Compared to their banner 2019, this year’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats have gone through their fair share of ups and downs. But as they prepare to host Montreal Alouettes in Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final, there’s plenty to suggest the Ticats finding their game when it matters most.
In going 4-1 down the stretch, Hamilton was able to secure a home playoff date for a third consecutive season. The Tiger-Cats also saw their defence elevate to the highest level we’ve seen this year; a level that’s reminiscent of 2019’s dominant form. Chock full of high-end playmakers, Hamilton’s defence looks to be hitting high gear at every position.
In so many ways, the Ticats were paced by their elite front four while rolling to a 15-3 record last season. And, while that same starting unit was still one of Hamilton’s strengths this season, it returned to dominant form in the final leg. Knowing how everything starts up front for this team, that’s an encouraging sign.
Overall, Dylan Wynn’s numbers are down this year from his breakout 2019. But Wynn sure did look like one of the CFL’s most disruptive interior forces down the stretch. He racked up three of his five sacks and 11 of his 30 tackles in the final four games of the season. When Wynn and Ted Laurent are dialed in, there’s not a better interior in the league.
And, much like Wynn, Hamilton’s dynamic defensive ends brought it in a big way late this year. Julian Howsare looked like a man possessed in October and November and recorded four sacks and 15 tackles in his last four outings. Ja’Gared Davis, on the other hand, had a third of his six sacks in the final two games of this season.
I still believe the Tiger-Cats boast the league’s best defensive line when things are clicking. Knowing how much of Hamilton’s defensive game plan starts with that group, the fact that they’re firing on all cylinders right now is very good news.
Reigning East Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player Simoni Lawrence hasn’t missed a beat. Lawrence put together an outstanding 2021 campaign, finishing with 73 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns. Having Lawrence on the field is never a bad thing in a single-elimination scenario.
But what I really like is the connection he and newcomer Jovan Santos-Knox have created. These two have formed a solid traditional linebacker duo this season and as such the Ticats haven’t suffered defensively when opposing teams have attempted to point the ball away from Lawrence.
In fact, go take a look at Santos-Knox’s totals down the stretch. He put together back-to-back ten-tackle games in weeks 13 and 14 and finished with 27 of his 72 total tackles in Hamilton’s final four games of the season. Santos-Knox is an efficient, rangy MIKE linebacker and has been a perfect complement to Lawrence on the weak side.
The defensive backfield
The embarrassment of riches that is Hamilton’s secondary helped them lead the CFL with 17 interceptions this year. But this unit’s effectiveness goes beyond just raw interception numbers. More importantly, the Ticats have returned to being one of the league’s most difficult teams to pass on.
Part of that progression has been the development of Desmond Lawrence. The rookie out of North Carolina has become one of the league’s most difficult players to pass against and settled into the boundary corner spot as the season went on. Both of Lawrence’s two interceptions came down the stretch, but more importantly, he defended passes at an elite level in the second half of the year.
With the ascension of Lawrence, the Tiger-Cats have assembled what is likely the league’s most terrifying boundary duo alongside Cariel Brooks. With five interceptions, Brooks led the CFL with five interceptions and was as consistently hard to throw on as he’s ever been…and that’s saying something.
And it’s not like Lawrence and Brooks are the only playmakers in Hamilton’s backfield. Jumal Rolle made the transition to field corner relatively seamlessly. Kameron Kelly has done a nice job in pass defence in recent weeks, too, as he continues to solidify himself at SAM. With Tunde Adeleke and Ciante Evans rounding things out, the Ticats have as deep and talented a secondary group you’ll find anywhere.
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