What a way to end the 2011 regular season. For the first time in the history of the CFL, the last game of the regular season determined first place in both the Eastern and Western conferences. Both Calgary and B.C., played crisp games, while Montreal and Winnipeg looked beaten up and sluggish.
As the focus was placed on the race for first, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats did an amazing job of flying under the radar. While Montreal and Winnipeg players put their bodies on the line over the past three weeks in hope of securing the top seed in the East, the Ticats were playing meaningless games with the sole purpose of staying healthy rather than win.
After the narrow 27-25 loss to the Als in Week 16, Hamilton head coach Marcel Bellefeuille knew that his team could not finish any better than third place. Although I am sure the Cats would have loved a home playoff spot, they have been able to take advantage of the past three weeks in order to get ready for a possible playoff run that could lead to a Grey Cup appearance in Vancouver.
Montreal and Winnipeg have been laying it on the line for the past three weeks, and in doing so, have provided the Hamilton coaching staff plenty of great game tape to evaluate. On the flip side, Hamilton closed the curtain on their game plan and decided to play exhibition style 'vanilla' football during that time.
Lions exposed Alouettes
The B.C. Lions did a very nice job of exposing how to completely eliminate the effectiveness of the Alouettes' offence. The rotation of interior defensive linemen Eric Taylor, Aaron Hunt and Khalif Mitchell was an effective strategy to collapse the pocket on Montreal QB Anthony Calvillo. This reduced the amount of time the Als' receivers were able to get into their routes. It is pretty difficult for Calvillo to hurt you with his arm while he is laying flat on his back.
The end result was that the Lions completely manhandled the Alouettes in the finale, holding them to only 91 yards passing.
I guarantee the Ticat's coaches took notice.
On the injury front, Montreal running back Brandon Whitaker was forced to leave the B.C. game after a huge hit by Mitchell. Winnipeg receivers Terrence Edwards and Clarence Denmark were both noticeably banged up after the loss to Calgary.
Many have criticized how Bellefeuille has rotated his two quarterbacks over the last few weeks of the season. But Bellefeuille has done a great job of controlling his comments while addressing the media. The past three weeks were also a great opportunity for Hamilton to get game reps for backup Quinton Porter and a way to reduce the likelihood that Kevin Glenn could get hurt. How many Winnipeg fans would love to know that the Bombers would be heading into the playoffs with a healthy Buck Pierce right now?
I would suspect that this week you will see a full 60 minutes from Glenn.
The Tiger-Cats have done a great job of either sitting players that need to get healthy, or immediately pulling the ones who have the slightest chance of being injured.
For those of you that endured watching the game between Toronto and Hamilton last Thursday, I found it very confusing to see receiver Chris Williams literally dive to the turf prior to any contact from an Argo player. Then I realized he did the right thing. Why take the hit?
Another bonus is that players like offensive linemen Marwan Hage and Peter Dyakowski, along with defensive components Jamall Johnson and Jason Shivers are working their way back into the lineup. The Ticats have used the time to make sure impact players like Williams, Avon Cobourne, Dave Stala and Markeith Knowlton are fresh.
Not showing their hand
From a game plan perspective the coaching staff has done a very good job of holding their cards close to their chest so they don't give any advantage to either Winnipeg or Montreal.
My only concern is that when you take the foot off the gas, even a little, it is very difficult to turn it on again.
With that said, finishing third may be the best thing to happen to Hamilton.
Although Hamilton's performance this year has been inconsistent, they have shown that they can play with any team in the CFL. As Montreal and Winnipeg limp into the playoffs, Hamilton is fresh.
In essence, the Tiger-Cats have had four weeks to prepare for Montreal for the upcoming East semifinal matchup on Sunday, and I believe that you will see a very creative offensive game from the Tabbies.
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