Weston Dressler (7) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the Montreal Alouettes at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB. on Friday, June 24, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ safety Macho Harris is running through the offensive depth chart of the Edmonton Eskimos off the top of his head, breaking down the Grey Cup champions in a verbal scouting report.
It’s clear there is a respectful tone in his voice and an appreciation for the skill on the other side of the ball, as well as the challenge the Eskimos present Thursday night at Investors Group Field. After all, this Eskimo attack has the ability to burn out scoreboard lights, having averaged 38 points through a 1-1 start.
Here’s Harris on Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly:
“That guy is a warrior. He plays to win all the time. He plays through pain. I like going against a guy like that.”
Harris, in discussing Adarius Bowman and the rest of the Eskimo receving corps:
“Bowman is explosive, you’ve got to keep your eyes on him because Reilly does a good job of keeping plays alive and finding his favourite targets when he is scrambling. We’ve got to do a good job of plastering him when we get the chance.”
And, finally, Harris on the Esks’ O-line and running back John White:
“And they’ve got a good running game. Their offensive line is huge. They’ve got some big maulers. And their running back finds his cuts and hits the hole hard. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Still, it’s here where Harris pumps the brakes on all the Eskimo love. See, there’s an old adage about respecting all, fearing none. And Harris, like the rest of the Bombers, know full well if they are going to morph into a real CFL contender, they have to become a force at home again. And that’s a theme that has been hammered home in the clubhouse all week.
“A win here is huge,” said running back Andrew Harris. “We’ve got to get the fans back into this. I want this place rockin’ tomorrow. It just makes the game that much more fun, it gives our defence an advantage, and it just makes for a great environment for everybody.”
“We’ve got to get a win at home and get this city to rally around us again”
So, yeah, the Eskimos are an excellent measuring stick for this Bomber side. But there’s also a bigger picture at play here: the 1-2 start hardly has the masses converted, but the men in the room believe they’ve got something percolating here.
Believing and doing, as fans in this town well know, are two different things.
“A win here against the Eskimos would definitely be a plus, man,” admitted Macho Harris. “It would definitely build a lot of confidence with the players and coaches and give something to our fans to cheer about and help bring the community together. It would be a big, big win.
“But we know we’ve got plenty of talent in this squad. That measuring stick thing… due to the circumstances and us starting out 1-2, there’s going to be the noise around you. We’re just going to focus on what’s ahead of us, not what’s outside us.
“So for this to come out there as some sort of measuring stick? Nah, we know what we’ve got here. We’re going to come out and play ball, play hard, and come out with the ‘W.’”
FRESH TALENT OR FRESH MEAT?
The Bombers have made another change to their secondary as CJ Roberts has been activated from the practice roster and will play corner. Kevin Fogg moves inside to halfback, forcing Travis Hawkins out of the lineup. That means the secondary that takes the field Thursday will feature veterans Chris Randle and Macho Harris, Julian Posey – who is making his fifth CFL start – along with CFL rookies Fogg and Roberts.
Eskimos QB Mike Reilly was asked Wednesday if the prospect of having those two rookies line up on one side of the secondary had him drooling or if he knew anything about Roberts.
“I don’t. I know that I’m going to find out (Thursday),” said Reilly. “The thing about defence and with the way our offence is structured, I don’t look at personnel too much. I go through my reads and progressions. I know they have some weapons over there. I know (Jamaal) Westerman is a great guy on the rush. I know the (player) numbers in the secondary and the linebacking crew. I know #8 (Randle) and I know #31 (Maurice Leggett) and I know #38 (Ian Wild) and I know #2 (Khalil Bass) and I know Macho.
“I’ve never been a guy who looks too much into a new guy or a young guy getting a start because he might just come out and be the best guy you’ve ever played against and if you try to pick on him he’s going to burn you.
“We’ll just go through our progressions and see how it goes.”
THE LIFE OF REILLY
The Esks pivot, who absolutely has a future in TV when this QB thing is done, has been a Bomber killer in his career. He is 5-0 lifetime against Winnipeg and has been able to light them up through the air and with his underrated scrambling abilities. In his first start against the Bombers back in 2013, he threw for three TDs while rushing nine times for 113 yards.
In the five wins over the Bombers, Reilly has completed 65.1 per cent of his passes for 1,301 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
“He’s a good quarterback, leads their team well, moves around in the pocket well, and when he throws it up they’ve got guys who are going to go up and battle for the ball,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.
“He is tough to bring down, he’s strong in the pocket. He extends the play a bit inside the pocket as well as outside. I wouldn’t say he’s as strong as Reggie Slack, that guy was impossible to bring down. He’d have guys draped all over him and get the pass off. But he’s a strong quarterback and strong-willed, too.”
OLD FRIENDS, NOW ENEMIES
The CFL is such a tight league, this kind of storyline unfolds virtually with every game every week. Mike O’Shea and first-year Eskimos head coach Jason Maas were on the same staff together in Toronto in 2012. That crew, led by Scott Milanovich, featured Chris Jones (now the boss in Saskatchewan), Maas, O’Shea and Hamilton defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer, who is widely regarded as one of the league’s next head coaches in waiting.
“I’m looking forward to the Eskimos playing the Blue Bombers, no matter what,” began Maas. “But, absolutely, when you see a friend across the field for those three hours it’s good to see him. But, at the same time, you want to beat him just as bad. He’s a great mind in the game, I know that. He knows all the rules, he’s probably better at that than most guys and you’ve always got to be prepared for what he brings to the table.”
“He’s a good head coach,” said O’Shea of Maas. “He’s fiery. He was a lot of fun to be with when we coached together. He’s going to have his guys prepared and he’s going to be fired up himself. I like it, it’s fun.
“That group in 2012 was a really fun time and it turned out in our favour, winning a championship. We all benefitted from that.”
- Drew Willy of the Bombers is 12-19 as a starter, but just 0-4 in his career against Edmonton. Winnipeg is 11-16 when he takes the first snap from center and just 2-10 when he is out. He ranks second in the CFL with 940 passing yards (Trevor Harris is first at 1,083), has completed 74.2 per cent of his passes for four TDs against one interception.
- Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, as stated above, has murdered the Bombers in his career. He already has 761 yards passing in two weeks, with five TDs and just one interception. He is 26-20 in his career as a starter.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
- #38 Ian Wild
It’s not just that Wild leads the entire Canadian Football League with 22 tackles, it’s that he is a turnover-creating machine. He has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a sack through three games, continuing on a trend since last fall when he returned from the Pittsburgh Steelers and was all over the field.
- #23 Kevin Fogg
The Bombers are sitting Quincy McDuffie this week as he exited the Hamilton game a little dinged. That means some of the kick-return duties will fall to Fogg, who led the nation in kick return yardage as a junior at Liberty University in 2011 and was an All-Big South Conference First Team All-Star in 2013.
- #66 Stanley Bryant
Winnipeg’s massive left tackle figures to see a lot of Edmonton defensive end Marcus Howard, who had six sacks in 12 games last year and already has one in the Esks’ first two games.
#1 Jace Davis
The Bombers’ receiving corps has some intriguing parts: there is future hall of famer Weston Dressler, no-look catch specialist Ryan Smith, the sure-handed Rory Kohlert, and an emerging star in Darvin Adams. But teams are learning they shouldn’t sleep on Davis, the first-year CFL’er. He already has 18 receptions for 205 yards and a TD in his first three starts, and is quickly becoming one of Willy’s favourite targets.
RING OF HONOUR
The Bombers will add Ken Ploen’s name to the Ring of Honour Thursday as the legend joins Chris Walby in this special club. Ploen, quite simply, has been a king in this town since he first arrived in 1957.
The Bombers have made three changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve) as Johnny Adams, CJ Roberts and receiver Gerrard Sheppard come aboard, with Quincy McDuffie, Sergio Castillo and Travis Hawkins out. Adams and offensive lineman Travis Bond will be the inactives.
- Bomber LB Jesse Briggs will suit up again this week, despite not practicing. That’s been the case for two-three weeks now. Here’s O’Shea with an explanation:
“I need him out there, that’s the bottom line. He’s as smart a football player as you’re ever going to find. He’s very athletic and he serves a role and a purpose for this team that we need. I’m quite comfortable with him not taking reps during the week and stepping in and helping us win games.”
- Eskimos kicker Sean Whyte has connected on 18 straight field goals. He’s 7-for-7 this year, including a last-second bomb to tie last week’s game against Saskatchewan. Over his last seven games dating back to last October, he has connected on 24 of his last 25 tries.
Among his makes last year after joining the Esks was a 53-yarder with no time left in a 24-23 victory over the Bombers at IGF.
“That was a crusher,” said Maurice Leggett. “I was the guy back there that caught that field goal and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Consider this: while Whyte is perfect through two games, the rest of the CFL’s kickers have combined to go 51-of-72 (70.8 per cent) through the first 12 games of the season.
- Road teams are 8-3-1 through the first three weeks of the season. Last year, the visitors won just 44 per cent of their games.
- The Bombers have converted 54.1 per cent of their second-down opportunities this year, up from the 42.0 per cent a year ago and currently ranking second in the CFL.