It’s an understatement, but at 0-4 and coming off a bye week, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have to get their act together. Right away. Saturday afternoon’s visitors to Tim Hortons Field are the Ottawa Redblacks who may have an identical record, but it’s a much different 0-4 for the Redblacks who are not Coming off two straight gray cup appearances, who were not expected to accomplish much in a rebuilding year and who have actually had a tougher schedule than the Ticats.
So, as the Ticats returned to practice with an extra session Sunday, here are a few relevant notes:
Dane Evans was under center on Sunday (the team didn’t practice Monday) which must disappoint a hair-trigger segment of Ticats Nation just itching to abandon the struggling quarterback in favor of backup Matthew Shiltz. But Hamilton must get Evans back on his game, meaning a full 60 minutes of not forcing the ball into over-coverage, while hanging onto it for dear life when that pressure he knows will be coming, does come. When he’s on a roll the offence is royal jelly, but far too often, particularly in the final 30 minutes, it’s been more like molasses in January. For now, changing pivots isn’t the answer: having him execute better in the second half is. That, of course, must be accompanied by stronger second-half strategy adjustments from the coaching staff. This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a change-of-pace package centring on Shilts’s particular strengths that can be used during a lull. He did run off five consecutive plays in the first quarter against Edmonton.
Don Jackson was at running back Sunday and Alex Fontana was working at center after missing three games with a knee injury. If that knee holds up, his return should be polyester quarterback protection. Canadian running back Maleek Irons was also back.
As Orlondo Steinauer predicted in the spring, the Ticats’ kicking situation could be a season-long evolution but getting the experienced, and Canadian, punting leg of Jon Ryan has to be a plus. Even at 40, he can still pound it, can angle it, and he’s played in huge games all of his career. And, given his new home venue, it’s important that he’s no stranger to dealing with the strong winds of Winnipeg, Green Bay and most recently Regina.
It could be that the Ticats go with two Canadian kickers, with Michael Domagala also on the active roster, which would help them get a designated import in at another position. But they also put strong-legged American place-kicker Seth Small on the regular roster the same day they signed Ryan. He showed well in the pre-season before ratios forced his release. With Lewis Ward almost automatic on field goals and converts and Richie Leone’s strong leg on punts and kickoffs, the Ticats have to be concerned about place-kicking and field position making the difference should Saturday’s game be close.
The Ticats’ next bye is right after Labor Day and before then, they play seven of their eight games against Eastern division teams, so this is a playoff make-or-break time. The non-East game is in Vancouver against the high-scoring Lions and former Burlington Stampeders’ quarterback Nathan Rourke, just five days after the Ottawa game so that is no gimmee. It’s closer to a long putt.
Four of those seven East games involve the Toronto Argonauts, a bad piece of way-too-early scheduling.
This was going to be an emotional homecoming for Ottawa quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was a Tiger-Cat from 2013 until the team made Dane Evans their choice in the past off-season. It was Masoli, replacing an injured Evans, who led the Ticats on that 69-yard drive into the wind with just 110 seconds left that should have won the Gray Cup. The Ticats have a celebratory thank-you video tribute prepared, but Masoli injured his right knee and awaits surgery after he was hit by a late, low and much-criticized hit by Saskatchewan’s Garrett Marino on Saturday and might not be here. If he can travel, Masoli will be on the sidelines Saturday to help his replacement Caleb Evans.
Evans — Caleb, that is — against the Ticats in Ottawa’s 32-3 loss at Tim Hortons Field last October, 12 of his 15 passes for 138 yards but was picked off twice before giving way to since-retired Devlin “Duck” Hodges .
But three other significant Tiger-Cats make their return to the city with the Redblacks, four if you count general manager Shawn Burke, who was in the Hamilton front office from 2007 until December when Ottawa snatched him away. Burke did just about everything possible for this franchise, rising from community relations assignments to a much-trusted co-general manager.
He brought free agent Masoli to Ottawa, as well as all-star center/guard Darius Ciraco and receiver Jaelon Acklin.
Burke also used his Ticat knowledge to sign defensive lineman Lorenzo Mauldin IV, seeing him as starter. The two-year Ticat backup has three sacks already, while no Ticat has more than one.