The Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven't gotten off to the start they wanted to begin their 2012 season. A 1-5 record out of the blocks has the Manitoban team languishing at the bottom of the East Division and desperate for a turnaround.
The Tiger-Cats are wary of that desperation as they size up tonight’s trip to Canad-Inns Stadium, full in the knowledge that they can ill afford to underestimate the Bombers.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned in this league, it’s that you never take any team lightly, no matter the record or what the case is,” says Ticat Carlos Thomas, who will start for a third week at the strong side linebacker position.
“Any team can be beaten in this league. We’re coming into this one as if they’re 10-0. We won’t put anything past them.”
Offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski points out that while Winnipeg’s performance as a whole has been underwhelming this season, their defensive line remains a formidable challenge for his group.
“For us on the offensive line, this is one of our harder work days of the year,” says Dyakowski. “They have a very good defensive front. Their front seven overall is very, very solid.
“We know that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’re not seeing the record. We’re seeing one of the best fronts in the league and preparing for that.”
Dyakowski and his partners in the trenches have been among the Tiger-Cats’ most consistent performers to date. Hamilton has allowed only nine sacks through six games, the second-lowest total of any team in the CFL.
The offensive line has received frequent praise from quarterback Henry Burris and Head Coach George Cortez, providing the necessary protection as the former has embarked on one of the hottest starts in his CFL career.
“In general, we’ve had good communication and had good plans going into games,” says Dyakowski of the reasons for his unit’s success. “We’ve done a good job of preparing and having ideas for how we want to counter what our opponents are doing, and identifying what it is that they’re doing and how they’re using their players.”
The trenches require constant teamwork, and the Tiger-Cats’ offence has benefited from the relative health and stability of its front this season.
“We’ve been able to keep the same core group of guys together, and that makes a big difference,” agrees Dyakowski. “Being able to play Brian (Simmons), myself, Marwan (Hage), Tim (O’Neill) and (Marc) Dile fairly regularly and being able to rely on Cody (Husband) to come in a little bit is huge.”
Defensively, the Tiger-Cats will likely find themselves doing some juggling tonight, with injuries bringing a few new faces into the mix.
Carlos Thomas is no stranger to positional shuffling, having moved into the linebacking slot vacated by the injured Markeith Knowlton in Week 5. He is growing increasingly comfortable in his new role, and credits the influence of veteran backers Jamall Johnson and Rey Williams with easing the transition.
Thomas speaks of the importance of exposure in conditioning replacements to take hold of their positions and perform in game action.
“You try to take them under your wing and show them and tell them what’s going on,” says the second-year Ticat of incoming backups. “You explain certain things to them and get them into that film room. Extra film is really big for them.”
Those fill-ins will have to learn the ropes inside the raucous confines of Winnipeg’s Canad-Inns Stadium. The Manitoba venue is notoriously unfriendly to visitors, but Dyakowski hopes that his team can make use of the experience they gained in similar conditions in Saskatchewan a few weeks ago.
“They always have a loud stadium, especially when you get to the closed-in end,” says the lineman of Winnipeg. “We’ve already gone to silent-count in the past and we’re ready for that.
“We responded well to that earlier this season in Regina. So we’ve got to take that experience and put it to work if it gets loud. A huge part of taking care of the noise is getting up early and taking the crowd out of it.”
Tonight’s tilt marks the beginning of a crucial segment of the Tiger-Cats’ schedule, which sees the team play four consecutive games against divisional rivals.
Thomas agrees that the coming weeks could be pivotal, but argues that his team prepares equally for every opponent.
“For us, this is definitely the most important stretch that we have,” says the Tiger-Cat defender. “But be it West or East opponent, we want to win every game.”