Andrew Harris (33) during the game against the Edmonton Eskimos at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Let’s begin with the obvious: there are bigger games on the calendar down the road for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Maybe a playoff game, for example. Or maybe a playoff game smack dab right in their own backyard.
And, if the stars and moons align right, a mammoth playoff game on the last Sunday in November.
Hey, nobody will hold it against them for dreaming big, right?
But there’s also this – and it’s a message so ingrained in them now it’s become part of their DNA: those games don’t mean anything unless the club finds its mojo again after two straight losses and takes care of the business staring them right in the face.
So while it’s all well and good that a Bomber win over the B.C. Lions Saturday afternoon at Investors Group Field (3 p.m.), coupled with losses by Montreal and Toronto, would clinch a playoff spot, that’s a big-picture take when they need a right here/right now focus.
“Those last two weeks? That wasn’t Bomber football.”
“We like to say, ‘It’s always about us’. It’s how we prepare, how we dedicate ourselves to our teammates, how disciplined we are.
“If we can get ourselves right and play smart football, we’ll be fine. We need to get back to playing that type of football that had us on our streak. We need to get back on the right path and this back-to-back match-up is big AND we’ve got the defending Grey Cup champions (Edmonton Eskimos) right there.
“We don’t want to let this opportunity slip away. We had a seven-game win streak after being 1-4… we don’t want to give that up in these last four games. Our thing is to treat these next four as a playoff push and to fight for our lives.”
The Bombers at 8-6, could overtake the 9-4 Lions with a win Saturday and then next weekend in Vancouver. And Burnett is right – with the Eskimos now at 7-7, the Bombers don’t want to be looking in the rear-view mirror at the hard-charging champs.
But there has been very little chatter about the playoffs in the Bomber dressing room this week because looking ahead doesn’t help deal with their battle with the Lions.
“We’ve mainly focused on cleaning up the last game,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “In terms of talking about the playoffs… we’re not counting games or doing anything like that. We’re talking about the type of atmosphere it is – the fall weather, this late in the season… it’s got that feel. It’s exciting football, right?
“We’re playing good football. The B.C. Lions are playing good football. The matchup is good and I think it’s going to be a tough game.”
“That’s the thing about this time of year,” added centre Matthias Goossen. “It’s Week 15 now and these games are intense and have all these playoff implications.
“But we can’t look too far ahead or fixate on the standings. It’s this one game in front of us and at this time of the year, playing against any team in the West has a lot more implications right now than playing a team from the East.
“We all live for this pressure and the intensity.”
LIONS (9-4) at BLUE BOMBERS (8-6)
Kickoff: 3 p.m., Investors Group Field
Streaks: BC: 1W; Winnipeg: 2L.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 1.5
Recent history: This is the first of back-to-back meetings between the two clubs this season and their first matchup since last Oct. 10th in Vancouver when the Bombers emerged with a 29-26 win. Winnipeg also won the first meeting, 23-13, back on July 30th of last year here at Investors Group Field.
OLD FRIENDS, NOW ENEMIES
The juiciest subplot to the Bombers vs. Lions is the matchup between Andrew Harris and his old squad. Harris, the Winnipeg product who signed with his hometown club as a free agent last February after spending the first six years of his career in Vancouver, returns to active duty after missing three games with a wonky ankle just in time to line up against the Canadian Football League’s stingiest run defence.
“A lot of memories. There’s a lot of guys currently on that team that I grew up with in my rookie seasons and second year,” said Harris. “There’s definitely a lot of history there. You appreciate that… the coaches and a guy like Geroy Simon taught me so much about being a pro and gave me a lot of inspiration and wisdom on things to do off the field and how to get right before games and obviously (GM and head coach) Wally (Buono) and Neil McEvoy (the Lions Director of Football Operations and Player Personnel) for giving me the opportunity just to get on the field, even though they put me all over the place for the first little bit.”
Harris won a Grey Cup with the Lions – opening up old wounds: he was the Most Valuable Canadian in B.C.’s win over the Bombers in 2011 – and last year was a CFL All-Star. But that was then, this is now.
“There’s a lot of emotions and a lot of thoughts. But at the end of the day in pro sports there’s going to be changes and it’s very, very rare where somebody plays for one team for their whole career. Me, I’m blessed and thankful and respect the fact they gave me a chance. I’m just happy I’m in blue and gold and now it’s time for us to feast on them.”
THE J.J. AND MANNY SHOW
The Lions can pitch around the park as well as any club in the CFL and the Bombers have been lit up over the last two weeks by Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and Edmonton’s Mike Reilly. Those two pivots led offences that combined to complete 75.3 per cent of their passes for 716 yards.
And you don’t have to be a mathematician to know that’s a lot.
The Lions receiving corps features the dominant Emmanuel Arceneaux – the kind of player teams hate, but would love to have – and newcomer Terrell Sinkfield at slot along with Bryan Burnham and Marco Iannuzzi. Shawn Gore is on the one-game injured list and won’t dress.
“They have a lot of savvy, veteran guys who know where to get open,” said Bombers defensive back T.J. Heath. “They have great hands as corps and they’re big and physical. When they catch the ball we’re going to have to make sure we get them down and make solid tackles.
“Mostly we need to make sure we contain him and keep him in the pocket. He’s shown that he’s not always comfortable in the pocket so if we can get him to do things he doesn’t want to do that will be big for us. We really need to contain him and make him use his arm and not his legs.”
Jennings is the key to making that corps successful, though. The second-year pro has been dynamite this season and loves to look deep when he gets outside of the pocket. Translation: that could be big trouble for the Bombers unless they tighten up defensively.
“He has no problem throwing the ball down the field, that’s for sure,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of the Lions pivot. “We need to make sure we’re over top of their receivers and manage to take away those big plays that they tend to get. Part of that, in terms of Jennings, is making sure he doesn’t make any of those off-schedule plays that he’s capable of because he’s an athletic quarterback.”
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
It’s easy to point at the Bombers penalty totals from a week ago – 15 for 166 yards, both season highs – as the main reason they dropped their second-straight week.
But their issues have been more than just that of late. In each of the last three games, two of them losses, the Bombers have fallen behind by 10 or more points (in the previous six they trailed by no more than seven at any one time). The turnover numbers have dropped dramatically too, from an average of 4.7 over a six-game stretch to just two over the last two contests.
So, Matt Nichols, what’s been the difference in the club’s play in the last two games versus the seven-game win streak?
“I don’t think it’s rocket science,” said the Bombers QB. “We’ve made a few more mistakes than we have been making, and it starts with penalties. I’ve missed throws, we’ve done uncharacteristic things in all three phases. The penalties were the biggest thing, especially last week. And this time of year when you are playing against good football teams you can’t let them jump out in front. It’s hard to come back at this time of year, especially when everyone is playing with a little bit more. For us, we’ve got to start fast and not make those dumb mistakes. It’s cleaning up those things and playing cleaner football. That’s usually what separates winners from losers at this time of year.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 29th start of his career (14-14) and ninth straight this year. He is 7-2 this season, 9-7 overall as the Bombers starter, and has completed 68.7 per cent of his passes for 2,544 yards with 12 touchdowns against three interceptions and a QB rating of 100.3. His passing yards and 12 TDs are both career highs.
- Jonathon Jennings makes the 20th start of his young career (12-7) and is morphing into one of the CFL’s best. He has completed 65.7 per cent of his passes for 18 TDs against eight interceptions and has a QB rating of 101.3. He needs just 344 yards passing to reach 4,000 this season and would be the first Lions QB to eclipse the 4K mark since Travis Lulay threw for 4,231 in 2012.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#33 Andrew Harris, RB
Timothy Flanders has been more than solid filling in for Harris during his three-game absence, rushing for 262 yards and a sparkling 6.2-yard average. But getting Harris back for the Bombers gives the offence that much more versatility as he has rushed for 677 yards and pulled in 44 passes for 381 yards – an aspect that could be critical in combating the Lions ferocious front seven.
Consider this number: the Bombers are 6-1 in games in which Harris has had 13 or more carries, 2-5 when he does not or when he is not in the lineup.
Harris admitted he’ll be emotionally charged for this one. And his boss won’t be trying to rein him in at all.
“From the day Andrew got here I told him I wanted him to be who he is,” said O’Shea “And if that is an emotional player tomorrow, so be it. Let’s see if our team can’t feed off that.
“We’ve had a short time together and I’d like to say I know him on a personal level extremely well. I can’t say that. What I know of Andrew is he does bring his emotion with him onto the field and he does use that, harness that. He’s played at a very high level, I believe, for a long time in the CFL. If that’s part of his game, if that’s what has helped him play at that level, then we need to see that (Saturday).”
#13 T.J. Heath, DB
The ex-Argo will make his first start in the Bomber secondary in place of Bruce Johnson, who has been suspended for two games after testing positive for a banned substance under the policy of the CFL and Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA). Heath is tied for second in the CFL with five interceptions – one behind teammate Maurice Leggett – and he’ll figure to see a lot of Lions slotbacks Emmanuel Arceneaux and Terrell Sinkfield.
“He’s who we thought he was when we acquired him,” said O’Shea of Heath. “Athletically, we’ve already talked about. The one thing I’ve noticed is he communicates fairly well on the field, so you see him making sure the guys he’s working with on any given play understand what they’re doing on that play.”
#55 Jamaal Westerman, DE
He leads the Bombers with six sacks, a total which is down considerably from last year’s 17 total. But the veteran Canadian is still the club’s most consistent pass rusher and the Bombers will need to keep Jonanthon Jennings from getting outside of the pocket.
#9 Justin Medlock, K
Now the fun starts for CFL kickers, not just because the weather is getting icky, but because each kick becomes that much more magnified heading into the last month of the regular season and with the playoffs on the horizon.
Medlock has been money for the Bombers on kicks from inside the 40 – he’s 27 for 27 from that range and, dating back to last year, has made his last 30. He’s on pace for a club record 58 field goals, but probably doesn’t get enough credit for his punting: he has eight kicks that have been punted out of bounds inside an opponent’s 10-yard line, second only to Saskatchewan’s Josh Bartel, who has 10.
The Bombers have made three changes to their 46-man roster (including the two-man reserve list) adding DB Julian Posey, new WR Tori Gurley (who will not dress) and LB Justin Warden. Out are DB Bruce Johnson (suspended for two games), FB Pascal Lochard and DL Brandon Tennant.
RING OF HONOUR
Herb Gray, one of the greatest defenders in Blue Bombers history, is the next addition to the new Ring of Honour with his name going up Saturday afternoon alongside former teammates Gerry James, Leo Lewis, Ken Ploen and his long-time coach in Bud Grant along with Chris Walby, Milt Stegall and Dieter Brock.
Gray, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 76, played both defensive end and guard in his 10 years with the Bombers (1956-65) and was a team captain for nine of those seasons. He was a West Division All-Star at end six times and at guard once, and in 1960 became the first defensive player to win the CFL’s top lineman award. In 1980, Gray was named the Bombers top defensive player of the first half-century of their existence. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1984.
Gray’s story can be found here and he will be represented by his son Steve and his second wife, Maureen, at the ceremony.
The Bombers run game vs. the Lions run defence.
Nothing complicated here: B.C. allows a league low 69.1 yards rushing per game; the Bombers are as committed to the ground game as any team in the CFL.
B.C.’s front seven is nasty and is led by tackling machines Solomon Elimimian (leads the CFL with 100) and Adam Bighill (third, at 89).
“I’m excited to play them,” said Andrew Harris. “I know how physical they are and the types of players they are. I was there when Big (Bighill) had his first training camp and I hated the guy because every time we’d be in no pads, he’d give me a charley-horse or step on my feet or poke me in the eye. I played with Solly (Elimimian) a lot of years, too. At the end of the day, though, the whistle is going to blow and they’re going to be another linebacker to me that I’m trying to beat or pass protect or break a route on.”
Even with the run ‘D’ numbers looking imposing, that won’t stop the Bombers from trying to establish the run against the Leos.
“Their D-linemen are very athletic and their linebackers are perennial all-stars,” said Bomber centre Matthias Goossen. “I always say it: every D-line, every linebacking corps in this league is good.
“The stats are stats. They don’t help you too much when the pads get popping. We’ll stick to our game plan and keep at it. And when it comes down to it, we’ve seen every scheme that any team has done before. We have two great backs and have a pretty good run offence in the past so we’ll keep at it.”
- Winnipeg is 3-2 so far in the second half of 2016. By comparison, from 2013-15 the club was just 5-22 in the second half of those three seasons. This past month was the first winning September for the club since going 3-1 in 2008.
- The Lions are 5-2 on the road, but their two losses have been by a combined seven points.
- This from CFL stats guru Steve Daniel: the Lions lead the CFL in best average starting point for their offensive possessions, beginning at their own 40-yard line. The league average is the 36.3-yard line. Translating that over the Lions 180 possessions so far this season, that is an additional 681 yards of net field position or the equivalent of over 6 CFL field lengths.
- B.C.’s Emmanuel Arceneaux passed the 1,000-yard receiving mark last week for the third time in his career. The Lions’ all-time leader in that department is former Bomber Geroy Simon with 8, while Mervyn Fernandez and Ray Alexander each had four 1,000-yard seasons.
- BC is 7-0 this year when finishing even or with less turnovers than their opponents and are just 2-4 when making more. Since 2010, 60 of BC’s 68 wins have come while finishing even or with less turnovers than the opposition.
Bombers QB Matt Nichols on being mic’d up for TSN’s telecast on Saturday and whether he might have to call relatives to warn them he might be saying some ‘bad words’:
“I think they already know. I’m sorry for you guys that you’re going to get a little picture inside my mind tomorrow. I’m a little crazy on game day on the field. I’m not going to say I’m going to tone it back, but hopefully they’re quick on the trigger if I say something that shouldn’t be aired.”