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Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Buck Pierce, left, runs through drills with Chris Garrett during their walkthrough practice in Vancouver on Saturday. (TODD KOROL)
Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Buck Pierce, left, runs through drills with Chris Garrett during their walkthrough practice in Vancouver on Saturday. (TODD KOROL)

Jeff Blair

Grey Cup heat gets turned up in Vancouver Add to ...

So let’s see: so far, we’ve had a fight between Angelo Mosca and Joe Kapp at a CFL Alumni function over a 48-year-old grudge and a bizarre Twitter episode involving the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Odell Willis, in which he railed about locker-room snitches, among other things, and then was promptly blistered in return by teammate Jovon Johnson.

Returns are something of a specialty for Johnson, who was second in the CFL in punt return yardage behind the Toronto Argonauts Chad Owens and led the CFL with eight interception returns, two for touchdowns. And while the importance of special teams play in championship games is something of an old saw, in a matchup of the league’s two best defences, it’s an aspect of the game that seems to take on a greater importance.

And since Sunday’s Grey Cup game will be indoors at B.C. Place Stadium, it ensures a fast-track and neutral environmental factors for both Johnson and Jason Aragki, the Lions special teams captain.

Lions punter and place-kicker Paul McCallum says his role will still be the same inside a domed stadium as it would be outdoors – “my preparation never changes indoors or outdoors, I’m not trying to draw the ball around the corner or fade it to the right like golf,” he said. “Your kicks are always the same mechanically, other than if you’re outdoors and the wind is going right to left you might aim it more to the right,” – but Arakgi agrees the surface and lack of weather plays into Johnson’s hands. Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice counters that McCallum’s touch on directional punts is one way the Lions might off-set it.

“When you have perfect conditions, you know special teams will be huge even if it’s just due to field position,” Arakgi said. “It’s like Wally (Buono, the Lions coach and general manager,) always tells us about our returns: you’re not looking to take it to the house all the time, because even though you might get 10 chances, only one of them will work. Jevon has the ability to break that one any time. All we can do is swarm him, and give him as little breathing room as possible.”

The Lions made strong special teams play a hallmark in recent seasons, but they spent much of 2011 in a funk. Aragki wouldn’t say what the issue was, other explaining that “it was addressed,” and indicated it was the re-development of a gang-tackling mentality that made most of the difference.

Arakgi said that most special teams video work involves studying tendencies on the part of a teams blocking schemes. The guy with the ball can freelance a bit, so there’s precious little certainty. When Johnson watched tape of the Lions this week, he said he was focused on Arakgi and Adam Bighill, the Lions’ two “gunners” or outside tacklers on special teams.

“The aggressiveness of the gunners is what tells you about a teams special teams,” said Johnson, a 5-foot-9, 181-pound product of Iowa. “If they get involved in the mix it makes it harder for the returner to get things going. So you watch what they do, and then you shift your focus into how well the guys in the middle cover.

“A game like this, you’re not thinking so much about a touchdown as giving your team field position,” Johnson said. “These defences are so good, it’s almost like a necessity.”

Arakgi suffered concussion-like symptoms on the first play of the West Division final but returned to the game. It was an unnerving moment for a player whose father, Nick Arakgi, was a three-time All-Star with the Montreal Alouettes and Concordes and the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 1984 and who suffered a broken neck in an exhibition game in 1986 when he was upended by the Bombers Bennie Thompson, who went on to become a two-time Pro Bowler in the NFL. Arakgi returned for the 1987 season, with the Blue Bombers, and won the Tom Pate Award given out by the CFL Players Association for outstanding sportsmanship and contribution to the community. Jason Arakgi said that his father and his mother “still talk about how lucky he (Nick) was that day.”

In addition to keeping track of Arakgi’s positioning on video, and calling out and then smoothing things over with Willis, the Bombers Johnson was named Most Outstanding Defensive player in the CFL and as a cornerback must also spend time studying the Lions passing game. He says the Lions have been much harder to study since Arland Bruce III was acquired from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“He’s the type of player who levels the playing field, because he’s been around and done so much,” said Johnson. “The team we played in the East final, the Ti-Cats, they had a much faster group of receivers and a more physical group. But these guys, they’re more experienced and more physical.”

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