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Continuing Momentum: Ticats hoping for repeat of ’19 magic on defence

CFL.ca will be previewing the 2021 season, breaking down special teams, defence and offence for all nine teams as they get set to hit the field.

Defensive coordinator Mark Washington will be looking for success on the defensive side of the ball in 2021 (Shannon Vizniowski/CFL.ca)

The last impression you leave is often the most meaningful.

You can have a tremendous season, dominate statistical categories and cultivate a roster full of All-Stars but fans will always remember the last time you put on a helmet and pushed all vulnerabilities to the side while offering up your very best effort.

Such is life for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence. In 2019, it was a star-studded group with elite playmakers at all three levels.

On the front end, Ja’Gared Davis and Dylan Wynn became fan favourites alongside well established big man Ted Laurent. In the linebacking group, Simoni Lawrence did what Simoni Lawrence does best: fly to the football and rack up eye popping tackle numbers. In the secondary, the free safety spot got younger and quicker with the free agent addition of Tunde Adeleke, Cariel Brooks came into his own as a hard hitting tackler at boundary halfback, Delvin Breaux confirmed every rep why he demanded respect across the NFL and CFL for nearly a decade, and Frankie Williams added utility corner extraordinaire to his special team prowess.

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The black and gold defence led by defensive coordinator Mark Washington and head coach Orlondo Steinauer finished the regular season first in completion percentage allowed (61.9%), allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the CFL (17) and allowed a league low 19.1 points per game.

That helped Hamilton to first in the East, a bye week and a home Eastern Final date with Edmonton. All they did during that game was hold Edmonton quarterback Trevor Harris, who picked apart the Hamilton defence so many times in Ottawa red and black, to just over 300 yards and two interceptions for another home Hamilton blackout victory powered by the emotional intensity of Ticats defenders.

Then came the Grey Cup.

Andrew Harris had 18 carries for 134 yards, averaging over seven yards per carry and Hamilton quickly looked like a wounded animal in search of respite. None would come.

That was the lasting memory for CFL fans of Hamilton’s defence, an unfair judgement based on the overarching success of the season, but the one most talked about all winter around barber shops, grocery stores and doctors appointments. I know, I was on the listening end of it all.

Hamilton loaded up to start off 2020. Larry Dean returned from Edmonton to create one of the league’s best linebacking duos again with Lawrence, multiple players signed back in Hamilton and there were no holes in the lineup to fix leading into a theoretical training camp. It was time to resurrect the errors of late November and prove that despite leading the league in multiple ways, Hamilton could actually get better in 2020.

Along came COVID.

No season.

SAM linebacker Rico Murray retires.

Dominant shutdown corner Delvin Breaux retires.

Larry Dean leaves for greener Saskatchewan pastures in free agency.

The 2020 Ticats defence had the potential, star power and motivation to be unlike many we’ve seen in recent CFL history. Like many things, the pandemic has changed that. The group still has names of note and perhaps an even bigger chip on their shoulder after the excruciating wait, but all positions aren’t locked in before training camp, and the new names will have to quickly adapt if Hamilton wishes to repeat anything similar to the magic of 2019.

Simoni Lawrence led the league in defensive tackles in 2019 (98) (The Canadian Press)

SAM Linebacker could be filled by Tyrice Beverette, some snaps by Tunde Adeleke in substitution packages and maybe a name we aren’t even familiar with yet.

Middle linebacker is likely Jovan Santos-Knox‘s spot to lose after signing in free agency, but Chris Frey returns from an ACL tear after showing he has the ability to own the middle of Hamilton’s defence.

Boundary corner could be Jumal Rolle’s new home after replacing Breaux for a spell in 2019, but the secondary is flexible and many names could land in new spots after the relative turmoil and turnover of the past two years.

Hamilton’s defence has the coaching, motivation and structure to be great again, all that’s left now is to hit the field, see who earns their role and let it fly on game day with the expressed goal of leaving a better lasting memory for fans from Ancaster to Stoney Creek, Binbrook to the North End and everywhere in between when the Grey Cup finishes 2021 in Hamilton this December.

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