June 28, 2024

Game Preview | WPG at CAL

Josh Johnson will make his CFL regular-season debut Saturday in Calgary -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Game #4: Blue Bombers (0-3) at Stampeders (1-1)

Kickoff: Saturday, June 29th, 6 p.m. CDT; McMahon Stadium, Calgary
TV/Streaming: TSN 3/5, CBS Sports Network; CFL+
Radio: 680 CJOB
Streaks: Wpg: 3L; Calgary: 1L

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Scene Setter

First things first, Josh Johnson made sure to acknowledge a man down among his Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver group — three of them, to be exact — and then tacked on a few words directed to a higher power on their behalf.

“It’s never a good thing seeing a guy go down,” began Johnson after practice earlier this week. “So, I’m praying nothing but the best for Dalton and Kenny on a speedy recovery.”

Dalton and Kenny would be Schoen and Lawler, respectively, and they are part of a decimated corps that also includes promising first-year CFLer Keric Wheatfall — all three of them now on the six-game injured list.

And with no time to wallow in misery here Johnson has been called up from the practice squad to the active roster for Saturday’s game in Calgary against the Stampeders. Down three starters, Winnipeg’s starting receiving corps will now feature veterans Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky, second-year man Jeremy Murphy, along with Johnson and Ontaria ‘Pokey’ Wilson with draft pick Kevens Clercius also on board for depth.

A big opportunity? Hell, yeah — especially for a guy like Johnson who most recently spent time with Birmingham of the USFL after spending most of 2022 on the Detroit Lions practice squad. He now gets his chance to make his CFL debut on Saturday after staying committed in his daily training and study after being added to the PR following training camp — something head coach Mike O’Shea shouted him out for this week.

“It’s a big one. I feel I’m prepared for it. I’m ready,” said Johnson. “I feel like I am. (Hard work) is nothing new to me. Part of my journey has always been the harder route. I’m just working my butt off getting one percent better and earning what I’m getting — it feels better when you earn it, as well.

“As soon as I got the playbook when I signed here I jumped right into it. I was grateful for the opportunity. I got cut in Birmingham and was just looking for the next opportunity so once I got that I wanted to make the most of it.”

Ontaria ‘Pokey’ Wilson

Wilson, meanwhile, has four catches for 43 yards to start the season and will now be asked to contribute more. Much more.

“With the veteran guys going down, us rookies have got to step up and make the plays they’re not able to make any more,” said Wilson who, FYI, got his ‘Pokey’ nickname from his grandmother when he was a baby, saying the newborn looked like a Pokemon character.

“Every week I’m getting more comfortable on the field and getting more comfortable with the playbook. I’m definitely able to play faster as the season continues to go on. Now that I’ve played a couple games I’m seeing things a little more — with the field being bigger and wider so much is about timing. You’ve got to be right on your timing.

“Us young guys, we talk every day. Even before the season started the young guys were saying, ‘We’ve got to come in and give this team a spark. Find something to bring to the table that others haven’t.’ Now we have to step up.”


The Blue Bombers have made three changes to the depth chart this week. On are receivers Murphy and Johnson along with DB Deatrick Nichols, who missed last week. Off are Schoen and Wheatfall — both moved to the six game list — along with DB Souleymane Karamoko.


1. Next Man Up… Again and Again

Winnipeg’s six-game injured list now features 10 — TEN — players, with the receiving corps and defensive line particularly hard hit. Schoen and Wheatfall join Lawler among the pass catchers, with D-linemen represented by Celestin Haba, Cam Lawson, Miles Fox and TyJuan Garbutt. Rounding out the crew of men down are DBs Jamal Parker, Noah Hallett and Jake Kelly.

And, just to be clear, no one in Bomberland is using any of this as an excuse.

Jeremy Murphy

“That’s why we practice, that’s why we meet – to get the guys in the right spots,” said Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea earlier this week. “What we need is for guys to make the play when it comes their way. We need them to do their jobs in all three phases.

“If you start going outside of the system trying to do more and make plays outside of the system… it doesn’t really work very well. When the ball comes your way, make your play. When the ball carrier comes your way, make your play. When the guy you’re supposed to block comes your way, make your block. The idea of ‘these guys need to make bigger plays’… now, once they get the ball in their hands or these guys happen to make a spectacular tackle that it didn’t look like they were going to make after doing their job, or a guy makes a spectacular catch that people didn’t think he was going to make, that’s awesome. That’s good for your teammates. That’s pro football. But while that is going on, everybody just needs to stick to the script.”

2. Treading water on ‘D’

They were cringe-worthy numbers not seen in these parts since 2018. Winnipeg surrendered 500 yards net offence in last week’s loss to B.C. — the highest since yielding 511 in a 39-16 loss to Calgary in August of 2018. Included in that were the 398 yards through the air by Lions QB Vernon Adams, Jr.

Inside those numbers are some obvious mitigating circumstances. As mentioned above, Winnipeg has four defensive linemen on the six-game injured list and a fifth, end Anthony Bennett, was injured before camp even started. That impacts the ability to collapse the pocket and pressure passers.

There’s also this to consider: of the 22 defensive players who dressed for last November’s Grey Cup, seven are gone in Jackson Jeffcoat, Ricky Walker, Thiadric Hansen, Malik Clements, Jesse Briggs, Demerio Houston and Kerfalla Exumé while Jamal Parker, Lawson and Bennett are all injured.

Defensive coordinator Jordan Younger

That’s a whole pile of change.

“One of the challenges with having so many new pieces on the field is they’re thinking about where they have to line up and not necessarily what the opponent is doing,” said defensive coordinator Jordan Younger. “With more reps comes more comfort and now you can start to get out in front of the game a little bit more. I have to do a better job of putting things together where we can still play fast but be in a better positions to make some of those plays.

“It’s a learning experience. You’ve got contingency plans, but then you need to have a contingency for the contingency and then you need to have a contingency for that. So, that’s where we’re at right now — understanding how deep down the rabbit hole do we have to go in order to keep the group prepared and ready for whoever might be out on the field. We’re learning on the run.”

3. The Slow-Start Issues… continued

This is an issue that didn’t go away against the Lions, so it gets revisited again for this weekend’s game in southern Alberta. The Blue Bombers haven’t just been slow to get out of the starting blocks through three games this season, they’ve essentially stumbled out of the thing.

Updating these numbers from a week ago: Winnipeg has been outscored 27-10 in the first quarters of the first three games and through the three first halves this season the Blue Bombers have been outscored 43-22.

There were signs as last week’s game unfolded that the offence had found some magic again but while Brady Oliveira is back, Lawler is now joined on the injured list by Schoen and Wheatfall. That means two CFL rookies in Johnson and Wilson and Murphy — who played in two games a year ago — are now starting in the receiving corps.

Does that impact the play calling of Buck Pierce? Absolutely it does.

Offensive coordinator Buck Pierce

“You adjust and you adapt but, listen – like I’ve told the guys in the meeting rooms and everybody – when you’re called upon, it’s your job to step up and it’s your job to know what you’re doing,” said Pierce. “We have talent and that’s important. Those receivers are a talented, hard-working, conscientious group that wants to do well and they want to be their best for their teammates – that’s the most important thing.

“As far as changes (play-calling) those guys (Schoen and Lawler) are one of a kind people, talented football players and you don’t replace those type of guys. But you also say, ‘Hey, this is who we are and this is what we do.’ So it’s our jobs as coaches to put them in those positions and see what they do well.

“Is there going to be some learning on the fly? There’s going to be some learning on the fly. That’s the nature of our game. It’s impossible for them to see every type of look, every leverage, every intricacy of this game but they’re willing and that’s what’s awesome about it.

“… You try and get it repped in practice. That’s why you have long training camps. That’s we have hours and hours of meetings. Ultimately, it’s up to them to continue to learn a little bit more about each other. One of the jobs as a quarterback and as a leader is to know as much about your teammates as possible – what makes them tick, how do you get the most out of them, how do you coach them, how do you teach, how do they respond. Zach (Collaros) is one of the best I’ve ever been around in doing that. Those guys will be fine. We’re excited to see them.”


“They’re young. They’ve got a little pep to their step. I know for a fact they can’t wait to showcase that in these next couple weeks coming up.” — Nic Demski on the young group of receivers now getting their shots to be regulars.