If there was one common sentiment after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ victory over the Edmonton Eskimos last week – and in the Grey Cup champs’ backyard, no less – it might have been this:
Where the bleepedy-bleep did that come from?
And can they finally follow it up with a similar performance in front of their loyal faithful at Investors Group Field?
Yes, for all the confounding aspects of the Bombers over the past few seasons – and there have been many – the biggest is easily their inability to protect their home turf.
The numbers are gruesome: Winnipeg is just 7-23 at IGF since it opened in 2013, are winless in three tries this year, and haven’t treated their fans to a ‘W’ dating back to the Banjo Bowl last September – a stretch of six games.
Clearly – and excuse us for pulling on our Captain Obvious gear here – that must change if the Bombers are going to get back in the West Division discussion and end a four-year playoff drought.
“You’ve got to take care of your business at home. You want to play well at home for your teammates, for your city, for your province.”
“We need to come out like we did last week and play like we did on all three phases. We’ve been up and down this year and I’m hoping we can really build on last week and turn that into something. We’ve got to start fast. Last week we did a good job of marching it down on our first drive and scoring a touchdown. That sets a tone. Then the defence goes out and forces a two-and-out and we follow up with a field goal. In the first half we got a lot of points on our drives and that changes so much to put your whole team in good position. If we can get it rolling early, it would help so much.”
That’d be a heckuva start all right.
But critical in the win over Edmonton – and it will be paramount against a feisty Hamilton Tiger-Cats squad – was the play of the Bombers offensive and defensive lines. In particular, if the Bomber O-line can control the line of scrimmage like they did against Edmonton, it could help diffuse the TiCats’ ferocious front seven.
“We just got sick of being bullied a little bit and we played with an attitude and a passion and a little chip on our shoulder,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris about last week’s handiwork. “I’ve been talking about that all week. We’ve got to maintain that and keeping playing with that passion.
“It’s key for us right now to string some wins together and build this confidence with a young group and the new guys coming in, and be playing great football when we hit the bye week (after next week’s game in Toronto).”
That’s the other telling factor in play Wednesday: not only have the Bombers struggled at home, they haven’t posted consecutive victories dating back to late July of 2014.
For the record, that’s a stretch of 36 games.
“This is big for us, this is a huge game,” added Harris. “We’re not going to be home for a while (not until the Banjo Bowl on Sept. 10) and we want to continue the momentum and get this city excited again about the football team.
“Obviously the win was big last week, but we haven’t won at home this year yet and it’s a must-win for us right now.”
TIGER-CATS (3-2) at BLUE BOMBERS (2-4)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Streaks: Hamilton: 2W; Winnipeg: 1W
Vegas line: The TiCats are favoured by 3.
CAN THE NEW/OLD GUYS STEP UP… AGAIN?
The Bombers rolled into Edmonton last week with a ‘Who-Are-These-Guys?’ secondary. Veteran Bruce Johnson returned from injury but the rest of the air defence featured Terrence Frederick and Taylor Loffler making their first CFL starts and C.J. Roberts and Kevin Fogg both in their first months in this league.
The results – a rare victory in the Alberta capital and the ability to limit the damage of one of the most potent offences in the league – did open some eyes, particularly here in Winnipeg. That crew will have to be steady again against a TiCats squad that also features an explosive arsenal.
But now it’s the Bombers receiving corps which will be under the microscope after they were crushed by injuries in Edmonton, losing Weston Dressler and Darvin Adams – both of whom had posted 100-yard games before their exits, and possibly Quincy McDuffie, whose status won’t be made official until game day.
In steps old friend Clarence Denmark, who did finish second in the CFL in receiving yardage in 2014, and a fresh face in Kris Adams. Denmark will give the unit – which will also feature Jace Davis, Rory Kohlert and Thomas Mayo – a veteran presence, while the best description of Kris Adams, based solely on his reps in practice, would be ‘smooth.’
Denmark’s quick adaptation to Paul LaPolice’s offence will be critical in helping the Bombers tread water while their two top receivers are in sickbay.
“There’s some concepts Denmark ran before with me,” said LaPolice, who last worked with the veteran pass catcher in 2011. “We actually put some film on of stuff we did in ’11 and it was, ‘Remember this play, Denny? Yeah, we call this, this now.’ He’s been great and the players have helped him and he spent an entire day here getting ready.
“It’s a challenge when you have a bunch of new receivers getting them and the quarterback on the same page, but we expect those guys to perform at a high level. That’s not an excuse. We’ll find a way to win.”
MESSING WITH MASOLI
Winnipeg’s defensive dozen did a masterful job against the TiCats quarterback and that explosive offence in their win in Hamilton on July 7, forcing six turnovers – five of them (two interceptions, three fumbles) by Masoli himself. But CFL fans were also witness to Masoli’s upside in their last game (they had the bye last week) as he set a new league record with 23 consecutive completions in rallying Hamilton for a dramatic 25-point comeback win in Edmonton. During that stretch, just three of those completions were for 20 yards or more as the TiCats often use the short passing game to be productive on first down (they have averaged a league low 55.4 yards rushing through their first five games).
It’s critical, then, for the Bombers to mess with Masoli’s rhythm, as they were able to do a month ago in Steel town.
“It’s getting hands up, it’s being relentless in your pass rush,” said Bombers defensive line coach Todd Howard. “I call them ‘ball disruptions’… there’s one good thing for an opponent on a pass – they catch it – but there are more bad things that can happen. They can fumble it, it can be batted down, it can be intercepted, you can get your hands up and affect the throw… we want to affect his rhythm. That doesn’t necessarily mean sacking him, we just don’t want the ball completed. We want to put enough pressure on him that he’s uncomfortable and can’t get into that kind of rhythm. It’s a big challenge, but that’s the plan.”
SCARY, ‘SPEEDY B’
He’s just a little dude at 5-7, 157, but Brandon Banks is as deadly a kick returner as there is in the CFL and is already rocketing up the league’s historical charts. Banks has nine career kick-return touchdowns in 42 games, an astonishing ratio of one per 4.67 games, and his TD total already ranks him in a tie for fifth all-time behind Gizmo Williams (31), Bashir Levingston (15), Keith Stokes (12), and Earl Winfield (12).
“He’s the complete package,” said Bombers linebacker Garrett Waggoner, one of the club’s top special teamers. “He’s an explosive returner with great top-end speed and great vision. They’ve got a good scheme there and the guys up front block for him. It’s a great test for us. We respect it, we’ve been putting the work in all week and we’re looking forward to doing our job and flipping the field. We take pride in stopping returners and we’ve got a heckuva test this week.”
Just FYI, two of Banks’ nine career return TDs have come against the Bombers – a punt return score last July and the missed field goal return earlier this season.
“It’s his vision and the physical traits,” added Waggoner. “He’s got unbelievable top-end speed and what I’ve noticed is he gets up to that speed very quickly.”
- Matt Nichols makes his 21st career CFL start and second straight since replacing Drew Willy at the controls. He is 8-12 overall; 3-5 as a Bomber. He’s completed 73.5 per cent of his passes this year with two TDs against zero interceptions and has a QB rating of 110.5.
- Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli, 3-3 in his six career starts, has a rating of 101.9 with eight TDs against five interceptions – two of those mistakes coming against the Bombers in their win earlier this year. He also has a league-high four fumbles.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#82 Kris Adams, WR
The Bombers added Clarence Denmark with the injuries to Dressler and Darvin Adams, and he’ll serve as a security blanket for Matt Nichols. But Kris Adams intrigues the club’s staff with his skill set. He’s big at 6-3, and has bounced around the NFL with Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Indianapolis, New York Giants and Pittsburgh.
“I’m just too excited. This can’t come fast enough,” said Adams, whose wife and two kids are in town but leaving on Thursday. “It’s been three years for me since I’ve played competitively and I’m really anxious to get out there and run around a little bit.
“I didn’t understand how much I missed the game until last year when I started wondering if this might be it. I really missed it. They all tell you that, it’s cliché, but until you live it you don’t understand it.”
#23 Kevin Fogg, DB
TSN’s Glen Suitor was raving about Fogg during last week’s Edmonton telecast and with good reason: the first-year Bomber has been solid at both corner and halfback. He could also get more reps as a returner if Quincy McDuffie can’t go.
#15 Matt Nichols, QB
He was sensational in his 2016 debut, but will now face a TiCats defence led by coordinator Orlondo Steinauer that is known for bringing pressure from all over the field and offering up a variety of defensive looks that can flummox a QB.
“You have to do a good job against Hamilton of making sure you don’t make any big, glaring mistakes,” said LaPolice. “That’s what they thrive off of. That’s been the focus: protect the football. We have to make sure we handle all the stuff they shoot at us and then make great decisions with the ball.”
#60 Travis Bond
We singled him out last week as a guy to keep an eye on, and he was well worth the extra attention. Bond – the 6-7, 356-pound human eclipse – was a force in his CFL debut at left guard as the Bombers dominated the line of scrimmage. That bunch will be tested again versus a TiCats front that features John Chick and Adrian Tracy at end along with Ted Laurent and Drake Nevis at tackle. If he can help push the pile again with the rest of the Bombers O-line, he’ll help provide that offensive balance every attack seeks.
RING OF HONOUR
The Bombers will add Milt Stegall’s name to the Ring of Honour on Wednesday as he joins Chris Walby, Ken Ploen and Gerry James among the new row of legends.
The CFL’s all-time TD leader will be in the house with his wife Darlene and sons Chase and Colin. Stegall tweeted this on Monday:
My wife and sons have never set foot in #InvestorsGroupField. They ask me what to expect. I told them a packed house. Don’t disappoint
— Milt Stegall (@MiltStegallTSN) August 1, 2016
To read our story on Stegall, click here:
The Bombers have made five changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve), as receivers Clarence Denmark, Thomas Mayo, Kris Adams and Addison Richards all come aboard along with linebacker Kyle Knox in place of receivers Weston Dressler, Darvin Adams and Gerrard Sheppard, defensive back Julian Posey and defensive lineman James Tuck.
Bomber defensive backs Bruce Johnson and Kevin Fogg and safety Taylor Loffler vs. TiCats slotbacks Andy Fantuz and Luke Tasker.
The TiCats inside targets offer a tasty combination for Jeremiah Masoli. Fantuz has 29 receptions for 343 yards and four TDs in five games; Tasker has 35 catches for 394 yards and he’s latched on to 90 per cent of the passes thrown in his direction this year, highest in the CFL.
The Bombers secondary features Johnson and Fogg at halfback, with Loffler – making his second CFL start – at safety. It’s a big ask to have them control the TiCats slots, but limiting their production could be massive in posting a ‘W.’
- The TiCats are a perfect 3-0 at IGF.
- The Bombers are tied with Toronto for the league lead in turnovers with 15.
- Winnipeg’s 51.4 per cent conversion rate ranks third in the CFL, behind Edmonton (53.3) and Ottawa (52.0). The Bombers were dramatically better on first down last week, but their average gain of 5.4 yards remains last in the league.