They are the expected talking points that surround a team off to a comme çi, comme ça start and which has both teased and disappointed through the first month of the Canadian Football League season.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are 2-2 heading into Thursday’s home date with the Montreal Alouettes, and under the microscope for any number of reasons, not the least of which are a botched fake-punt attempt last week, a defence that is getting lit up for ‘explosion’ plays, and an offence that looks unstoppable in one quarter and then has all the ferocity of a crawling baby in the next.
But the grumbling about a 2-2 start also speaks of how expectations have changed dramatically in these parts – both in a town desperate for a championship and in a clubhouse seeking the same.
“Earlier in my career here, at 2-2 everybody would have been, ‘Yaaaaay!!’” began Jamaal Westerman after Wednesday’s walk-through practice. “Now our expectations are higher.
“We took a step last year, but we also know more of the core guys have now been there and felt it and also know how we got on a run last year but that it can also be the complete opposite, that you can go on a… what’s the opposite of a run?”
Told that it’s amusing that he won’t say what the ‘opposite of a run’ is out loud, Westerman grins.
“I can’t say it. I just know it ain’t good.
“Just know that we take heed of that,” he added. “We know you have to bring your best to every practice, every game, because you don’t want to fall into that other category and compound things.
“We want to go on that run now like last year. We want to be that team that is hitting its stride, is extremely focused and is finishing games.”
The Bombers are now entering a stretch of games that, on paper, look winnable but are scary ‘trap’ games. The Als are 2-3, but feature a physical defence that comes at offences from all over the field. Next week, the club is in Ottawa to face the defending Grey Cup champs, off to a 1-4-1 start, but who will be well-rested after playing four games in 17 days after 12 days between starts.
They are then on the road again to face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before returning home to face the Edmonton Eskimos.
“You see the potential of what we can be through our first four games, especially if we can play a full 60 minutes,” said guard Sukh Chungh. “We do certain things well, we learn from certain things… but it’s time to start limiting those mistakes or those penalties, mental errors or whatever it is that is holding us back from growing to that potential.”
“We like the positive things we’re seeing, but realize there’s a lot more we want to be happy about out there,” added Sam Hurl. “There’s a general feeling of confidence, but we want to clean some things up.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but it’s early still and we’ve just got make sure we’re sharp on our assignments. It’s being where we need to be when we need to be there.”
That’s a good final thought: being where they need to be when they need to be there. Yes, it’s only July, but in the uber-competitive West Division, a team can also only tread water for so long before it starts to sink back from the rest of the pack.
GAME 5 | ALOUETTES (2-3) at BLUE BOMBERS (2-2)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Investors Group Field
Streaks: Montreal: 1L; Winnipeg: 1L.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 4.5.
Radio: CJOB 680
TV: TSN, RDS, ESPN 2
Home/Road: The Bombers are 1-1 at home this season, dropping their home opener to Calgary but rebounding to knock off Toronto on July 13th. The Als are 0-2 on the road in 2017, with losses in Edmonton and last week in Ottawa.
Recent history: The Bombers and Alouettes split their season series last year with Montreal spoiling Winnipeg’s home opener last June 24th and then the visitors countering with a victory in Quebec in August. Interestingly, the two quarterbacks in last year’s home opener were Drew Willy for the Bombers – now with the Alouettes – and Kevin Glenn for the Als, who was later traded to Winnipeg and is now the starter in Saskatchewan.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Wednesday and there is one change, with DB Kevin Fogg replacing Robert Porter. LB Maurice Leggett remains on the one-game injured list along with LB Jesse Briggs and WR Addison Richards, while the six-game injured list features DE Tristan Okpalaugo, LB Ian Wild, DB Bruce Johnson and LB Shayne Gauthier.
SPUTTERING STARTS AND BETTER FINISHES
It’s a storyline the Bombers are already getting weary of talking about, but remains oh-so pertinent: Winnipeg has been outscored 32-14 in first quarters and 42-9 in fourth quarters. What they’ve done in the second and third has been impressive, but falling behind and not finishing games have been an early-season blemish this bunch has to clean up ASAP.
“It just comes down to executing and making sure we’re making plays early in the game,” said Matt Nichols. “It’s not rocket science, it’s go out and execute the game plan and things take care of themselves. Some of that tends to happen early in the season… it’s not just us, it’s happening across the league. There isn’t a lot of big scores in first quarters this year. That will probably start changing as the season goes on. Us an offence, we’re not going to change anything we’ve been doing; we’re going to execute the gameplan and try moving the ball a little better in the first quarter.
“I felt like last week, obviously, we would have liked to have done some better things in the fourth quarter. But late in the game against Toronto we put together some great drives… it’s not like it’s some epidemic. It was a game last week where we could have done a little better on first down and gave ourselves better opportunities, but the guys on the other side of the ball get paid to play, too.
“We’re four games into the season. We have a long way to go, so we’re going to continue to get better.
The Bombers speak often of limiting ‘explosion plays’ – those moments in a game where the defence surrenders large chunks of real estate. But with five CFL rookies starting on defence – Cory Johnson and Jackson Jeffcoat on the D-line, Brandon Alexander at linebacker and Roc Carmichael and Brian Walker in the secondary – they have been susceptible to being torched through the early part of the season.
Teams continue to throw away from veterans T.J. Heath and Chris Randle and will keep attacking the one side of the defence until things change.
“Explosion plays are going to happen,” said Bombers defensive coordintoar Richie Hall. “A lot of times it’s when they happen and how they happen. When I look at the explosion plays we gave up (against B.C.), what kind of disturbs me is we had five plays of over 20 yards and one was a check-down to (Chris) Rainey and we just needed to rally up and make the tackle and all of a sudden he goes for 40 yards. The ones over the top, those are going to happen. But the shallow ones when they took a five yarder and made it 20 yards, and made it 15 yards… those are the ones that are disturbing because we’ve got to be more disciplined in our zones and tackle in the open field.”
DD STILL DOUBLE DANGEROUS
The Alouettes got veteran pivot Darian Durant for a song in a January deal with the Saskatchewan Roughriders – a fourth-round draft choice in 2017 and a conditional pick in 2018 – and he’s brought some much-needed stability to the position.
Durant has been playing with a passion/anger in Alouette colours – emotions that have seemingly helped and hindered his game. Example: he has six passing touchdowns but also six picks this year, some of them coming while forcing throws. He can still be a dangerous runner, too – although he picks his spots more infrequently – as he has rushed 12 times this year for 69 yards for a 5.8-yard average.
“I’m still getting used to him in a different coloured jersey,” said Hall. “He looks better now. I know he’s healthy and when you look at him he looks like he’s lost 10 or 15 pounds. He’s always been strong and he’s playing with a lot of confidence so we’ve got our work cut out for us.
“He’s got an edge about him playing right now just because of what happened a year ago and stuff like that. It’s a motivation for him and a fresh start. But he’s been Darian. He doesn’t run as often, but he still can beat you with his legs and that makes him a double threat which we have to be very concerned about.
“The thing with Darian is even though he’s small (5-11, 214) he’s very strong. He’s very hard to bring down and so our guys can’t just assume that they’re going to go in there and just kind of hit him. When I look at quarterbacks that run the football that are very hard to bring down, I look at him and I look at Mike Reilly in Edmonton. You’ve got to work to bring them down.”
- Matt Nichols is now 14-10 as a starter for the Bombers and 12-5 in his last 17 after last week’s loss in Vancouver. He was 28 of 36 for 254 yards with three touchdowns and one interception – while running for another – numbers that saw his overall QUAR rating jump slightly to 70.5.
- Montreal’s Darian Durant is 2-3 as an Alouette and 60-57-1 in his career, including his years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That mark includes an 11-5 career mark against the Bombers. The 34-year-old pivot completed 35 of 45 for 452 yards with two TDs and two picks in last week’s loss to Ottawa and has a QUAR of 75.1.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#1 Darvin Adams, WR: He’s coming off his best game of the ’17 season – five catches for 87 yards and two TDs – and the Bombers need their home-run threat to continue to stretch defences vertically.
#50 Kyle Knox, LB: Has flashed his athleticism while replacing the injured Ian Wild, especially on the lateral he took from Jake Thomas following an interception last week that saw him sprint down the sidelines for a touchdown. He’s looking more and more comfortable playing the weak-side linebacker spot.
#22 Brian Walker, CB: Will make his second straight start at corner. His side of the secondary, including Roc Carmichael, was picked on a week ago by B.C. QB Travis Lulay but Walker also showcased his speed and physical play. He can expect to be picked on again by another veteran pivot in Durant.
#3 Kevin Fogg, DB/KR: Fogg returns to the lineup after suffering an early-season injury and will be a welcome addition to the pass defence and, if he gets the chance, as a punt returner. Ryan Lankford has done a solid job in the kick-return department – his 550 yards on kickoffs is first in the CFL – but Fogg is a dynamic punt returner.
Bombers defensive halfbacks T.J. Heath and Roc Carmichael vs. Alouettes slotbacks Nik Lewis and B.J. Cunningham.
The Alouettes slotbacks offer an intringuing mix: ‘Thick Nik’ Lewis is more of a tight-end type who uses his veteran savvy to find holes in defence and then bulldozes over would-be tacklers for extra yards. And Cunningham leads the Als (8th overall) with 366 yards on 20 catches – including at least one 30-yard reception in each of Montreal’s five games.
The Bombers counter with Heath, the CFL’s interception leader, and Carmichael, who has a size-large bullseye on his back right now.
Lewis hit the 1,000 career-catch mark last week and is now just four catches shy of moving past Terry Vaughn into third place on the all-time list. He is now at 1,003 receptions, shy of just Geroy Simon (1,029), Ben Cahoon (1,017) and Vaughn (1,006).
- Matt Nichols took the Bombers on a seven-game win streak after being handed the starting QB chores late last July. Since then the Bombers are 5-5.
Asked to grade his play through four games this year, he said: “We’re 2-2… I base it off wins and losses. We’ve won two games and it’s my job to lead this team to more wins. That’s all I’m focused on. I don’t care about grades and stats or whatever else you want to say. I want to win football games.”
- Bombers RB Andrew Harris had 12 receptions last week and now has 28 this season for an average of seven catches per game. And while it’s early and that is a gaudy number to imagine him continuing, it’s worth noting it is a record receptions pace for a CFL running back. Here’s a list of the most receptions by a RB in CFL history:
Interestingly, Harris had just six rushing attempts last week, his lowest total as a Bomber.
- Justin Medlock’s consecutive field goal streak ended last week at 28 and ranked as the fourth-longest in CFL history, behind Calgary’s Rene Paredes (streaks of 39 and 32 and B.C.’s Paul McCallum, who hit 30 straight).
- There have been only 81 sacks in 21 CFL games so far this season, an average of 3.95 per game and the second-lowest since the sack stat became official in 1980.
THE COACH SAYS:
“There’s always a benefit in (coming off a short week). You come off a tough loss, a game you feel you should have won and you’re able to get right back at it and focus on the task at hand, which is Montreal. I think the guys have moved on very quickly to the prep for Montreal. You have to, because they’re a good football team and a very physical team and if you’re not executing at a high level and you haven’t watched enough film or prepared your body enough, it’s going to hurt.” – Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.