He led the CFL in passing and became just the fifth quarterback in history to surpass 50,000 career yards. But Henry Burris hasn't fared too well this season against the Montreal Alouettes' rugged defence.
In three regular-season meetings Burris threw for 445 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. Burris's ability to solve a Montreal defence that features six all-stars will be crucial when he leads the Hamilton Tiger-Cats against the Alouettes in the East Division semifinal Sunday at Alumni Stadium.
'We know something about Henry no one else knows.' —John Bowman, Montreal Alouettes
But Montreal defensive end John Bowman says Burris's numbers are no accident.
"We know something about Henry no one else knows," Bowman said Saturday.
Predictably, Bowman wouldn't elaborate further. If Montreal's defence does indeed have some inside information on Burris, linebacker Chip Cox wasn't saying.
"I don't know what he's talking about with that," said Cox, who led the CFL with 115 tackles and posted six of his team-high 12 sacks against Hamilton this season. "Maybe he'll let me know about it (Saturday night)."
Montreal interim head coach Jim Popp said the most important number this season was Burris helping Hamilton (10-8) beat the Alouettes (8-10) twice to secure home-field advantage for the playoff game.
"(Bowman) must know something I don't know," Popp said. "Listen, every game is different.
"Henry Burris is a great quarterback and even if we so-called 'stopped' him somewhat by stats they beat us two-of-three times. That's what matters."
Montreal's impressive defensive numbers
Montreal's defensive numbers are impressive. The Alouettes led the CFL in fewest yards allowed (314.3 per game) and fewest rushing yards (88.4) and were second in most sacks (59) and interceptions (24).
Cox is a finalist for the CFL's top defensive player award. Defensive back Geoff Tisdale had a league-best seven interceptions while Bowman was fifth overall in sacks with 11.
"Everybody had a tough time with this defence," Burris said. "They're a physical group, they take away the run from you, they collapse the pocket on the quarterback.
"When the quarterback has a little bit of time they disrupt releases when they play their man-to-man defences and get their hands on receivers which makes the quarterback hold the ball in the pocket longer and allows that front to get home."
Austin cautioned against reading too much into Burris's statistics.
"You have to look at what we've asked our players to do, not just Henry but others in order to give us a chance to win a football game," he said. "What you might figure is a pedestrian performance might have actually been an outstanding performance for what we needed him to do to win that football game."
'We have a great opportunity here to go out and seize the momentum we've given ourselves over the past number of weeks.' —Henry Burris, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
It's been a tale of two seasons for Hamilton in its first season under Austin. The Ticats opened the campaign dropping four of their first five games but have won nine-of-13 contests since.
"We're a confident group," Burris said. "We know right now the ball is in our court and we have a great opportunity here to go out and seize the momentum we've given ourselves over the past number of weeks.
"For us to be 9-4 over the last 13 games we've been doing what it takes to get victories."
Ticats took season series against rival Als
Hamilton's two victories over Montreal have been by a combined five points. The Ticats won the last meeting 27-24 at Alumni Stadium on Oct. 26, thanks to Brandon Banks' 107-yard TD return off a missed field goal try that erased a late 24-20 deficit.
Montreal's lone win was a 36-5 home decision on Oct. 20. In that game, former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was 17-of-35 passing for 247 yards and three TDs in his CFL debut.
The Ticats won the series opener 28-26 in September in Moncton, N.B.
But on Sunday, Montreal will be without cornerback Byron Parker (hamstring) and Popp said linebacker Kyries Hebert (68 tackles, nine sacks) isn't expected to play due to a knee injury. Both were hurt in the Alouettes' regular-season finale, a 23-20 road win in Toronto last weekend.
Burris, 38, anchors a solid Hamilton offence that led the CFL in yards (373.1 per game) and was second in passing (299.7). The 15-year veteran was the league's top passer with 4,927 yards and threw 24 TDs, but also had a league-high 19 interceptions.
What's more, the Ticats also surrendered a CFL-high 65 sacks.
But the good news for Hamilton is rookie receiver Greg Ellingson (ankle) returns after missing six weeks — he had 52 catches for 800 yards and six TDs before being hurt — as does first-year cornerback Delvin Breaux (shoulder).
The playoffs are an opportunity for Montreal to salvage what's been a challenging season. The Alouettes posted their first losing record since '07 and it was just their second time under .500 since 1986.
Montreal's QB woes
During the course of the season, Montreal fired rookie head coach Dan Hawkins and lost such veterans as quarterback Anthony Calvillo, receiver Jamel Richardson and guard Scott Flory to injury.
The loss of Calvillo (concussion) is significant considering Sunday's game will be only the second Montreal will play without Calvillo as its starter since '99, although pro football's all-time passing leader did make the trip to Guelph.
Smith, who will make his CFL playoff debut Sunday, does have the benefit of big-game experience to draw upon. He did take Ohio State to the BCS national championship game in '06, the same year he won the Heisman Trophy as U.S. college football's top player.
"I don't think the game will be too big for him," Austin said. "He's got too much experience and he's played well against us so that should give him some confidence."
But Smith downplayed his prior experience, saying he still feels like a CFL rookie.
"The football games I played in the past are in the past," he said. "It's totally different football now."