Playoff Preview: Can Calgary shake off the rust?

B.C. Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings dives into the end zone for the winning touchdown against Winnipeg on Nov. 13, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck Photo)
B.C. Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings dives into the end zone for the winning touchdown against Winnipeg on Nov. 13, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck Photo)

Welcome back to our Playoff Preview series, an analytical look at the offence, defence and special teams matchups in each CFL postseason game. Next up is Sunday’s second game, the West semifinal, where the 15-1-2 Calgary Stampeders host the 12-6 B.C. Lions. The game will air at 4:30 p.m. Eastern from Calgary on TSN, ESPN3 and BT Sports, and 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.

B.C. offence: Four young quarterbacks: Jon Jennings had an excellent second CFL season, picking up 5,226 passing yards (third in the league) with 27 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and a 67.0 per cent completion rate. He got off to a bit of a rough start Sunday against Winnipeg, with an early interception and a fumble helping the Bombers to an 11-0 lead that they held through the first quarter, but bounced back to post an impressive overall line of 26 completions on 35 attempts (74.3 per cent) for 329 yards with two touchdowns and that interception. The Lions also have a good ground game, leading the league with 115.7 rushing yards per game and 5.6 yards per rush this season, and they continued that Sunday: Jeremiah Johnson picked up 110 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries (10.0 yards per carry), while Jennings added nine carries for 43 yards and two touchdowns.

The question for B.C. is how they’ll fare against a tougher Calgary defence. Yes, Winnipeg led the league with 30 interceptions and 59 forced turnovers, but the Stampeders were stronger in most other categories (as we’ll see below), and they were second in turnovers forced with 45. They also tied the Lions for the league lead with 52 sacks (Winnipeg was seventh with 35), so Jennings may be under more pressure this week.

B.C. defence: Five sack artists: The Lions’ dynamic linebacking duo of Solomon Elimimian (a CFL-high 129 defensive tackles, plus eight sacks, an interception and a forced fumble) and Adam Bighill (108 defensive tackles, third in the league, plus five sacks and an interception) gets a lot of the press, but the B.C. pass rush goes beyond just them. It’s a deep pass rush, too; their sack leader was defensive end Alex Bazzie, who had 11 (tied for fourth in the CFL), but Elimimian was second with eight, four others (including Bighill) had at least five, and eight other players chipped in at least one. That’s a big part of why the Lions led the league with just 337.7 yards of offence conceded per game and just 348 first downs given up. B.C. wasn’t able to get to the quarterback last week, failing to record a single sack, and that’s part of why Matt Nichols threw for 390 yards against them. They may be chomping at the bit to change that this week.

B.C. special teams: Three impressive returners. Chris Rainey has big-play potential every time he gets the ball, and he averaged 13.9 yards per punt return this year (with two touchdowns) and 23.4 yards per kick return. However, while he posted 23.0 yards per kickoff return against Winnipeg, he was held more in check in the punt return game, averaging just 5.7 yards per return on three attempts. Some of that was about the Bombers’ strong punting and cover teams, but the Lions could certainly use a big return from Rainey this week. Their kicking game still carries questions: neither Richie Leone or the recently-signed Paul McCallum attempted a field goal this past week, and Leone hit just 68.6 per cent of his field goals this year. The punting game is good, though; Leone led the league with 49.3 raw yards per punt this season and averaged 47.2 raw and 40.6 net yards per punt on six attempts Sunday.

Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell sets up to throw during first half against the Ottawa Redblacks in Calgary on Sept. 17, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh Photo)
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell sets up to throw during first half against the Ottawa Redblacks in Calgary on Sept. 17, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh Photo)

Calgary offence: Five MOP nominees: Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell seems set to win the league’s Most Outstanding Player award after posting impressive numbers this year (5,385 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 17 games with a 68.0 per cent completion rate and just eight interceptions). Despite the offseason departure of top receivers like Eric Rogers and the regular injuries to receivers this year, Mitchell has done an excellent job of keeping the Calgary passing attack flying at top speed, spreading the ball around to Marquay McDaniel (the Stampeders’ top receiver with 83 catches for 1,074 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games), rookie sensation DaVaris Daniels (chosen as the West’s top rookie after posting 885 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 51 receptions in just 11 games), Bakari Grant (44 catches for 625 yards in 10 games) and others. It also helps that Mitchell is mobile enough to evade a lot of pressure and that Calgary has a great line; the Stampeders surrendered a league-low 20 sacks this year, 11 less than second-place Edmonton.

The Stampeders also have an excellent ground game. Canadian running back Jerome Messam posted 1,198 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns (best in the league in both categories) this season and a solid average of 5.8 yards per carry, Tory Harrison chipped in 222 yards and two touchdowns on 52 carries (4.3 yards per carry), and Canadian quarterback Andrew Buckley added eight rushing touchdowns in goal-line situations. Calgary was third in the CFL with 96.9 rushing yards per game and second with 5.3 yards gained per rush. They’ll be tough to stop on the ground too.

Calgary defence: Five sack leaders: The Stampeders are just as good as the Lions at harassing opposing quarterbacks, tying them for the league lead with 52 sacks this season, and they have the individual leader in Charleston Hughes (who posted a CFL-high 16 sacks). That’s a big part of why Calgary led the league with just 20.5 points allowed per game. They also gave up just 339.3 yards per game (second to B.C.) and allowed a league-low 5.7 yards per play. The Stampeders were great against the run and the pass, allowing 7.3 yards per pass (best in the CFL) and just 4.6 yards per rush (tied with Hamilton for the league lead), and they forced the second-most turnovers with 45.

Calgary special teams: Five top kickers: Kicker Rene Paredes was second in the league with 56 field goals this year and posted an impressive 87.5 per cent success rate. Calgary punter Rob Maver was second to Leone in raw average (46.9 yards per punt) and also did a great job of directional punting, frequently pinning opponents deep. The Stampeders also have a great returner in Roy Finch, who was second in the league with 993 punt return yards (an average of 14.0 per return) and one touchdown and added 1,060 kickoff return yards with an average of 24.7 per return.

X-factor: How will the layoff affect Calgary? The Stampeders had the unusual situation of having a bye in the season’s final week and then a first-round bye. They haven’t played a game in three weeks, and that final game was a meaningless one where they rested many of their starters (including Mitchell). They also had first place locked up for most of the second half of the season, so it’s been a long while since a game has had real stakes for them. It’s possible Calgary stayed sharp through the layoff and rested up, and not having to play in the first round gives them home-field advantage and puts them one step closer to the Grey Cup, so that’s a benefit over all. Rust is a possibility with a layoff this long, though; we’ll see if it affects the Stampeders.

Prediction: Calgary 24, B.C. 21.