Pat Steinberg is the co-host of the drive home program on Sportsnet Radio FAN 960 in Calgary. He also reports on the CFL and the Stampeders and hosts pre and post-game programs for the team. He looks forward to traveling to the Grey Cup every year. Follow Pat on Twitter @Fan960Steinberg.
Should we really be surprised? The 2011 West Division Champions will take on the 2011 East Division Champions in Sunday’s Grey Cup. It comes after two victories that were never really in doubt and caps off two incredible seasons for the competitors.
The BC Lions stuck with an 0-5 start to roll over virtually everyone on their way to, well, BC. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers completed a stunning six win turnaround and return to the grandest stage for the first time since 2007.
HOW THE WEST WAS WON
It just wasn’t fair. Back in the first few columns here at the MMQB, we were very bullish on the coming season for the BC Lions. That logic seemed rather unfounded early on, but apparently Wally Buono’s crew decided to do all their losing in the early stages of the 2011 season.
Losses came few and far between in the final 14 games of the season, and in BC’s 40-23 win over Edmonton in the Western Final spoke to exactly why.
Two things Wally told me when I was doing my Lions preview for our radio station here in Calgary: the offensive line needed to be better and the defensive line needed to be better. Mission accomplished on both fronts.
Look at how much time Travis Lulay had on Sunday afternoon; that will paint a solid tale of how good the protection for BC’s quarterback has been for the last few months. Allowing just one sack yesterday, the line allowed Lulay to pick his spots extremely effectively, hooking up with seven different receivers as part of a very comfortable performance. Combining BC’s solid work up front with a poised, smart pivot and you’ve got a deadly mix, even against Edmonton’s efficient defensive unit.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions did what they do best: create havoc up front. Looking at the game stats this morning, you may not see overly impressive stat totals posted from the starting four that make up BC’s defensive front.
But having Khalif Mitchell, Aaron Hunt, Keron Williams and Khreem Smith do what they do on a consistent basis has given defensive coordinator Mike Benevides so many options this season.
Look at the pressure Ricky Ray was under yesterday, and you’ll see that it wasn’t always from the big men up front. But you’ll also see a rather high number of guys flying into the screen, seemingly untouched at times, getting in Ray’s face and disrupting his timing.
Because the play makers up front have consistently allowed for Benevides to send extra attackers on the blitz, it has been increasingly tougher for opposing quarterbacks to get the ball away in time. Ray was rattled, he threw three interceptions and 19 incomplete passes, and so much of it was because of BC’s continued victories in the trenches.
We all knew cold weather was going to play it’s part in Winnipeg, and boy did it ever, as the Eastern Final turned into a battle of attrition, a battle the Bombers won.
Watching Avon Cobourne on his nine carries yesterday reminded me of watching footage from the 1980’s in super slow motion; but it wasn’t. I’ve never seen a guy work harder for 28 yards in a football game, and it was all thanks to the absolute cold front he faced in the Swaggerville defence.
Watching Ian Logan wrap up on tackles was a thing of beauty, while Clint Kent resembled a battering ram in a game where any piece of ground was hard to come by. When I saw the weather forecast prior to the game, it just seemed like the type of conditions where the Winnipeg defensive group was going to thrive. They’re a hard hitting group of guys, but most importantly, they play like at true unit when they’re on their game, like they were Sunday.
“Really great defences, defences that you remember, at the most pivotal of times they step up and make an impact and make a name,” said defensive lineman Doug Brown following Winnipeg’s 19-3 win. “That's what so many guys in this room did (today).”
It was the type of game that you just know Brown is beaming ear-to-ear about, as it typified the kind of football that has defined his 11 year career so far. Now he’s got a chance to go out on top playing with possibly the best defensive group he’s had in his decade plus of action.
“It's already a fairytale just to get to go back home in your last year and have an opportunity to compete for a championship. But the biggest thing to me of this whole scenario, this whole opportunity, is the fact that the players in this room now have a chance to bring a championship back here after 21 years.”
Good stuff from Brown’s boys on an afternoon where offence was hard to come by and every yard had to be fought for. That’s why Chris Garrett’s 190 (!) yards on the ground still blow my mind the day after.
On 29 carries, Garrett helped grind the pace of the game down to exactly where the Bombers wanted it. He softened up the Hamilton front time and time again, allowing a rusty Buck Pierce the opportunity for a little more time on passing plays. The Tiger-Cats had to play off their back foot far too often trying to react to Garrett’s next move. It was as good an individual playoff performance as I can remember in recent years.
LOTS TO BUILD ON
As Edmonton and Hamilton start looking ahead to the 2012 season, there are plenty of positives to build on going forward. It was a remarkable year for the Eskimos defensively, defining the term “defensive unit”.
Rich Stubler’s boys swarmed to the football unlike any other team this season, and need to be commended for it; it was a large reason why Edmonton returned to prominence and were able to earn a home playoff date. While we won’t see this group look exactly the same for the coming season, there are many reasons for Eric Tillman to keep the bulk of this unit together under Stubler, because there’s nothing stopping from being just as effective next year.
Hamilton may have had a rather inconsistent year in terms of results, but they got steely consistency from kicker Justin Medlock. Missing just six field goals all season, Medlock was especially effective as the season got older. While the Ticats may want to cut down on his opportunities next year (Medlock kicked a league high 55 times this year), they got everything expected out of a kicker and then some. Paul McCallum may be the man right now, but Medlock is knocking on the door to displace him at the top.
We’ll refrain from making Grey Cup predictions today, as later this week we’ll hear from all of our great columnists here at CFL.ca to set up the big game.