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October 13, 2016

Tait’s Take: WPG at BC

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15), Travis Bond (60) and Jermarcus Hardrick (51) celebrate Nichols' touchdown against the B.C. Lions during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg Saturday, October 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

VANCOUVER – Sequels rarely, if ever, live up to be as good as the original.

Jaws II? Dumb premise, dumber plot. Blues Brothers 2000? Ackroyd-Belushi vs. Ackroyd-Goodman? No contest.

And the sequel to Batman Forever, Batman & Robin? Not exactly George Clooney’s finest work.

The point here is simple: if we are expecting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and B.C. Lions to serve us the same entertainment value this Friday on the left coast as last weekend’s 37-35 thriller at Investors Group Field, then prepare to be disappointed.

It’s not that this mid-October West-Division showdown doesn’t have all the same elements that made the first one a CFL classic. Second place in the West is at stake and the offensive weapons that ran up and down the field in Winnipeg are all gearing up to the same again under the dome.

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It’s just that while the Bombers would love to do their part to paint another CFL masterpiece, they’d also gladly take a paint-by-numbers dog’s breakfast if the end result is another win.

After all, the mission here is to have the Lions back in Winnipeg for the West Division Semi-final on Nov. 13th because a home playoff date at Investors Group Field could really represent home-field advantage.

“That’s one of the goals every season: to try and find a way to have a home playoff game so this would be a big step in that direction,” said Bombers veteran receiver Weston Dressler this week after another chilly practice.

“This team, we’ve always had that belief in each other and ourselves and last week it showed. It was kind of a crazy game in the second half, back and forth, and every phase of the game stepped up at different points in that one.”

“But we don’t care what it looks like, as long as it’s a win.”

Weston Dressler

The Bombers will have a bye after this week’s game before a home-and-home series with the Ottawa REDBLACKS to round out the regular season. The Lions, at 9-5, have a game in hand and play host to the hard-charging Edmonton Eskimos – at 8-7 still eyeing second place as well – before completing their schedule with two games against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The Esks have a bye this week and, after facing the Lions, wrap up with a trip to Hamilton and a home date against Toronto.

In other words, the cement is far from dry as to who will finish where in the CFL standings.

What Dressler loves about all this – aside from the obvious thrill of playing football in late October/early November – is how this Bomber side, many believe, is still teasing at its potential.

“You know what? I think a lot of guys in our locker room now are recognizing all this potential we have as a team,” said Dressler. “We know we have to still continue working in order to get where we want to be. This late in the season it’s easy to accept what you are as a football team, but this team has done a great job of recognizing the things we need to keep coaching and working on and then we get at it day to day.

“We’ve found our identity as a team and the type of energy we need to have on every game day if we want to have a chance to win, but that doesn’t mean you stop looking at getting better. That’s what this team does so well.”

B.C. Lions' Nehemie Kankolongo (49) pursues Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Weston Dressler (7) as he runs around the end zone attempting to burn off precious time in the dying seconds of the second half of CFL action in Winnipeg Saturday, October 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

THE 4-1-1

BLUE BOMBERS (9-6) at LIONS (9-5)

Kickoff: 9 p.m. (CT) Friday, B.C. Place, Vancouver.
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; B.C.: 1L.
Vegas line: The Lions are favoured by 5.5
Recent history: Last week’s Winnipeg win, a 37-35 thriller, was the first meeting between the two clubs this season. The Bombers have won the last three meetings and have taken two of their last three in Vancouver.

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3 STORYLINES

KA-BOOM!! LIMITING THE ‘EXPLOSION’ PLAYS

There’s an old saying in football that a win is a win is a win. Translation: don’t spend too long bemoaning the details if the end result is another check in the win column.

Here’s the thing about that: sometimes victories can gloss over some serious concerns and there were a number in last week’s win that still have to be alarming for the Bombers. Consider that the Lions cranked out 503 net yards of offence and that the Bombers were nailed for another 12 penalties totaling 155 yards.

Defensive coordinator Richie Hall said the defence was hit for nine ‘explosion’ plays – 20 yards or more – and that included two pass-interference infractions and seven against the Bombers defensive dozen.

Lions’ QB Jonathon Jennings completed 73.7 per cent of his passes for 422 yards as receivers Bryan Burnham (nine catches for 208 yards) and Emmanuel Arceneaux (10 for 150) repeatedly gobbled up huge chunks of real estate.

“First, you’ve got to take care of blown coverages or dropped coverages,” explained Hall. “They’re going to make plays, but you’ve got to make sure that they’re contested plays and make sure they earn it. That’s the disappointing thing about the other night: we gave up some freebie plays.”

“We knew their offence had that explosion factor,” said defensive end Jamaal Westerman. “It’s our job to limit that. They’ve got some playmakers, but sometimes we were in the right position and it’s just being able to not panic, turn around and get your hands on the ball. It’s the same thing up front – when we have an opportunity to make a play on a quarterback or get him on the ground, we’ve got to finish.”

Westerman said Jennings looks like an entirely different QB from the one they faced last year in one of his early pro starts. And one of the keys to Jennings’ game now is to extend plays with his legs, but then be looking for deep success rather than checking the ball down for safe yardage.

“It’s because of his receivers,” said Westerman. “They do a good job of their scramble drill when he breaks the pocket… the short guys go deep and the deep guys come back. That’s how they do it.”

MORE OFFENSIVE FLAIR?

Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice and special-teams coaches Paul Boudreau and Mike O’Shea had some nifty wrinkles a week ago, from the fake field goal dialed up and executed perfectly by long-snapper Chad Rempel and holder Weston Dressler to the Andrew Harris-to-Rory Kohlert-to-Matt Nichols touchdown pass on the same drive.

Facing the same team in back-to-back weeks can do a couple of things: put a strain on coordinators trying to find weaknesses against an opponent who is trying to counter; and, allow everyone to open up the playbook just that much more.

“When you win you feel a little bit more comfortable,” said LaPolice. “This is an excellent football team… watching the tape all week, defensively they’re an excellent team. We’ll have our hands full. When you play back-to-back games (against the same team) we’ve usually tried to put in a little bit more, especially because this is a short week. When you have a little more time you put in more and maybe haven’t called that. So, a certain percentage of what we have in, we still feel we hare able to run.”

Asked about last week’s trick plays and what else he might have up his sleeve, LaPolice just grinned.

“We actually put this stuff in during training camp. Sometimes you have to be in the right situation to call some of those,” he said. “The guys execute them every week and you feel good because they enjoy them when you have success with them. We put a couple in this week because we’re getting depleted (having used them up) halfway through the season.”

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NO MORE RAINEY DAYS

One of the critical moments in last week’s Bomber win was Moe Leggett’s spectacular tackle on Chris Rainey with 58 seconds left and the Lions facing a third-and-one at the Bomber four-yard line. Truthfully, it was one of the few times all afternoon the club was able to limit B.C.’s dynamic returner and offensive threat. Rainey carried three times for 61 yards – including a 56-yard TD run on the exact same play Leggett would later stuff him on – and was especially deadly in the return game with 174 yards on seven kickoff returns and 64 yards on five punt returns.

He’s as dangerous an offensive weapon as there is in the CFL and the Lions seem more committed than ever to get him some touches now on offence. Limiting his damage is massive for the Bombers.

“You can see by the numbers: B.C. has the best starting field position in the CFL,” said Bombers linebacker and leading special-teams tackler Tony Burnett. “That’s a testament to Rainey. He’s fast, but it’s kind of deceptive because he’s so smooth. With fast guys you can often tell because they’re turning and burning. But with him he’ll lull you to sleep and then hit you with the jets. We’ve got to swarm him, bottle him up, play together, don’t leave your brother out to dry, know your assignment and make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be so that he doesn’t get those opportunities to break the big ones.”

QB COMPARISON

  • Matt Nichols makes the 30th start of his career (15-14) and 10th straight this year. He is 8-2 this season, 10-7 overall as the Bombers starter and has completed 68.7 per cent of his passes for 2,777 yards with 14 touchdowns against three interceptions and a QB rating of 101.2. His passing yards and 14 TDs are both career highs.
  • Jonathon Jennings makes the 21st start of his young career (12-8) and continues to wow with his skillset and his upside. He has completed 66.4 per cent of his passes for 18 TDs against 10 interceptions and has a QB rating of 100.2. He eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark in last week’s loss, making him the first Lions pivot to eclipse the 4K mark since Travis Lulay threw for 4,231 in 2012.

 

3 BOMBERS TO WATCH

#60 Travis Bond, OL

The Bombers have surrendered just 28 sacks so far this season, tied with Edmonton for the second fewest (Calgary is first, at 14). Winnipeg had another ‘clean’ sheet against the Lions a week ago – no sacks allowed – as Matt Nichols had time to find open receivers and the club was able to average 5.7 yards rushing on 19 carries for 107 yards. Bond, of course, is just one of five along with Stanley Bryant, Matthias Goossen, Sukh Chungh and Jermarcus Hardrick, but we’re singling him out because he is such a giant force at the left guard position.

If the Bombers can get the same kind of work out of the big eaters up front, they’ll take a huge step toward their 10th win of the season.

#14 Quincy McDuffie, KR

The Bombers have been getting some solid kick-return production all season, particularly from McDuffie and punt returner Kevin Fogg. But the return game becomes that much more paramount for the Bombers given the field position Chris Rainey was consistently putting the Lions offence in last weekend. If the Bombers can match that with the McDuffie/Fogg combination, they can shorten the field.

#26 Tony Burnett, LB

He’s a regular on defence – filling in for Ian Wild – but is also the Bombers’ leading special-teams tackler. As mentioned in our 3 Storylines, the Bombers need Burnett and teammates like Garrett Waggoner, Derek Jones, Taylor Loffler and Jesse Briggs to come up huge in their coverage of Lions ace returner Chris Rainey.

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X FACTOR

#81 Tori Gurley

He’s a mammoth target at 6-4, 230 and gives the Bombers a different dimension offensively. Darvin Adams was as tall a target before he was injured in late July, but Gurley’s bulk makes him a difficult man to cover, particularly in the red zone and over the middle. Chew on this number: the big man has 15 TDs in 26 career CFL games and there are a ton of receivers who would kill for that kind of ratio.

It’s uncertain how much familiarity he has with the Bomber playbook, but he’s been putting in the work to get up to speed.

NOTABLE

The Bombers have made just one change to their 46-man roster (including the two-man reserve list), bringing aboard LB/DB Teague Sherman and sitting down LB Justin Warden. Both Ian Wild and Maurice Leggett are listed as the starters on the depth chart even though they haven’t practiced this week while Tori Gurley will make his first start as a Bomber.

FAMILY AFFAIR

Friday’s showdown will be the fourth meeting between brothers Jamaal and Jabar Westerman.

“I’m 3-0 against him now,” said Jamaal, the Bombers defensive end with a size-large grin. “So hopefully we can continue and sweep the series, the TWO-year series. It’ll be fun to play against him again. Some of my family will be out there, I’ll get to see his daughter and some other family so that will be fantastic.”

Westerman said his wife and daughter, his other brother (who lives in New Jersey), and his wife are all coming to the game. His mother was scheduled to come, but might not be able to attend because his aunt recently passed away. His father also suffered a stroke this summer and won’t be able to head west.

“Hopefully,” said Westerman, “we beat them, they cross over to the East and then we play them in the Grey Cup in Toronto.”

Jamaal Westerman

JUICY MATCHUP

Winnipeg’s pass defence vs. Emmanuel Arceneaux, Bryan Burnham & Co.

The Bomber secondary certainly had its moments last week, what with Maurice Leggett and T.J. Heath both intercepting Jonathan Jennings and the Lions not throwing for any touchdown passes.

But he also completed 73.7 per cent of his attempts while throwing for 422 yards.

Those are numbers which will have had the Winnipeg air defence cringing all week.

“We need to be more sound,” said cornerback Terrence Frederick. “The last two games we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties down the field… late contact, holding calls. We’ve just got to play more sound.

“You get a good feel for them the first time, so you know, in a way, what to expect. We know we’ve got to be a lot better with a short turnaround against the same team.

“Those guys have talent, give them credit. But we need to compete at a higher level against them and be consistent against them for four quarters. We were up and down last week… we had some two-and-outs and a couple of picks against them early and then they starting coming at us.”

FYI

  • Lions linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill rank first and third in the CFL in defensive tackles. Elimimian is at 105, Montreal’s Bear Woods is second at 102 while Bighill is at 91. Since the CFL started separating defensive tackles and special-teams tackles, no team has ever had two defenders eclipse the 100 mark in a single season.
  • Last year the CFL moved the convert distance back to the 32-yard line and last year kickers struggled to connect on just 85.5 per cent of their attempts. That number is at 91.1 per cent this year and the Bombers Justin Medlock is trying to become the first to go through a season without a miss (minimum, 20 attempts; Edmonton’s Sean Whyte was 14 of 14 last year.
    Medlock has already broken the Bomber record for field goals in a season with 48, previously 47, held by Troy Westwood.
  • The Bombers +27 turnover ratio is just two shy of the club record of +29, set in 1987. But as solid as the club has been in taking the ball away, they’ve been just as careful protecting it: Winnipeg’s 21 turnovers is second fewest (Calgary is at 2). The CFL record for fewest turnovers is 23, set by B.C. in 2012. The Bombers club record for fewest turnovers is 31, set in 1981 and matched a year later.