B.C. Lions versus Calgary Stampeders
TALE OF THE TAPE
QUARTERBACKS -- Calgary starter Drew Tate was in la-la land after being blasted by the Roughriders’ Tearrius George in Sunday’s West semi-final, though George was only following orders from his coach. Corey Chamblin beseeched his players to (“hit ‘em in the mouth, hit ‘em in the mouth”) in a pre-game clip caught by the inquisitive TSN cameras. And that’s what George did. Still, with Tate, one never knows where the concussion ends and the spacey personality begins. Then again, that surfer-dude mentality (there is a surfing machine in a park in Tate’s hometown of Baytown, Tex.,) can’t disguise his burning desire to play, as evidenced by his unexpected return from an apparent season-ending shoulder injury. While Tate was out, veteran Kevin Glenn held down the fort. Glenn wasn’t the team’s most outstanding player (see Jon Cornish and Nik Lewis) but definitely was the Stampeders’ most valuable player. Elusiveness, body control, the ability to throw on the run, the Lions’ Travis Lulay is the ultimate winner. Still, Lulay hasn’t played a full game since Oct. 12, and it remains to be seen whether he is the same fluid package he was before his shoulder injury. The Lions’ offensive efficiency was frightening in that game against the Ticats, and Lulay was the master. Lions still feel they’ll be in good hands with his backup, Mike Reilly, but this is an offence more tailored to Lulay’s unique skills.
RUNNING BACKS -- Lions’ Andrew Harris, the league leader in yards from scrimmage, managed just 30 yards on six carries, when his blockers deserted him the last time these teams met, on Oct. 26. He is burning to atone for that tepid performance. The curious, sometimes prickly style and personality of his Stampeder counterpart, Jon Cornish, is another reason why Harris regards Sunday as a personal challenge. “I just don’t get that guy,” he says of Cornish. The Lions’ 34-8 win over the Stampeders on July 28 was the low point of the season for Calgary, and Cornish in particular. Lions held him to just six carries and minus-one yards. But after his frustrations boiled over in that game, when he called out his O-line, never a good idea for a running back, Cornish has been lord of the pampas. He went from seventh in the rushing tables in late July to No. 1, becoming the first Canadian in 24 years to league the CFL in rushing. Cornish ran for 86 yards the last time these teams met and picked up 109 (on 18 carries) Sunday against Saskatchewan. If he can come close to approaching that again, it’s a definite bellwether in Calgary’s favour. Lions have allowed only 76.4 rushing yards per game, by far the fewest of any team in the league.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Lions right tackle Jovan Olafioye is the most imposing O-line talent in the CFL, and left tackle Ben Archibald has been solid. But the interior of B.C.’s line has been put through the meat grinder, with LG Jon Hameister-Ries still bothered by a back/nerve problem and RG Dean Valli saddled with knee issues and one play away from needing more medical attention. It puts huge pressure on replacements Patrick Kabongo (for Hameister-Ries) and Jesse Newman (for Valli) to perform, if Valli should go down or JHR can’t go. The Stampeders quintet of (L to R) Edwin Harrison, J’Michael Deane, centre Jon Gott, all-star right guard Dimitri Tsoumpas and Stanley Bryant is healthier, and gives Calgary an edge for that fact alone. Gott has had an outstanding season. Many in Calgary feel he was overlooked for all-star consideration at the expense of Angus Reid, the Lions’ 36-year-old veteran whose league-wide recognition has been a long time coming.
RECEIVERS -- Stampeder receiver Maurice Price had never played a game in snow before the month of October. But the native of Orlando, Fla., looked as adept on a frozen field as a snow leopard, when he pulled away from Lion defenders for a 53-yard touchdown in a game played at McMahon Stadium on Oct. 26. Blessed with tremendous acceleration, there’s no catching Price when he gets a step on a defender. Together with tank-like possession receiver Nik Lewis and speed merchant Romby Bryant -- who burned the ‘Riders with the winning touchdown Sunday -- the Stamps have a lethal set of receivers who pose a formidable challenge to the Lions, especially with Larry Taylor added to the mix. At this juncture, the return of Arland Bruce from a Sept. 29 concussion remains an imponderable for the Lions. He is the wild card, capable of making daring plays, or not. Bruce and Geroy Simon or possibly Shawn Gore, one of the league’s most underrated players, will need to leave his signature on this game if the Lions are to advance.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Lions’ GM Wally Buono regards Anwar Stewart as one of his biggest mistakes. As coach of the Calgary Stampeders in 2002, Buono released Stewart in favour of another player, whose name he probably can’t remember. Stewart went on to play 10 seasons in Montreal, recorded 66 sacks and won two championships. Now, as a replacement player for the Stampeders, he’s haunting Buono again. Stewart had four sacks in a 41-21 win over the Lions on oct. 26 and has helped ease the double-teaming on Charleston Hughes, the dominating Stampeder defensive end. Hughes finished second (11) in the CFL sack race behind the Lions’ Keron Williams (12). While the Stampeders finished third league-wide with 43 sacks (Lions had the most QB kills with 47), 17 of Calgary’s total came in the final four games of the season, when Stewart’s impact was being felt. The fearsome inside threesome of Khalif Mitchell, Eric Taylor and rookie Jabar Westerman might give the Lions an edge at the tackle positions, but Mitchell has been in and out of the lineup with injuries
and suspensions, and one never knows where his head is at. If he gets his freak on, though, it could be a scary afternoon for the Stamps.
LINEBACKERS -- Middle linebacker Juwan Simpson and WILL (wide-side) ‘backer Malik Jackson form a partnership that the Stampeders believe is the equal of the relationship developed by the Lions’ duo of tackling machine Adam Bighill and Anton McKenzie, an overlooked performer with a keen sense of knowing where a play is going. Following an injury to Chris Randle, Simpson and Jackson have been joined by Keon Raymond, a defensive back by trade who was among the CFL leaders in interceptions with five (one of which he returned for a touchdown). Simpson, All-CFL in 2010, didn’t put up the same tackles numbers as Bighill (104) or Edmonton’s J.C. Sherritt (a record 130). He had 82. But the Stampeders‘ defence doesn’t allow the same latitude to free-lance, as did the Eskimos. Calgary's assignments are predicated more on gap responsibility. Stampeders allowed an average of 99.2 rushing yards per game; the Eskimos a league-worst 126.8. “You see these guys (Sherritt) with crazy numbers,” Simpson told the Calgary Herald. “I’ll trade tackles for wins any day.” Let’s put it this way: the Eskimos seemed more concerned about records. The Stamps and Lions seek their validation in a trip to the Grey Cup.
SECONDARY -- Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant exposed the Stampeders’ secondary in the West semi-final, throwing for 435 yards and four touchdowns. He came within seconds of prolonging Calgary’s
playoff losing streak to six games. If the Lions weren’t already confident in their ability to test the Stamps with the pass, that game certainly represented another source of encouragement. Halfback Brandon Smith is the Dante Marsh of the Stampeders, even though Marsh plays cornerback. Both players are all-stars who don’t get all-star consideration because it’s a stats-based league. The difference is Smith doesn’t have Korey Banks, Byron Parker and Ryan Phillips surrounding him. Smith has Fred Bennett, Quincy Butler, Eric Fraser and Derrius Brooks, the corner who looked exploitable against Saskatchewan.
RETURNERS -- The Lions’ Tim Brown had a monster second half and finished as the league’s No. 2 returner in combined yards (behind the Argos’ Chad Owens) after he made a vow to pick a hole and just go. But the return of Calgary’s dynamic Larry Taylor from injury for the final game of the regular season (Nov. 2) tips the scales more evenly for what could have been a decided advantage for the Lions. Calgary’s special teams coverage has been excellent, led by linebacker Karl McCartney (23 STT, third-best in the CFL). Keeping Brown under wraps and away from influencing field position is an imperative for the Stamps. Taylor, still only 27, was the CFL’s special teams player of the year in 2009. So the Lions know that he can burn them, too.
KICKERS -- Calgary kicker Rene Paredes and punter Rob Maver were both West Division all-stars and share common ground with Paul McCallum, the Lions veteran punter-kicker. All three are counseled and tutored by kicking consultant Don Sweet, the former Alouette. Paredes, 27, is 15 years McCallum’s junior and hasn’t kicked in nearly the same number of pressure situations as the 20-year CFL vet. But the former Concordia Stinger has a strong leg (50-yard boot in the West semi-final), accuracy (93 per cent) and a cool demeanour. Paredes kicked a 44-yard FG against the ‘Riders on Sunday, even though his shoelaces were untied. Doesn’t sound as if much gets him flustered.
INTANGIBLES -- Both Mike Benevides and John Hufnagel are leading candidates for coach of the year, but in Hufnagel’s case he’s accomplished a 13-6 record (counting playoffs) under more disadvantageous circumstances. Losing his starting quarterback in the first month of the season, for instance. In fact, the shoulder injury to Tate was part of a long laundry list of misfortune that took out a number of starters, such as Larry Taylor, Johnny Forzani, Dorian Smith and Stevie Baggs. Hufnagel’s not only held it together; his team is 10-2 in its past 12 starts and comes into BC Place on a high. While the Lions dismiss their 41-21 loss to the Stamps on Oct. 26 as a one-off (B.C. already had clinched first place), the Stampeders gained confidence and assurance from the win. Even though the Leos aren’t as vulnerable as they looked, the lasting image of that butt-kicking persists.
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