Steinberg’s MMQB: Defensive dominance

When they’re on, no CFL team has a better defensive line than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Well, much like it has been for the last month, Hamilton’s front four was in dominant form in Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final. Dylan Wynn, Julian Howsare, Ted Laurent, and Ja’Gared Davis were just too much to handle for Montreal and they led the way in a 23-12 win.

Sunday’s effort started in the interior as Wynn and Laurent wreaked havoc all afternoon. Statistically, Wynn finished with two sacks, a fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles. Laurent, on the other hand, had a recovery and three defensive tackles. But those impressive stats don’t even tell the whole story.

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The Alouettes struggled all day to contain Laurent and Wynn in the middle, which opened things up on the outside. It’s not like Howsare and Davis are easy to block off the edge to begin with, but Montreal didn’t have a chance on Sunday. Davis added a pair of sacks, while Howsare had one to go along with a 45-yard fumble recovery in the second quarter.

Hamilton’s defensive line made any worries about a shorthanded defensive backfield disappear quickly. A late Ciante Evans scratch moved Tunde Adeleke to field halfback and pressed rookie Stavros Katsantonis into a start at safety. The Tiger-Cats didn’t miss a beat in the secondary, and a big part of that was how little time receivers had to find separation. Als quarterback Trevor Harris was under that much pressure.

Hamilton’s defence looked championship calibre against Montreal. They’ll need a repeat effort this weekend vs. Toronto in the Eastern Final.

When it counts

“If you would have told me going into this game that I would have thrown four picks and we would have won, I would have told you you’re psychotic.”

Saskatchewan’s Cody Fajardo knew he wasn’t at his best against Calgary in the Western Semi-Final. He did indeed throw four interceptions, including three in the first half, as the Riders outlasted the Stampeders 33-30 in double overtime. But you know what else Fajardo did? He executed when his team absolutely needed it most.

Fajardo’s fourth interception with 7:53 remaining could have been a dagger. Saskatchewan was trailing by one and were on their own side of half, giving Calgary great field position. The Stamps cashed in with a Rene Paredes field goal to extend their lead to 24-21 with less than six minutes to go. But it wasn’t the devastating blow it felt like at the time.

With his team down by three and needing a clutch drive, Fajardo delivered. How about six straight completions, including three to Duke Williams, to move the Riders 70 yards downfield to the Calgary five. A couple short William Powell runs later, it was Fajardo plunging into the end zone on a one-yard quarterback sneak and a 27-24 lead.

If there’s one thing we’ve come to know about Fajardo since taking the helm in Saskatchewan, it’s that he’s a gamer. He showed it again Sunday. In the midst of a tough afternoon, Fajardo put together a crucial drive that helped get the Roughriders to overtime.

It’s exactly that fire and resilience that that allowed Fajardo to stick around in this league long enough to get his shot. And it’s what’ll give Saskatchewan a chance on the road in Winnipeg for the Western Final.

Welcome back

Montreal’s finish to the season wasn’t as they envisioned. But despite a second straight first round playoff exit, the Alouettes have proven 2019’s return to relevance wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Montreal put together a second straight solid regular season and were in the mix for a home playoff date until the end. It’s small consolation, but small steps forward are still steps forward.

The Als have solid foundation pieces to build on going forward. It’s why, despite a disappointing finish, I’d be feeling optimistic as a football fan in Montreal. It starts with the obvious: East Division Most Outstanding Player William Stanback. He’s the league’s best running back and is already under contract for 2022.

The Alouettes have also built an extremely exciting and talented group of receivers. Eugene Lewis and Jake Wieneke both finished top five in receiving yards this year, while Quan Bray and the injured B.J. Cunningham present dangerous options as well. While all four are free agents for 2022, history suggests Montreal has a good chance of retaining this high-end group.

And let’s not forget David Ménard after his first season back home. The Carabins de l’Université de Montréal product is a free agent for next season, but after his outstanding first year with the Alouettes, it would be a surprise not to see him back. Ménard led the team with eight sacks en route to being named East Division Most Outstanding Canadian.

The Alouettes have an interesting situation to figure out at quarterback with Vernon Adams Jr. and Trevor Harris, which will be a story to watch this off-season. But with building blocks in place and a second straight playoff appearance, it feels like Montreal is moving in the right direction.

Heartbreaker

I couldn’t help but feel terrible for kicker Rene Paredes in the dying moments of Calgary’s loss to the Riders. Paredes is one of the greatest kickers in CFL history and is likely destined for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. He led the league by hitting 91.7% of his field goals this season. And he’s the 2021 West Division Most Outstanding Special Teams Player. But you know none of that matters much to Paredes right now.

Paredes missed three field goals on eight tries in Sunday’s Western Semi-Final in what was an uncharacteristic off day. But it was his reaction after missing a 44-yard kick in the second overtime that really hit home. It was tough to watch one of the greatest of all-time that distraught and devastated.

Off days happen to everyone, even guys as automatic as Paredes has been during his career. Playing a position where having a short memory is crucial, I’m sure Sunday will stick with Paredes for a while. But the veteran proved this season he’s as good as ever and I have no doubt he’ll be back at the same level in 2022.

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