GAME 1 | WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS at B.C. LIONS
Kickoff: 9 p.m. Saturday, B.C. Place, Vancouver
TV: TSN 1/3/4, ESPN2
Radio: 680 CJOB
Vegas line: The Lions are favoured by two points.
Preseason: Winnipeg: 2-0; B.C.: 1-1
Home/Road: The Bombers were 4-5 on the road in the regular season last year; the Lions were 7-2 at home.
Recent history: The Bombers finished the preseason with wins over Edmonton and Saskatchewan and, for what it’s worth, that was the first time since 1995 the club has finished perfect in its dress rehearsals. The Bombers and Lions split their 2018 season series, with Winnipeg winning at IG Field 41-19 on July 7th, and then falling 20-17 a week later in Vancouver.
Series (since 1954): Winnipeg leads with a record of 90-80-2 vs B.C.
CONTINUITY vs. THE MAKEOVER
While the rest of the CFL league were making splashy bold moves this offseason, the Bombers were more or less painting with beiges and other neutral tones. Sure, the club added a pair of mega names with the likes of defensive end Willie Jefferson and receiver Chris Matthews, but those moves paled in comparison to the makeovers in other markets… like Vancouver.
The Lions said farewell to Wally Buono, who has been a fixture on CFL sidelines for decades, and welcomed in new head coach DeVone Claybrooks, the ex-Calgary Stampeders defensive coordinator. And while Mike O’Shea’s staff remained exactly the same here in Winnipeg, Claybrooks cut a wide swath through his coaching offices.
The changes didn’t stop there, as GM Ed Hervey continued to reshape the Lions in his image. The biggest prize was landing QB Mike Reilly, who heads back to Vancouver after six years in Edmonton. But Hervey also made former Bomber guard Sukh Chungh reportedly the richest O-lineman in the league and also added wide receiver Duron Carter, RB John White, DB Aaron Grymes and LB Adam Konar, among others.
But the talent leaving is also significant. Gone are mainstays like WR Emmanuel Arceneaux and LB Solomon Elimimian (Saskatchewan), as well as QBs Travis Lulay (retired), Jonathan Jennings (Ottawa), DE Shawn Lemon (Toronto), RBs Jeremiah Johnson (Montreal) and Chris Rainey (Toronto), LB Micah Awe (Toronto), OL Jovan Olafioye (retired) and CB Anthony Orange (Edmonton).
That’s a massive amount of turnover for a squad that finished 9-9 last year and made the playoffs, before getting stomped in the first round. The question now – especially in Week 1 – is how quickly Claybrooks, Reilly & Co. can transform the Lions into a West Division power.
MOMENTUM OR NO-MENTUM?
The Bombers open 2019 with two games against West opponents – this one against the Lions, and following next week’s bye, the home opener against the Edmonton Eskimos. That stretch is followed by five straight against the East.
But consider this: the Bombers were just 4-6 against their own division a year ago – and 6-2 vs. the East – and that included a 1-5 run against the West through the Banjo Bowl that all but made a home playoff game an impossibility.
So, can an opener set a tone or define a team? That’s the question head coach Mike O’Shea was asked Thursday.
“I don’t really believe that the momentum from one game carries to the next,” said O’Shea. “So, I’ll say it’s Game 1 and a good chance for our guys to go out and show what they can do and what they’ve learned in training camp, show us that they’re ready to play and we’ll see what the result is from there.”
Fair enough. Still, the point here is this: while one early-season might not carry over into the following week, losses – particularly against divisional foes – can be crippling, especially when the goal is be hosting a playoff game in November.
THE REILLY FACTOR
Same old, same old every time the Bombers face Mike Reilly – whether he is wearing the orange and black of the Lions, or previously the green and yellow of the Eskimos. Reilly has averaged – averaged – 5,648 yards passing over the last three years, loves to go deep to let his receivers make plays and has the toughness to stand in the pocket to deliver strikes.
Put it this way: there isn’t a single defender in the entire CFL who doesn’t curse his name, but respect his game.
“He’s a good quarterback, a tough quarterback who usually has lot of good receivers around him, good offensive line and a good scheme,” said Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson. “He’s one of those guys you can put into any system and expect him to do well.”
And yet, the Bombers have traded punches with Reilly & Co. over the last few years and won their share, too.
“He’s still human. He makes mistakes and gets rattled every now and then,” said Jefferson. “But he’s a vet and when it comes time to make a play in a tough moment you put your hat on him. The last couple of years going against him that’s been the thing to do: get in his face and make it hard for him to throw the ball to those receivers, make it hard for him to see those receivers and pretty much give him hell the whole night.”
- Winnipeg’s Matt Nichols is 38-26 as a starter in the CFL. The Bombers were 9-5 in his starts last year and he has a 5-4 lifetime record in regular-season games against B.C.
- The Lions welcome back Mike Reilly, who has a career record of 54-42. He was 9-9 last season in Edmonton and has a 9-4 lifetime mark against the Bombers.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#5 Willie Jefferson, DE: He was one of the prized free-agent additions by the Bombers this offseason, and fans will get their first look at the game-changing defensive end in his new colours. Jefferson has the body of a power forward in basketball – 6-7, 248 – the mitts of a wide receiver and the ferocity of the line of scrimmage that often has QBs double-clutching or rushing passes.
#59 Michael Couture, C: He’ll step in at centre to replace Matthias Goossen, who retired this offseason to join the Delta Police Department. Couture has been groomed for this, dressing for every game since the club made him the 10th overall pick in 2016.
#30 Winston Rose, CB: An ex-Lion, Rose tied for the team lead in interceptions last year with five, but was not re-signed as part of the regime change in B.C. He was nicked up a bit in camp, but was solid when he was on the field. He figures to get a healthy dose of Duron Carter Saturday night in what could be one of the most compelling one-on-one matchups
#7 Lucky Whitehead, WR/KR: He’ll get his reps in the offence and on special teams, where he could team up with Charles Nelson to potentially provide a scary-good return combo. Here’s Whitehead when asked this week what kind of damage he and Nelson could do in the return game:
“A lot. And as the season goes on it’s going to be tough for a kicking team to figure out what they’re going to do as far as game-planning and how they are going to try and keep it away from whatever we’re going to do back there. The ball in my hands or Charles’ hands, is liable to go all the way.”
The Bombers will open 2019 with two starters on the one-game injured list in WR Chris Matthews and left guard Pat Neufeld. Also on the one-game is WR Rasheed Bailey while DE Jonathan Kongbo and DB Dexter Janke have been place on the six-game injured list.
That means the Bombers will line up Cody Speller at left guard, with Michael Couture at centre and Geoff Gray at right guard; while newcomers Lucky Whitehead and Kenny Lawler will both get starts at slotback.
- During a 14-game stretch from 2009-15 the Bombers started eight different quarterbacks in games against the Lions: Michael Bishop (2), Steven Jyles (1), Alex Brink (1), Buck Pierce (3), Joey Elliott (1), Justin Goltz (1), Max Hall (1) and Drew Willy (4). Matt Nichols has started all eight games against the Lions since.
- The Bombers are 5-5 in their last 10 season openers dating back to 2009. The club fell 33-30 to Edmonton in their 2018 debut.
- The Bombers are 5-4-1 in their last 10 season openers on the road. Winnipeg has won its last two road openers, knocking off Saskatchewan 43-40 in the debut of Mosaic Stadium in 2017 and the Riders 30-26 at old Taylor Field in 2015.
- The Lions have had just eight coaches in the last 25 years – with Claybrooks being the ninth. The eight previous new head coaches have gone just 2-6 in their debuts with the club: Joe Paopao, 1996 (L), Adam Rita, 1997 (L), Greg Mohns, 1998 (L), Steve Buratto, 2000 (W), Wally Buono, 2003 (L), Mike Benevides, 2012 (W) and Jeff Tedford, 2015 (L).