What the numbers tell us to expect in Sunday’s Grey Cup matchup

Hamilton and Winnipeg is the matchup many of us thought we would see at the beginning of the season.

Five of us here at 3DownNation picked it back in June, but I don’t think any of us saw the roads these two teams would take to get to Calgary.

For the Ticats, everyone thought they would be the runaway winner of the East, but would anyone have said they would finish 15-3 and have one loss since August 1? If you told them they would lose Jeremiah Masoli for the year in July (not to mention Luke Tasker, Delvin Breaux, Sean Thomas-Erlington and Adrian Tracy for long stretches of the season, (and never get Jamaal Westerman on the field), I doubt it. Yet all the Ticats did was set a franchise record for wins and beat every team in the CFL.

In the East Final, the Ticats took apart an Edmonton team that wowed the CFL-watching public a week prior when they took down the upstart Montreal Alouettes. The Ticats didn’t play their best game last Sunday and still won by 20. That’s how good this Ticats team is.

A hot start and rough middle saw the Bombers go from favourites to underdogs heading into the playoffs. Losing QB Matt Nichols to a shoulder injury in the summer had the Bombers reeling, but the savvy trade that brought one-time Ticats QB Zach Collaros to the Manitoba capital breathed new life into Big Blue. The Bombers have gone 3-0 since Collaros took over for the underachieving Chris Streveler prior to Winnipeg’s final regular game, and find themselves in the Grey Cup because of it.

What the Bombers did, going on the road and winning twice, hasn’t been done since 2005 when Edmonton did the same en route to a championship. Winning in Calgary isn’t easy at the best of times, and the Bombers obliterated the Stamps in the West Semi-Final before gutting out a hard-fought 20-13 win in the West Final over the Riders.

The one difficult thing about looking at this matchup is that the previous two games only give us a slight idea of what we can expect. The July meeting in Hamilton that the Ticats won 23-15 was the game in which Jeremiah Masoli went down. Dane Evans came in with just over three quarters left and looked as one would expect a young backup to look. We also can’t take much away from that from the Bombers perspective because Matt Nichols was their starter in that one.

Fast forward to September and these two teams met again in Winnipeg, the Ticats looking much more like they do now, but the Bombers did not have the man who will start for them at QB in the Grey Cup, Zach Collaros. We can take a little more from Hamilton’s 33-13 beatdown, but the offence we will see from Winnipeg won’t look the same with Collaros in there.

In any event, we can still take a look at how these two teams match up and try to glean something from it, so let’s dig in.

Ticats’ offence vs. Bombers’ defence

Hamilton was the highest-scoring team in the CFL in 2019, while Winnipeg’s defence was fifth in points allowed. Where the Ticats have the massive advantage here is in the passing game, as they paced the league with a 313 yards per game in the air, Winnipeg gave up 303 yards passing a game (sixth in the CFL).

Hamilton has also relied on the big play in the passing game, finishing with more 30-plus yard plays through the air (31) than any team in the league. That does not bode well for a Bombers team that gave up 32 explosive plays on defence, most in the CFL. Expect a lot of deep shots to both Brandon Banks and Bralon Addison on Sunday.

While the Ticats are hardly a rushing team, and despite starting five different players at tailback over the course of the season, they did finish fourth in the CFL in rushing yards. Winnipeg’s defence was stout against the run, topping the league by allowing a paltry 65 yards along the ground per game. The Ticats did not find much room in the running game, picking up a combined 95 yards on the ground in the two games against the Bombers this season.

The Ticats committed 36 turnovers, including 24 interceptions on the season, and Winnipeg was a turnover-creating machine with 45 in total, 24 of them being picks, including nine by league-leader Winston Rose. Creating turnovers is what the Bombers will have to do if they hope to neutralize the Ticats’ potent offence.

Bombers’ offence vs. Ticats’ defence

We know what the Bombers like to do: Run. The. Football.

Winnipeg, led by the league’s leading rusher Andrew Harris, picked up a league-leading 148 yards per game on the ground in 2019. Add in the Chris Streveler factor, and the Bombers are going to try to run the ball down Hamilton’s throat. The Ticats come well equipped to stop the run, which might surprise some people.

After a rocky start that saw William Powell and William Stanback run roughshod over the Ticats’ D, Hamilton settled in as the year progressed and finished a very respectable third in rush defence, allowing just 95 yards per game. They also did a good job of making Andrew Harris a non-factor, as Harris had just 90 yards on 18 carries in two games against the Ticats.

Fully admitting that the Bombers are a different team with Collaros at the helm, it still doesn’t look good for them when it comes to passing the football. On the season, Winnipeg was league-worst when it came to airing it out, averaging just 212 yards per game.

Hamilton allowed the fifth-most passing yards per game this season with 270, but allowed an average of 287.5 yards against the Bombers in two games, albeit ones started by Streveler and Nichols. Now, context is needed because Streveler was airing it out late in the 20-point loss in Winnipeg back in September, his only 300-plus yard passing output ever, and he threw 42 passes to reach that mark, his highest number of pass attempts in any game in his career.

The Bombers also have to deal with the league’s best defence when it comes to not allowing points. The Ticats were the only team in 2019 to allow fewer than 20 points per game (19.1), and they allowed just 17.9 points per game on defence. The Ticats also forced 44 turnovers in 2019, the Bombers gave the ball away 38 times.

Special teams

Both of these teams are excellent in the unheralded third aspect of the game. They each have elite-level kickers, with the Ticats having Grey Cup winner Lirim Hajrullahu and the Bombers having the greatest kicker in CFL history (yes, I said it) Justin Medlock. The edge here obviously goes to the Bombers, but I would have full faith in both guys to nail a game winner with no time if it came down to that.

The returner battle goes to Hamilton, with the East’s top special teams player, Frankie Williams, having an all-star seasoning returning the football. The Bombers will counter with former Ticat-for-a-second Janarion Grant.

The Bombers have one of the best coverage units in the league, led by Williams’ opponent for top special teams player, Mike Miller and rookie Kerfalla Exume, an eighth-round pick who has become a special teams demon in his first year. The Ticats counter with some great coverage guys as well, led by veteran Mike Daly.

These two teams were one (Winnipeg) and two (Hamilton) in punt return average, and the Ticats did not give up a single kick return touchdown all year. These two teams also finished first (Winnipeg) and tied for second (Hamilton) in averaging starting field position for the opposition.

These are two of the best special teams units in the CFL, which should come as no surprise. The Ticats have maybe the best special teams coordinator of his era in Jeff Reinebold. Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea is a former special teams coordinator. Both teams place a huge emphasis on special teams and it shows.

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Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.