August 27, 2016

Upon Further Review: WPG at MTL

Match entre les Alouettes et les Blue Bombers de Winnipeg le 26 aout 2016 au Stade Percival Molson à Montreal

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It’s hot and it’s sticky in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers/visitors dressing room at Molson Stadium late Friday night, and Jamaal Westerman is trying to put his finger on the what, the why, and the how behind this run he and his teammates have got percolating right now.

Is it all about the quarterback change?

Sure, Matt Nichols has been more than just steady. He’s smart with the football, gets rid of it quickly and brings a fiery edge to the huddle.

All those turnovers on defence?

They’ve been absolutely massive as the Bombers have already posted four games this season with six turnovers, and are now a +16 in the takeaway/giveaway department.

Montreal Alouettes running back Stefan Logan is tackled by Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Ian Wild during first quarter CFL football action Friday, August 26, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

The special teams?

Justin Medlock has connected on 20 straight field goals, including six in Friday’s win over the Montreal Alouettes; the return game has some dangerous candidates, and Derek Jones blocked his second punt of the season in the first half the other night.

But there’s also something bigger at play here, Westerman believes. And it’s not something that shows up in the black and white of the stats sheet.

“We’re playing for each other,” began the veteran defensive end. “Now I know that’s going to sound sooooo cliché, but it’s true. People talk about the stats and stuff, but you play for the win and whatever it takes. This whole team really plays ‘team’ ball.”

The cynics out there will chime in with this: every team that wins waxes poetic about its chemistry, about how good the room is, about playing for each other.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Maurice Leggett celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown following a pass interception on Montreal Alouettes quarterback Kevin Glenn during second quarter CFL football action Friday, August 26, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

But Westerman’s theory has a foundation because this crew was saying the exact same thing in their 1-4 start. They spoke then of the camaraderie in the room and had faith they were close to turning things in the right direction.

This four-game win streak has answered some pretty meaty questions about the Bombers. What’s unfolding now can feed itself as the Bombers enter the second half of the season trying to end a long playoff drought.

“You go through ups and downs in a season. Even in this game there were times where we were up and down… we weren’t good at certain times and at other times we were great,” said Westerman. “But to be in here celebrating a win with your brothers… you know, it’s all that stuff that keeps you alive outside of football, too. And then you come out here with the opportunity to go on the field after working so hard during the week, man, this is our fun time.

“That’s what’s special about this team and we have to keep it together.”

More on the win in Montreal with our weekly post-game collection of notes, quotes and anecdotes we call ‘Upon Further Review’:

THE BOMBER ROOM WAS BUZZING… about the long, nine-play, 93-yard drive in the fourth quarter Friday that was capped by an Andrew Harris TD run and chewed up 4:37 of clock. Sure, there was a cheap-y penalty on John Bowman – followed up by a meltdown that cost him another 10 yards – but the play-calling and execution of the Bomber offence was massive in sealing the win.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols hands off to running back Andrew Harris as they face the Montreal Alouettes during first quarter CFL football action Friday, August 26, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson“We might not have lit up the stats sheet with offensive yards,” said Nichols, “but we had a lot of critical first downs and we scored when we needed to.”

Asked what he and his defensive teammates are thinking while watching the offence grind like that, Westerman added:

“You get to sit down and relax, drink some Gatorade and watch them do their thing. That’s a good defence they did that against.”

Nichols, meanwhile, raved about the Bomber D afterwards, too.

“It’s been incredible. For us as an offence we feel like we need to finish off some of those drives,” said Nichols. “But they started us out at the 15-yard line one time and we couldn’t get it in the end zone. We need to be better as an offence. It’s fun to watch these guys fly around, they do the same thing to us in practice.”

IT’S ONE OF MIKE O’SHEA’S COMMANDMENTS… chiselled into stone and robotically chanted by his troops as if they are reading from his football gospel.

Thou shalt not gaze too far ahead at thy schedule.

Still, the Bombers now ready for their annual Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl doubleheader with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, now 1-8, and then are home to the Toronto Argonauts after that. This next stretch is massive because what the Bombers have in the final third of their schedule is nasty: at Calgary, then home to Edmonton before back-to-backs with B.C. and Ottawa.

SO, ABOUT THIS RUN JUSTIN MEDLOCK… is on right now: the Bomber kicker has connected on 20 straight field goals. It took some sniffing around, but CFL stats guru Steve Daniel confirmed Saturday morning that is a new club record. In fact, the longest run he’s been able to unearth so far is 14, so Medlock had quietly tied that before doing his thing Friday against the Als.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers kicker Justin Medlock kicks a field goal as they face the Montreal Alouettes during fourth quarter CFL football action Friday, August 26, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul ChiassonHis six was the most in a single game since Trevor Kennerd hit seven back in 1981. He could have had a shot at that record, but O’Shea opted to have him punt rather than try a 51-yarder late in the first half and did the same on the final play of the third quarter with the ball on the Montreal 45.

“We held him back, we punted a few times when we were probably in his range,” said O’Shea. “We probably could have let him loose with a couple of field goals… they would have been long ones. I can’t remember how far back (the streak) goes, but he’s certainly found his niche.”

Medlock’s performance Friday was exactly why the Bombers put a lot of money on the table for him in free agency. He’s got a quiet confidence about him and truly expects to make every kick.

Just for the record, the streak goes back to July 14th in Edmonton. Medlock is now 27 of 31 (87.1 per cent) this season and has already tied one record (his 58 yarder in week one tied Bernie Ruoff’s mark) and broken the consecutive makes mark. His misses have been from 47 (hit the upright), 51, 50 and 49 yards.

“If he’s not making all of those we’re not staying in the entire game,” said Nichols of Medlock. “He had an incredible night. One of the best kickers of all time. The guy’s incredible and he’s been doing it for a long time at that high level. We’re happy to have him on our team.”

MIKE O’SHEA IS ON THE CFL RULES COMMITTEE… so the league’s decision to change how the coach’s challenge works – gone is the ‘free’ first challenge – hardly came as a surprise, even if the news was officially delivered on game day.

The change means that if a team loses its first challenge, it will now also lose a timeout, just as it does with the second challenge.

“I voted in favour of that change,” said O’Shea. “I think there have been a number of challenges across the league this year, myself included, that were kind of a hope and a prayer.”

Just FYI, teams must be in possession of a timeout to make a challenge. Teams are allowed two timeouts per game and can only use one in the last three minutes of a contest.

AND, FINALLY, ONE OF THE COOLER… plays in Friday’s win was the Rory Kohlert-to-Andrew Harris pass for 13 yards on a second-and-two in the first quarter. On that play, centre Matthias Goossen snapped the ball between Nichols’ legs to Kohlert, who had moved into the backfield before the veteran receiver fired it out to Harris.

We’re not sure if he’s got a QB-rating bonus clause in his contract, but Kohlert might want to visit GM Kyle Walters to get the wording changed in his deal.