The Winnipeg Blue Bombers dressing room was alive with the sights and sounds that come after victory. And sitting alone in front of his locker – a size-large grin on his face – was one of the team’s newest faces, T.J. Heath, proudly clutching the football from his first interception in Bomber colours.
“That was definitely a dogfight, but that was definitely a lot of fun, too,” began Heath early Saturday evening after a thrilling 37-35 victory over the B.C. Lions. “Those are the kind of games you live to play in… you had interceptions to trick plays, to it coming down to the last possession. Amazing.”
Heath had a good thing going with the Toronto Argonauts before he was sent west as part of the Drew Willy trade last month. He was starting with the Argos and he was then tied for the Canadian Football League lead in interceptions with Maurice Leggett.
Bomber fans will know what happened next: not long after Heath served up one of those career games – a couple of picks, seven tackles – he was dealt. On his birthday, no less.
And so the days since the trade can be a bit overwhelming: there is the anger and frustration of being dealt, the uncertainty of starting anew and trying to fit in with a different team, and then working to find a voice in a room with a team that already has clearly defined roles and leadership voices.
So what has Heath learned about his new team?
“This is a much tighter team than I thought and it shows on the field,” said Heath. “A lot of times I took for granted things like the get-togethers we have outside of the building. But now I see that when we step on the field it plays a part. Now when I step on the field I find myself communicating and having fun.
“I’m in a rhythm now with these guys and how they took me in at first was a big part of that.”
Heath’s interception Saturday gave him six on the season, still one behind Leggett who had picked off Jonathon Jennings just 10 minutes earlier in the game.
“He came to the sidelines and said, ‘I’m up two!’ And then I came back and said, ‘I’m down one!’”
“We’re having fun with it. We’re going back and forth and competing with each other. And at the end of the day it’s all helping the team.”
More on the win over B.C. that inches the Bombers closer to a playoff berth with our weekly post-game collection of notes, quotes and anecdotes we call ‘Upon Further Review’:
AS WACKY AND CRAZY AND FUN… as that win was for the Bombers, it didn’t come without some controversy. In the final minute with the Bombers protecting a four-point lead, the club ran the ball twice with Andrew Harris inside their own 10-yard line.
And on the first, Harris looked to have the ball stripped by the Lions. The referees ruled Harris had been down by contact; Harris himself thought his forward progress had been stopped and the play had been whistled dead.
“Honestly, I felt like my forward momentum was up,” said Harris. “I had two hands on the ball and they just kind of ripped it out. Usually when your forward momentum stops they blow it dead, but they just kept on ripping at it.
“I was definitely stood up and I guess we just got good timing with the refs and blowing it dead. I’ve got to be better than that and make sure it doesn’t come out at all.”
The TSN panel weighed in afterward, calling it a clear fumble and the play is certainly going to be part of the narrative leading up to Friday’s rematch in Vancouver with second place in the West Division at stake as the regular season reaches the home stretch.
HARRIS WAS BUSY… in his first game back since the Banjo Bowl, carrying 12 times for 66 yards and pulling in another five receptions for 50 yards and a TD. The Bombers also dressed Timothy Flanders as insurance with Harris coming off an ankle injury, and he rushed four times for 19 yards, including a 16-yard TD.
Interestingly, six of Harris’ touches came on the very first possession, capped by his TD catch.
“I was tired after that first drive, for sure,” said Harris with a smile. “It’s one of those things where you get the ball you want to make impact plays. Sometimes it comes in bunches and sometimes there are dry spells. But you’ve got to thrive in those times when you do get the ball.”
All of this just feeds into the discussion about how the Bombers can get both Harris and Flanders on the field at the same time. Part of the reasoning behind having both dress was an injury to Canadian tailback Pascal Lochard, who did not dress but had served as the back-up to both Harris and Flanders.
“I’m not too sure what their thoughts are,” said Harris. “But Tim’s been playing great football. He deserved an opportunity to get on the field and play and he scored on that draw play. He makes plays, he’s a hard worker.”
“There’s so many factors that go into being able to do that with the roster,” added head coach Mike O’Shea. “It’s not just one player. There are a lot of different switches that have to be worked out that way.
“I’ve said it every time you guys have asked: Timothy Flanders is a good football player, not just a good tailback. He’s a good football player… he plays good special teams for us, he’s a good pro.
“Week to week, I’m not sure how the roster is going to look and I’m not sure just yet until we get the injury report. But it worked out quite well this week.”
FOOL ME ONCE, SHAME ON YOU… fool me twice, shame on me. That seemed to be the message from the Bombers defence in explaining Moe Leggett’s dramatic stop of Chris Rainey on a third-and-one gamble from the Bomber four-yard line with 58 seconds remaining.
The Bombers had been burned by Rainey on the same play earlier in the game when he took an end-around 56-yards for a touchdown on another third-and-one gamble for the Lions first score.
“Oh yeah. We talked about it right before it happened,” said Leggett. “We knew. We had already seen Rainey on the opposite side of me get a 50-yard run on that exact same play. So I just changed my position up (he flipped sides), we communicated and I spun out of a block and tripped him up.”
That play, given Leggett had exited the game earlier with a leg/knee injury and wasn’t expected to return, was part of the post-game buzz afterward. But after testing out the injury on the sidelines and getting the green light to return, he was back at his post for the last position and his dramatic play.
“I’m not sure what happened,” said defensive end Jamaal Westerman. “But for a guy to go down, and I know he was hurting, but for him to drag himself off the sidelines… as long as he can walk he’s going to go out there and play for us.
“That’s a testament to the type of locker room we have. Nobody is going to go out there injured if they can’t make a play. He knew that he was hurting, but he wanted to go out and make a play for us and be accountable for us. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
ONE OF THE PROBLEM AREAS… for the Bombers, even in the win, was trying to contain the damage of Rainey along with Lions receivers Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham, who accounted for a massive among of B.C.’s offensive production and field position.
Rainey finished with 298 yards in combined offence – 61 rushing, -1 receiving, 174 on kickoff returns and 64 on punt returns – while Arceneaux finished with 10 catches for 150 yards and Burnham had nine catches for a whopping 208 yards.
“They’re a good team,” said Westerman. “They have a dynamic quarterback that made me miss once and threw a deep pass, he can make guys miss, run around and keep the play alive. They have big-play receivers like we were saying all week. They live off those chunk, explosion plays. We didn’t do a good enough job of stopping them.
“That’s just the way the football game goes when two top, physical, strong teams play. It’s going to be a back and forth and it’s going to come down to who can fight the longest.”
The Bombers are now 9-1 when they win the turnover battle, but when Leggett was asked post-game if the defence was back in form, he said:
“No, we’re not back in form yet. We’re giving up too many big plays. They’re a great team and we knew they’re a big-play team and we have to limit those and we’re just giving up too much. We’re getting back to where we used to be.
“A lot of it is them just being good and a lot of it is miscommunication. We’re going to have to look at the film and be ready for them next week.”
IN A GAME THAT WAS FULL… of dynamic ‘special’ plays – coaches hate them being referred to as tricks when they practice them so much, one of the coolest was the Rory Kohlert-to-Nichols touchdown pass for Winnipeg’s second score.
Nichols joked afterward that he doesn’t have a TD-receiving bonus clause in his current contract, and that Kohlert, who is now two-for-two this season, might have the highest QB rating in the league.
“I let Matt know every day about that,” joked Kohlert. “That was just a good play. We’ve been practicing it for a while now and he called it. We were in the flow of the game when (offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice) called that. He’s not doing it off a time out where you’ve got time to think. He called it and it’s just, ‘OK, here we go.’
“It’s great to throw one to your quarterback, especially when he stands back there and battles for you all day.”
Nichols didn’t keep the ball, instead rifling into to the crowd in the celebration. But he did reach out on social media and made a deal to get it back from the fan who caught it for tickets to a game, a sideline experience and an autographed new ball.