July 29, 2016

Upon Further Review: WPG at EDM

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Kevin Fogg (23) and Edmonton Eskimos Chris Getzlaf (89) battle for the ball during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

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It was late Thursday night in Edmonton, just outside the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dressing room at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

The sounds of a 30-23 victory could still be heard as Matt Nichols, then Andrew Harris and finally Mike O’Shea stepped in front of a Bomber backdrop in the hallway to conduct post-game interviews.

There were smiles everywhere, some emotional high-fives and hearty back slaps. Rightfully so, after a mammoth win that teased at this team’s potential and – for a few days at least – helps change the negative narrative that has hovered over this franchise.

“It was big. It was big. It was big.”

Andrew Harris

“But we’ve got to flush it, come back tomorrow and get back to work.”

Now the quarterback, coach and star running back are always asked to step in front of the spotlight after a game, particularly when their fingerprints are all over the result.

But what made Thursday’s win so impressive were the other compelling storylines and characters that were critical against the Eskimos.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Andrew Harris (33) is tackled by Edmonton Eskimos Cauchy Muamba (8) and Deon Lacey (40) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Yes, any number of players could have been trotted out in front of the cameras, as so many helped author the victory.

There were the new faces in a secondary decimated by injury, all of whom stepped up to limit the damage done by Eskimos QB Mike Reilly, who threw for 346 yards and a touchdown, but with 62 of those yards and the score coming in the final 73 seconds and with the Bombers holding a 30-16 advantage.

And so, an air defence minus Chris Randle, Macho Harris, Julian Posey and Johnny Adams and featuring rookie Taylor Loffler at safety, and former Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick Terrence Frederick making his CFL debut alongside C.J. Roberts, Bruce Johnson and Kevin Fogg, was outstanding in diffusing some of the Eskimo firepower.

There was the made-over offensive line which featured Jermarcus Hardrick moving to right tackle for the injured Pat Neufeld and Travis Bond making his CFL debut, absolutely pushing the pile against arguably the best defensive line in the league.

And there was a receiving corps already without Ryan Smith, still stepping it up even after injuries to Weston Dressler and Quincy McDuffie and, late in the game, Darvin Adams.

“That’s a big win, given the circumstances,” said veteran defensive tackle Keith Shologan. “We had six guys on defence that didn’t start in the same position they did last week and you know the changes on offence.

“We’ve got a good football team. We just need the confidence that we can go out there and win games. This helps.”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Ian Wild (38) hits Edmonton Eskimos' Chris Getzlaf (89) during second half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

More on the win in Edmonton with our weekly post-game collection of notes, quotes and anecdotes we call ‘Upon Further Review’:

ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER UNIT DECIMATED… by injury. In the loss to Calgary last week, the Bombers secondary was crushed by hurts, losing Randle, Posey and Harris.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Weston Dressler (7) misses the catch as he is blocked by Edmonton Eskimos Marcell Young (23) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.And in Edmonton, the receiving corps was battered. The two men who posted 100-yard games – Weston Dressler (six catches for 111) and Darvin Adams (10-121) – did not finish. Nor did Quincy McDuffie, who brought a vertical threat and doubles as the return threat.
An APB for Clarence Denmark, the long-time Bomber who was cut this offseason and signed with Saskatchewan before his release after training camp, was put out after the game and he is expected to be on the field when the team returns to practice on Sunday.

The official status of the injured players won’t be known until then, but we can say Adams is expected to be out long term. It’s horrible news for a guy who had 61 catches for 839 yards and five TDs in 16 games last year and was on the cusp of becoming a star this season, with 38 receptions for 503 yards and three TDs one-third through this year.

With Ryan Smith on the six-game injured list, the Bombers pass-catching crew could look dramatically different for next Wednesday’s home date with Hamilton. Jace Davis, Rory Kohlert, Julian Feoli-Gudino and Gerrard Sheppard all dressed in the win, and Addison Richards is close to returning from the injured list. The practice roster also includes Thomas Mayo, who has had some moments in his stints with the offence along with S.J. Haidara.

YOU COULD TELL MATT NICHOLS was enjoying every nanosecond of the win Thursday as it came against a team that Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) looks for the pass against the the Edmonton Eskimos during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.essentially kicked him to the curb last fall in dealing him to the Bombers for just a seventh-round draft pick.

Nichols brought passion to the huddle as he had promised. And his play and the result are mammoth in winning over the faces staring back at him in the huddle.

Here’s Nichols when it was suggested to him that the victory is as important to his own cred as the result was to the team:

“Yeah. I mean, especially me telling them I’m going to do everything I can to help this team win and saying all those things, to be able to back that up on the field is what builds trust.

“A lot of times you talk, talk, talk and can’t back it up then guys are going to stop believing in you. For me, if I’m going to get those guys fired up, I’d better take care of my part of the deal and I felt like everyone stepped up and did their part.”

ONE OF THE KEY EARLY PLAYS FOR THE BOMBERS was Nichols busting through a would-be tackler to connect with Adams for a 34-yard gain that set up a Justin Medlock field goal and put the visitors up 11-0.

“When he broke that tackle early in the first quarter and made a big play where he threw the ball downfield… that excites the team,” said Harris. “You know that he’s going to compete to make plays and he’s passionate about it. That was huge for the moral of our offence and for me, personally. I got real excited about that. You need players to get the team excited and bring a spark and I thought a lot of guys did that today.”

ANOTHER BIT ON NICHOLS who was asked if his performance has him thinking beyond the next few games and staking a permanent claim to the starting-QB gig. His answer? It borrowed from the same theme he’s been saying since his arrival last fall; he’s living in the moment and not worrying about the rest.

“I’m not thinking down the road,” he said. “I’m thinking one game at a time and when you start off 1-4 you’re kind of climbing up the hill the whole rest of the season. We’ve got Hamilton next week and that’s my only focus.

“I’m not focused on five weeks or past this season. I’m thinking about this next week and we’re going to have a tough opponent.”

THE OFFENCE HAS BEEN NIGHTMARE-ISH on first down through the first five games of the season, but did a complete 180 against the Eskimos.

Consider these first-down numbers from the first half in Edmonton:

  • Winnipeg ran 23 first-down plays, with Nichols being sacked on two of them. But of note, there were also no penalties on first down.
  • Nichols was 7-10 for 91 yards on first down plays in the first half, while the club averaged 8.2 yards (10 carries for 82) per rush. Remember, these are numbers piled up all before the intermission.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Andrew Harris (33) runs in for a touchdown against the Edmonton Eskimos during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.HIS TOUCHDOWN ON THE FIRST POSSESSION was the first career score as a Bomber for Harris, who finished with a season high 127 yards along the ground.

“We had a lot of changes and a big change at quarterback,” said Harris. “A new guy on the O-line (Bond) that brings a lot of aggression and plays with a high motor and a lot of intensity. The biggest thing I noticed today was those guys were firing off and they played aggressive and were hitting them in the mouth instead of getting hit in the mouth.

“Whenever you’re getting carries and you’re not getting touched for five, six, seven, eight yards you know it’s going be a good day. You’ve just got to do your work, and make your magic and make guys miss and break tackles. It was a huge game up front for those guys.”

BOND IS A HUMAN ECLIPSE standing at 6-7 and weighing 356 pounds, he was part of a crew that bulldozed forward at the line of scrimmage. The big man had already bolted for the bus by the time got to his locker after the game, but the man who lined up beside him – Stanley Bryant – was still there to gush about the work of the new hog.

“That’s a lot of weight over there,” said Bryant with a grin. “He helped me out a lot. He did a great job of communicating. We played well together with this being his first career start in the CFL. I’m happy for him. He looked good.

“You know what? That’s a great effort by the O-line. Coach O’Shea has been preaching all week that from the handshake we had to be physical. We did that. I’m just glad we got Andrew the ball and we were able to open some holes for him so he was able to do what he does.”

Added Harris when asked about running behind Bond:

“He’s aggressive, he’s intense and he’s a monster. You combine those three things… the mistakes that someone might make because they’re earlier on in their games or coming into an offence, they don’t highlight as much because he’s so big and he plays so aggressive. As long as those guys are getting up field, it makes my job easier.”

NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN IN THE VICTORY was the work of Frederick. He finished with three tackles and a critical interception and looked very comfortable going up against a scary-good Eskimos receiving corps. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t been on the field for over a year after suffering a shoulder injury following three starts with the New Orleans Saints.

“You’re always going to be a little tentative for the first couple of plays but, other than that, we just play ball right after that,” said Frederick. “It really didn’t bother me once we got going.

“I really didn’t have any doubts. I just kept pushing and training myself to stay in shape so that when my time came, I’d be ready.”

AND, FINALLY as Frederick was conducting interviews, linebacker Tony Burnett stood behind the media scrum, pretending to time the interview length on an invisible watch.

“I’m his agent now. That’s six minutes, times $75 a minute… $450, please. This guy’s going to be a star.”

Tony Burnett

We’ll see. But it was a heckuva debut.