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Veteran linebacker Simoni Lawrence also an offensive threat for Hamilton Tiger-Cats

He's one of the CFL's most active and productive linebackers but Hamilton Tiger-Cat Simoni Lawrence is showing he also has a nose for the end zone.

He's one of the CFL's most active and productive linebackers but Hamilton Tiger-Cat Simoni Lawrence is showing he also has a nose for the end zone.

Lawrence, in his ninth CFL season -- eighth with Hamilton -- has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season. That leaves the 32-year-old American tied with running back Sean Thomas Erlington for the team's TD lead.

Heady stuff considering Lawrence entered the season with just one career TD, that coming on a 37-yard interception return in 2016. But despite his scoring prowess, the colourful Lawrence -- widely considered one of the CFL's top trash-talkers -- hasn't petitioned Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer for time on offence.

"Nah, man, I'm good on the defensive side," Lawrence said with a chuckle during a video conference Monday. "It (TDs) is just my teammates.

"Everybody is going a great job just doing their job. My coach (linebackers coach Mike Ross) really helps me out a lot with my transition, reading through my keys and breaking to the ball. We really emphasize that."

Lawrence's 15-yard interception return TD anchored Hamilton's 23-17 home win over the Calgary Stampeders on Friday night. He provided the Ticats with their lone touchdown as Maleek Irons had a two-point convert and Taylor Bertolet booted five field goals.

With injuries to Dane Evans (lower body) and Jeremiah Masoli (ribs), veteran Dave Watford earned his first CFL career start against Calgary. He finished 19-of-22 passing for 149 yards and ran 10 times for 35 yards, but most importantly didn't commit any turnovers in leading Hamilton to a third win in four games.

Watford will make a second straight start Wednesday when Hamilton (3-3) visits the Ottawa Redblacks (1-4).

Masoli served as Watford's backup against Calgary and will do so again Wednesday night. But Hamilton will be minus receiver Brandon Banks (ribs) for a third straight game while big-play receivers Bralon Addison (knee) and DeVier Posey (calf) have yet to play this year.

And veteran offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl (thumb), the CFL's top lineman in 2019, remains on the six-game injured list.

Even with so many injuries on offence, Lawrence said the Ticats have always been a defence-first squad during his time in Hamilton. So far this year,  the unit has opponents to 19 points or less in five of the club's six games.

"Just the city of Hamilton, they love their defence and that's just how we play," Lawrence said. "We do set a number (of points to hold opponents to), the number is always less than we have. 

"We just come in there and understand that it's going to be tough for teams just to drive the ball on us. So we play top-down defence and just try not to give up big plays."

Lawrence was the East Division's top defensive player in 2019 when he registered a CFL-high 98 tackles with four sacks and three interceptions. This year, Lawrence has 37 tackles with a sack and the two interceptions.

"Simoni has no desire to be mediocre," Steinauer said. "And he has no fear of failure so when you get the best of him on a play or he gets the best of you, he's going to come at you just as hard the next time.

"I'm proud of him. I'd be lying if I said I didn't expect that from him and I think if you asked him he would expect it from himself. He doesn't rest on those things."

Hamilton defensive tackle Dylan Wynne said the impact an interception-return TD can have on a game is huge.

"If you get an interception touchdown, that's a game-changer," he said. "If you win the takeaway margin I think it's like an 80-to-90 per cent chance you're going to win.

"But if you get a pick-six on defence, man, that shoots way up. Momentum plus field position equals points and when you get all of that at once, it's a good day."

The six-foot-one, 231-pound Lawrence anchors a linebacking corps that features Jovan Santos-Knox and Kameron Kelly. Santos-Knox is a CFL veteran but is in his first season with Hamilton while Kelly is in his first campaign north of the border.

"It's been electric," Lawrence said. "I think Kam and Jovan, they're doing a great job coming on the field every day and being very productive (and) very easy to work with."

Although the Ticats are nearing the halfway point of the CFL's condensed 14-game season, Wynne said the defence hasn't yet established its identity. But with so many returnees from the '19 unit that helped Hamilton win a club-record 15 games and reach the Grey Cup, familiarity shouldn't be an issue down the stretch.

"There's a lot of time to develop our true identity but I'm liking how it's going, for sure," Wynne said. "The gears are starting to click a little faster, the cogs are starting to go a little quicker and that's definitely a comfortability thing.

"But I think that's something that kind of happens as the team gets to know each other better and better. Friendships and bonds are forged through adversity. It's something that will just deepen and continue to progress as the season goes along."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press