Playoff Preview: Can Henry Burris lead the Redblacks over his old team?

Ottawa QB Henry Burris heads back to the Grey Cup with plenty of motivation. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld photo)
Ottawa QB Henry Burris heads back to the Grey Cup with plenty of motivation. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld photo)

Welcome back to our Playoff Preview series, an analytical look at the offence, defence and special teams matchups in each CFL postseason game. Here’s a look at Sunday’s Grey Cup, where the 15-2-1 Calgary Stampeders will face the 8-9-1 Ottawa Redblacks. The broadcast starts at 6 p.m. Eastern Sunday from Toronto’s BMO Field, airing on TSN, ESPN2 and BT Sports, and it can be streamed on TSN Go and WatchESPN or through a subscription to YareSports in 150 other countries outside CFL broadcast territories. Here’s a look at the matchups.

Ottawa offence: Four out-of-nowhere running backs: Much of the Redblacks’ success in last week’s East Final came from an unlikely source, Canadian running back Kienan LaFrance. LaFrance came in after Mossis Madu went down early on, and he promptly rushed 27 times for 157 yards and a touchdown in a 35-23 victory. We don’t yet know if Ottawa is going to feature LaFrance again or turn to import Travon Van to start the Grey Cup, but either way, LaFrance will certainly be available. That could boost a Redblacks’ rushing attack that was last in the CFL with 4.8 yards per carry this season.

A good ground game might also help out the passing game. 2015 CFL Most Outstanding Player Henry Burris’ 2016 season involved injury, benching and wars with critics, but got the starting job back down the stretch and did well in Ottawa’s final few games, averaging 383 passing yards per game in that span. His stats last week weren’t as good, as he completed just 15 of 26 attempts (57.7 per cent) and tossed an interception, but he did throw for 246 yards and two touchdowns, not too bad considering the snowy conditions. Much may depend on how Burris plays, and he certainly has targets; Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson helped the Redblacks top the CFL with 343.9 passing yards per game (and place second with 414.8 offensive yards per game) this season despite the revolving door at quarterback. If Burris can come through under the spotlight and get some help on the ground, Ottawa may put up points.

Ottawa defence: Three struggling secondaries: The Redblacks’ biggest defensive issue this year was defending the pass, as the 311.7 passing yards they gave up were eighth in the CFL. They were only third in yards allowed per pass (8.3) and completion percentage allowed (67.8 per cent), but gave up a ton of overall yardage through the air. That was evident last week, too, as Mike Reilly burned them for 340 yards and three touchdowns. Against unanimous MOP Bo Levi Mitchell and a dangerous Calgary passing attack, they could be in trouble. Ottawa is good at stopping the run; they allowed just 4.8 yards per rush and 78.3 rushing yards per game this season, and held dangerous Edmonton running back John White to just 66 yards on 12 carries (5.5 yards per carry) last week. They’re decent at picking off the ball (16 interceptions, third in the league) and pressuring the quarterback (42 sacks, fifth), but they’ll need to do better in the secondary to have a real chance here.

Ottawa special teams: Three kicker questions: Chris Milo did well in the kicking game this year, making 47 field goals (third in the league) on 58 attempts (81.0 per cent), but he was unavailable last week thanks to a groin/hip flexor issue and it’s unclear if he’ll be good to go Sunday. Replacement Ray Early made both of his field goals against Edmonton, but with a long of just 36 yards. Neither has been great in the punting game, either; Milo averaged 41.7 yards per punt this year, while Early averaged just 32.3 on six punts last week. Returner Tristan Jackson had an impressive 76-yard punt return for a touchdown last week, but averaged just 11.7 yards per punt return and 21.3 yards per kick return this year.

Calgary offence: Five unanimous MOPs. Stampeders’ quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell pulled off the rarely-seen unanimous Most Outstanding Player award this year, and deservedly so. He put up 5,385 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 17 games with a 68.0 per cent completion rate and just eight interceptions. Mitchell threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns with a 75 per cent completion rate (albeit with one interception) in last week’s 42-15 demolition of the B.C. Lions. Calgary also has a great ground game led by Jerome Messam (1,198 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and 5.8 yards per carry), and they have a terrific offensive line that conceded a CFL-low 20 sacks this year, but there are some issues with the health of that line, and rookie Ucambre Williams (who hasn’t played since September) may have to step in.

Calgary defence: Five league-low points allowed: The Stampeders led the league with just 20.5 points conceded per game this year, and they gave up a CFL-low 5.7 yards per play as well. Calgary was very good against the run, allowing a league-low 72.4 rushing yards per game and just 4.6 yards per rush (tied for league-best), and they also excelled against the pass, giving up a CFL-low 7.3 yards per pass. League sack leader Charleston Hughes (16 this year) leads the way on a unit that generated 52 sacks this year (tied for the CFL lead), but Calgary’s defence is deep, and has lots of playmakers who can hurt you.

Calgary special teams: Five top kickers: Rene Paredes put up 56 field goals this year (second in the league) with a 87.5 per cent success rate, while Rob Maver averaged 46.9 raw yards per punt (second) and 35.2 net yards (tied for third). Maver was excellent last week against B.C., averaging 47 yards on four punts. Roy Finch had a strong returning season, placing second in the CFL with 993 punt return yards (an average of 14.0 per return) and one touchdown and also picking up 1,060 kickoff return yards with an average of 24.7 per return. Finch averaged 29.5 yards per return on two kickoffs last week, but was held to an 8.0 yard average on six punt returns.

X-factor: Henry Burris. Burris is often at his best with some motivation, and he certainly has it against Calgary, a team that took away his starting job in 2011 (in favor of Drew Tate) and then traded him to Hamilton. He told Bruce Arthur “The fire’s still lit in me, and there’s been different logs that have been added to the fire, and it’s time to go out there and just let them all burn.” He’ll likely be crucial to the outcome here; the Stampeders look stronger at most areas, but the quarterback battle is more of a tossup, with last year’s MOP facing this year’s MOP, and Burris certainly has the ability to put up big yardage in the right situations. If he can utilize his top receivers, and if Ottawa can take advantage of Calgary’s patchwork line to throw Mitchell off, it’s possible that the Redblacks could pick up more passing yards and win a wild shootout. At the very least, a strong showing from Burris could keep this close, and likely below the 9.5 point spread Vegas has set in favour of the Stampeders.

Prediction: Calgary 31, Ottawa 28.