Weston Dressler (7) and Justin Medlock (9) during the game between Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Toronto Argonauts at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. Saturday, September 17, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Moe Leggett is standing outside the media room in the bowels of Investors Group Field and chatting about winning, losing and how expectations have changed so dramatically in the land of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
And over the course of a short conversation, it becomes abundantly clear the veteran linebacker is fuelled as much by the euphoria that comes from winning as he is about his absolute hatred of losing.
“I don’t even like saying that ‘L’ word,” began Leggett. “It’s a mental thing for me and when you say that ‘L’ word. When you say that word it means you didn’t play hard enough or you gave up. I realize it’s not that simple, but that’s the way I look at it.
“Expectations are high around here. We expect to win every game now and so it’s disappointing when we don’t. It’s about mental toughness, an attitude and a drive to want to win.”
“This is everything to me. It’s important to everyone here. And we feed off each other’s competitive drive.”
Now, it would be absolutely ridiculous to label a mid-July football game as ‘must win’ for the Blue Bombers. No matter what happens Thursday night against the Toronto Argonauts, the Bombers will line up next Friday in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions. And they’ll have 14 more after that, plus potentially the playoffs.
But as much as the Bombers have adopted a collective ‘last week was last week’ mantra, there’s also been no hiding that some of the sting from the 29-10 loss to the Calgary Stampeders still lingers.
And it’s here were some numbers provide some relevance to the changing-expectations-in-these-parts angle:
- The Bombers are 11-4 in their last 15 games dating back to late last July, when quarterback Matt Nichols, guard Travis Bond and safety Taylor Loffler were all inserted into the starting lineup. Two of those losses were against Calgary, a third came versus the Edmonton Eskimos, and the other was against the Grey Cup champion Ottawa REDBLACKS.
- Over that same 15-game stretch, only the Stamps – at 13-1-1 – have a better record than Winnipeg. (B.C. and Edmonton are 10-5, Montreal is 6-9, Ottawa is 5-9-1, Saskatchewan is 5-10, Hamilton is 4-11 and Toronto is 3-12, including a 2-1 start this year).
So heck yeah, last week still burns, simply because they’ve become accustomed to winning around here. It burns for Leggett, for the guys on the offensive line, for the secondary, for quarterback Matt Nichols and so on and so on.
Nichols in particular was hard on himself after his performance against Calgary, shouldering a good chunk of the game. Asked Wednesday if he had forgiven himself yet for that performance, he offered up an answer that seems to mirror that of the entire team this week.
“It always sticks with you when you feel like you didn’t perform for your team,” said Nichols. “I use it as fuel for the next week. It’s not something where I harp on myself for a full week. It’s 24 hours after the game and that one’s gone. Then it’s dive right into hours and hours of film on your next opponent and make sure you correct your mistakes.
“This game is all about how you bounce back. There’s never going to be 18 games where you play perfectly every single game. There’s always ups and downs throughout a season and through a game and it’s how you respond to those things.
“For myself, I’ve been through a lot in my career, and having one game where I feel like I didn’t play my best is not a tough challenge for me. I’m going to answer the call, come back and play a better game for my teammates. I’m happy it was a short week and we get right back on the field in front of our home crowd.”
The key now is to stop the bleeding ASAP, especially in what figures to be, again, an uber-competitive West Division.
“We’re two games in and we’re 1-1,” said centre Matthias Goossen earlier this week. “All of us will demand more of ourselves. All of us understand we need everyone to make this work.
“There’s always things we want to improve on, whether it comes after a win or after a loss.”
It’s just that losses are becoming less frequent around here. Just as Leggett, Nichols, Goossen & Co. want it.
GAME 3 | BLUE BOMBERS (1-1) vs ARGONAUTS (2-1)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Investors Group Field
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1L; Toronto: 1W
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 3
Home/Road: The Bombers are 0-1 at Investors Group Field this year after dropping last week’s home opener; Toronto is 1-0 on the road after winning in Ottawa on the weekend.
Recent history: The Bombers swept the two-game season series in 2016, winning 34-17 in Toronto on August 12th and then 46-29 in Winnipeg on September 17th.
RAY TO GREEN
There has arguably been no more compelling storyline to start the CFL season than the resurgence of veteran quarterback Ricky Ray and his favourite target, S.J. Green.
Now 37, Ray had played in only 12 of the last 36 games for the Argos when new coach Marc Trestman handed him the keys to the offence in the winter. He still has his moments, to be sure, but he was breaking down and looked like a player not just on the back nine of his career, but walking down the fairway of the 18th hole.
Fast forward to right here and right now, and Ray not only leads the league in passing yardage at 1,199, he threw for a career high 506 yards in a Week 1 win over Hamilton.
Green’s career, meanwhile, was in doubt this winter despite his aggressive rehab from tearing all three ligaments and his meniscus in his right knee in Week 2 a year ago. He was traded to the Argos by Montreal for a sixth-round draft pick – by CFL standards the equivalent of getting swapped for a blocking bag and a box of used mouthguards.
And yet there he is, second in the CFL in receiving yards with 367 and fourth in receptions in 19, including 10 for a career-high 210 yards last week.
The Bombers, quite clearly, have immense respect for the two men. But they’d also like to stall their productivity.
“The guy’s incredible and he’s an extremely hard worker,” said Nichols of Ray. “I know him personally, we played together in Edmonton and are from the same hometown. He’s a guy I’ve always admired, a guy that I learned a lot from and still learn a lot from just from watching him play, his demeanor and the way he responds.
“Coming back from a game where I didn’t feel like I played so well, this is a guy that’s come back from a lot of naysayers, people saying that he’s done… coming back and responding the way he has this year just says a lot for the guy.”
MORE HARRIS, MORE OFTEN
The CFL continues to trend away from pounding the football along the ground, using a short passing game in an effort to be more productive on first down. All that said, there’s no secret that Andrew Harris remains one of the Bombers best offensive weapons. Getting him going opens up so many things and keeps the big eaters up front content as they get to occasionally tee off on defenders instead of back-pedaling in pass protection.
It’s also about finding an offensive balance, something the Bombers have spoken a ton about this week. Winnipeg has passed the ball 81 percent of its offensive snaps this season. Last year that ratio was 68-32.
“We’d like to get some more yards on the ground to try and open some other things up that way,” said Bombers slotback Weston Dressler. “We need to do a better job in the air to open up the ground game, as well. They kind of go hand-in-hand. We’re just trying to be more consistent with both phases of the offence right now.”
PROTECTING HOME TURF
An old and increasingly tired storyline for Bombers fans: the home side is just 11-26 an Investors Group Field since it opened in 2013.
The Bombers have a winning record against only one team in their own barn – 3-2 against Saskatchewan – and are 2-2 against both Montreal and B.C. here. The most telling number of all: the Bombers are a combined 0-11 against Edmonton and Calgary at IGF.
What else, frankly, can be said on this topic?
Matt Nichols is 13-9 as a starter for the Bombers and 18-16 overall after last week’s loss to Calgary. He was 27 of 40 for 267 yards with one TD and two critical interceptions, numbers that saw his overall QUAR rating fall to 64.8.
Toronto’s Ricky Ray leads the CFL in passing yardage at 1,199 and has thrown four TDs to just one interception through his first three games this year for a QUAR rating of 72.5. The future hall of famer is 105-97-1 in his career and 13-10-1 lifetime against Winnipeg.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#50 Kyle Knox, LB: He makes his first start of ’17 in place of the injured Ian Wild, this time at weak-side linebacker. Knox came into training camp as the leading candidate for the vacant middle linebacker gig, but lost out in a battle with veteran Sam Hurl. With Wild out for six weeks-plus, Knox has a real shot to flash his athleticism here without having to worry about also being the defensive call maker.
“He just needs to be himself,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of Knox fitting into Wild’s spot. “He’s a very gifted athlete. He flies around to the football. Listen to his teammates, make sure he’s in the right spot and communicate with Sam Hurl.”
#33 Andrew Harris, RB: He’s been busy with 23 rushes and 14 receptions through two games, but not busy enough. A number that must change if the Bombers are to make some noise in the West: Harris’ per carry average is just 3.9 yards.
#51 Jermarcus Hardrick, RT: Hardrick figures to get a healthy dose of CFL sack leader Victor Butler, who already has seven QB kills in three games. And if the Argos flip their ends, Hardrick will face QB sack machine Shawn Lemon, who has two sacks this year and had 16 a year ago.
#94 Jackson Jeffcoat, DE
Tristan Okpalaugo is on the shelf now with an upper-body injury, opening the door for Jeffcoat to step in and flash the skill he showcased in training camp and in the preseason. He’s 6-3 and 255 pounds and will be expected to put some pressure on Ricky Ray from his end spot.
Jeffcoat’s parents – his dad Jim was a long-time fixture with the Dallas Cowboys – will be in attendance to witness his first CFL start.
“I’m excited,” said Jeffcoat. “He and mom came last week and they’ll be here again. They just planned on being here for these two weeks and it worked out great. I’m excited to have them in the stands and see my first start.”
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster on Wednesday and there are two changes to the 46-man roster from last week’s game against Calgary – linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox has been added for Ian Wild and DE Jackson Jeffcoat comes aboard for Tristan Okpalaugo.
Okpalaugo was moved to the six-game injured list, joining Wild, DB Bruce Johnson and LB Shayne Gauthier. DB Kevin Fogg and WR Addison Richards are on the one-game injured.
The Argos have made three changes to their 46-man roster, adding DB Qudarius Ford, RB Martese Jackson and DL Dylan Wyann while moving DL Ken Bishop, WR Chandler Worthy and WR DeVier Posey to the injured list.
Bombers offensive tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick vs. Argos defensive ends Victor Butler and Shawn Lemon.
We touched on this a bit earlier, but worth noting here: Butler (7) and Lemon (2) have combined for nine sacks and 12 quarterback pressures through three games this season. They don’t just contain from the edge, they collapse from the edge.
The Bombers may occasionally use extra help in protection, either with fullback Christophe Normand, running back Andrew Harris or a receiver, but could also go heavy by bringing in reserve O-linemen Patrick Neufeld and Michael Couture.
“They’re one of the best (D-lines) we’ve seen on film so far,” said Hardrick. “All four guys can play and it’s going to be a good test for us. I’m excited for it. I want to be better, I want us to be better up front. It starts this week because we’re going up against a great D-line that leads the league in sacks. It’s a good place for us to start all over.”
Matt Nichols will make his 16th consecutive start for the Bombers (11-4 during that run). The last Winnipeg QB to start 16 straight was Kevin Glenn, who started 30 in a row from 2006-08 – excluding the playoffs and the 2007 Grey Cup loss, which he missed with a broken arm.
- Victor Butler’s seven QB sacks through three games is the quickest to that total to start a season since Elfrid Payton had eight for Montreal and Joe Montford had seven for Hamilton during the 1999 season.
- The Bombers’ cyborg kicker, Justin Medlock, is on a streak of 24 consecutive field goals – a club record. Edmonton’s Sean Whyte has also hit 24 straight. Medlock’s streak dates back to last September 30th and was a 58-yard attempt at the end of the first half in a loss to Edmonton.
- Ricky Ray became the sixth CFL player to reach 300 career TD passes last week in Ottawa, training only Anthony Calvillo (455), Damon Allen (394), Henry Burris (373), Ron Lancaster (333) and Matt Dunigan (303).
- The Argos clearly love to air it out: to date 91 per cent of their total yards (1,362) have come via the pass. The Bombers pass to run ratio is 81-19, FYI.
RING OF HONOUR:
The Bombers will be adding one name to their Ring of Honour in 2017 and it comes Thursday night. Going up on the ring is legendary quarterback Jack Jacobs, who passed away in 1974, while the first two winners of the Jack Jacobs Scholarship – Rain Slater of St. John’s High School and Adam Thompson of Roseau Valley School – will also be recognized.
The story of Jacobs and his impact on the Bombers and the game can be found here.
“Ricky doesn’t change much. He’s always just a steady-going, hard working guy. He’s got every cheesy dad joke in the world. He’s the kind of guy you can’t help but laugh when he talks to you. He’s an awesome guy. The thing I learned most about from him is he’s just so good at blocking out the noise. He’s a guy that doesn’t have social media, doesn’t listen to what anyone else says. He just goes out and plays his game. It’s something a lot of guys can learn from, even myself, to continue to not listen to any outside noise and just go out and do your job and have the confidence in yourself.” – Bombers QB Matt Nichols on Argos QB Ricky Ray.