MONTREAL – There are still some miles yet to travel for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and a pair of finish lines to cross, too.
The Bombers have touched down here in La Belle Province for a Saturday matinee against the Montreal Alouettes and the second of a three-game run to the end of the regular season where the results won’t impact their spot atop the Canadian Football League’s West Division. How they get to the end of the regular season will continue to be a fascinating case study in managing and protecting personnel before the next game of significance, namely the Western Final on December 5th at IG Field.
And then the second finish line, clearly, involves playing in the 108th Grey Cup game a week later in Hamilton. So, it’s with that serving as a backdrop that the Bombers meet the Als in their second-last game of the regular season and the second of a back-to-back with their Eastern rivals. But ‘meaningless’ game? Yeah… just don’t go there with a team that is 11-1.
“It’s another opportunity to play football. I don’t care what the standings are and meaningful game/meaningless game,” said Bombers dime back Alden Darby. “I mean, just last year we didn’t have any games (with the cancellation of the CFL season). So you never know if that may or may not ever happen again in life, you never know if that might be your last snap on the field.
“So for us, it’s going 1-0 that weekend. It’s a blessing and another opportunity to go play the game that we love, that we’ve been playing since we were kids. So that’s all the hype we need. We’re blessed with opportunities to play this game because there’s a lot of people that’d love to be in our shoes. There are a lot of guys that had the game taken away from them because of COVID or injuries or just Father Time and we have opportunity to go up there and suit up and strap on that helmet.
“We want to take full advantage of that and show our appreciation for the game in general.”
The Bombers are on a nine-game win streak, the longest since a similar stretch over the end of the 2002 season and start of 2003. Winnipeg hasn’t won 10 straight since reeling of 12 straight Ws during the ’01 season
“It’s always us versus us,” said Darby. “So we don’t need or look for other teams or other situations to give us momentum. The momentum is right here in this building.
“It’s the work we put in as we watch films, when we go out there and practice. It’s when we’re in the weight room and doing all the little things right. That’s all the momentum we need: playing for each other and being the best we can be on that day, on that play.”
The Bombers wrap up their regular season next weekend in Calgary and then have a first-round bye in the playoffs. But as is their mantra, that’s looking too far ahead. Here are this week’s 3 Storylines..
1. A TWEAK HERE, A TWEAK THERE, A TWEAK EVERYWHERE
The Bombers are using this weekend as a chance to rest some bodies and take a look at others with the playoffs looming but two regular season games remaining.
And so it’s not just Zach Collaros getting a week off and Sean McGuire making his first start at quarterback. The other significant changes to the depth chart see Drew Richmond listed at left tackle ahead of Stanley Bryant with Pat Neufeld getting a rest, along with Steven Richardson and Jackson Jeffcoat along the defensive line and three members of the secondary in safety Brandon Alexander and halfbacks Nick Taylor and Deatrick Nichols. All told, eight different players have been added to the roster.
Willie Jefferson was asked by Bob Irving on Friday if not having Jeffcoat and Richardson was going to create a ‘problem’ for the Bombers’ D-line group. Without hesitating, Jefferson said – with a smile: “Problems for the opposition.”
“It’s the same mindset we’ve been having all year: next man up,” Jefferson added. “We know the position we’re in and have the opportunity to have some guys sit down and rest their bodies and get in top shape to finish off the season going into the playoffs. This gives guys the opportunity to put their best film on tape and make some plays. They’ve been waiting for it, so no better time than right now.
“We aren’t focused on accolades and stats right now. That comes at the end of the season. Right now we just want to play Winnipeg football. We want to play offence, defence, special teams to the best of our abilities and not think with guys sitting out we get to slack off since we’re already in first place and already have a playoff game.
“We still want to play hard-nosed football. We know what time of year it is. It’s getting colder and we just want to heat up and have that momentum heading into the playoffs so that when we have our bye week we’re not trying to find momentum, we already have it.”
2. SEAN McGUIRE: WHAT TO EXPECT?
Even with changes up front on the O-line and with Andrew Harris sidelined the Bombers have hopes Sean McGuire can showcase the skills they’ve been so enamoured with since he arrived in 2019.
He’ll likely get a variety of looks from the Als defence, plus a heavy dose of pressure. But, as he told us on Thursday – he also feels he’s ready for this moment. So, too, does offensive coordinator Buck Pierce.
“He’s ready for his opportunity,” Pierce said. “When you look at Sean physically the first thing that jumps out is he can throw the football; mechanically he’s very sound, fundamentally he’s very good. He’s very poised and a competitor.
“He takes command of the huddle when he’s out there, he speaks with confidence and he plays with confidence. As a coaching staff and as a quarterbacks coach that’s what you look for in your quarterback – is he confident in what he’s seeing out there and in his play?
“Obviously, the guy’s first start in the CFL, there’s going to be some learning along with that and he understands that. It’s important to go out there and trust your eyes and be decisive in your decision-making. We’re excited for Sean.”
3. THE STANBACK SEQUEL
Alouettes running back William Stanback did what few other tailbacks have done against the Bombers defence this year by galloping for 106 yards on 16 carries last weekend. Worth noting: previously only Toronto’s John White and D.J. Foster had eclipsed the 100-yard mark against the Bombers this year, accomplishing the feat in back-to-back weeks on August 13th and 21st – the second and third games of the season.
There are some stats behind those numbers that are revealing. Exactly half of Stanback’s 106 yards came on two carries, one for 34 yards and the other for 19, meaning that his other 14 yards covered just 53 yards, or 3.79 yards per carry. We know… that’s a lot of math in one paragraph.
The point is, if the Bombers tidy up things at the line of scrimmage – even with changes up front there – they hope to eliminate the big-chunk runs by Montreal’s power back.
“He had a couple of explosion runs where we just weren’t where we were supposed to be,” said defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “Other than three runs (the third longest covering eight yards) I thought we did a decent job against him.
“When you look at the game, other than two drives the guys did a pretty good job. They’re not satisfied with what occurred – they were happy we won the football game and everything – but they understand and know we have to play better in order for us to get to where we want to be.”