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REGINA — The mercury is dropping, but one of the CFL’s most bitter rivalries continues to heat up as the Roughriders and Blue Bombers meet for the second time in as many years in the Grey Cup Playoffs.
After representing the West in five of the last seven Grey Cups, the Calgary Stampeders no longer stand in the way. The Riders and Bombers both feel they are worthy contenders, a claim strongly supported by their underlying numbers in 2019.
While Winnipeg continues to be a force on the ground — both offensively and defensively — the Riders are led by one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks in breakout star Cody Fajardo, along with the receiving tandem of Shaq Evans and Kyran Moore.
Both teams, meanwhile, play to their strengths defensively, with the Riders allowing the fewest yards in the league at 294.4 per game, and the Bombers ranking second in takeaways at 45 on the year.
With a 2-1 edge in the season series as well as home field, Saskatchewan appears to be the favourite entering Sunday’s game. Yet the emergence of Zach Collaros as well as a late-season injury to Fajardo could have an impact.
What else could factor into the result? CFL.ca breaks it down.
Quarterbacks get all the glory come playoff time, but on Sunday all eyes will be on two of the CFL’s most dominant pass rushers. The Riders’ Charleston Hughes leads the league with 16 sacks, and no pass rush tandem had more takedowns in 2019 than Hughes and his teammate A.C. Leonard.
On the other side, no player has disrupted opposing offences more than Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson. One of the off-season’s biggest free agent signings, Jefferson’s first season in Winnipeg has been the best of his career, generating a league-high 16 pass knockdowns, six forced fumbles and 12 sacks.
Led by Jefferson, Winnipeg’s defence ranks near the top of the league in sacks (48), takeaways (45) and opponent quarterback rating (87.7), making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Even more impressive is the Bomber run defence, allowing just 64.2 rushing yards per game, the second lowest total in CFL history.
For a Riders’ offence that has succeeded in minimizing sacks and interceptions, it’ll be important to ensure that Jefferson has a quiet game for the Blue and Gold — a task easier dreamed than accomplished.
The Riders turned the ball over just 25 times this season, including a league-low 11 interceptions. First-time starter Cody Fajardo has played a big role in that, throwing interceptions on just 1.7 per cent of his attempts, second only to Eskimos quarterback Trevor Harris.
What’s unique about the Riders’ offence has been its ability to limit mistakes without sacrificing downfield explosiveness. Fajardo seems to know when to take risks and, conversely, when to tuck the football and run, as evident by his 611 rushing yards on 107 attempts, behind only Chris Streveler.
But despite his reputation as a runner, Fajardo has been the league’s most effective quarterback in the mid range passing game, with the Riders leading the CFL on passes of 10-19 yards depth, boasting a quarterback rating of 109.2 compared to the league average of 85.7. He’s also been one of the best deep ball passers, ranking among the top three in yards, efficiency, touchdowns and passer rating on 20-plus yard attempts.
There’s no doubt Fajardo’s breakout season has been one of the league’s biggest stories in 2019. After missing the Riders’ season finale with an oblique injury, will his health allow him to make the same impact as usual? Offences are running the ball a CFL-low 26 per cent of the time against Winnipeg, and the Riders are likely to need a big game from their passing attack.
It’s no secret the Bombers run the ball a lot. What’s more surprising is just how dedicated they are to the ground game, while still maintaining a high degree of success in an otherwise pass heavy league.
When the Bombers are able to dictate the game on the ground, they usually come out on the winning end. That’s happened often this season, with a rushing attack that leads the CFL in yards per game (147.9), yards per attempt (6.0) and carries of 10-plus yards (78). While running back Andrew Harris owns a career best 6.1 yards per carry, the quarterbacks have accounted for a league-high 782 yards on the ground.
The Riders have also been one of the league’s more successful teams running the football, going the ground route 40 per cent of their offensive plays compared to the Bombers’ 44 per cent. But the discrepancy between run and pass is most extreme in Winnipeg, where the Bombers rank last in passing yards (3,819) and first in total rushing yards.
With Saskatchewan’s run defence ranking second in the CFL at 92.6 yards per game, Sunday presents an intriguing matchup on paper. If the Riders can contain Harris and Streveler — along with Nic Demski, who added 53 rushing yards in the semi-final — they’ll force the Bombers to try and make plays through the air.