Scouting the Grey Cup participants
The Lions host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 2011 Grey Cup on Sunday at B.C. Place (6:30 p.m. ET). Here's a scouting report on both the East and West champions (using a scale of 1 to 10):
Quarterback Travis Lulay enjoyed a breakout season, his first full campaign under centre for the Lions. The former Montana State star finished tied for the CFL lead in TD passes (32), second overall in passing (4,815 yards) and was named a finalist for the league's outstanding player award. Under Lulay, B.C. was tied for most TD passes (33) and second in scoring (28.4 points per game) and passing yards (282.8 per game).
But opposing defences must also contend with Lulay's mobility, which not only makes him a running threat but also use his legs to escape pressure and extend plays. Tailback Andrew Harris, a Winnipeg native, has emerged as a solid two-way threat as a rusher and receiver. Veteran slotbacks Geroy Simon (84 catches, 1,350 yards, eight TDs) and Arland Bruce III (58 catches, 859 yards, eight TDs) anchor a solid receiving corps.
All-Canadian centre Angus Reid leads a solid offensive line that surrendered a league-low 29 sacks this year.
Lulay and Co. receive much of the accolades but this unit deserves a lot of the credit for B.C.'s stellar run. End Keron Williams (11 sacks) anchors a fabulous defensive line that can control the line of scrimmage on its own and leave standout linebacker Solomon Elimimian free to flow to the ball carrier, come on a blitz for added pressure or drop back into coverage in pass situations. And veteran defensive backs Korey Banks, Ryan Phillips and Dante Marsh headline a secondary that has more than 30 years of CFL experience.
The Lions forced four turnovers in West Division final win, which the offence was able to convert into 21 points. A formidable combination indeed.
There was no one better than Lions kicker Paul McCallum this season. The 41-year-old, the CFL's oldest player, was good on 50 of 53 field goals for a league-record 94.3 per cent success ratio. He set another league mark this year by connecting on 30 straight field goals and his 53-yarder was the second-longest in the CFL this year. McCallum also did a solid job of punting (42.1-yard punting average) and posted a respectable 57.6-yard kickoff average.
Tim Brown was fourth overall in punt returns and third in kickoff returns while Adam Bighill had a team-high 21 special-teams tackles.
When it comes to CFL coaches, there's B.C.'s Wally Buono, and then the other seven. Buono is the winningest coach in league history with 254 regular-season victories. He has also won four Grey Cup titles and three times been named the league's coach of the year. But an argument can be made that the 61-year-old Buono did his best job this season, rallying the Lions from an 0-5 start amid some calls for his head.
The rapid development of Lulay should only add to Buono's reputation of having an astute eye for talent under centre, having had the likes of Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia play for him previously.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Tailback Chris Garrett offers a true feel-good story here. Released earlier this season by Winnipeg, he re-signed with the club and was promoted to the starting lineup after incumbent Fred Reid and backup Carl Volny suffered season-ending injuries. Garrett averaged over six yards a carry in the regular season, then ran for 190 yards and a TD in leading Winnipeg past Hamilton in the East Division final. Garrett's fine play gave an already solid run game a big-time boost this year, which only enhances the impact of veteran quarterback Buck Pierce, who can effectively use play-action to freeze linebackers because he, too, is a threat to run.
Pierce battled injuries this year and had more interceptions (18) than touchdowns but backup Alex Brink showed well during his chances to play this year. Whoever is under centre has solid receivers in veteran Terrence Edwards (66 catches, 1,124 yards, eight TDs) and impressive rookie Clarence Denmark (65 catches, 818 yards, five TDs). But the offensive line surrendered 46 sacks, tied with Edmonton for most in the CFL and unit's 42 giveaways — including CFL-leading 22 interceptions — was third-most in the league.
This unit was the biggest reason for Winnipeg's resurgence after posting a league-low 4-14 record last season. It finished first in 12 of the CFL's 25 defensive categories, including sacks (55), fewest yards (301.1 per game), fewest passing yards (223.1 per game) and interceptions (25). The Bombers also forced a league-high 54 turnovers.
Odell Willis finished tied for the CFL lead in sacks with 13 but Kenny Mainor (eight sacks) and Jason Vega (seven sacks) were also problems for opposing quarterbacks. The loss of linebacker Joe Lodendhan was a big one, but Marcellus Bowman has certainly lessened that impact. Cornerback Jovon Johnson anchors the secondary, registering a league-high eight interceptions and returning two for TDs to be named the East Division's outstanding defensive player nominee.
Sophomore Justin Palardy hit on 40 of 52 field goals this season, a solid accomplishment given half of his games were played at Canad Inns Stadium, which is infamous for its swirling winds. Punter Jamie Boreham rejoined the Bombers in a trade with Saskatchewan during the season and is a savvy eight-year CFL veteran. Johnson gives Winnipeg's return game a boost whenever he gets the chance to haul in punts.
Paul LaPolice did a terrific job this season as Winnipeg posted a six-win improvement over last year despite limited roster turnover. The 41-year-old LaPolice was criticized a lot during his rookie campaign for some questionable on-field decisions but this year seemed to push all the right buttons in keeping his team on an even keel, especially late in the season when victories were harder to come by. And Winnipeg registered many of its early-season wins with late rallies, a solid sign of successful in-game adjustments by LaPolice and his coaching staff.
LaPolice will make his third Grey Cup appearance as a coach, taking part in two previously as an assistant with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.