Jamaal Westerman (55) before the Labour Day game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK. Sunday, September 4, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
HAMILTON – It’s been the same message from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers all week. Play. Rewind. Repeat. Play. Rewind. Repeat…
No, the Bombers will not take the Hamilton Tiger-Cats lightly, even if they are an 0-6 squad undergoing one of those in-season makeovers that reminds everyone of, oh, the Bombers circa four-five years ago.
They’ve dumped their defensive coordinator, Jeff Reinebold. They’ve parachuted in long-time NFL/NCAA coach, June Jones, as the new assistant head coach, praying he can help breathe some life into the offence.
And the roster is undergoing such a turnover, rumour has it the training staff will dump using name bars on the backs of jerseys for scribbling names on strips of masking tape and slapping them to the front of helmets.
But no sir, no way, are the Bombers already chalking up win No. 5. And no sir, no way, are they looking ahead to next week’s home date against the unbeaten Edmonton Eskimos.
“I didn’t even know we played Edmonton next week,” stated Matt Nichols during Friday’s media availability at Tim Hortons Field. “I’m solely focused on this game and trying to keep pace with the West opponents. Every game is extremely important right now.”
Still, we asked Jamaal Westerman: isn’t it simply human nature to take an 0-6 squad in this much turmoil for granted?
“Not at all, not with the games we’ve played this year,” said Westerman. “It’s not like we’ve been stomping teams out 60-5 or 60-10 or something like that. We’ve been in tight games and basically, if you watch a Bomber game, tune in the last five minutes to see what happens. We’ve been in those types of games all year. We know with our record right now we could be like they are.”
And maybe that’s really what the angle is here, at least from a Bombers perspective: As much as everyone has spent the last few days fixating on the winless Ticats and how this could be a trap game for the visitors, perhaps we’ll learn just as much about the guys in the blue and gold Saturday night.
These are games that – even playing the respect card – a team like the Bombers need to finish, not just to keep pace with the crazy race already unfolding in the West Division, but to really establish themselves as contenders.
There’s also this: a desperate team can be a dangerous team. And Nichols, in a chat with bluebombers.com earlier in the week, emphasized that point perfectly.
“In this business, even if a team gets to 0-11 and they have no chance at the playoffs, they’re playing for their jobs and how they feed their families,” said Nichols. “In high school if you’re 0-9 you can go into Week 10 and just lay down and it’s ‘Who cares?’ Not at this level.”
“Guys play their hardest at every single snap because they know their livelihood is on the line. That’s why you have to be wary.”
Westerman, on the other hand, countered that when asked about that ‘desperate’ dynamic. And he used Bruce Johnson, released Thursday by the club, as a reference point.
“I loved playing with Bruce,” he said. “I mean, we’re on a winning team and Bruce is not with us anymore. So no matter if you’re on a winless team or a team that has a ton of wins or if you’re in the middle of the pack, everyone is fighting for their jobs; everyone is always fighting for that opportunity to play and there’s always guys coming and going.
“Whatever opportunity you have to play, you can’t take it for granted because as we’ve seen this week… (Johnson) was a very good player for us and was a guy who helped a lot of young guys just watching them practice over the last six weeks. He helped them mature by talking to them, teaching them little tricks of the trade that he’s picked up over these last three years and he’s no longer on our team any more, so that’s kind of tough.
“That’s the type of thing you think about. Listen: No matter how good it’s going or how bad it’s going, when you have your opportunities you have to make the best of it because you never know what’s going to happen.”
GAME 4 | BLUE BOMBERS (4-2) vs TIGER-CATS (0-6)
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. (CDT) Saturday, Tim Hortons Field, Hamilton
Streaks: Winnipeg: 2W; Hamilton: 6L.
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 2.5 points.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 2-1 on the road this season; the Ticats are 0-2 at home and, including last November’s playoff game, have dropped seven straight at home.
Recent history: The Bombers won both games last year, winning 28-24 in Hamilton back on July 7th and 37-11 on August 3rd in Winnipeg. Worth noting: Ticats starter Zach Collaros was on the injured list for both those contests.
The Bombers owned the CFL’s best road record last season at 7-2 and, with a 2-1 record away from home this year – the lone blemish being the blown-lead loss in Vancouver – are 9-3 dating back to last season.
Winnipeg is in a stretch where they will play just one home game over a period from last week’s win in Ottawa through Labour Day in Regina – next Thursday’s date at Investors Group Field with the Edmonton Eskimos.
“I don’t know what I would say is the reason for that, but I feel like we just have a group of guys who understand it’s hard to win on the road,” said Nichols. “We focus in and lean on each other when you’ve got 20-30,000 people rooting against you. And silencing 30,000 is almost as good a sound as hearing your home crowd cheer for you. That’s an addictive feeling and we look forward to trying to do it again.”
A DEFENSIVE TURNAROUND?
It started out inauspiciously last week, as Ottawa marched the length of the field on their first possession and took an 8-0 lead before the Bombers offence had even stepped on the field. And yet, there were some signs of progress from the defence after the first quarter in last week’s 33-30 victory.
“We started to settle down and made our adjustments. It was, ‘If they speed up the pace this is what we’re going to do.’ It was just talking and don’t scramble and that’s what we did,” said linebacker Maurice Leggett.
“With me being out, that’s a big gap in terms of a veteran presence being out and new guys coming in. You have two rookies in the field (side) and you have to have someone to help them out. It’s not that they’re not capable of it, it’s just the experience that goes along with it.
“We’re different. We’re still learning. The guys that have been here before know each other well. But we have two guys out there on the field that we still need to learn how they play. We’re trying to plug in the pieces and get a bond.”
Veteran cornerback Chris Randle concurred. As much as many have fixated on the offensive continuity, it arguably has an even bigger impact on defence.
“Chemistry… experience… knowing how to play off each other and with each other is huge,” said Randle. “It heightens your awareness and your instincts and your ability to react is faster when you have that continuity or experience. We have to build on that and have that grow.
“We definitely had our moments but… they still had 30 points, they still scored a touchdown on a long run. It wasn’t a complete game, but we did have some good stretches of consistency.”
New Ticats defensive coordinator Phillip Lolley told Hamilton media earlier in the week he hoped to simplify the defence in the wake of Jeff Reinebold’s dismissal. And the decision to bring in June Jones to help with the offence offers another potential wrinkle: Jones is a disciple of the run-and-shoot attack, although that’s hardly a new look for defensive coordinators.
“They’re going to run their offence,” said Westerman. “With June Jones coming in they may add little things here and there, but they’re not going to install an entirely new offence in a couple weeks. He’s been a head coach different places, probably invented the run-and-shoot and has been successful at it so you know they’re going to add elements to it. But you can’t gameplan for things you haven’t seen them do. You don’t want to be out there chasing ghosts because maybe a coach ran the triple option 10 years ago at Navy or something like that.
“You focus on what they do, focus on your personnel and try to play the soundest game you can play. Hopefully your scheme and if you do the right technique you can handle everything they do.”
- Matt Nichols is now 22-17 in his CFL career as a starter – and 14-5 in his last 19 with the Bombers – after last week’s win in Ottawa. He has thrown for 1,757 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions this year and has QUAR rating of 80.4.
- Hamilton’s Zach Collaros will make his 50th career CFL start. He is 24-25 overall and a perfect 3-0 lifetime against Winnipeg. He has thrown for 1,425 yards with six TDs and six interceptions and has a 43.8 QUAR rating, lowest in the CFL. That said, he is also coming off his best game of the season as he threw for three TDs and 282 yards in last week’s loss to Edmonton.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#20 Timothy Flanders, RB: Made his 2017 debut last week, giving the Bombers an intriguing combination in the backfield. Flanders had three rushes for 40 yards and was targeted once as a receiver, but it will be interesting to see how often he and Andrew Harris are actually on the field together.
“There’s only so many first-and-10 and maybe second-and-short scenarios where the two tailbacks are in the game and you can utilize them,” said Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. “Andrew could get more carries in the course of the game, so it’s sometimes hard for two tailbacks. Timothy is such a good player and we want to get him on the roster and keep teaching him new things so he can do some new things within the system.”
#2 Kevin Fogg, DB, PR: He’s gradually working back into form after missing a chunk of the season on the injured list. He’ll dress as the extra defensive back, but could make his biggest impact in the return game. He’s only returned 10 punts so far, but has the second-highest average in the league at 12.6 yards per return (Calgary’s Roy Finch is first at 17.7).
#83 Julian Feoli-Gudino, WR: Posted very solid numbers last week – six catches for 73 yards – and is proving that the wide-side wide receiver doesn’t have to be a forgotten element in the Bombers attack. Continues to gain the trust of Matt Nichols.
#84 Ryan Lankford, WR/KR: Need look no further than his 79-yard TD on the Bombers first play from scrimmage last week. Weston Dressler is a future hall of famer, but Lankford’s speed has added a different dynamic to the Bombers offence.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Friday and there are two changes with DB Abu Conteh and LB Shayne Gauthier coming aboard with DB/LB Brandon Alexander moved to the one-game injured list and LB Frank Renaud added to the practice roster.
The roster news came Thursday with the release of veteran DB Bruce Johnson. Asked if Johnson’s release felt like losing a family member, Jamaal Westerman said:
“It does, man. He was a great guy in the locker room. Hard worker, a very god player for us. I wouldn’t be surprised if next week he’s on another team. He’s too good to be at home. Even this week when he got to practice he was making plays. It’s tough losing him. We understand and I think he understands that it’s part of the business. It’s part of the business that everybody hates. I wish him the best of luck.”
For all the turmoil on defence for the Ticats, the one constant remains this: Chick and Capicotti can still bring it off the edge. Matt Nichols isn’t the type to take off and run all that often, and so if the Bombers veteran tackles can help keep him comfy in the pocket, he may be able to exploit a Ticat defence that is surrendering a league-worst 382.2 yards passing per game.
THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
It sounds like former Bombers head coach Jeff Reinebold, dumped this week by the Ticats as defensive coordinator, will be taking up an offer to remain with the club in another capacity.
Reinebold was replaced by linebackers coach Phillip Lolley and on the NFL-themed podcast he co-hosts for SkySports said he spoke to current Toronto head coach Marc Trestman and former NFL head coach Jerry Glanville about whether to stay on or not. He also lashed out about the lack of loyalty from some on the Ticats coaching staff.
“When you go through these things you find out a tremendous amount about loyalty,” said Reinebold. “You wonder why guys don’t take jobs unless they have only their guys in place with them? For reasons like this (he didn’t have the final say in the defensive assistants hired). When it gets tough, and it always gets tough, if the guys are bound together you can weather it better than when guys are starting to feel like, ‘Oh my God, the ship’s sinking and I better see how I can get on one of the lifeboats.’”
THIS JUST IN… #33 IS GOOD
Some Andrew Harris related numbers courtesy CFL status guru Steve Daniel:
- Harris has 40 receptions in the first six games this year and that average has him on pace for 120 – which would break the CFL record for catches by a running back (Craig Ellis had 102 in 1985).
- Harris had 67 catches last year as a Bomber and has recorded 50-plus receptions in four of his seven CFL seasons, with a career high of 75 in 2012 while with the B.C. Lions.
- Harris has moved into 35th on the CFL’s all-time rushing list at 5,516 yards and needs just 13 more to pass former Bomber Dave Raimey (5,528 yards) and move into 34th spot. With another 39 yards he’ll moved past Bombers legend Gerry James (5,554 yards) into 33rd spot.
- In their two wins over the Ticats last year the Bombers had a +10 turnover ratio, forcing 12 Hamilton mistakes while committing just two of their own.
- The Ticats are the 18th team in CFL history to start a season 0-6. Only one team has managed to overcome a start like that and still make the playoffs – the 1969 B.C. Lions finished 5-11 and qualified for the postseason. Worth noting: that was well before the CFL’s crossover playoff format came into effect in 1996.
- Matt Nichols has now engineered three fourth-quarter game-winning drives this season and eight in his last 15 starts. Over that stretch the Bombers are 10-5.
- Hamilton’s Zach Collaros has lost his last 10 starts.