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Cauz: A couple of unsung special teams heroes

Listen, if you want to read about how William Stanback and the Montreal Alouettes’ offensive line served up a big plate of humble pie to Hamilton, this column is going to disappoint you. If you’re hoping for 900 words from an Argonauts fan lamenting such a tough loss or heaping praise on John White, this isn’t the space for you.

It would be easy to wax poetic about the Calgary Stampeders’ foundation always coming through, and how Nick Arbuckle had as many incompletions as the Saskatchewan Roughriders threw interceptions (that number is three, and let’s be honest, that stat is pretty crazy!).

Instead, I’m going to go full football hipster and focus on special teams, and not even exciting special teams like that Chris Rainey touchdown or, disastrous special teams like everything else that happened to the Argonauts. Instead, I want to focus on two unlikely heroes from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Justin Medlock and Mike Miller. One name you know of, the other you may have read about from this weekend.

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Let’s start with the more known commodity. If you looked at the box score you would see nothing extraordinary about Medlock’s night. Quite the opposite, as he missed both his field goal attempts and his 41.5-yard punting average was dwarfed by his counterpart Richie Leone, who beat him by over 10 yards a punt (51.5). But it was Medlock with his football IQ and more importantly his hustle that swung the game in the Bombers’ favour, not with his leg but rather his knee — his left knee to be more specific.

In the fourth quarter, with Winnipeg leading the Ottawa REDBLACKS 22-14, Medlock’s perfectly placed punt (damn do we love alliteration in sports media) was just dancing around Ottawa’s goal line as returner Ryan Lankford was so mesmerized by the motion of the ball that he didn’t notice the 35-year-old, three-time All-Star sneaking through the sea of special teams humanity as he made a bee line for the ball.

Lankford realized too late about the CFL rules of possession and suddenly it was Medlock’s left knee beating Lankford’s right arm, knocking the ball out of bounds at the four-yard-line. The Bombers suddenly had possession and two plays later, a Chris Streveler touchdown gave Winnipeg a comfortable 29-14 lead, silencing the home crowd.

There were many heroes for Winnipeg in their road win over Ottawa. Streveler scored three touchdowns in place of an injured Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris went full Andrew Harris with 130 total yards (take that, Father Time!) and the entire Bombers defence was outstanding, holding Ottawa to zero touchdowns, three turnovers and 258 total yards of offence. But the single most important play goes to a kicker who never made a kick.

As for Mike Miller, no one knew at that time he had tied the record for special teams tackles because his seventh and final tackle was still under review as the game broadcast ended. Hell, I didn’t have any idea until I started combing through the play-by-play of Saturday’s game.

The first two tackles were fairly identical, with Miller diagnosing the blocking scheme and  taking the right angle at Ryan Lankford. If we’re already this deep in the weeds of special teams minutia, it’s time to shine a light on the single most thankless job in football: the kickoff and punt coverage teams. These guys made life so much easier for Miller in the first quarter, engaging blockers to allow Miller to read the play.

On the pecking order of least recognizable players, it is the few, the proud, the slightly crazy players who do the blocking — or the attempted blowing up of said blocking — on returns that top that list. At least fullbacks get the ball thrown to them every now and then, and there is always the article out there praising the work up front. But where else but right here are you going to read about how Derek Jones, Thiadric Hansen and Nick Hallet took their man so Miller could make those tackles?

 

In the middle of all this dirty work Matt Nichols literally threw Miller a bone as he caught a 14-yard pass in which he was so wide open you could accuse the REDBLACKS of just not paying any attention to this special teams dynamo. Shame on them! Miller finished the night with one catch on one target, that’s a 100 per cent efficiency rate. The same can’t be said of Brandon Banks, Greg Ellingson or Lemar Durant.

Back to the dirty work. Tackle three found Miller mixing it up by flying in with the first wave of defenders and just getting enough of Lankford, who was attempting to stutter step through Winnipeg’s coverage unit. Tackle four (which could have been split with Thiadric Hansen) was the result of beating the block of Jean-Christophe Beaulieu. Miller’s fifth tackle was the best one on the night, the impressive open field variety with Miller flying from the side and losing Sherrod Baltimore in the process. Tackle number six would be his hardest hit of the night as he gets Lankford right before Ottawa’s returner goes out of bounds. At this point Chris Cuthbert is getting excited.

Unfortunately, the record-tying tackle in the fourth quarter would be anticlimactic as it was hard to see just who would get credit. Upon closer inspection, it looked like Miller had done enough to just barely push Lankford out of bounds, but it was hard to tell. For some reason, TSN elected to focus on the game instead of committing all of their resources to replay that tackle a thousand times; so it wouldn’t be until much later before it would be ruled an official tackle for Miller.

What I wondered about was whether or not all the Bombers on that coverage unit decided to lay off Lankford if Miller was close to get the record. Did they all unanimously agree to strictly engage with the Ottawa blockers, clearing a path for Miller towards Lankford the same way basketball players will let a teammate get his 10th rebound for a triple-double?

So congratulations to the Bombers on being the last CFL team without a loss, to all the unsung members of Winnipeg who made Miller a star, and finally, to Justin Medlock, who proved that a kicker can help his team win without making a field goal.