It’s been a staple of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive script for eons now, even before Brady Oliveira morphed into the Canadian Football League’s leading rusher and battering ram this season.
These Blue Bombers have played their brand of bully ball football – CJOB’s Derek Taylor refers to it as ‘Smashy-smashy’, which also fits – since 2016 when Andrew Harris came back home in free agency. It’s never been complicated and working behind the club’s mammoth offensive line, the club has long relied on them to bulldoze defences and chew up yardage.
So, given the depth chart the Blue Bombers released Friday on the eve of the Western Final with no Dalton Schoen and with fellow receivers Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Greg McCrae all listed as ‘GTD’ – Game Time Decision – the attack may be leaning even more on the smashy-smashy aspect of their attack.
“We take pride that if push comes to shove and we’ve got to put it on our back then we’re very capable of doing it,” Oliveira told media at a press conference Friday. “This group and this unit takes pride in that, knowing that we can get the job done, we can close out games in the fourth quarter and if it’s a tight game we can still get the job done on the ground and win football games for this club.”
“It’s exciting. It makes it a lot easier for myself when I have an offensive line like we do and receivers that are willing to go in there and get their nose dirty. I look at guys across the league and this receiver group, what we ask them to do and them going in there and digging out linebackers, digging out defensive ends and they’re willing to do it and they do a great job of it, it makes my job a lot easier.
“We’re excited, man. It’s going to be a good test tomorrow.”
Asked if he thought B.C.’s defence might make stopping the ground game their top priority, Oliveira added: “I would think so. You gotta bring your best. That’s all I have to say. You’ve got to bring your best.”
Undoubtedly the loss of Schoen – the club’s leading receiver with 72 receptions for 1,233 yards and 10 touchdowns – and potentially Demski, another 1K producer, will put a spotlight on Kenny Lawler, Drew Wolitarsky, Brendan O’Leary-Orange as well as Bailey and McCrae if they get the green light.
And it’s not like Zach Collaros won’t still air it out with that crew, but the ground game featuring Oliveira & Co. always figures to be a focal point regardless of the injury situation. Consider that in the Blue Bombers’ Western Final win over the Lions a year ago Oliveira rushed 20 times for 130 yards while pulling in another four passes for 37 yards. A week later in the Grey Cup loss to Toronto, he lugged the ball 15 times for 82 yards.
“Looking at last season for myself, I think I played my best football in the postseason,” Oliveira said. “Even looking at this season, as a running back it’s so instinctive. You go through the weeks of the season, you get into mid-season form and as the end of the season comes you should be playing at your best and playing at a very high level. You’ve been working at your craft throughout the year and now you’re primed up, you’re ready to go.”
“That’s exactly how I feel right now. I feel like every single week I’ve been getting better and better and I’m peaking at the right time and I’m going to show it tomorrow.”
The Blue Bombers had 81 rushing yards in their first meeting with B.C. this year back in June, a 30-6 beatdown by the Lions. In their next two games – both Winnipeg wins, the club racked up 129 and 127 yards along the ground.
In any case, Blue Bombers offensive coordinator Buck Pierce has long had a good feel of finding whatever cracks there might be in a defence en route to a win.
“We’ve said it for a number of years with this offence and Buck’s got a great feel for this – whatever it’s going to take in this game is where we’re going to pivot to,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “So, if it’s running the ball, that’s fine. If it’s not, then that’s fine.
“We’re going to figure it out and Buck will put the players in the best position possible for us to win the game and whatever that looks like at the end, no one’s going to be concerned about that as long as we are working towards a victory.”
More on the Blue Bombers vs. Lions Western Final matchup with eight topics for discussion in this week’s PLAYBOOK…
1. THE ‘GTD’ DESIGNATION:
The Blue Bombers will have up until 30 minutes before kickoff to decide on the status of Demski, Bailey and McCrae. And if they can’t go, they could then pull one of the receivers into the lineup, with that group including Markeith Ambles, Jeremy Murphy, Ravi Alston, or Ronnie Blackmon.
Schoen, for what it’s worth, has been out since the win over B.C. in Vancouver last month, missed the last two games of the regular season and hasn’t been on the practice field. The Blue Bombers’ last two practices of this week were closed to the media, but Demski and Bailey were out there running, although not in gear in the session on Wednesday.
Asked what happens between now and Saturday with the GTD guys, O’Shea said this:
“Work out. Rest. Come here tomorrow, work out and see how they do. We’re not in a rush to wake them up, put it that way. We’re not getting them out of bed at five in the morning. The way it’s written, we’re allowed up to half an hour before game time… whether it takes that long, I don’t know yet.”
2. NO SCHOEN IMPACT:
Mentioned above, but further to the Blue Bombers not having their dynamic receiver – in his seven career games against the Lions, including last year’s West Final, he has seven touchdowns.
“Dalton is obviously a huge part of what we’ve done the last two seasons so it’s never easy going into (a game) without him,” said Collaros. “I’m not sure about Nic and Rasheed yet, obviously, but Dalton is a pivotal part in what do. A special player, a special teammate, a special person, like I always talk about. Anytime you lose somebody like that, it’s tough.”
Added O’Shea, when asked what Schoen’s absence means: “It means teammates will have his back, they’ll play well and it means all the help he’s given guys since he’s not been playing, they’ll be eager to put out on the field and show him how excited they are to play for him.”
Collaros did work for long stretches with O’Leary-Orange at Wednesday’s practice and that work, coupled with the time put in all season could be huge on Saturday.
“It’s finding time to get the extra reps and talk through the different looks with the guys… it’s times like this when that pays off,” Collaros said.
3. PARKER STARTS/ROSE SITS:
Not to be lost with all the attention on the receiving corps is the club’s decision to start Jamal Parker at corner, with Winston Rose not dressing this week. Parker did start in the regular season this year, but began this season on the injured list. He has started the last three games and was mammoth in the October win over B.C.
“We’ve got good players. Park (Parker) is just coming on and coming on strong,” said O’Shea. “It’s not an easy decision by any means.
“(Parker) is a fiery, tough competitor who’s always wanting to stick his nose in there. Once again, those are always tough – there’s such fine margins when you have to make a decision like that. Winston’s a very good football player. I just think at this point it looked like Park was coming on harder.”
Asked if the decision led to a tough conversation with Rose, O’Shea added: “Trust me, he does not make it tough. He’s a pro. He’s happy for other people’s opportunities, too. I’m not saying he doesn’t want his, but he’ll do everything he can to make sure the guys play well.”
4. DON’T GO THERE YET:
The Blue Bombers have a chance to make franchise history with a win, meaning they would be advancing to the Grey Cup for the fourth straight season.
Adam Bighill when asked by Paul Friesen of The Sun if that resonates at all: “It will when we get there.”
And the follow up: Given that history, does that potentially mean anything? “It will when we do it.”
The Blue Bombers have advanced to the 2019, 2021 and 2022 Grey Cups, matching the run the team made from 1957-59, with wins in ’58 and ’59.
“Yeah, let’s be the first team to do it,” said Oliveira on the possibility of four appearances in a row. “Obviously we’ve got a big test (Saturday) but I trust each and every person in this locker room to go out there and do their part, give it their best effort and honour our teammates and go get the job done to make it four straight Grey Cup appearances.”
5. MORE ON THE V.A. FACTOR:
Lions QB Vernon Adams, Jr. has been the topic of conversation in Bomberland all week following a regular season in which he led the league in passing and after his sensational work in their win over Calgary in last week’s Western Semi-Final when he set a club record with 413 yards passing while throwing for two TDs and running for three more.
“Watching B.C. vs Calgary last week and seeing how he was able to get outside the pocket and extend plays with his legs and scramble around and run up and down the field and get his team first downs, it does get me excited, the defensive line excited because that’s not the type of defence that we want to put on the field for him,” said defensive end Willie Jefferson. “We’re not going to go out there and allow him to run around and scramble around and try and find open receivers down the field or scramble around and get first downs with his legs. We’re going to try our best to make him feel our pressure and get him on the ground early and often.”
6. AND, OH, BY THE WAY, NO. 8 IS PRETTY DAMN GOOD, TOO:
Here’s Bighill when asked about Collaros and what he brings to big games like the Western Final:
“There’s so many words you can give it: moxie, leadership, preparedness, confidence. I mean, it’s maybe best described as control. Zach’s going to be in control. He knows what he wants to do, he knows how he wants to attack, he knows what he’s looking for and that’s confidence. From the amount of work he puts in, the amount of work our offence puts in together understanding each other, playing for each other… that’s why I always put my chips on our offence, I always put my chips on Zach, because I know what he’s capable of.”
7. PLAYING ON REMEMBRANCE DAY:
The CFL moved the semi-finals and division finals to Saturdays this year – next week’s Grey Cup will remain on Sunday – but that decision also means the two divisional finals will be played on Remembrance Day.
“To be perfectly honest, if I had my say we probably wouldn’t be playing on Remembrance Day,” said O’Shea, who wore a RCAF ball hat to his media session. “But I don’t make the schedule, so I’ll do my part tomorrow morning, for sure.”
Bighill also weighed in on the topic with this wonderful big-picture perspective.
“I’ve got some family and friends that have been in the military. We understand the level of sacrifice that’s gone into everyone’s freedom. There’s a bigger world outside of football and all the battles we talk about in the football world are really nothing compared to some of the battles that really go on and the lives that have been lost. It’s a different kind of thing that can weigh on you and you’ve got to think about. At the end of the day, we’ve got to play for each other and remember what we’re out there doing.”
Still some tickets available for fans wanting to be there for the Western Final. Here are some details for those diehards who will be in the building:
- The tailgate area opens at 2 p.m., with $5 beer and $3.50 hot dogs or soft drinks before the game starts.
- Fans can also watch the Eastern Final on the biggest mobile viewing screen in North America, starting at 2 p.m.
- The tailgate area will also feature fire pits (weather permitting) and the heated Coors Light tent. The area will also remain open until the end of the third quarter.