Matt Nichols (15) and Weston Dressler (7) during the game at New Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK, Saturday, July 1st, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
TORONTO – They are trained to react this way, to shake off the mental image and physical pain of a teammate lost, to get back to work and soldier on as usual.
And to their credit, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had their collective heads down and punched the clock in workmanlike fashion all week in the wake of losing two key pieces in receiver Darvin Adams and linebacker Maurice Leggett – those two season-ending injuries coming just a few weeks after the loss of defensive end Jamaal Westerman.
But the most important signs, those that really matter, come Saturday afternoon here in The Big Smoke, when the Bombers get back to business – minus three key figures – against the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field.
“You can never replace a Moe Leggett or a Darvin Adams,” began Andrew Harris while addressing the media at the team’s downtown hotel. “One, for their play. Two, for their attitude and their voice and just their overall attitude for the team. It’s hard to overcome that. I think we have great leaders on this team that pick up the slack and the guys stepping in these roles for them are very capable athletes as well.
“This is the next-man-up type of business and guys need to step up right now.”
The two men directly under the spotlight tomorrow will be Kevin Fogg, who steps into the starting lineup for Leggett and Chris Givens, who comes aboard for Adams. The Bombers are also bolstered by the return from injury of vets like Weston Dressler and Ian Wild, but replacing two huge playmakers doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of two men.
Still, Matt Nichols said the mental makeup is strong and what he saw at practice this week has him convinced the Bombers will be able to move on against the Argos.
“When you have a couple of guys go down like we did, especially of that caliber and leadership guys, the team can handle it one of two ways,” said Matt Nichols. “Everyone was ready to take more responsibility on their shoulders. Guys that haven’t been asked to do a lot this year are now going to have to do a lot more and I think the guys are excited for this opportunity. We’re going to see what some of our young guys are made of and I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do.”
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has liked what he’s seen from his troops this week, too. That included Adams being back at practice, his arm in a sling, still firing up his squad with his usual chatter.
“They stepped on the field at practice and it was business as usual,” said O’Shea. “They went out there, they practised hard, they had fun. The same sort of camaraderie was going on and in certain situations where you would have noticed a guy’s absence, somebody else filled that role.
“You look at Darvin hanging around the practice field… it just took him one day and he was back egging guys on in his usual way. Besides the couple faces not there on the field, the practice, the tempo and the feel was the same.”
Again though, what happens at practice on a Wednesday can be light years away from what transpires when the ball is put on the tee for real on game day.
“This is part of our business,” Harris added. “You can’t get too high or too low or too down when things don’t go your way or you lose great athletes or all stars.
“Moe Leggett had a chance to step in when someone went down and look what he did. Darvin Adams had a chance to fill in for someone and to become the player he is. This gives guys an opportunity to come out of their shell and make plays for us. You’ve just got to rise above and overcome it.”
GAME 16 | BLUE BOMBERS (11-4) at ARGONAUTS (7-9)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. CT, BMO FIELD, TORONTO
TV: TSN, RDS
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; Toronto: 2L
Vegas line: The Argos are favoured by 1.5 points.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 5-2 on the road this year, second best in the CFL to Calgary, which is 6-1-1 away from home. The Argos are 5-3 at home, but lost their last game at BMO Field in a 27-24 setback to Saskatchewan.
Recent history: The Bombers are on a three-game winning streak against the Argos this year, winning 33-25 in Winnipeg back on July 13th and twice last season.
Game day weather forecast: Environment Canada forecast for Toronto: A mix of sun and cloud with a high of 22.
NEXT MAN UP
So, just how do the Bombers replace a 1,000-yard receiver like Darvin Adams and a ball-hawking, playmaking defender like Maurice Leggett?
You don’t, really. But what the club has preached in the last year and a bit – 21-7 stretch since the 1-4 start early last season – is that everyone on the roster is a potential starter. It’s cliché, perhaps, but the Bombers hold it up in their locker room as if it’s a commandment.
That will be critical Saturday in a game in which the Bombers will be without Leggett, Adams and Jamaal Westerman, who was injured in the Banjo Bowl and is also lost for the season.
“We know through the course of the season you’re going to lose some guys,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall earlier in the week. “That’s just the reality: we know we’re not going to be the same at the beginning of the year as you are at the end of the year. If you are, you’re very lucky.”
What makes Leggett’s loss crushing is this: not only is he one of the best defensive playmakers in the CFL, he plays the difficult outside linebacker spot that is the most demanding on the defensive side of the ball.
“It’s a big loss. He’s an integral part of our defence,” Hall admitted. “He’s at that dime position, which is a playmaking position and he’s made plays the whole time that I’ve been here. We ask him to be a linebacker, we ask him to be a DB, a blitzer, a good tackler, a free safety, a communicator… so there’s lots of intangibles there. It’s a position where you can make a lot of plays, but at the same time, a lot is asked of you because you’re the adjuster, you’re in the middle of everything. He’s done a great job.
“But at the same time, we lost him earlier in the year and it’s next man up. The thing I like about our football team is we have good depth. People that didn’t have a name always make a name for themselves. The bottom line is whatever group of guys we have in that locker room, that’s what it’s going to take for us to get to Ottawa in November.”
Meanwhile on offence, the Bombers started last week with Darvin Adams at wide receiver, with Julian Feoli-Gudino moved inside to slotback and with L’Damian Washington making his first start since July. By game’s end Adams was gonzo with his injury and all the changes, plus the defensive gameplan the Lions used limited the effecitiveness of the attack, held to just 214 net yards – the lowest since 2015.
Matt Nichols will have Weston Dressler back this week, but Chris Givens will make his CFL debut. The Bombers QB was asked about ‘receiver-quarterback’ chemistry this week, but implied he’d rather have players simply be where they’re supposed to be rather than worry about an immeasurable like chemistry.
“I don’t know about the whole chemistry thing,” he said. “There’s certain things where a guy like Weston can break a route off in a way that’s not designed or talked about and we’re both on the same page. That’s kind of a rare thing. Overall, if you’ve got a guy out there that can do it then you’re going to have chemistry right away. I fully expect that with all of our guys that line up out there we’re going to be on the same page and move the ball and put up points.
“As far as having a guy go out there and run the routes that are called… you either have the ability or you don’t and we feel like we have the guys that have that ability here.”
SJ AND RICKY
The CFL doesn’t have a ‘Comeback Player of the Year Award’, but if it did, Argos receiver S.J. Green would be an absolute lock. Green blew out his knee in Week 2 of last year, and now 32, there were whispers his career was kaput. The Montreal Alouettes traded him to Toronto in April for the equivalent of a crate of used jockstraps – actually, a sixth-round choice in the 2017 draft and a conditional pick in 2018 – but Green has rebounded spectacularly this year.
A physical force at 6-3, 218, Green is a beast in traffic, savvy enough to find holes in defences and still with the quickness to get behind them, too.
“He’s a big guy, one of the top receivers we’ll play this year,” said Bombers safety Taylor Loffler. “We’ll have to work to shut him down and try and stop him from the deep balls and those jump balls.”
Couple that with the experience quarterback Ricky Ray brings at age 37, and the Argos have an outstanding combo that can be an absolute nightmare for defences.
Ray needs just 218 passing yards to hit 5,000 for the fourth time in his illustrious career – and first time since 2008 – and only 335 to hit the 60K mark.
“The biggest thing I see watching film is (Green) and Ricky Ray have a great chemistry,” added Loffler. “Ray knows where he’s going to be, he puts the ball on a spot and he knows S.J. is going to get there. We have to work on being able to get to those spots before he gets there.
“He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he puts the ball in spots where only the receiver can catch it and away from the DBs.”
THE HARRIS 1K-1K WATCH
The Lions did an excellent job of defending Andrew Harris last week, limiting him to less than four yards per touch. But the Winnipeg product still has a legit shot at becoming the first player in CFL history to finish a season with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. With three games remaining Harris has 871 rushing yards and 816 receiving yards, meaning he would need to average 43 along the ground and 61.3 through the air to make CFL history.
Robert Drummond of the 1997 Toronto Argonauts was the closest to that goal previously, rushing for 1,134 yards and finishing with 840 through the air.
There’s more…. With 94 receptions Harris is also chasing the CFL record for most receptions by a running back – 102, set by Saskatchewan’s Craig Ellis in 1987.
And if he should crack the century mark, he would become just the fifth Bombers player to do so after Eugene Goodlow (100 in 1981), James Murphy (116 in 1986), Gerald Wilcox (111 in 1994) and Milt Stegall (106 in 2002).
- Matt Nichols starts for the Bombers and is now 21-7 since taking the No. 1 QB chores late last July. Nichols is the CFL’s top-rated quarterback (86.3) and has thrown for 4,174 yards with 28 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
- The Argos counter with Ricky Ray, the future hall of famer. He has thrown for 4,782 yards, second only to Edmonton’s Mike Reilly (4,855).
Nichols and Ray have a history, of course. Nichols joined Ray and the Edmonton Eskimos in 2010 and spent over a year around the hall of famer before the trade that sent Ray to Toronto. They are also from the same area in Northern California; Nichols from Cottonwood, Ray from Redding.
They also crossed paths this winter, when Nichols joined Ray for a workout.
“I thought we were going out to play a little bit of catch and he put me through about an hour’s worth of footwork drills and had me breathing pretty hard,” said Nichols with a grin. “I knew he was on a mission this year. I think it’s shown up. His fire seems back this year… sometimes you just need a little bit of a changeup and I think the changeup here (with the new coaching staff) has been good for him and he’s playing some good football right now.”
The Bombers 46-man roster for Saturday’s game features four changes. Receiver Weston Dressler and LB Ian Wild return to the lineup, SB Chris Givens makes his CFL debut and DB Robert Porter has been added. Moved to the injured list were WR Darvin Adams, LB Maurice Leggett, while DB Kahlen Branning and WR Ryan Lankford come off the roster.
With Lankford off, Givens and Kevin Fogg will handle the kick-return chores. Givens, incidentally, worked with Bombers special teams coordinator Paul Boudreau when the two were with the St. Louis Rams.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#81 Chris Givens, receiver: The former St. Louis Rams draft pick – Christopher during the week, ‘C.G.’ on game day – brings a ton of NFL experience and will line up at slotback. With Darvin Adams down, the club is looking for the new face to become an immediate impact player.
#38 Ian Wild, linebacker: Wild comes off the injured list and suits up for the first time since injuring his hand in Week 2. He said this week he hopes to knock some rust off, but the Bombers need his veteran voice to help augment the loss of Maurice Leggett.
#3 Kevin Fogg, linebacker/defensive back/returner: He’s slotted in to Leggett’s spot at the SAM – outside – linebacker spot and will also see his kick-return workload increase with Ryan Lankford out this week.
#7 Weston Dressler, receiver: There will be no surprises with what Dressler brings to the field. He’s experienced, he’s savvy, he still catches everything. But the ‘X Factor’ there is what he might be able to do to help the offence find its mojo again after a couple of so-so performances.
Bombers running back Andrew Harris vs. Argos linebacker Bear Woods.
The Lions did an effective job in limiting the damage of Harris last week with a variety of defensive looks when he was carrying the ball or pulling it in as a receiver. Woods expects to draw a similar defensive assignment against Harris.
“He’s a great linebacker, physical guy, a guy who tracks well,” said Harris of Woods. “He’s probably one of the hardest hitters in the league, for sure.”
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
The CFL released its weekly playoff scenarios earlier this week. Here’s how they relate to the Bombers in their quest to lock up a home playoff game:
- Calgary win or Winnipeg loss = Calgary clinches first place and hosts the West Division Final on November 19th.
- Winnipeg win or Edmonton loss = Winnipeg clinches a home playoff date.
The Bombers issued the following statement Friday morning:
“It is with heavy hearts that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers learned Thursday of National Scout Craig Smith’s diagnosis of Acute Leukemia. Craig begins treatment today, and has our entire organization behind him. Craig has issued the below statement:
“In this very difficult time, the outpouring of support from the Bomber and CFL families has been nothing short of astonishing. The messages from friends and members of the football community have shown that if anything, my wife Cathy and I are surrounded by a network of incredible people giving us strength through their notes and well wishes. We’d like to thank everyone who has already reached out, and I hope to be back on the field soon, stronger than ever. Go Bombers!”
With just 22 rushing yards Saturday Andrew Harris would move past Willie Fleming into 24th spot on the CFL’s all-time list (6,125) Harris is also with 130 yards of the next six players on that list, including Willie Burden at the 19th spot.
- Matt Nichols is 4-0 all time in starts against Toronto; Ricky Ray is 13-11 in his 20 career starts against the Bombers.
- A Bomber win Saturday would give them 12 on the season and would mark the first time since 2002 they have reach the dozen-victory mark.
- The Bombers averaged 307 passing yards over their first 12 games but just 232 in their last three games. In last week’s win over B.C. they had just seven first downs through the air, their lowest total of 2017.