With 4:32 remaining, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had a seven-point lead over the Saskatchewan Roughriders and a Grey Cup ticket appearing to come to fruition. At the time the Bombers were setting up to pin the Riders with another precise Justin Medlock boot.
Seconds later, Saskatchewan cleverly faked out eleven of the 12 Bombers on the field with a trick punt return play; only Medlock picked up on the Riders’ desperation play.
Then Shayne Gauthier, a career special-teamer, made the play of his four-year CFL career. Gauthier’s hustle erased a Sakstchewan touchdown, possibly keeping the Bombers’ season intact. Scratch that. It possibly kept several jobs and storylines intact.
Thiadric Hansen kept Saskatchewan’s William Powell inches out of the end zone plays later. Nick Taylor and Mercy Maston stuffed Cody Fajardo for a turnover on downs the next play. These two plays came around two hours after both Steven Richardson’s fumble recovery and Kenny Lawler’s touchdown.
If you haven’t caught on, the point is these players aren’t your household names.
They also may not be getting the credit they deserve for their game-changing efforts (although if the Grey Cup returns to Winnipeg next Monday, any player donning the blue and gold will receive some high glory from their championship-starved fans).
Yet if the Bombers are going to defeat this mighty Hamilton squad, these unsung heroes will need to rise to the stage once again.
Tackling in Open Space
It’s not rocket science getting playmakers Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison the ball in open space. It’s a strategy offensive coordinator Tommy Condell resorts to, whether it be quick sweeps to the two speedsters, bubbles with conveys lined up, or Addison in wildcat.
Generally, these plays run to the field-side for the extra roaming space. What this means is that the trio of Mercy Maston, Nick Taylor, and Mike Jones will have their hands full.
Given their recent showings, this could be a task the three newer starters are up for. Taylor’s especially shown a talent for closing on opponents, showcased in the last two weeks. It’s a promising sign for the Bombers who have struggled to limit Banks in the past.
That said, none of this matters if Dane Evans is throwing for 308 yards in a half of football like in Week 16 versus Winnipeg, finding Banks in the end zone along the way.
If Banks and co. aren’t closely watched, it’s curtains.
Pressuring Dane Evans
As with any offence, the Tiger-Cats will run short passing plays just enough so defenders will get caught cheating on upcoming plays. Once Condell and Evans see this, they execute the kill shot — a deep ball on that defender prematurely inching forward.
These set up plays often pay off, but on the opposite side of the coin is defenders being scared to get beat deep and respecting a receiver’s speed a little too much, as pointed out by TSN’s Marshall Ferguson. Although these plays require and an extra second to form.
It’s a championship football cliche, but it makes the battle in the trenches critical. Sunday it’s specifically important between Hamilton’s offensive line and Winnipeg’s defensive line.
Any combination of Chris Van Zeyl or Ryker Mathews versus Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, or Jonathan Kongbo will provide some elite battles along the line.
For Winnipeg, Jefferson and Jeffcoat are the flashy athletes, but role players like Jake Thomas, Drake Nevis and Steven Richardson are just as important collectively. Thomas, the longest-serving Bomber at eight seasons, will also suit up in his first Grey Cup Sunday.
From time to time Thomas fits the bill of an underappreciated hero, but even players like Jefferson can act as such.
Jefferson didn’t record a statistic in the West Final, drawing some criticism. But the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player still had a presence throughout the tilt. His three quarterback pressures led Winnipeg according to CFL stats fetishist Derek Taylor.
If there’s an area the Bombers may have an advantage in, your best argument is specials.
Winnipeg’s Janarion Grant is one of the most explosive returners in the CFL, scoring three times via punt return in just 11 games. Any score from Grant would be a turning point.
The Bombers rank high in the sexier stats like special teams touchdowns, blocked kicks, net punting average, and opponents’ punt return average. But the most telling stat is that they only took 30 special teams penalties this season, 10 fewer than any other team.
At kicker/punter, Justin Medlock and Lirim Hajrullahu are both solid veterans with some clutch kicks to their name. Both are key players Sunday and will likely come through.
Alas, Winnipeg’s advantage stems from their cover units. Teamers’ such as Mike Miller, Kerfalla Exume, and the aforementioned Gauthier make differences that few fans notice. Well, unless it’s a trick punt play that almost ties a West Final in its final minutes.
Bonus: Mother Nature
As per any Winnipeg Blue Bombers football game, the sloppier the weather the more it favours Mike O’Shea’s club in the Grey Cup.
It’s not in Winnipeg’s control, but it’d be a pro for them if Hamilton is forced to abandon the pass attack. Not to mention it allows the 2011 Grey Cup’s Most Oustanding Canadian Andrew Harris to go to work on the ground with Winnipeg’s league-best run game.
Hamilton may be the favourite, but anything can happen in the frigid Canadian outdoors.
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