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July 4, 2024

Game Preview | OTT at WPG

Willie Jefferson at Blue Bombers practice this week -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Game #5: Blue Bombers (0-4) vs. RedBlacks (2-1)

Kickoff: Friday, July 5th, 7:30 p.m. CDT; Princess Auto Stadium
TV/Streaming: TSN 1/3; RDS; CFL+
Radio: 680 CJOB
Streaks: Wpg: 4L; Ottawa: 1W
Weather: A mix of sun and cloud with a 30 percent chance of showers. High of 25. Low 16.
FYI: Friday is Country Night/First Responders Appreciation Night

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Scene Setter

No one is going to call these uncharted waters, because the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been here before in their long and storied history. In fact, as recently as 2012 the club started a season with four straight losses and it’s happened five times since the turn of the millennium.

But this team? A squad with this much star power and which owns the best record in the Canadian Football League since 2019? What the bleepy-de-bleep is going on here?

“I hear it from the fans,” defensive end Willie Jefferson said earlier this week. “I get, ‘Oh, what’s going on? What’s up with you guys?’ All I can say is, ‘Just hang in there.’ If you’ve been a fan, you’ve been here before. We’re trying to turn it around as fast as we can; trying to flip that switch. And when we do, be there for us.

“It’s little things, so just hang in there with us. When you come to our home games be loud and proud when their offence is on the field and quiet down when we’re at work on offence and let them do their work.”

Injuries are absolutely playing a major factor in the stumble out of the starting blocks and now Zach Collaros is out (he’s listed on the depth chart, but will not dress) with Chris Streveler starting Friday night against the Ottawa RedBlacks. The hurts list also includes all stars Dalton Schoen and Kenny Lawler and players who would be starters like Keric Wheatfall, Celestin Haba, Cam Lawson, Jamal Parker, and Miles Fox.

But in losing their last three games by a combined nine points there have been other factors beyond the list of wounded. Too many penalties. Too many turnovers. Too many mental errors.

“It’s little things,” said Jefferson. “Defensively, we need to get off the field. That’s one. We need to capitalize on our opportunities to get our hands on the ball to generate takeaways. That’s another thing. On special teams it’s flipping the field and getting or keeping the momentum. Backing guys up by covering well and making our field goals.

“And then on offence it’s keep the chains moving and getting the ball into the end zone by finishing drives. We can win games with field goals, but we can’t win games by just kicking field goals. We’ve got to get the ball in the end zone to at least get teams on their heels so that we’re not always on our heels the whole time.

“But,” Jefferson added, “through all this the mood is still positive. The vibe right now is, ‘Just get one. Get one win to get us in the win column for the season.’ It’s been close game after close game after close game, minor mistake after minor mistake after minor mistake.

“Everybody is locked in. We understand the record is what it is, but everybody attitude is still high, everybody’s motor is still revving to go.”

Just for the record, the last time a Blue Bombers team opened 0-5 was 1998, when the Jeff Reinebold-led squad went 0-10 before recording its first win. This squad, meanwhile, entered 2024 with four Grey Cup appearances and two championships in 2019 and 2021.

It hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to win, or how to fix mistakes.

“They seem really good right now,” said head coach Mike O’Shea on what he saw from Wednesday’s full practice, the last before today’s walk-through. “Once again, they understand where they’re at and they understand why they are where they are and they believe where they’re going.

“We’ve just made enough mistakes to just lose games. Just clean that up and we should be good.”

THE DEPTH CHART

The Blue Bombers have made two changes to the depth chart this week. On are receiver Myron Mitchell and fullback Michael Chris-Ike. Off are defensive back Marquise Bridges and receiver Jeremy Murphy.

As stated above Zach Collaros is listed as third on the depth chart behind Chris Streveler and Terry Wilson.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

1. The QB Shuffle

This isn’t a shocker, given that Collaros didn’t practice all week and with Streveler getting all of the work after the loss to Calgary. Collaros hasn’t been moved to either the one-game or six-game injured lists, so that’s a silver-lining development out of a situation where QB1 isn’t going to take the first snap.

So, what should anyone expect from Streveler, who was 4-8 in his 12 starts with the Blue Bombers in 2018-19 before heading to the NFL?

“Zach is a more in-the-pocket quarterback who can make all the throws. Strev is more of a dual-threat quarterback,” said left tackle Stanley Bryant. “If he doesn’t see things the way he wants he tries to get downfield to get positive yards. They’re both grinders, both know the game of football.

“We have a lot of confidence in Strev. In the Calgary game, even though things started slow late in the game he helped put together a helluva drive and we all know he’s capable of doing that. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but he did a great job and we’ve had a great week of practice.”

Indeed, Streveler and the offence stalled after coming into the game following the injury to Collaros as he completed only three of his first seven passes. But he’s a gamer and led the club back from an 18-9 hole with a late TD to Drew Wolitarsky before an interception in OT.

“Just like any offence you adapt and you have to be able to adapt to whoever,” said offensive coordinator Buck Pierce earlier in the week. “Every player has got strengths and weaknesses and experiences and some with more experience than others. The biggest thing is you make sure you have a good relationship with whoever the quarterback is and the play-caller. You’ve got to be on the same page, you’ve got to be able to communicate and I think me and Chris were able to do that. It’s just being able to see eye to eye on things and make sure we’re seeing the same things out there and are able to adjust if we have to.”

2. ‘D’ Trending Up?

This will be the second meeting in five weeks between the Blue Bombers and RedBlacks with Ottawa winning a rain-soaked, lightning-delayed affair 23-19 in the capital back on June 13th and the play of the defence has been up and down since that contest.

Winnipeg was lit up for 500 net yards in the loss to B.C. — the highest total since 2018 — but settled in to play much more stout in last week’s OT setback in Calgary, limiting the Stamps to 307 net yards, the lowest so far this season.

New defensive coordinator Jordan Younger when asked to assess his defence through four games:

“Trending upwards. We haven’t won yet. The goal is to win games and even then you don’t always know where you stand because it’s a week to week challenge. Right now we have zero wins in the win column, so we’re not good enough.”

“We’re getting better,” added linebacker Kyrie Wilson. “It’s a new scheme and every game we’re getting more comfortable in that scheme and in trusting it. You saw the improvement in Calgary.

“It’s like everything… when you’re learning something you could be second-guessing yourself sometimes. But the more you get a feel of the playbook and playing that scheme in a game the more you understand and get more comfortable.

“We have no doubt about this. Sometimes it just takes time, especially when you’re used to a different system for such a long time. When we get fully adjusted, it’ll be good. We have full believe in this.”

3. Ground to a halt

It’s been a consistent staple in these parts since 2016 — the Blue Bombers dominating the line of scrimmage and pounding the ball, whether it has been Andrew Harris, Johnny Augustine or Brady Oliveira. In fact, in four of the last six years — Harris from 2017-19 and Oliveira last season — a Blue Bombers back has captured the CFL rushing crown.

Through four games this year the Blue Bombers are averaging 78.5 yards rushing per game, fifth in the CFL. But beyond the numbers is how the dominant ground game was long this team’s identity. Streveler starting adds a different dimension to the run game as he is a fullback in a QB’s body and couple that with Oliveira and the Blue Bombers attack has a different look.

“We all know the skillsets Strev brings and when we’re both in there it’s pretty exciting,” said Oliveira. “There could be lots of cool things we can build on with him and I back there. When Zach’s in there it’s a little of a different offence, a still dynamic and exciting offence.

“It’s exciting. Strev and I bring a different, super-cool dynamic to the offence. We’ll see what happens.”

Countering that is this: teams know the Blue Bombers have struggled to pass this year and, as Calgary did last week, are fixated on taking away the run.

“We will get that run game going,” said Oliveira. “It’s tough sledding when they stack the box but as we get the pass game going I do believe it will open up some things in the run game and we’ll get back to what we do best.”

The Last Word:

“A lot of guys just believe our record doesn’t really show who we are. In the past we’ve been able to close out close games but we haven’t been able to do that so far. I don’t think we’re an 0-4 team. Nobody in here believes that. Now we’ve got to go out and prove that.” — veteran left tackle Stanley Bryant.