Taylor Loffler (16) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game at New Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK, Saturday, July 1st, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
VANCOUVER – It’s a simple enough mantra to be chanting over and over and over. But putting it into practice – and really, truly believing in it – is another thing altogether.
The mantra comes from Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall, and it’s something his charges on that side of the ball have adopted in the days leading up to Friday’s meeting in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions – against the same team and in the same stadium in which their 2016 season came to a screeching halt.
And it goes like this: ‘If you’re always looking back, you can’t see what’s in front of you.’
“Do we think about last November?” began Bombers defensive end Jamaal Westerman, repeating the first question posed to him the other day. “Not really. Every now and again you talk about it, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, that playoff game… if only we could have done this or that.’
“We lost to a good team and let them come back. That’s on our defence. We take that squarely on us. We shouldn’t have let them come back.”
“Of course, we watch the film and the cut ups of the game. Things like what did they do when they were in a two-back (set), what did they do in the red zone, what did they do after an interception. But you’re not watching the game thinking, ‘Ahh, man… we should have done this, this and this differently.’
“As Coach Hall said, ‘The past is in the past. If you’re always looking back, you can’t see what’s in front of you.’”
Again, easier said than done. But there really is no other approach the Bombers can take as their first meeting with the Lions approaches. A playoff loss clearly has much more meaning than a mid-July showdown.
There is a smaller picture take here that seems much more a-propos: the West Division already figures to be a top-to-bottom slugfest this season and neither team wants to drop a head-to-head meeting – even in July – that could factor in come late October when the playoff picture and standings come into focus.
“Honestly, redemption is not on my mind at all and I don’t think it’s on this team’s mind,” said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols. “It’s a new year. We know they’re a good football team and it’s just another week to go out and prove that we’re a good football team. You have to go out and prove that every week.”
There’s a lot of validity to what Nichols is preaching. Not only is it a new year, but the lineup the Bombers have brought to Vancouver looks dramatically different than the crew that fell in the West Semifinal. Consider that six starters are now gone – Euclid Cummings, Keith Shologan, Khalil Bass, Justin Cole and Terrence Frederick on defence, and Ryan Smith on offence – seven others from the 46-man roster have moved on, while Bruce Johnson, Ian Wild and Addison Richards are currently on the injured list and Padric Scott on the practice roster.
That’s a whole lot of change from last fall.
“I guess I think about last November a little bit… I try not to, but it happens,” said Bombers left guard Travis Bond. “You have to just look at it now like it’s a conference game, it’s the next game on our schedule and it’s a chance for us to move up on the leaderboard.
“We kind of owe them one from last year for knocking it out of the playoffs. You try not to make it personal and we’re just trying to win the game.”
“I don’t think about it at all,” added Clarence Denmark. “You can’t stay stuck in the past. It’s something you think about going into the offseason because it’s your last game. I mean, I didn’t watch any games after that. But you have to let it go.
“This is a fresh start. If you want to talk about last year, that’s a team we also beat twice. But we’ve got to let that go, too.”
That’s the kind of right here, right now approach teams live by in July and August.
Big picture? In the Canadian Football League, revenge is a dish best served in the cold of November.
GAME 4 | BLUE BOMBERS (2-1) vs LIONS (3-1)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. (CDT) Friday, B.C. Place, Vancouver
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; B.C.: 3W.
Vegas line: The Lions are favoured by 9.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 1-0 on the road this season after a season opening win in Saskatchewan on Canada Day; the Lions are 0-1 at home following a loss to Edmonton in their home opener.
Recent history: The Bombers and Lions met three times last season, with the trio of games decided by a grand total of six points. Winnipeg won both regular season games – 37-35 in Winnipeg last October 8th and 35-32 in Vancouver six days later – with the Lions getting their revenge in the West Semi-final, winning 32-31.
Here’s the basic math as it relates to the Bombers and first quarters through the first three games of the ’17 season: They have trailed after the first 15 minutes in all three contests and have been out-scored 23-7. As well, of the 18 two-and-out possessions they’ve had so far this year, a whopping eight have come in the first quarter.
In other words, it doesn’t take a mathematician to see the ugly in those numbers.
So heck yeah, a faster start would be a good thing for the Bombers Friday in Vancouver.
“It’s extremely important,” said Matt Nichols. “It sets the tone for the whole game and you don’t want to get into a habit of always having to claw out of a big deficit. There are nine good teams in this league and the more you let them get in front of you, the harder it is to come back. Every team’s focus is to start fast and it’s a main focus for us.”
And to a man, the Bombers will tell you it has nothing to do with scheme or offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice’s play calling. The first quarter wounds are all self-inflicted, from dropped passes, to an interception, to a missed assignment.
“I think Coach LaPo is the best game planner in the league in my opinion,” said Nichols. “He’s the best coordinator I’ve played for up here and he does a good job of getting us ready. We had plays called that could have got us yardage last week and we blew a couple assignments here and there and those things snowball quickly, especially when you’re playing against a good offence that chewed up a lot of clock. Our possessions were down last week – we only had one possession and they only had one possession in the third quarter. The more games you play where that’s the case, you have to be successful on all your drives. It’s on the players to go out there and execute.”
What’s the old line about it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish? Consider this: in their 2-1 start the Bombers are not only slow out of the gate, they have scored a league-low nine points in the fourth quarter. The Bombers have seen 74 per cent of their scoring come in the second and third quarters, where they are a +20 against their opponents.
A RESPONSE FROM THE FOOT SOLDIERS
It couldn’t have been a fun week in the Bombers kick-cover meetings after they were torched by Martese Jackson of the Toronto Argonauts last week for a punt-return score and a long kickoff return on a night when the diminutive returner piled up 339 yards in return. The Bombers will be facing the dynamic Chris Rainey on Friday and he is arguably the most explosive return man in the CFL.
“We just get back to what we do,” said Bombers special teams coach Paul Boudreau when asked this week what his units do to fix their mistakes. “We do drills every day that put ourselves in situations to fit our scheme. We had a couple of blown assignments that put us in a tough spot when we had a good returner we were going against.
“The guys here, they drink the Kool-Aid. They’ve bought in to what we’re trying to do. Every week you’ve got the possibility of a different lineup so guys do a good job of studying different spots. We try to keep it as simple as possible for them so they can play fast.
“We’ve got some pretty good depth. We’ve got Kyle Knox, Derek Jones, Jesse Briggs and then some of the young guys like (Jovan) Santos-Knox stepping up and getting an opportunity. The more you can do, the better off we’ll be.”
NO MOE… UH-OH?
Already without Ian Wild, the Bombers defensive front took another hit with the news that strong-side linebacker Moe Leggett will be out of the lineup with what the team is calling a ‘lower-body injury.’ The new depth chart lists Robert Porter in Leggett’s spot, but head coach Mike O’Shea said Thursday upon arrival in Vancouver that the club will use a rotation of players in Leggett’s spot. Asked who might be in that rotation, O’Shea grinned and said, ‘We’re going to establish a rotation.’
Leggett’s absence certainly takes a ball-hawk out of the defence. The Bombers top defender last year, he not only tied for the league-lead in interceptions, but has a knack for making the big play in critical moments. With him out of the lineup and, regardless of who lines up in his spot, the Bomber defence now features four CFL rookies in defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, Porter and defensive backs Brandon Alexander and Roc Carmichael.
“He’s trying to work through it… it’s tough for him because I know he’s itching to play,” said O’Shea. “But we’ve got some guys that will step up and fill that spot. It’s very hard to replace a guy like Moe who played as well as he did last year. But when you look back to last year we had a number of guys step up and play really well and help us win a lot of games.
“I firmly believe the depth we’ve established this year will allow us to play well and guys, as I’ve said before, they’re starters and when they step in they believe they are going to get the job done and they have the support of their teammates. These guys work very hard to understand what we want to do and get in there and they don’t want to miss a beat. And their teammates around them don’t want them to miss a beat.”
O’Shea also said that with both Wild and Leggett out, the onus will be even more on Sam Hurl to make sure the defensive communication is finely tuned.
“He understands the importance of that,” said O’Shea of Hurl. “He’s worked well with his communication. I’ve said this a bunch of times about Sammy: he’s a true MAC (middle linebacker) type of leader. He understands that he has to be able to talk to everybody on the field all the time and he’s at that point where he does that quite well.”
- Matt Nichols is now 14-9 as a starter for the Bombers – 12-4 in his last 16 – and 20-16 overall after last week’s win over Toronto. He was 20 of 36 for 228 yards without a TD or an interception, numbers that saw his overall QUAR rating jump slightly to 67.1.
- Travis Lulay is scheduled to make his first start since 2015, but he’s hardly a greenhorn pivot. The CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2011, Lulay is 40-26-0 in his career as a starter and 1-0 this year after coming off the bench in last week’s win over Hamilton. His numbers have him ranked first in the CFL in QUAR at 96.4
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#14 T.J. Thorpe, SB: Everyone has been so excited to see what Thorpe might bring to the offence since the first day he stepped on the field at training camp, but a couple of injuries have delayed his debut. He’s got some size and speed and has drawn comparisons to Arland Bruce. But he’s got to stay on the field in order to even start matching all the hype.
#9 Justin Medlock, K: Mr. Cyborg has hit on all 10 of his field goal attempts this year and is a perfect 28-for-28 in regular season games dating back to last year. The Bombers and Lions offered up three slugfests last year and Medlock’s left leg could be key again. His punting numbers have been solid, too, but that has flown under the radar in his consecutive kick streak.
#23 T.J. Heath, DB: The CFL’s leading thief, Heath has four interceptions this season and now has six picks in 10 games as a Bomber. He’s more comfortable in Richie Hall’s defence now and has receiver hands when the ball is in the air.
#24 Mike Miller, FB: Covering kicks is a truly a team effort, and as we saw last week, when just one player gets bumped from his lane it can create a crease that the talented return men in the CFL can exploit. Miller leads the Bombers with seven special teams tackles and will be part of a crew that will attempt to keep the Lions’ dangerous return man, Chris Rainey, from scorching them the way Toronto’s Martese Jackson did a week ago.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Thursday and there is one big change with LB Maurice Leggett moved to the one-game injured list and replaced by rookie Robert Porter. The two other changes see SB T.J. Thorpe replace L’Damian Washington while new LB Nehemie Kankolongo comes aboard for Jesse Briggs. Leggett and Briggs join DB Kevin Fogg and WR Addison Richards on the one-game injured list.
The Bombers six-game injured list now features DE Tristan Okpalaugo, LB Ian Wild, DB Bruce Johnson and LB Shayne Gauthier.
Bombers safety Taylor Loffler and halfbacks Roc Carmichael and T.J. Heath vs. Lions slotbacks Manny Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham.
B.C. likes to attack the middle of the field with their two talented slots and the Bombers counter with Loffler, the most physical safety in the league, the CFL rookie Carmichael and the league’s interception leader in Heath. The Lions have arguably the most- talented receiving corps in the CFL, as the Lions trot out not only Arceneaux and Bryan Turnham, but also Marco Ianuzzi, newcomer Shaquile Johnson and former Bomber Nick Moore, who is coming off a game in which he posted a career-high 220 yards on 10 catches.
What the Lions receivers do as well as any bunch in the CFL is win those 50-50 jump balls by out-leaping, out-fighting their opponents.
“We just have to be in position,” said Loffler. “They do have a lot of great guys, great quarterbacks. We have to come out there and know our assignments. They’ll make their catches because they are great receivers, but we have to minimize it.”
Loffler also pointed out this, in terms of the Lions consistently winning the 50-50 balls:
“It might be more because they have more height than other teams. Other teams might have one or two bigger guys where pretty much all of (the Lions) receiving corps is tall.”
FYI: Arceneaux and Moore are both 6-2, Iannuzzi stands 6-1 while Johnson is 5-10.
THEY LOVE TO EAT
The Bombers O-line is coming off its best performance of the season after not allowing a sack against the Argos and establishing the line of scrimmage with the work of RB Andrew Harris.
It’s a tradition that whenever the Bombers have a clean sheet along the O-line – no sacks against – that the O-line coach takes them to 529 Wellington to chow down. And if you don’t think that’s a big incentive, you just have to look at the size of these guys.
“Coach Marty (Costello) takes us there and we get whatever we want,” said guard Travis Bond with a grin. “We’ve got big bellies afterwards.
“It was a good performance by us. When you’re in the gameplan you’re not really thinking about the negatives, you’re trying to keep it positive. After the game we’re like, ‘Hey, we didn’t give up any sacks! Here we go, 529.’ It’s one of those things where we’ve got to give praise to the quarterback, the running back and the receivers for making plays downfield because without them making plays it wouldn’t be possible for us.
“I like old-school football, smash-mouth football and running the ball. We still passed the ball well too, but that’s how the game went. We got in a groove running the ball and kept with it. We’ve got to continue with that and carry on this week.”
Weston Dressler has caught at least one pass in 134 consecutive games. He has failed to catch one in a game only twice in his 140-game career – both in the summer of 2008, his first year in the CFL.
Dressler is also off to the best three-game start of his CFL career with 309 yards on 19 catches. His previous best after his club’s first three games was in 2009 (260 yards) in Saskatchewan.
The Lions have won three straight, but haven’t posted a four-game win streak since the summer of 2012 (July 28-August 24). And the last time the club had a four-game streak with two different quarterbacks at the controls was 2007. The two QBs during that run? Dave Dickenson, now the head coach of the Calgary Stampeders, and Buck Pierce, the Bombers QB coach.
Winnipeg has rushed for 96 and 91 yards in their two wins this year and just 48 in its loss to Calgary. In the last three weeks across the CFL the team with the most rushing yards has a 9-2 record.
The Bombers have announced that all proceeds from the online 50/50 sales this week will be donated to B.C. wildfire relief. Bombers fans can now purchase 50/50 tickets before every game, home and away.
For details, visit here: https://www.fundingchange.ca/bombers/WUk0cDqPigTSeGnc