Comeback incomplete: 10 thoughts on Hamilton’s season-opening loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Photo: Mike Still/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were defeated by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers by a score of 42-31 on Friday night at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Comeback falls short

After playing perhaps the worst half of football we will see from them all season, the Ticats took their coach’s words to heart and gave a much better effort in the final two quarters.

In an interview with TSN’s John Lu at halftime, Tabbies’ bench boss Orlondo Steinauer called the team’s first-half performance “flat-out terrible” and promised a better showing in the game’s final 30 minutes.

While not enough to complete the comeback after starting the third quarter with a 25-point deficit, the Tiger-Cats were much improved following the mid-game break.

The Ticats outscored the Bombers 27-13 in the final two frames and got as close as 39-31 before the Bombers converted a late field goal to secure the victory.

A performance like Friday’s won’t be good enough to win many games this year, but if you are looking for a glimmer of hope going forward, the second-half resurgence provides you with just that.

Misera-Bo performance

It was far from a fairytale beginning for Bo Levi Mitchell in his first game as a Tiger-Cat.

His stat line was pedestrian, throwing for fewer than 200 yards, tossing just one touchdown to two interceptions, losing a fumble and completing barely over 50 percent of his passes. It was eerily reminiscent of the play of his predecessor from last season’s opening game.

Against Saskatchewan to open the season last year, former Ticats starter Dane Evans threw for two scores and 222 yards on 18-of-28 passing but also turned the ball over four times in 30-13 shellacking by the Riders.

Mitchell was brought in with the hopes of him being an upgrade over the man he replaced but after one game it looks like more of the same from the quarterback position for the Tabbies.

The two-time Most Outstanding Player played better as the game went on but nowhere near up to the standard he set for himself during his excellent run in Calgary.

The Ticats need better from Bo. Much better.

Too much boneheadedness

Beating yourself is a surefire way to lose any game but is especially costly against a team as talented as the Blue Bombers.

For as much as the Bombers deserve credit for taking it to the Ticats early, Hamilton did themselves no favours by consistently taking dumb penalties and making far too many unforced errors.

On the penalty front, three objectionable conduct and two unnecessary roughness penalties are simply too many. In total, the Ticats committed 14 penalties for 121 yards and gifted Winnipeg field position time and time again, Against a bad team, that will hurt you; against the Bombers, it’s a death sentence.

Seth Small twice booting a kickoff out of bounds is inexcusable. The latter of his two botched kicks occurred after the Ticats had just found the end zone and covered a two-point try to make it a one-score game.

Winnipeg picked up just a single first down on the ensuing drive but was still close enough to allow Sergio Castillo to kick the game-sealing field goal. Had Small kept his kickoff in bounds perhaps the final few minutes of Friday’s game play out differently.

Hamilton’s missed connections

One area where the offence clearly struggled on Friday was in the chemistry department, especially where it concerned Mitchell’s connection with his new set of pass catchers.

The Tiger-Cats’ willingness to throw deep is certainly a welcome change. Offensive coordinator Tommy Condell is an easy target for fans to take out their anger but I thought he called a good game. He mixed the run and pass well despite the lopsided early scoreline and allowed Mitchell to take the types of downfield shots he has expressed he wants to take.

Hamitlon’s problems offensively were execution-based, not play-calling-based. Mitchell either under or overthrew numerous receivers, most notably Tim White.

White and Mitchell did not seem on the same page for most of the night. While the team’s highest-paid receiver lead the team in both catches, yards and targets, White hauled in just four of 10 passes thrown his way.

It is an encouraging sign to see the team attempt to take their chances with the long ball but long incompletions are still incompletions. Mitchell will need to get one the same page as his receivers if this offence is to cook how he wants.

Slip and fall

While admittedly better in the second half, it was a rough first night for Hamilton’s new starting secondary, especially newcomer Kenneth George Jr.

George Jr. won the spirited preseason battle for the team’s boundary cornerback spot over second-year player Will Sunderland but the University of Tennessee did not look ready for prime time.

On at least two occasions the 26-year-old fell while in coverage, allowing his receiver to pick up big yardage. He was not nearly as bad in the second half when the entire team picked up their play, but it was baptism by fire for George Jr. and he came out on the worse end of it.

Tunde Adeleke was twice left out in the cold by bad coverage calls and dropped an easy interception in the end zone that gifted the Bombers three points.

Bombers’ quarterback Zach Collaros picked Hamilton’s secondary apart, tossing for 354 yards and three touchdowns on 67.7 percent, with most of that damage coming in the first half. It was an inauspicious debut for Hamilton’s new secondary and a performance that will need to be better before changes are made.

Butler fingers

James Butler’s Tiger-Cats debut was a mixed bag. On the one hand, his six-yards-per-carry average was impressive, as was his 69 total yards of offence on 13 touches. For a team that has been notoriously averse to running the football with any regularity, the Ticats’ ground game was a bit of a bright spot.

However, while Butler took with one hand he gave with the other, fumbling twice. He was only charged with one fumble, which he lost, but the second one that was called back on review looked to be out of his hands before his knee touched the ground.

For a team that wants to run the football more in 2023 and used a decent chunk of their salary cap space to sign Butler, he needs to do a better job of protecting the football.

The Ki to it all

One of the few bright spots for the Ticats on Friday was second-year Canadian receiver Kiondré Smith. The 23-year-old’s raw numbers don’t jump off the page — four catches for 39 yards — but those four catches are nearly a quarter of the passes he hauled in during his rookie year a season ago.

Two of Smith’s receptions were critical second-down conversations and he seems to have already established trust with his new signal caller.

Smith has unlimited upside and the potential is there for him to be the best Canadian receiver the Tiger-Cats have had since Andy Fantuz retired.

What the Duke?

Someone will need to explain to me why Duke Williams was not a larger part of Friday’s game plan. Williams caught Bo’s first regular season pass in a Ticats uniform and then disappeared for most of the next two quarters, only being targeted again on a near-interception in the third quarter.

Duke would haul in a 41-yard bomb that helped set up Tim White’s third-quarter score and finish second on the team with 53 receiving yards but he was not utilized nearly enough.

Williams will need to be more of a focal point going forward if this team is going to make noise.

Still special

Another bright spot was the play of the special team’s unit, which was mostly superb on Friday.

Lawrence Woods was effective on kick returns despite also playing every down on defence as the team’s starting field-side cornerback. Woods averaged 25.7 yards per return and had a pair of returns go for 40 and 31 yards, respectively.

The Ticats also scored via a blocked punt when rookie Omar Bayless fell on the ball in the end zone after fellow rookie Carthell Flowers-Lloyd’s blocked Jamieson Sheahan’s punt attempt.

The team also produced a turnover on the kickoff immediately following Chris Edwards’ 62-yard scoop-and-score touchdown when Kyle Wilson stripped Janarion Grant. The ball was plucked out of the air by Fraser Sopik who rumbled down to Winnipeg’s two-yard line. One play later, the Ticats were in the end zone and a one-time 25-point lead was now down to eight.

The Ticats scored 20 points off turnovers and produced multiple big plays on special teams. That will usually be enough to win a game. The fact that Hamilton still lost by double digits shows you just how inept the offence was against the Bombers on Friday night.

Up next

The Tabbies get to jump from the frying pan into the fire as next up for the team is a date with the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts next Sunday night at BMO Field in Toronto.

The Argos will be unveiling their 2022 championship banner after sitting out the opening weekend on a first-week bye. Getting to do so in front of a number of Tiger-Cats fans who will make the trip down the QEW is an especially cruel twist of the knife.

We do not yet know what the Argos will look like under new quarterback Chad Kelly but after seeing the Ticats in action we know the areas they will need to work on if they hope to avoid starting 0-2 for the third consecutive season.

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.