Hamilton receiver Andy Fantuz, right, capitalized on the soft spots in Toronto's zone defence to the tune of 11 catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns in the East final. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
The Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats earned their spots in the 101st Grey Cup game by taking advantage of their opponents' weak links, and masking their own, in the division finals.
Football is the ultimate team sport because, although individuals command the headlines, games are won on the strength of your weakest link.
I don't know how many people realized that the late-season injuries to both of Calgary's defensive tackles was going to have the impact it eventually did on the West final against Saskatchewan. Hopefully everyone now has a greater appreciation for the big boys that play in the middle of the defensive line who often go unnoticed.
In an attempt to address this weak link, Stampeders defensive coordinator Rick Campbell made the decision to add extra linebackers and undersized linemen to his front in an effort to slow Saskatchewan's rushing attack on first down. However, when you add players to support the run, you take them out of your pass defence. The weakness created in the middle of Calgary's front left the Stamps guessing as they tried to predict when the Riders were going to run or pass.
It's always difficult trying to play a defensive package that you don't have a lot of familiarity with. To make matters worse, the Riders added an unexpected wrinkle to their rushing attack by introducing Jock Sanders to the fold. The amount of pre-snap movement they used was very effective at getting the Stampeders' defence back on their heels and forcing them to blow assignments.
The Riders ended up rushing the ball 36 times for 238 yards. Meanwhile, dangerous Calgary pass rushers Charleston Hughes and Cordarro Law were completely eliminated from the game by the Stamps' inability to stop the Riders on first down, allowing the Riders to control the game to the tune of a 2:10 discrepancy in time of possession.
Heading into the East final, Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris had thrown 13 interceptions in the past 10 games and averaged only 152 yards passing per game over the past month. Outside of one productive 97-yard drive against Montreal in the East semifinal that resulted in a touchdown, Burris threw for only 107 yards and was eventually left sitting in the shadows of second-stringer Dan LeFevour, whose game-winning TD run resulted in his being hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates as the hero of the overtime victory.
LeFevour took only 10 fewer snaps than Burris against Montreal, and it made a lot of sense for Argos defensive coordinator Chris Jones to figure that Hamilton head coach Kent Austin would opt for a ball-control offence involving LeFevour and running babck CJ Gable in order to eat up the clock and keep star Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray on the sidelines.
Toronto was well prepared for handling LeFevour, who was ineffective under centre. Gable was contained as well, rushing for only 54 yards on 13 carries. However, the Argos made the fatal mistake of thinking that Burris was the weak link they could exploit.
While LeFevour took only five snaps in the East final, Burris shined, throwing the ball 40 times for 371 yards and three touchdowns.
The Argos established a reputation throughout the season of playing an aggressive zone-blitz defence. Although we grew accustomed to seeing them give up a league-worst 298 passing yards per game, they were very opportunistic and often generated defensive takeaways from the way they pressured quarterbacks with their linebackers.
What surprised me in the East final was the number of times they decided to rush only three or four defensive players. The only conclusion I could come to was that Toronto decided it wanted the ball in Burris's hands. But if you give a veteran quarterback time and comfort in the pocket, he is going to find receivers downfield.
To make matters worse, the Argos' defence decided to play a high dose of zone coverage, which played to the Ticats' strengths. One of the weaknesses of the Hamilton receiving corps is its inability to beat man coverage, but Andy Fantuz's greatest strength is his ability to sit down in the soft spots of zones and capitalize with his ability to make tough catches in traffic, and he had an amazing game, catching 11 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
I was happy to see Burris and Fantuz perform so well, and I wish them both the best as they take on the Roughriders in the Grey Cup game this Sunday in Regina, but the Argoss made it way too easy.
Greg FrersGreg played in the Canadian Football League as an all-star safety for 10 years, and was a two-time Grey Cup champion with the Calgary Stampeders. He retired from the CFL after the 2002 season, and later joined CBC Sports as a football analyst. Greg currently lives in Vancouver with his wife Lisa and their three boys.
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