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How the Bombers and Tiger-Cats built winners

Feared defensive lineman Willie Jefferson was an astute pick-up by the Blue Bombers. KEVIN KING/POSTMEDIA
Feared defensive lineman Willie Jefferson was an astute pick-up by the Blue Bombers. KEVIN KING/POSTMEDIA

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats are two very different football teams.

The Bombers killed opponents with their run game this year and finished with the most rushing yards in the CFL regular season. The Ticats liked to attack through the air, and no team had more passing yards than them.

But scratch beneath the surface, and there are some serious similarities between the two teams competing in Sunday’s Grey Cup in Calgary.

Here’s a look at some of the things the teams have in common — and what that might tell us about building a winner in the CFL:

  1. SPEND WISELY

When you think back to February and the reactions among media and fans to the CFL’s frantic first couple days of free agency, it wasn’t necessarily the Bombers and Ticats who were viewed as big winners.

Instead, it was the B.C. Lions and their signing of star QB Mike Reilly and the Edmonton Eskimos, who replaced Reilly with Trevor Harris and added a few big names.

The Bombers and Ticats, though, may have hit two of the biggest home runs of the off-season when Willie Jefferson committed to playing in Winnipeg and Ja’Gared Davis signed on for a season in Hamilton. Add in Dylan Wynn, who joined the Ticats after the AAF folded, and this begins to look like a trend.

Jefferson and Davis are super-elite defensive ends. They harass quarterbacks and disrupt running lanes on every single defensive play. Davis’ 13 sacks were the second-most in the CFL this season, while Jefferson was right behind him with 12 and had the third-most.  Wynn was fourth, with 11 sacks — the most of any defensive tackle.

Everyone always says football is won in the trenches, and while you need more than just a great defensive line to make it all the way to the Grey Cup, the Bombers and Ticats did show something: If you’re going to try to make a splash in free agency, the best value-for-money might be found in aggressively pursuing elite defensive linemen.

  1. QUARTERBACK IS CONFUSING

There’s no position more important in the CFL than quarterback, but historians are going to look back on the 2019 season and scratch their heads a bit.

The Bombers enter Sunday’s big game with Zach Collaros as their starting quarterback. He wasn’t even on the team’s roster until early October.

Dane Evans will be behind centre for the Ticats, and he didn’t get his first start until Week 7 of the regular season when 2018 CFL East Division Most Outstanding Player nominee Jeremiah Masoli went down.

After Mitchell and Reilly both signed massive contracts in the off-season, this was supposed to be the year of the superstar QB. Instead, it became the year in which we learned just how important a good backup can be.

Given how successful Evans, Collaros and Cody Fajardo in Saskatchewan have been this season, there have been inevitable about whether teams might be better off spending less money on their quarterbacks than the Stamps did with Mitchell and the Eskimos with Reilly. That extra cap flexibility certainly doesn’t hurt, right?

We won’t really have an answer to that question until Reilly’s and Mitchell’s big contracts are up and we know how much they won. Let’s not forget Mitchell has led his Stampeders to four of the previous five Grey Cup games, winning twice, while Reilly starred in the Eskimos’ Cup run in 2015. A betting man would put his money on seeing them in future Grey Cups.

But if 2019 proved anything, it’s that teams can win without a brand-name superstar at quarterback — or maybe that the next generation of stars has arrived.

  1. SPECIAL TEAMS MATTER

No team had more kick-return touchdowns (five), or kick returns of more than 30 yards (19), this season than the Ticats. The Bombers were right behind them, though, and had the second-most in both categories — they also allowed their opponents fewer punt-return yards, on average, than any CFL squad.

Both teams literally won games against the Calgary Stampeders because of the points they put on the board on kick returns, too. Maybe there was a little more to it than that, but the points the Bombers’ returners put on the board were the difference between winning and losing against the reigning Grey Cup champions.

Jenarion Grant almost single-handedly beat the Stamps twice because of long returns, while Frankie Williams and Brandon Banks each scored special-teams touchdowns against Calgary in a July game the Ticats won by seven points.

We don’t talk nearly as much about special teams as we do about offence and defence, but there’s a reason why coaches always talk about winning in all three phases of the game.

The Ticats and Bombers had the most explosive special-teams units in the league, and their success this season proved how important that can be.

  1. GET THE BALL BACK

The Bombers and Ticats were both middle-of-the-pack in terms of the offensive yards they allowed.

But make a mistake, and both defences pounced.

The Bombers led the entire CFL in forced fumbles, with 23. They also had the second-most interceptions, with 24, while the Ticats had the third-most, with 22.

Weirdly, both teams also threw an above-average number of interceptions, too, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The defences were incredibly opportunistic throughout the regular season, and it continued right into the playoffs.

In the West semifinal, the Bombers forced Stamps QB Bo Levi Mitchell to throw three interceptions, then forced Riders QB Fajardo into throwing a touch pick in the second half of Sunday’s West final while also forcing two fumbles.

The Ticats, meanwhile, picked off Edmonton Eskimos QB Trevor Harris twice in the East final and forced another two fumbles.

Turnovers can swing the momentum of a game, and the ballhawks on both defences were a big reason why the Ticats and Bombers are the CFL’s last two teams standing.

  1. SUPERSTARS SURE HELP

This one’s pretty obvious, but it turns out that having the league’s best players on your team helps.

Both the Bombers and Ticats are stacked with big-name CFLers, plain and simple.

There are 14 players nominated for end-of-season honours at this week’s end-of-season CFL Awards. Eight of them play for either the Bombers (three) or Ticats (five). That number would likely be even higher had voters not decided to leave Bombers running back Andrew Harris off their ballots due to a positive test for a banned substance earlier in the year.

Sunday’s game will feature the likely 2019 Most Outstanding Player, in Hamilton’s Brandon Banks, the Most Outstanding Defensive Player, in Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson, the CFL’s top Offensive Lineman, in the Bombers’ Stanley Bryant or the Ticats’ Chris Van Zeyl and a couple other award winners, too.

Those players are a big reason why so many experts had the Bombers and Ticats tapped to compete in Sunday’s Grey Cup game before the season even started. They’re game changers, plain and simple.

It sounds obvious because it is obvious, but you just don’t win championships in the CFL without a couple guys of that calibre.

daustin@postmedia.com

www.twitter.com/DannyAustin_9

TICATS THE FAVES, FOR NOW

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have opened as a 1½ or 2-point favourite over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Sunday’s Grey Cup final.

The Ticats won both meetings this year by eight points and 20 points respectively. The game is being played on neutral turf in Calgary. The over/under is set at 52 points.

Do not be surprised to see the pointspread rise as oddsmakers may have misfired on their opening number.

— Randall the Handle

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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