GUELPH -- The Hamilton Tiger-Cats return home in search of a third straight win on Saturday afternoon at Alumni Stadium, as they host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the back end of a home-and-home.
It marks the third time already these division rivals have squared off this season, but the Ticats will be seeing a slightly different Bomber team than the one they defeated last week 37-18 at Investors Group Field.
Henry Burris and the Tabbies eventually broke the game wide open in the second half in that affair, as the veteran pivot threw for 333 passing yards a touchdown to spoil the debut of rookie CFL quarterback Max Hall.
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This week, after another night of sputtering offence for the Blue and Gold, the major changes of late trickled down to the sideline as Gary Crowton is out as the team’s offensive coordinator just seven games into his second season in the league.
In his place is former Ticats head coach Marcel Bellefeuille, who was recently hired in an advisory role in for the offence and now brings what teammates are calling a change of philosophy to a unit that has struggled in recent years.
“He’s a stickler for detail,” Terrence Edwards, the team’s leading receiver with 290 yards, told BlueBombers.com. “Your splits, your depth – you’ve got a set of rules and you’re going to abide by those rules on the whole concept of the play.”
“There’s no bending the rules, these are the rules and that’s the way he’s always worked and I think that’s what we need.”
Head Coach Tim Burke, who took over halfway through last season, said Crowton often tried to be too perfect, and that Bellefeuille sees things a little differently.
“I think with Gary’s offence he was always trying to make every play work against every coverage and every blitz, and sometimes it just doesn’t,” said Burke. “It’s like on defence, if you play two-cover for example there are two-cover beaters, and so if they run the right play, they’re going to beat you.”
“And the same thing is true if we have the right defence called against a certain offensive play, we should win.”
One thing virtually everyone in Bomberland can agree on is that Bellefeuille’s philosophy should benefit the quarterbacks most.
“I feel like everybody understands what they’re doing, and can we do a greater understanding earlier in the week than they have in the past,” continued Burke. “So I think they have a better idea of what they’re doing, I think they’ll play faster, and I think the quarterbacks will know immediately where to go with the ball.”
That's particularly true for Hall, who showed some positive signs in his first career start but also threw two interceptions and struggled to move the offence through most of the night.
Keeping things simple could pay dividends for a quarterback who’s still getting his feet wet in a brand new league.
“He’s real good at helping me understand the defences, understanding what coverages they’re in and that dictates where I go with the ball so if anything he’s just helping me understands the reads and helping me understand the defence,” Hall said of his new coordinator.
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The 27-year-old who spent time as a starter in the National Football League completed 10 of 12 passes in the first half with a touchdown pass, but in the second half showed his inexperience, going 8-18 and failing to find the end zone.
“He’s been around a long time, he’s just smart – and he makes things make sense. I understand what he’s trying to get me to do and I understand the pictures he’s giving me, and I need to go out and execute but he’s done a fantastic job.”
Perhaps of equal concern for the Bombers should be their defence, which is a change after that unit had a hot start to the season.
While Alex Hall, the CFL’s sack leader with nine so far this season, is a bright spot, the Bombers are allowing a league-worst 30.0 points per game and sit near the bottom of the league in the majority of defensive categories.
Former first overall pick Henoc Muamba, who enjoyed a major breakout year in his second CFL season last year, said it’s time to get back on track as another significant challenge looms.
“We’ve had a couple bad games and we just want to re-establish exactly who we are on the field, and that’s a fast and physical game that we bring to the table and a lot of energy, we just need to bring that back and put it on film,” said Muamba.
It won't be easy, as the Ticats have now eclipsed 400 yards of offence in three straight games, including a 445-yard performance in last week’s win over the Bombers.
They’re getting healthier at every position and overall are turning the ball over less while averaging more time of possession. Meanwhile, on second downs over the last two games they’ve converted at a rate of 60 per cent, compared to just 30 per cent in their previous four contests.
Last season they were the most dangerous and highest-scoring offence in the CFL, and after a coaching change and a bit of a slow start this season, partly due to injury, the Ticats just now appear to be hitting their full stride.
Burris is the clear-cut league leader in passing yards with 2,136 yards in seven starts this season and is on pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards, which would mark the second straight year he’s done that and the third in his career.
A big part of that offensive success this season has been the improbable emergence of rookie receiver Greg Ellingson, who was the team’s top playmaker while usual star slotback Andy Fantuz missed time with an injury.
Ellingson leads the team in receiving with 471 yards and three touchdowns, and even though Fantuz returned in last week’s win, Head Coach Kent Austin expects the 25-year-old Ellingson to continue making plays.
“The thing about Greg is he has time and space ability like Andy,” said Austin. “He has some quickness, he’s really good at his releases. He catches a lot of passes, you rarely see Greg drop a ball, so we’re just pleased with his progress.”
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“He’s only going to get a lot better, but a lot of our guys are at that stage right now. The more they play the better they’re going to get.”
While the Ticats boast arguably the league’s deepest group of receivers in the league, Austin has also added an unexpected wrinkle at quarterback, working Dan LeFevour into certain packages on offence.
LeFevour may not pose any threat to take Burris’ job, but the duo has so far been successful in providing the Hamilton offence with a change of pace.
“He’s efficient in his running style, and he knows how to set-up blocks,” said Austin, most impressed by LeFevour’s ability to take off with the ball. “That’s the other thing you’ll notice if you really watch closely, he’ll set up blocks like a running back does.”
“You can tell he’s run the ball a lot in his past.”
But while the former high school running back excels in the running game, LeFevour has also proven to be an able passer, which should keep any defence on its heels when he enters the game.
“Regardless of whether people think Dan’s going to come in and just run the ball all the time, there are different times we’re going to put him in there just to drop back and make the reads as well,” said Burris, one of the most successful dual-threat pivots of all-time.
“Whereas with me, I can still run, so there are times that I can get in there and do some of the things that Dan’s done in the past – so just because Dan’s been there and he’s done this and that, we can switch that role and I can run some of the plays that he’s ran in the past and he can run a lot of the plays that I run.”
“It’s all about keeping teams off-balance and adding that one more dimension to make our offence that much more dangerous, and give us some explosive ability and so far it’s been successful so we’re definitely going to stick with it.”
The Ticats lead the season series 2-0, and have a chance on Saturday to clinch the four-game set. Their next meeting isn't until the final game of the season, on Saturday, Nov. 2 in Winnipeg.
Kickoff is at 1:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from Ticats.ca/BlueBombers.com