Ryan Smith (12) during the game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, AB. Saturday, September 24, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been an interesting case study this past week, their every emotion on display since last Saturday’s soul-crushing, last-second loss to the Calgary Stampeders.
There was plenty of anger afterward – Jermarcus Hardrick, for example, said the loss ripped his heart out and was like ‘somebody walked into your house and took what they wanted while we watched.’
There was also plenty of frustration and soul-searching in the immediate aftermath, as the Bombers bemoaned their horrible start in falling behind 24-0 and then failing to close the deal with a lead and less than 20 seconds remaining.
But it’s what has happened in the days since the original burn that might be an indication of this team’s growth since last season – or even the start of 2016 – as the Bombers moved quickly past the Stampeders loss and began fixating on Edmonton.
And so the one emotion or state of mind that wasn’t prevalent in Bomberland at all this week – and this is a refreshing change based on evidence from the last four years – was this: doubt.
“We’re past Calgary and have been for a while,” said defensive back Kevin Fogg.
“I love that about this team. That was a tough game to lose, but it was just one loss and we can’t make it out to be any more important than any other past game on our schedule.”
“Now it’s about to moving forward. It’s tough to win in this league. But we’ve got to balance that with the feeling of losing and how much we didn’t like it. We know who we are now. We’ve built up to become a very confident team that knows what we are capable of doing. To have that stronger mindset is crucial now. This season has been a great journey for us, a real learning curve.”
Here’s what head coach Mike O’Shea liked about his team this week: after the Calgary loss, many players were at work on Sunday-Monday (scheduled days off) to study film of Edmonton. It was back to work with conviction and no lingering doubts about what might have been exposed in the loss to Calgary.
And, more than likely, that’s a byproduct of a seven-game win streak.
“They reacted the way we as a staff expected. That’s always good,” said O’Shea. “To me they had already made a decision in their minds that they were preparing to watch their next opponent.
“I don’t know if I ever looked at the guys and saw a large amount of players doubting who they were or who they were going to become, what they were going to do on a game-by-game basis.”
There are plenty of storylines to follow heading into this one, the most important being how it will impact the West Division race with just five games left in the regular season. A Bomber win would not only give them a six-point cushion on the Esks and keep alive their hopes of a home playoff date, but also secure the season series with Edmonton and a potential tiebreaker.
A loss and, well, let’s just say no team wants to look over its shoulder at a hard charging defending Grey Cup championship side.
Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols was asked Thursday about facing his old squad and the possibility of putting them further in their rear-view mirror. Nichols instead pointed to a different angle: getting this team’s mojo right again.
“I haven’t even thought about it like that until you just mentioned it,” said Nichols. “You want to win each and every week and against your former team would make it that much sweeter.
“But the main focus of mine is rebounding from a loss and being able to handle a loss as well as we’ve handled some of our wins coming back and playing good the next week. We need to take that next step as a team and learn how to handle a loss and come back with the same emotion we’ve been playing with this year and try and get back to winning football games again.”
ESKIMOS (6-7) at BLUE BOMBERS (8-5)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Investors Group Field
Streaks: Edmonton: 1W; Winnipeg: 1L.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 3.5
Recent history: The two clubs have split the season series so far, with Friday being the critical tiebreaker. Edmonton won here in Winnipeg 20-16 back on July 14th with the Bombers doing the same in Edmonton, 30-23, back on July 28th – Matt Nichols’ first start of the season.
REILLY TO BOWMAN, REILLY TO WALKER…
Eskimos QB Mike Reilly has a lot of targets at his fingertips, but his two favourites are Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker and their numbers bear that out big time. Bowman already has 95 receptions for 1,400 yards and seven TDs and Walker has 84 catches for 1,248 yards and seven scores of his own. That places them 1-2 atop the CFL’s receiving chart and makes them the two deadliest receivers in the CFL.
“I’m trying to think of better combos right now and they’re probably the best duo. They are playmakers, point blank,” said Bombers cornerback Chris Randle. “They’re the kind of receivers who can change the game around with one play. You’ve got to prepare for that. They’ve got a quarterback who is very elusive in the pocket and can buy time and you’ve got to prepare for that. And their backs, whether it’s (John) White or (Shakir) Bell, they’re both very shifty guys so you have to prepare for them.”
Both Bowman and Walker are on pace to reach 100 receptions this season and, it’s worth noting, only the 1995 Stampeders have ever had two receivers eclipse the 100-catch mark in a single year (Dave Sapunjis, 111; Allen Pitts, 100).
Walker has been the deadlier of the two against Winnipeg this year with 18 catches for 302 yards and two TDs; Bowman has added 13 receptions for 238 yards.
“The quarterback they’ve got, he trusts his guys and he expects every guy to go up and win the 50-50 battles,” said Terrence Frederick, who replaces Johnny Adams at the other corner. “We’ve got to go out there and battle those guys and whatever they bring to the table, we’ve got to have something to bring, too.”
STOP THE BLEEDING
Just to recap the obvious, the Bombers’ 1-4 start was quickly erased with a seven-game win streak that screeched to a halt last week in Calgary. This one is massive for all the reasons listed above, but also for what lies ahead after this week – as much as Mike O’Shea loathes looking past what’s directly in front of his squad.
The Bombers have two doubleheader/home-and-home series after this, with B.C. and Ottawa finishing out the last four games of the season.
“The rest of our schedule, we have good teams in front of us, all teams that have played well, two of the teams were in the Grey Cup last year and another team (B.C.) that is playing at a high, high level right now,” said defensive end Jamaal Westerman. “That’s why you don’t want to look at the big picture, you’ve got to look just at this game in front of us.
“You can’t take your eyes off that. They’re too good of a team, man. An all-star, all-pro quarterback, their offensive line is good, they’ve got two of the top receivers in the league and their running back, Shakir Bell, had over 100 yards against us last year. They’ve got playmakers. We know this is going to be a tough battle, especially for us guys up front.
“To me, they’re just as good as Calgary. Calgary has the better record, but these guys have the athletes and the talent.”
The Bombers have had to rally in their last two games, coming back from a 29-19 third quarter deficit to blow out the Toronto Argonauts and then falling behind 24-zip to Calgary before rallying to take the lead inside the final minute… only to lose on the last play.
Clearly, then, this team has got to figure out a way to get out of the starting blocks quickly – especially against the defending champs.
“That question was asked last week, too,” said Mike O’Shea. “If I knew the answer, we wouldn’t start slow. The key is the players have a good understanding of what they need to do on a weekly basis and that always includes starting fast.”
Worth noting: the Bombers have done this rally thing before. During their seven-game win streak, the club trailed in three of the wins – against the Argos twice and Montreal – en route to victories.
- Matt Nichols makes the 28th start of his career (14-13) and eighth straight this year. He is 7-1 this season, 9-6 overall as the Bombers starter, and has completed 69.5 per cent of his passes for 2,214 yards with 10 touchdowns against two interceptions and a QB rating of 101.1.
- Mike Reilly will be taking the first snap from centre for the 58th time in his career and sports a 31-26 record, including a 6-1 mark vs. Winnipeg. Reilly leads the CFL with 4,353 yards passing with 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a rating of 101.8.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#35 Terrence Frederick, CB
Frederick is the replacement to Johnny Adams, who was shipped to Hamilton for the rights to receiver Mekale McKay. The former Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick has been solid in his four starts this season, picking off a pass against Edmonton in his CFL debut back on July 28th, registering seven tackles and a knockdown against Hamilton a week later, and snuffing out a fake field goal while picking up nine tackles and a sack in the Banjo Bowl win over Saskatchewan.
But one of his best skills has been his ability to tackle, a sore spot with the Bombers secondary last week.
“I definitely take pride in my tackling,” said Frederick. In the open field it’s either he’s going to beat me or I’m going to beat him and, most of the time, I feel like I’m going to win that battle.
“I work with those guys every week, day in and day out, so the communication is always there. I really don’t think I’m going to be losing that. There’s been a chemistry since we got going. In the first three-four weeks we had a lot of injuries so we leaned on the communication then and have started clicking from that.”
#38 Ian Wild, LB
The Bombers get their leading tackler back this week after he pulled up lame in the Banjo Bowl. Now, it’s not like Tony Burnett wasn’t capable in relief of Wild – he was more than that and then some – but the Bomber veteran could be critical in limiting the damage of Edmonton’s run game, which also features a dangerous and gritty Mike Reilly whenever the Eskimos pivot gets into the open field.
#15 Matt Nichols, QB
The Bombers pivot was the first to admit after the Calgary game that his first half wasn’t his best. He was just nine of 20 for 88 yards and an interception before rebounding to lead the rally in the second half. He’s 7-1 this year and will have the blood flowing again against the team that traded him last year to Winnipeg for a fifth-round pick.
#12 Ryan Smith, SB
It’s been an occasionally frustrating year for Smith in his first campaign as a Bomber as two injuries – a broken bone in his foot and losing the nail on one of his thumbs – has limited him to just six games played so far. But Smith is coming off his most productive game of the season after pulling in six catches for 95 yards in last week’s loss to Calgary.
Nichols already has an established chemistry with Weston Dressler and Clarence Denmark, and if he can get the same kind of mojo going with Smith, as evidenced last week, the Bombers offence becomes that much more difficult to defend.
The Bombers have made two changes to their 46-man roster (including the two-man reserve list) adding DE Justin Cole, LB Ian Wild, DT Brandon Tennant and CB Terrence Frederick while taking off CB Johnny Adams (traded to Hamilton), DE Shayon Green, LB/DB Teague Sherman and DE Eric Martin (released).
Timothy Flanders will make his third start at RB in place of Andrew Harris.
“Just not quite ready,” said O’Shea when asked of Harris’ status. “He’ll work out probably tomorrow again and see how it goes, but Timothy’s done really well. It’s a real credit to his ability to stay engaged when he was not on the roster and not playing.”
“It means a lot,” said Flanders of starting again. “It shows that the coaches trust me so I’m just trying to go out here and do everything I can to help the team get a win.”
RING OF HONOUR
The iconic Bud Grant, the Bombers all-time winning-est coach, a three-time all-star as a player, and a member of the Winnipeg Football Club, Canadian Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame, will be the latest addition to the Ring of Honour Friday night. He joins Chris Walby, Ken Ploen, Gerry James, Milt Stegall, Dieter Brock and Leo Lewis on the Ring of Honour as the club introduces a new name for each home game this year.
Grant, whose story can be found here will be signing autographs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the Duraco Tailgate at the Plaza. He has asked that no photos or selfies be taken.
Bombers offensive tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick vs. Eskimos defensive ends Philip Hunt, Odell Willis and Marcus Howard.
The Eskimos have arguably the nastiest D-line in the league, but the pressure they bring from the edge is particularly effective. That crew features two ex-Bombers in Willis and Hunt and a beast in Howard who has four sacks in seven games this year and has twice hit double-digits in sacks in his six seasons in the CFL.
“That’s tough,” said Nichols of facing that front. “It’s guys I’ve played with for multiple years and I know what they can do. They’re very talented guys that care a lot, that work hard every single day in practice and I know they’re going to be ready to go. Our offensive line knows that. It’s going to be a challenge.
“They’re a team that has evolved where they don’t bring a ton of linebackers and secondary pressure, they count on those guys up front to bring pressure and they do a good job of it. They allow the defence to drop eight or nine guys back (in coverage) and still get pressure with those guys.”
Eskimos QB Mike Reilly has ten 300-plus passing games this season and is on pace for 6,027 passing yards. The CFL record for most 300-yard passing games in a single season is 14, set by Doug Flutie.
- Bombers receiver Weston Dressler has moved into 30th place on the CFL’s all-time yardage list, just 176 yards behind Eddie Brown. Dressler has 25 receptions in his last four games.
- The Bombers hold a +59 scoring margin in fourth quarters this year (122-63), including a remarkable 37-6 advantage in the last two games.
- Here’s O’Shea when asked about what made Johnny Adams ‘expendable.’
“That’s not a word I would use. He’s a good football player who wasn’t going to be on our roster this week because Terrence Frederick has earned an opportunity to play. When you have depth, you have to make decisions on your lineup on a weekly basis.
“He had a great season last year. I think it was tough on Johnny missing training camp and then missing those number of weeks. When you miss training camp, it’s tough. That’s what gets your body right, your mind right. It gets you, with your group of guys, into a rhythm. That, I think, made it tough on him. My disappointment came from not being able to help him get that back.”
“We go into every game knowing who we are in this locker room and what we can do if we play the right way. It just so happens that last week we took a couple of quarters to start playing like we are capable of and when you play a good team like Calgary more often than not, you lose. We’re focused on Edmonton. We’re a confident bunch, win or lose. We know where we want to get to and how to get there.” – Bombers defensive end Justin Cole.