The stats line screams it from the rooftop: Saturday night’s game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers features one team with a powerful running attack versus one that you can only say is still searching for a way to get people to attach the same adjective to its own running game.
The Calgary Stampeders, fresh off a bye and looking to be the first team to hand the Winnipeg Blue Bombers a loss this season, are the powerful ground game artistes, second only to the BC Lions in average gain per rush, and third in total yardage behind the Lions and the league-leading Saskatchewan Roughriders, with the ‘Riders having played two more games.
The Blue Bombers stand last in the CFL in average gain per rush and at 3.8 yards per carry, are a full two yards shy of Calgary’s robust 5.8 yards per run. And yet Winnipeg has run the ball more often, on average, than any team in the CFL this season.
Can the Bombers finally bust out a gigantic run game? Will the Stampeders lean more on their vaunted cavalry attack given the results of a Week 6 clash between these same two teams?
Calgary coach Dave Dickenson bemoaned the amount of pressure the Winnipeg defence was able to put on quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell in a Week 6 loss to the Bombers, and that they did it largely with four-man rushes, not having to throw extra bodies and blitz packages at the Calgary offence in order to accomplish it. Mitchell was hard-pressed to get anything going in his aerial game, and the Bombers came up with their best pass defence performance of the season, holding Bo and the terrors that run routes for him to a lightweight 187 yards on the night. Winnipeg won it, 26-19.
Might not be a surprise, then, if the Stamps go to the ground game more often in the rematch, considering that is the obligatory (and conventionally most effective) way to dull a pass rush. When you see that Calgary’s Ka’Deem Carey piled up 110 yards in that last game against Winnipeg – and did it on only 12 rushes – you can be led to believe that more ground-pounding only seems logical.
The Stampeders might have to go without their workhorse running back in Carey, who’s missed practice time this week due to illness. We’ll see. If he can’t go, then it’ll be up to rookie Peyton Logan to show that the early reviews on him are authentic, and that Calgary’s run game will march along on its merry way because John Hufnagel has done what he always seems to do; find the next one and have him ready, whatever the position. Logan’s rushed just 14 times so far this season (he’s done very nice work in returning kicks and punts) but he’s totalled 90 yards and a touchdown, with an average of 6.4 yards per carry, snug up against Carey’s average of 6.5 yards.
What about the Bombers, playing their eighth game in eight weeks and with injury-driven question marks in the receiving corps?
Considering that they already rush the ball more often, on average, than any other CFL team (21.7 attempts per game), they might be inclined to keep swinging that sledgehammer until some cracks finally start to appear in that boulder. They’ll need something different, something more effective in this re-match than what was on offer in their victory, two weeks ago. That night, running back Johnny Augustine ran the ball seven times for 33 yards which is really close to the magic average of five yards per carry. But then you factor in his backfield mate, Brady Oliveira rushing nine times for 8 yards and you get a portrait of a Winnipeg ground game that clearly hasn’t found its way to daylight. (Last week’s modestly successful running game in a win over Edmonton came against the league’s worst run defence, statistically speaking)
Bomber fans must have been feeling some nostalgic pangs as they watched Andrew Harris put the Toronto Argonauts on his shoulders on Sunday night, something he did on a regular basis for the Blue Bombers over his five seasons in Winnipeg. So far, that kind of individual effort hasn’t been seen in the Manitoba capital this season, though the potential has just got to be there, doesn’t it? Augustine went off for 148 yards against Calgary in the final game of the regular season last year. Oliveira had two 100-yard rushing games in 2021.
With a powerful ground attack, the Blue Bombers might be winning games a little more comfortably than they have been in 2022, or at least showing off a more consistent, time-chewing offence.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will keep winning games in various other ways as the season goes on. That’s what they did in 2021, when points were left off the board due to an enigmatic kicking game. But let’s also remember that the Bombers remedied their low field goal productivity when they brought in Sergio Castillo late in the season. And wouldn’t you know it, Castillo’s five-for-five performance on Grey Cup Sunday was key. No, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won’t be shrugging off their timid run game, even with a 7 and oh record. They’ll keep swinging the hammer.
Finally, can’t do a run game comparison without sizing up each team’s defence and in these two, we have a couple of the league’s best, statistically speaking. Winnipeg has given up merely 75.6 yards rushing per game, to stand second in the CFL. Calgary is third, surrendering 82.2 yards each game. Part of the reason for that, though, is that opponents do not run so much against either Calgary or Winnipeg (Bomber opponents have opted to rush an average of 15.3 times per game, a league low, while Calgary’s opposition has run at them 18.6 times per game, fourth-lowest) because those two defences have given up near league worsts in passing yardage at 283 and 289.9, respectively (Ottawa stands last, yielding 294.5 yards per game).
In a game that looms large – especially for the Stampeders who would like to keep the Blue Bombers’ tail lights in sight – the run game can be a major factor. But the questions are: Will Calgary use their very effective battering ram offence even more than they have and if so, can they keep the ground attack humming, even if Carey is absent? And can the Blue Bombers finally smash that boulder?