Tiger-Cats defence rebuilt under Chamblin
By BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency
|Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo, left, throws a pass as Josh Bourke guards Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive end Stevie Baggs, right, during the first half of their CFL football game in Hamilton September 5, 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)
HAMILTON -- The "Under Construction" sign is still hanging on the Hamilton Ticats' defence, rebuilt under defensive co-ordinator Corey Chamblin to beat the East Division.
"It's an evolution. When you come in off the bus with a new bunch of guys you have to build," said Chamblin, hired from Calgary to turn the Ticats back into ravenuous, raw-boned, aggressive ball-hawks.
Chamblin's defence surrendered less ground than any other team last year and in a 2008 Grey Cup triumph his defence held Montreal's Anthony Calvillo without a touchdown pass. In reshaping the Ticats, success has been as elusive as a loose football. Sometimes they've got it -- the next second it has slipped through desperate hands.
"We're still at a point where we make sure we do what's best week to week with the personel that we have. We don't have every piece of the puzzle we want but we have the core and the basis," head coach Marcel Bellefeuille Friday as the club prepares for Sunday's rematch with the Alouettes.
Against the Alouettes, that defence has come up smelling like roses, running off four wins in a row (going back to last season and preseason). But against the rest of the league they've sometimes ended up smelling like the stuff that makes those roses blush.
"It goes back to being smart. We've had some really good games defensively and we've had some you go: 'What is that! Where is that coming from?' But that's all part of learning," said Chamblin, who has a revolving roster that has seen 10 new faces.
The pass defence continues to be spotty, ahead of only the moribund Argonauts in yardage surrendered. But, overall, the defence is learning to bend without necessarily breaking, ranking fourth in the CFL in points allowed. "One thing I've seen is these guys learn from their mistakes. I hate we've made so many but that's part of growing, too, for a first-year co-ordinator and a first-year scheme. Everything is starting to fit," Chamblin said.
Hamilton's biggest asset has been up front where they've been able to get pressure -- their 18 sacks puts them third in the CFL.
Stevie Baggs is the headliner and Jamaal Johnson is a tackling machine. Everyone expected that. But playing opposite Baggs, Justin Hickman has quietly become the best young rush end in the CFL. In his first two seasons in Hamilton, he had 14 sacks; this season he has seven, including two last week against Anthony Calvillo.
"The difference in Justin is he's come back as a much more focused player and as a much more focused person. His work ethic at practice has been 180 degrees from where he was the first two years," Bellefeuille said. "It's maturity ... coming to a realization of what your abilities are and wanting to get the most out of them."
At 6-foot-1, Hickman is small by linemen standards. He speaks quietly and wearing a grin behind bushy whiskers he could be taken for a fuzzy, friendly teddy bear. That would be a mistake. He plays big. And mean.
"On game day I turn into a different person. I become a mean, nasty guy. I say things my mother wouldn't be proud of. I do things she wouldn't be proud of. Football to me means if you're not kicking butt then you're getting your butt kicked," Hickman said.
The third-year veteran from UCLA chewed through the Alouettes' elite offensive line in both Hamilton wins this season, disrupting Montreal's offensive rhythm and recording four sacks. "I was a history major, all that Roman and Greek stuff. When I come out here I feel like one of those gladiators. I feel like I have to turn into one of those Spartans because that's what I believe it takes to survive out here. You gotta have a nasty attitude because it's a nasty game. Nice guys don't play this game, especially on defence. I don't want to let anyone think they can bully me."
He was bred to play the aggressive, pressure defence Chamblin would like to use. "The way I play in the three years hasn't changed in that I'm a feisty guy. I get into fights on the field. I'm going hard. My game hasn't changed but everything around me as a person has changed and maybe that's affecting my game."
He spends more time in the weight room. He picks up the playbook more often. "A little more game film, a little less Play Station," he said, laughing.
And, a little more cloning of the Hickman variety and Chamblin will have shown that it is possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together.