as bounced off his would-be tackler and tenaciously fought to hit pay dirt.
Steven Dunbar Jr. was the team’s best pass-catching threat over the first half of the season but White has begun to emerge from his slumber. The more weapons Matthew Shiltz and Dane Evans have, the better this team can be.
A festival of flags
When Al Bradbury was announced as the referee for Saturday’s game I knew three things would happen: the game would go longer than normal, there would be a lot of penalties, and there would be more than a couple of flags that would make you shake your head.
Check, check, and check.
This was Hamilton’s third-longest game of the year, clocking in at two hours and 55 minutes and there were an astonishing 23 combined accepted penalties for 301 yards. Most were fair but some of the major ones left you scratching your head.
It started early when Ticats’ safety Tunde Adeleke was called for pass interference less than a minute into the game. The call was borderline at best but it was not even the worst interference call in the game– they saved that for a phantom call on Montreal defensive back Mike Jones on Steven Dunbar Jr. that led to a Tiger-Cats’ touchdown on the very next play.
There was also a highly controversial horse collar tackle called on Alouettes’ defensive back Najee Murray that allowed Hamilton to extend their final drive. I know the definition of a horse collar tackle has changed over the years but if what Murray did to Shiltz on that play is a penalty, then it is time to do away with players being allowed to hit quarterbacks entirely.
I know the officials do the best job they can and no one likes referees at any level in any sport, but it feels especially bad in the CFL. That is only magnified when fans all over the country know exactly what they are going to get based on who a crew’s top ref is.
Going for goal
One aspect where the Tiger-Cats deserve credit was in their decision to go for it on third down inside Montreal’s 10-yard line in the first quarter.
The decision was divisive, with the take-the-points crowd screaming, well, that the team should have taken the points. I, however, swing in the opposite direction and applaud the team for taking a calculated chance. The potential upside outweighed any possible downside.
The play call seemed all wrong and the team ended up giving the Alouettes the ball back but after forcing a two and out deep in Montreal territory, the Ticats would score a touchdown on their very next drive.
When you are a 3-7 team, struggling offensively and have spent the entire season languishing in the red zone, going for it when you are deep in enemy territory early in the game is a sound decision.
The Ticats were also right to kick the field goal in a similar situation later in the game. That was late in the half and the downside of coming away with no points there was simply too large.
Death by 1,000 intermediate passes
Montreal had an excellent offensive game plan on Saturday, using short and intermediate pass routes to offset Hamilton’s suddenly ferocious front four. The Als were eaten alive in the previous matchup between the two teams and adjusted accordingly to great effect.
Trevor Harris is at his most dangerous when he can get the ball out quickly and Montreal crafted a plan to do just that against Hamilton. Harris was sacked just twice and while he faced a decent amount of pressure, the Alouettes choosing to sacrifice the big play for the short one worked to perfection.
Harris finished with 382 yards on 24-of-31 passing with three touchdowns and one interception. His longest pass was a 54-yarder to Kaion Julien-Grant that was entirely yards after the catch and just five of Harris’ 24 completions came on passes of more than 15 air yards.
The Alouettes tailored a plan to Harris’ strengths and to nullify one of Hamilton’s. It was a masterful game plan.
Down and distance
Another aspect of Hamilton’s defence that has bothered me throughout the season is their seeming inability to get the opposing offence off the field when they have forced a second-and-long.
Hamilton gave up four first downs — and one touchdown — when the Alouettes were faced with a second-and-eight or longer.
On Montreal’s first scoring drive of the second half, the Ticats allowed the Als to pick up a first down on second-and-10 from their own 17. Trevor Harris dumped a pass off to running back Walter Fletcher, who made two Tiger-Cat defenders miss to pick up 14 yards and keep the drive alive. Two plays later and receiver Kaion Julien-Grant was sprinting to the end zone.
Run at your own risk
It is becoming almost boring to say but until a team shows they can run on the Tiger-Cats, I am going to keep talking about how good the run defence is. It is the one area of the team that has been consistently great all season and they were again against Montreal.
The Tabbies held the Als to just 43 yards rushing on 12 carries on Saturday, with Walter Fletcher leading the way with a measly 28 yards on six carries. Hamilton has allowed just one team to rush for more than 100 yards and that was Edmonton back in Week 4. B.C. Lions’ running back James Butler’s 76 yards back when the two teams met in Week 6 is the most any single player has accumulated against the Ticats.
Dressing to play
While I said earlier that a quarterback controversy is not yet in the offing, I did find it curious that Dane Evans was healthy enough to dress for Saturday’s divisional matchup but not healthy enough to start. Obviously, there were no plans for him to go into the game — backup Jamie Newman only got on the field for one play himself — but if disaster struck then Evans could have been forced onto the field.
It makes me wonder why the team would dress him if he was not ready to play or why the team would not start him if he was healthy enough to dress. It is worth monitoring over the next couple of weeks.
A new M.A.S.H. unit
Speaking of injuries, the Ticats once again suffered a rash of them on Saturday. Fullback/tight end Jake Burt, return man Lawrence Woods and centre Alex Fontana all left the game, with Burt’s and Woods’ injuries looking possibly long-term.
Burt was seen on the sideline, head in hand and wrapped in a towel following a first-half, non-contact injury that occurred on special teams, while Woods had to be carried off by teammates after suffering a similar non-contact injury on punt coverage later in the game.
Fontana’s injury is a bit of a mystery as no one was even aware he was out of the game until his replacement, Coulter Woodmansey, snapped the ball over Matthew Shiltz’s head late in the game. Even the TSN announcers seemed unaware that Fontana had left seeing as Rod Smith blamed Fontana for the bad snap.
This brings me to an even larger point and that is the lack of available information on stuff like injuries during games. It should not come as a surprise to the people being paid to watch and call the game that a player is missing due to injury or has been benched.
People watching at home rely on the announcers to tell them what is going on and when they do not have that information, it makes for a poorer broadcast and a poorer viewing experience. It is one of my biggest gripes with the way TSN has their announcers call games.
Just to be straight, I am not at all blaming the people behind the miss for this — they can only relay the information they are given — but it is something I have wanted to see change for a very long time. Until it does, TSN’s CFL broadcast will come across as lesser than.
Not killing me, Small
Despite his one miss on Saturday, Hamilton’s kicking game has been much more consistent since they moved Michael Domagala to punter and inserted American Seth Small into the lineup as the team’s placekicker.
The Texas A&M University product has missed just two field goals in 16 tries and is third in the league in field goal percentage since taking over for Domagala after Week 4.
Domagala has also found his groove as the team’s punter and the pair have turned Hamilton’s kicking game from an adventure into one of the team’s most reliable units.
Running out of gas
If teams should stop running against the Tiger-Cats, then the Ticats should just stop trying to run the football. They do not do it with any consistency and they do not do it to any great effect.
Don Jackson is much better than his stats currently indicate but his paltry 3.8 yards per carry tells you the team just does not run well enough to make it a focal point of their offence.
Against Montreal, Jackson carried the ball 10 times for just 41 yards, with his longest run being nine yards. That is simply not good enough.
This is not the Don Jackson we saw a year ago, whose insertion into the lineup late in the season sparked a resurgence in the team’s rushing attack and powered them to a Grey Cup berth.
If it is not the quarterbacks making something happen with their feet, the Tiger-Cats’ rushing attack is toothless.
While now on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, the Ticats are not dead quite yet. The team still has two more games left to finish off their six-game divisional swing, and they are both against the also-struggling Toronto Argonauts.
The Tiger-Cats beat the Argos in their last meeting and Toronto has now lost two in a row after dropping their Week 11 home matchup with the Calgary Stampeders 22-19.
The Argos will be without star running back Andrew Harris for the rest of the season, which changes what the double blue was hoping to do offensively this season. That means more of the game rests on the shoulders of maligned quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
The Ticats are not exactly brimming with confidence but a pair of wins over the good ship Argonaut would catapult them above their arch-rivals as we head into the season’s final third.
The season is hanging by a thread and the black and gold are entering some real must-win territory. Getting a win at BMO Field next Friday night would be a good start, as the team hopes to make a push to keep their hopes of playing in a third consecutive Grey Cup alive.