Ticats’ sack total indicator of improving team
By Steve Milton
[b]If you'd been away for a few days, you'd think the CFL had either made a mistake, or played a cruel practical joke, in its weekly statistics.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence is now in the middle of pack for quarterback sacks? And only a couple of sacks out of third place? Right. Are we being punked?
But it's true. The Ticats recorded five sacks in each of the three games, all victories, they just played within 14 days. The 15 takedowns give them 34 on the season, tied for fourth in CFL rankings.
For a little dramatic perspective, consider that it took them eight and three-quarters games to get their first 15 sacks of the season.
The sack is not a pure indicator of the entire pressure exerted by a defensive line. Before embarking on this quarterback-dumping orgy, the Cats always claimed they were getting plenty of "hurries" on pivots.
But this recent phenomenon isn't about hurries merely having upgraded to sacks. There are more hurries, too.
"(Sacks) are not the only gauge but are certainly an indication of a team that's playing better, continuing to give great effort," says head coach Kent Austin. "It takes everything: coverage in secondary; guys playing hard and having effort right until the whistle to get to the quarterback. It takes the ability to fool the quarterback at least temporarily, by disguising things. And it takes relentless pursuit up front to push the pocket. We have the ability to push the pocket inside and that really helps the guys off the edge."
End Justin Hickman, who came off that edge to record a sack in his first game back with the Tiger-Cats, agrees with his coach's assessment and says the increase in pressure originates in the middle of the line. Everybody else says it, too.
"The line is young, athletic, and the presence of the defensive tackles really makes our job easier," says Hickman, who tied for first in CFL sacks in 2011.
"When you can get that immediate pressure in the quarterback's face right up the middle it makes everything else easier: Teddy, Gaydosh, Mike, B-Hall, all those guys.
"Then if you get pressure off the edge, the quarterback's got nowhere to go. There's no room for him to step up, because he steps right into those guys."
After losing Canadian tackle and team leader Brian Bulcke to season-ending injury, the Cats have settled upon a defensive tackle rotation of American Bryan Hall, and three young Canadians: newly-activated Michael Atkinson and Lynden Gaydosh, and first-year Cat Ted Laurent who is turning into the free-agent steal of the year.
With Hickman at one end and Eric Norwood at the other, it's evolved into a group formidable enough that the Cats released third-year tackle Terrence Moore on Tuesday, and Sam Scott, who was playing well before Hickman's arrival, can't crack the game-day roster.
While Austin said that the defensive line had its stellar moments prior to Labour Day, since then the pressure has been much more consistent. And the Cats continue to lay serious hits on quarterbacks. Edmonton's Mike Reilly took a pounding last week and Drew Willy didn't even practice Tuesday, two days after playing the Cats.
There is a symbiotic relationship between pressure up front and close coverage in the secondary and, for one of the rare stretches in recent Cat history, that relationship has been absolutely purring. The backs are playing receivers more tightly in the early portions of their routes and are more aggressive ball-hawks because they trust the pressure will force the quarterback to throw more quickly.
Laurent said that opposition quarterbacks might be getting the ball away "maybe about .02 seconds" more quickly than before, but even that small margin suggests that aggressive, disguised pass coverage and a half-ton of mobile angry beef has been having an effect.[/b]