HAMILTON — The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have already proven a 37-year-old quarterback can look young and dangerous again. Henry Burris, reinvigorated by head coach George Cortez’s offence, leads the CFL with 15 touchdowns.
And the Ticats have also shown some mettle, surviving claims of a dressing-room rift in Week 3 to reel off wins over Toronto, Montreal and Saskatchewan. A win against Calgary on Thursday night and the Ticats will take sole possession of first in the East Division.
But is Hamilton’s defence prepared if the encounter with the Stampeders explodes into a shootout?
Kevin Glenn, the Stampeders quarterback and former Ticats starter, has the league’s highest pass completion percentage (70.3%), while Hamilton allows the third-most passing yards per game (310.8). Running back Jon Cornish ran for minus-one yard against B.C. two weeks ago, but Hamilton allows the most rushing yards in the league (127.6). And slotback Nik Lewis has scored a league-high six receiving touchdowns. If he cannot run or twist around you, he will jump over you.
Despite losing to B.C. in its last game before a bye last week, the Stampeders have the second-best offence, scoring 31 points per game. The Ticats have the most effective arsenal, scoring 32.4 per game, but the defence is also the league’s worst, allowing 33.4 points. One point difference. Can Hamilton’s defence make the critical stop?
Defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan took a moment to think Tuesday.
“I’ll tell you this … as a defence we have times when we’re playing well, and we have times when we aren’t playing well,” he said. “And when we’re struggling — we’re struggling right now — and we have to be able to make a few plays to stop the floodgates.”
The players at least do not lack confidence. Two of the defence’s primary big-play makers are not concerned.
“We’ve shown that when we are called upon, we can deliver,” rookie defensive end Brandon Boudreaux said without hesitation. He forced Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant to fumble late in the fourth quarter two weeks ago.
“I’m not really worried,” veteran linebacker Rey Williams said. He took Durant’s fumble close to the Roughriders’ end zone, and helped propel Hamilton’s 19-point comeback.
Creehan is less emphatic because he knew the learning curve for the players in his man-to-man pressure defence would be hard to plot. Nothing dominant comes together in six weeks, especially with rookies and new acquisitions moving in and out of the lineup, and veterans unsure of their roles.
“I’m confident that we’re getting better every day,” he said.
Conceding more than 500 yards and five offensive touchdowns against Saskatchewan in Week 1 was “tough,” Creehan says, and Hamilton’s players looked confused. Five weeks later, in Saskatchewan, there was more evident confidence, though the Ticats allowed 450 yards and three touchdowns. For now Creehan is judging success from player to player.
“For the past 22 years I’ve always, on second down, been taught to think run, but up here I’m thinking pass every play,” said Brandon Boudreaux, who replaced all-star Justin Hickman on the edge of the defensive line, and now leads Hamilton with three sacks.
“Everybody across the line, [Greg] Peach, Jermaine McElveen, [Robert] Rose, and Ronnell [Brown], we’ve all definitely grown into our new positions.”
The coach, naturally, cannot be satisfied easily. Hamilton certainly squeezed Montreal and Saskatchewan in the fourth quarter, and even forced B.C. into nine two-and-outs in Week 2; but the Ticats keep folding, almost predictably, in the third quarter, being outscored 64-17, and Creehan still does not know why.
A successful defence is still Hamilton’s big project because each game is a whole problem for the first year coordinator, and Calgary will not be stopped in one moment.
“We’ve got to make more plays than them,” Creehan said.