The unit's bend-but-don't-break philosophy worked to perfection in Sunday's 102nd Grey Cup as Calgary held the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to just a touchdown and three field goals — including two big defensive stands in the fourth quarter — in the Stampeders' 20-16 victory.
"We play team defence," said veteran defensive back Keon Raymond. "We all relied on each other and we trusted each other each and every play, each and every down, each and every snap. We did it."
The Stampeders stopped Tiger-Cats running back Nic Grigsby twice from inside the five-yard line on one drive with about six minutes to go in the fourth before defensive lineman Cory Mace sacked Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros on second and goal on the next possession.
"Right now this is the greatest moment of my life," said Mace. "I'm happy to be a part of this.
"I've got so much faith in everybody on that field when we're out there as a defence. It held true. We're champions."
The Tiger-Cats' only touchdown came on a 45-yard pass from Collaros to Brandon Banks late in the first half, but that was basically it in terms of big plays for Hamilton's offence.
"Our defence played well," said Calgary head coach and general manager John Hufnagel. "They made an unbelievable stop when the Tiger-Cats had the ball at the three-yard line, forced them into a field goal. They tried two running plays and both were stuffed."
The Stampeders' attack got a lot of headlines during a 15-3 regular season because of the flashy play of quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and running back Jon Cornish, but it was the defence that made the real difference on this night for a Calgary club that was held to just one field goal in the second half.
"It was so crazy because we knew," said Raymond. "You're talking about they were on the three-yard line and we stopped them. That's what it was, defence wins championships, man. We knew we were not going to let them in."
It looked briefly as though Hamilton had been let in when Banks returned a late punt for a touchdown with the score 20-16, but the play was called back for a penalty and Calgary's defence shut the rest of the way.
"Hats off to Hamilton," said Stampeders linebacker Juwan Simpson. "They're a great team. They deserved to be in this game."
Calgary's defence allowed the second fewest points in the regular season with just 347, but was only fifth in yards against per game (351.6), fifth against the pass (227.8) and third versus the run (88.7).
The Stampeders brought in defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler after he parted ways with the B.C. Lions following the 2013 season and Cornish said he knew the unit would be strong when it counted.
"Coach Stubler, when he came onto our team, I thought B.C. actually lost a key player for their defence," said Cornish. "When he came onto our team I knew we were going to have one of the best defences in the league, and I think we had the best defence in the league. Period."
The Stampeders' defence was especially strong early in the season — including a 10-7 slugfest victory over Hamilton in July — but had to deal with a number of key injuries as the schedule wore on, including one to standout defensive lineman Charleston Hughes.
"All year we've been dealing with injuries, guys rolling in and coming back," said Simpson. "We knew at the end point it was going to help us out. It's a resilient team. We fought through so much. We just keep battling."
Among the players to step up was defensive end Shawn Lemon, who had 13 sacks in the regular season to tie for the second in the CFL, and added another late in the Grey Cup on Hamilton's final possession with the game still hanging in the balance.
"It's an amazing feeling. I'm speechless right now," said Lemon. "We just all mesh well together. We're like a bunch of brothers. When we get out into the game we just play off each other."