OTTAWA – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have spent the last six days doing the looking-in-the-mirror thing and – as head coach Mike O’Shea put it earlier in the week – having some ‘hard conversations’ in the wake of their season-opening win.
After all, their 19-17 victory over the Ottawa RedBlacks last Friday wasn’t without its warts. And when a team is the two-time defending Grey Cup champion, well, let’s just say the bar is set very high.
Somewhat lost in all this early-season early evaluation was the play of two newcomers to the starting lineup who made solid contributions in their debuts: receiver Dalton Schoen and dime back Donald Rutledge, Jr. And for the two of them, just being in the lineup in a game where the result meant something was like a gift from the heavens.
“It just felt good to be out there playing meaningful football again,” Schoen told bluebombers.com. “This is year three out of college for me and I’ve gotten to be in some NFL facilities and training camps and play in pre-season games, but that was the first regular season game I’ve played in for a long time.
“That feeling of wanting to win a game so badly, that’s something I haven’t had for a while. That felt good. Running out of the tunnel, it almost brought me back to college and being in front of that fan base at Kansas State because they are so passionate and so caring – that’s what we have here. I knew that before I got here, but you could see it so much more when you’re on the field.
“Obviously there’s stuff you’d like to go better in the game – my ball security is inexcusable for that to happen – but there’s ups and downs in life and in football and you’ve got to bounce back and move forward.”
Schoen pulled in five passes for 69 yards, ran once for three yards and also had the ball stripped away from him after one catch and following a nasty shot to the head for which RedBlacks defensive back Sherrod Baltimore has since been fined.
“It helps to have teammates like I do here,” Schoen said. “The receiver group right after I fumbled said, ‘Hey let’s move on and it’s on to the next play.’ The defence went out and right away they got a pick, so they picked me up, too.
“I want more, and I want to do better. As a player it’s obviously good to have to those good plays, but what I remember more is the bad plays and what I need to fix.”
Rutledge, Jr. finished his first game with five defensive tackles plus on one on special teams, and registered the team’s lone sack. He had bounced around the NFL, too, but last played a game that mattered in the 2020 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
“It was exciting,” he said. “The crowd showed up and definitely put on a show for us. I was out there a couple of times and I just had to look around and think, ‘Man, this is really what it’s like.’ It was cool. I felt like I prepared like I needed to throughout the week and the guys around me helped get me right.
“The guys around me, the coaches, they understand I’m putting the work in to continue to get better and continue to learn. They’re not too hard on me if I mess up, they corral me and it’s, “OK, this is what we need to do.’ I’ll just say I’m excited to get the bad plays on film during the week and mess up during practice because it’s something I can learn from and talk to somebody about. I’m quick on the learning curve.
“There’s definitely an increase in the intensity, too. You can hear it in the players’ voices, everybody… you look around and there’s a lot of tension in the air because it came down to the wire. It ups your game, but you’ve got to keep your composure, too. I’m just excited to come out here and work every day and improve on what I did from the day before.”
Those next steps for Schoen, Rutledge, Jr. and the rest of the Blue Bombers are taken Friday night here in Ottawa. Here are this week’s 3 Storylines…
1. THE MASOLI EFFECT
Ottawa’s new QB lit up the Blue Bombers a week ago, throwing for 380 yards while completing 24-of-34 passes for a TD and one interception – a yardage total more than any game last season.
A number that really jumps out: Masoli was 12-of-17 for 246 yards on first-down pass attempts, for an average of 20.5 yards per completion. Those numbers obviously must come down in Friday’s rematch.
“One of his biggest gifts is his arm talent and his body mechanics,” said Blue Bombers defensive backs coach Jordan Younger of Masoli. “He doesn’t have robotic mechanics, so that can make him hard to read. He can point his shoulder here and throw a ball there.
“We’ve got to grow in that we’ve got, we have some new pieces out there and we’ve got to understand our challenge each week changes based on who’s throwing the ball and who they’re throwing the ball to. So, our situational and formational awareness needs to get better in some areas and that will help make the game easier for some of the guys.
“We don’t like giving up explosion plays and that’s a point of emphasis that’s pretty generic across the board. It’s not because people didn’t work or put the time in, it’s just because we didn’t recognize some things.
“Hats off to those guys. They had a good gameplan. You go into a game kind of blind because you don’t really know what their tendencies are with this group other than what you saw in the pre-season. LaPo is a very creative play designer and so going in blind can make it difficult. Some guys can try too hard and not let the game come and try to force things.”
2. POUND THE PIGSKIN
The Blue Bombers averaged just 2.6 yards per rush last week, cranking out 50 yards on 19 carries, with the 10-yard run by Zach Collaros late in the game the club’s longest from scrimmage. And for a team that has built an identity pounding the ball, those numbers were jaw-dropping.
“It wasn’t the best game we played,” admitted guard Pat Neufeld. “Ultimately, we’re happy we won. We didn’t give up any sacks, but we felt like we needed to be better in the run game.
“Hats off to Ottawa – they came out ready to roll in a hostile environment. Without giving things away, I think they just had a great scheme and did a good job of taking away the things we do well. And we just didn’t play physical enough. We’re known as being a physical group and we just didn’t play up to that standard.
“Being able to be critical of ourselves and watch it on film… we’re going to hold each other accountable and go out and play a more physical game.”
All of this isn’t to say the Blue Bombers need to crank out 30 runs between Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine. But they do have to be more productive and sustain drives, whatever that might look like.
“It’s important (to establish the run), but at the same time there’s different ways to attack defences,” said Zach Collaros upon arrival in Ottawa on Thursday. “As long as we’re staying efficient on first down and moving the chains I think we’ll be happy where we end up.”
3. BACK TO THE BLUEPRINT
The Blue Bombers have spoken often this week about getting back to what they do best – controlling the line of scrimmage, take away the football and be stout on all three phases.
Again, the consensus has been that this has been a hard week for this crew after watching the video evidence of their opener – even after a win. Now it’s time to put some of that anger, that frustration and those corrections into play.
“We just need to focus on us,” said Willie Jefferson. “We left some things on the table and after a good week of practice and some good film study we’ll fix some of our mistakes and I feel like we’re going to have a good week – offence, defence and special teams.”
Asked what he wanted to see improve this week, the boss offered the basics.
“More consistent play. Better play, of course,” said O’Shea “But play consistently through the full game. You’d like to see a higher level and more to our standard throughout the full game instead of in just fits and spurts and pull one out in the end.
“It’s more movement off the ball on both sides. And when it comes down to that, it’s really about the one-on-one battle. It gets talked about a lot; you hear it a lot in football – win your one-on-one battle. When you turn on the film after this game the guys will know whether they… actually, they don’t need to turn on the film. Part way through the game they’ll know whether they are winning their one-on-ones or not.”