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 second game, the West semifinal, where the 12-6 B.C. Lions are hosting the 11-7 Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Air time is 4:30 p.m. Eastern from Vancouver on TSN, ESPN3 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.
Winnipeg offence: Three quarterback changes: The Bombers began this season 1-4 with Drew Willy as their starter, then started winning after switching to Matt Nichols. Nichols certainly did a lot of things well this year; he threw for 3,666 yards and 18 touchdowns in 15 games, completed 69.4 per cent of his passes, and threw just nine interceptions. However, those stats are more solid than spectacular, and Winnipeg’s average of 7.7 yards per pass was seventh in the league. They weren’t much more efficient on the ground, too; while Andrew Harris finished third in the CFL with 974 rushing yards, he averaged just 5.0 yards per carry, and the Bombers as a team averaged 4.9, tied for seventh in the league. Overall, Winnipeg’s 27.6 points per game, 44 touchdowns, and 361.8 yards per game were fifth, sixth and sixth respectively. That’s not spectacular.
Winnipeg defence: Four interception leaders: The Bombers blew away the field with 30 interceptions this year, 13 ahead of second-place Hamilton. Their team nominee as top defensive player Maurice Leggett recorded seven, tied for the league lead, and the Bombers’ defence actually has even more pick potential than that stat suggests, as Leggett tied with teammate T.J. Heath (who was only traded to Winnipeg midseason in the Willy deal – five of his interceptions came with Toronto). They’ve also forced a league-high 59 turnovers altogether this season. However, the Bombers’ defence isn’t as good at anything else.
Winnipeg allowed the most yards per game (407.9) and the most first downs (428), struggled to rush the quarterback (they recorded just 35 sacks this year, sixth in the league), conceded the second-most yards per pass (6.8), and gave up 5.0 yards per rush (tied for fifth). Some of that was thanks to the offence leaving the Bombers’ defence on the field (they faced 60.4 plays from scrimmage per game, more than anyone else), and that all worked out somewhat okay for them thanks to those picks (their 25.2 points allowed were tied for third in the league). Turnover margin is known for being incredibly difficult to maintain, though, and if those interceptions don’t keep coming, Winnipeg could give up a lot of points.
Winnipeg special teams: Five record-setting kickers: The Bombers made a big splash this offseason by signing Justin Medlock in free agency, and that move paid off for them in spades. Medlock set a CFL single-season record with 60 field goals this year, and he made 88.2 per cent of his attempts, finishing with 24.2 points above average in Derek Taylor’s kicker rankings (the best finish in the history of those, dating back to 2008). His average of 42.7 yards per punt was a little weaker, but he did pin a lot of those punts inside the 20. Meanwhile, Kevin Fogg did pretty well on punt returns, averaging 14.2 yards on 53 attempts, and Quincy McDuffie did well on kick returns, averaging 27.7 yards on 42 attempts and picking up two touchdowns.
B.C. offence: Four rushing attacks: Much of the Lions’ success this year came on the ground, and they put up a league-high 115.7 rushing yards per game. The two-headed monster of Jeremiah Johnson (809 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games, a 5.9 yards per carry average) and Anthony Allen (436 yards and three touchdowns in seven games, a 5.0 yards per carry average) did a lot for them, and B.C.’s overall gain of 5.6 yards per rush was also best in the CFL. That paved the way for the pass; quarterback Jon Jennings made huge strides this year, throwing for 5,226 yards (third in the league) with 27 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and a 67.0 per cent completion rate and finding much more consistency than last season. B.C. gained 9.2 yards per pass (second in the league) and finished third in both overall yards (401.1 per game) and points (30.3). Their offence is quite solid. However, there are questions of how they’ll do without injured receiver Shawn Gore, who’s still battling a concussion and may not play.
B.C. defence: Five monster linebackers: The Lions’ defence was dominant this season, led by the fearsome pairing of Solomon Elimimian (129 defensive tackles, first in the league, 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). B.C. tied for first with 52 sacks (Alex Bazzie led the way with 11, tied for fourth), allowed a league-low 337.7 yards per game, and gave up 25.2 points per game (third in the league). They didn’t force a ton of turnovers (just 29, eighth in the league), but were great in most other categories.
B.C. special teams: Three great return men: Chris Rainey shone on returns this year, collecting 942 punt return yards (an average of 13.9 per, with two touchdowns) and 1,359 kick return yards (an average of 23.4 per). However, the kicking game is more suspect; Richie Leone made just 68.6 per cent of his field goals, leading the Lions to bring back 46-year-old Paul McCallum. McCallum went four-for-four in his first game last week, but his range is limited, so B.C. will need good field position to hit field goals. Leone does have a good punting leg, and he led the league with 49.3 yards per punt, but his directional punting isn’t always as accurate as some other guys.
X-factor: The turnover battle. The key to winning for the Bombers has to be turnovers. Their defence has been so good at taking the ball away all year, and that’s why they’ve thrived despite poor yards-allowed metrics. If they get a few key interceptions or fumbles, they could pull off a win here. However, if those turnovers dry up, it’s going to be much harder for them.
Prediction: B.C. 31, Winnipeg 28.