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Numbers Don’t Lie: 3 stats that will define the Eastern Semi

HAMILTON — It’s a new month and a fresh start in the Canadian Football League, with six teams setting their sights on the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.

While anyone can win, the last 21 weeks on the CFL calendar have provided plenty to think about as we head into the post-season.

It’s been an unlikely collision course for the Lions and Ticats, who meet in the Eastern Semi-Final as a result of the crossover. Sunday’s meeting at Tim Hortons Field offers some other twists and turns, as the Tabbies try to win without Brandon Banks, while Lions starting quarterback Travis Lulay has yet to face Hamilton this season.

What will be the difference in Sunday’s cross-division clash? CFL.ca breaks it down in the latest ‘numbers don’t lie’.

1. Clash of the CFL’s top pass defences

The Headline: Tim Hortons a ‘no fly zone’

The Number: 247.5 (Average passing yards allowed by the Ticats and Lions)

Delvin Breaux has been a key part of the Ticats’ stifling secondary in 2018 (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

Don’t expect there to be an air show on Sunday at Tim Hortons Field, as this year’s Eastern Semi features two of the league’s stingier defences against the pass.

The Lions (247.2) and Ticats (247.7) rank second and third respectively in the CFL in passing yards allowed, with a total of just 0.5 yards per game separating them.

A large part of the Ticats’ success in their first year under defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville has been defensive back Delvin Breaux, a rare shutdown corner in the CFL who opposing quarterbacks awkwardly try to avoid. Breaux returned from the NFL after playing for the New Orleans Saints, but hasn’t missed a beat back in the black and gold.

On the other side, the Lions’ secondary has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 season. General Manager Ed Hervey rebuilt the group almost from scratch in his first off-season in BC, with T.J. Lee and Anthony Thompson as the only returning starters. Anthony Orange, Garry Peters and Winston Rose have become bonafide starters, helping the Lions’ pass defence rank near the top of the league in virtually every category.

Add in the possibility of the cold, windy weather that November usually brings to the Hammer, and it’s easy to predict that the quarterbacks could be in for a tough time.

2. Lions prey on sacks, interceptions

The Headline: Feeding time in the den

The Number: 45 sacks, 21 interceptions (Lions lead CFL in both categories)

Of Shawn Lemon‘s 11 sacks this season, 10 have come since being traded to BC (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The Lions’ success on defence has come largely through the ability to create pressure and force turnovers, as evidenced by the team’s league-leading 45 sacks and 21 interceptions this season.

Mid-season acquisition Shawn Lemon has certainly played a role, the former Argonaut recording 10 of his 11 sacks since the trade while forming one of the CFL’s most feared pass-rushing duos along with Odell Willis. Add in a ball-hawking defence, featuring interception co-leaders Anthony Orange and Winston Rose with five each, and you can see why this unit poses problems for opponents.

It’s something Ticats pivot Jeremiah Masoli will certainly have in mind when these teams meet on Sunday. Masoli has taken better care of the football of late, but is still tied for a league-high 18 interceptions in 2018. For a Ticats team that’s turned the football over 41 times this season — tied for the third-most in the CFL — avoiding mistakes will be key on the offensive side of the ball.

If this year’s head-to-head contests have any bearing, the Ticats are in good shape. They’ve won the turnover battle 6-2 in two games against the Lions, a trend they’ll hope to continue this week. Either way, it’s a stat that will go a long way in determining who moves on and who goes home.

3. Can Sutton rejuvenate Lions’ run game?

The Headline: Pound that rock!

The Number: 94.4 (Lions’ rushing yards per game, the second-worst in the CFL)

The Tyrell Sutton trade has provided immediate returns in the Lions’ ground game (The Canadian Press)

The BC Lions made the playoffs despite ranking near the bottom of the league in run production, averaging just 94.4 yards on the ground per game — 0.4 yards per game better than last-place Ottawa.

However, the Lions’ ground game has a new look heading into the post-season. The acquisition of Tyrell Sutton has certainly made an impact, the veteran back rushing for 203 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries (5.3 yards per attempt) in season-saving wins over the Stamps and Eskimos.

The Lions need to establish the run more consistently in the post-season to balance out an offence that’s also capable of stretching the field vertically thanks to the addition of speedy receiver DeVier Posey.

With a tough matchup against the CFL’s stingiest secondary, the Lions’ offence will almost certainly look to exploit a Hamilton run defence that ranks near the CFL basement, allowing opponents an average of 5.4 yards per attempt. The Lions brought in Sutton knowing he’s a tough, physical inside runner, favouring him over the previous starter Jeremiah Johnson.

Not to be forgotten, Ticats running back Alex Green will make for an intriguing head-to-head against Sutton. Green had 604 yards and seven touchdowns in just eight games this season and has been remarkably productive throughout his career, combining for 13 touchdowns in 14 career contests.