Heading into the 2011 CFL season, Hamilton had a pair of pass rushers who seemed primed to become a formidable tandem in Steeltown for the foreseeable future.
Stevie Baggs was coming off an impressive return to the three down game at the end of the 2010 season. He recorded five sacks during his first seven games with the Ticats, causing management, media and fans alike to salivate over the thought of what he could do over a full year in black and gold.
However, Baggs managed just five sacks in 18 games during would can only be described as a frustrating 2011 campaign for the boisterous defensive end. With Baggs’ production drop, he was deemed expendable in the off-season and cut loose by the club.
Justin Hickman was the entrenched starter on the other end of the line to begin the 2011 schedule.
After back-to-back seven-sack seasons, there were signs a breakout year was in the offing. 18 games and a league-high-tying 13 sacks later, Hickman was drawing interest from NFL franchises.
The UCLA product eventually inked a two-year contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
Just like that, with Baggs’ play tailing off and Hickman elevating his game to a new level, both defensive ends were gone from Hamilton’s roster, leaving two crucial starting positions open.
Fortunately for the Tiger-Cats, Hickman signed down south a week before the 2012 CFL free agent period.
So, the Tabbies dipped into the open market and signed defensive end Greg Peach, who registered 13 sacks in his first three CFL seasons with Edmonton.
Peach’s quarterback takedown total could have been much higher had he been on the field more often.
The Eastern Washington alum played in only 36 of a possible 54 regular season games, due to ankle and knee injuries, during his time as an Eskimo.
In his first camp with the Ticats, Peach has been fighting a nagging upper body injury, but when on the field he has been lining up with the number one defensive unit.
It seems Hamilton’s coaching staff is confident in the 25-year-old’s pass rush abilities and they’re trying to preserve their investment by making sure Peach is as healthy as possible for the start of the regular season.
Assuming Peach can stay on the field, and out of the trainer’s room, he looks to be the answer on one end of the defensive front.
The leader to start on the other side from Peach is a CFL rookie, but it’s not his first year in professional football.
Shawn Crable spent parts of three seasons with the NFL’s New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round, 78th overall, by the Pats in 2008. But, he was released in November of 2010. After playing in the UFL last season, Crable now finds himself in the Steel City and has impressed in the early stages of his Ticats tenure.
No. 95 has flashed some of the immense potential he showed at the University of Michigan (Crable set a school record with 28.5 tackles for loss during his senior year in 2007) while participating in his first CFL training camp.
The 27-year-old saw plenty of action during Hamilton’s first pre-season contest against the Argos and showed all the traits you would want to see from a potential opening day starter.
Crable has a good burst out of his stance, displayed a nice array of inside and outside pass rush moves, but most importantly always found and ran to the football. It might sound simple enough, but Crable’s effort was very apparent in his first CFL game.
Maybe his compete level was just a little too high.
In particular, on one pass play in the first quarter he was called for a late hit on Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray, but you can’t fault Crable for his aggression. High motor, intense players are the type Tiger-Cats defensive coordinator Casey Creehan is looking for.
Crable, who has been running with the first team defence of late, appears to be the favourite to claim a starting job to bookend Peach.
Meanwhile, Jermaine McElveen, who has taken reps at both tackle and end, Brandon Boudreaux and Darius Powell have all seen time with the first unit and are fighting for roster spots.
Though not a defensive end, the Ticats should receive pass rush help from one of their interior lineman.
Robert Rose, who played three games with Hamilton in his first CFL stint last season, looks primed for a breakout campaign in 2012. Rose is a load to deal with at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds.
Pair his size with the way he uses his leverage and he looks set to become a dominant force inside and help get after the opposing passer from his defensive tackle position.
Rose appeared to be in mid-season form in the Ticats tune-up against the Argos. He continually re-established the line of scrimmage in Toronto’s offensive backfield, disrupting a number of plays.
However Rose, the former Ohio State Buckeye, remains unproven at the moment and like the rest of his defensive linemates is trying to become more of an answer than a question mark.
Can Peach stay healthy for a full season? Will Crable finally turn his potential into production at the pro level? Do Rose, McElveen or another individual produce a breakthrough campaign?
Time will soon tell if the Ticats have the right, or wrong, answer to the burning pass rush question in the Hammer.