Rome wasn’t build in a day. Neither was the Tiger-Cats defence but it was solid a lot sooner than Rome ever was.
Under Orlondo Steinauer, the Ticats defence took shape methodically. Steinauer was new to Hamilton this season, coming from Toronto,and there was familiarity with a couple of former Argos in Evan McCollough who moved down the QEW with him and, to a lesser extent, Dee Brown who was an Argo a year earlier. But for the most part Steinauer was pretty much starting from scratch.
He had a middle linebacker in Jamall Johnson he was familiar with from his years in the league. He knew of Brian Bulcke, the defensive tackle brought in from the defending Grey Cup finalist Calgary Stampeders.
But other than that there wasn’t a whole lot Steinauer knew about the defence he would oversee.
The turning point came Week 4 in Saskatchewan in the same stadium they will play Sunday’s Grey Cup game. The Ticats were blown out 37-0 and that was rock bottom for the team.
“That was unfortunate, but it was right around that week that we said we’d had enough,” Bulcke said recently. “We just ended up putting it on our own back. Steinauer runs a players’ defence. We make a tremendous amount of checks or changes on the field depending on what the offence comes out in. We bought in right about that week. You can see Week 5 or 6, all the way to Week 9, the defence growing and getting better and then right about that midway point at Week 9 is where things just got good.”
By Week 9, Bulcke said all it took was a look to either of his linebackers — Johnson or Simone Lawrence — and whatever at the line adjustments that had to be made were made. Signals, which had been used earlier in the year to indicate a change in alignment were no longer necessary.
“It was just a look and we knew when to check, what the change in alignment was,” Bulcke said.
Of the 12 men that will start on defence in Sunday’s Grey Cup, Steinauer was about halfway there coming out of training camp.
Finding those other six starters came along in dribs and drabs. By Week 2, Steinauer’s defence had seven of its 12 starters. By Week 3 it was eight. In Week 5, it jumped to 10.
But it wasn’t until Week 12 or 13 that Steinauer and his staff identified the 12th and final man to fill out the defence. That would be halfback Arthur Hobbs, who had been in and out of the lineup throughout the year before finally sticking as a starter in Week 13 against Calgary.
“Once we found the right men, after shuffling because we made some off-season acquisitions, we let some others go and we were young, people finally understood we will be as good as we want to be and you could see that change in the way they practised,” Steinauer said.
Injuries periodically took players out of the starting lineup over the final five weeks of the season but the 12 had been identified and from there it was just buying into what Steinauer was selling.
“It’s about them understanding what I expected,” Steinauer said downplaying whatever schemes he may be calling. “I try to tell the men this defence isn’t about me. There are no defensive gurus. It is about the execution of the players. You can call certain plays and some plays are better than others but ultimately it is the players buying in and executing.”
A second half against the Argos last Sunday in the East final, when the defence held Ricky Ray to just 50 yards passing, was the perfect example of what Steinauer has built in Hamilton. It’s a group of men who believe in themselves and each other regardless of what everyone else may be saying.
So despite Ray torching them in the first half and listening the entire week to the media and the public focussed solely on the Argos QB, the Ticats defence turned the tables on their doubters.
But Steinauer didn’t change a thing from his first-half game plan. Everything stayed the same. The only difference was the Ticats decided they wanted it more.
It was the natural progression and end to what started some 23 weeks ago when few outside of maybe Steinauer and Johnson could see what was possible.
“We have grown a lot from the beginning of the year,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of injuries we had to fight through and a lot of turnover week to week and that was a learning experience. We grew a lot from those times and played some tough games since that 1-4 start and built a lot of character and heart and it all came together at the end of the season.”