MONTREAL – Maybe it’s the years of broken promises, of soul-crushing injuries – and all the disappointment that comes with it – that has made Matt Nichols both numb and uncomfortable to the idea.
But as much as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers recent run has been characterized by the contributions of many, from the stars right down to the last foot soldier, it’s also mostly about the change at quarterback.
And yet broach the idea that his recent handiwork is helping build the case that he is a bona fide No. 1 quarterback, and Nichols deftly stiff-arms the idea to the ground.
“Obviously that’s the case, but it’s not something I think about,” said Nichols upon the Bombers arrival in La Belle Province on Thursday.
“I’m thinking about going out and playing a good game for my teammates this week and helping this team win this week.”
A similar response came when he was asked if his life has changed much since he took control of the offence from Drew Willy a month – and three straight wins – ago.
“It hasn’t changed much,” said Nichols with a shrug. “You just continue to go about your business and keep preparing each and every week. We have a long way to go.
“We’ve won a couple games in a row here but we have 10 games left and it’s a long season so you try not to get too low when you’re down and try not to get too high when you’re up. You try and stay off the rollercoaster and keep attacking every week.”
That’s a safe answer, and one you’d expect from Nichols in this delicate situation the Bombers have found themselves in with Willy, their highest-paid player, now in the back-up role.
But again, the evidence that the QB change has had on this team goes beyond the win streak and Nichols’ quarterback rating. It has energized this team, beginning with the change inside the offensive huddle.
“Matt’s been playing great,” said running back Andrew Harris. “But I think ultimately the team really got sparked once they made the change. I’ve said this before, if they’re willing to make a change at quarterback and replace the highest-paid guy on the team, then they’re willing to make a change anywhere else.
“That really sparked some guys and lit a fire under our butts. Guys are playing great right now and playing with that fire and that chip on their shoulder and that edge that we need.”
Now, it’s not like Nichols is throwing for 400 yards a game during this recent run. And it’s here where head coach Mike O’Shea’s insistence that this turnaround is a team thing has legs.
No question Nichols gets the ball out of his hands quickly and to his playmakers, and looks very comfortable in Paul LaPolice’s offence. But so much of what has happened here recently is across the board.
It’s the play of rookie Taylor Loffler at safety that has allowed the Bombers to start a third import along the offensive line. It’s a veteran like Clarence Denmark being available after injuries to Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith and Darvin Adams. It’s the fresh faces in the secondary stepping up when that unit was ravaged by injuries.
It’s the kicking of Justin Medlock, the work of the defensive front, the running of Harris…
But it always starts, rightly or wrongly, with the man who takes the first snap from centre.
“Matt’s a competitor,” said Harris of Nichols. “He’s a guy that’s fiery. He’s a guy that’s going to scratch and claw and do whatever he can to get that extra inch.
“He’s a guy you want to go to war with and he’s playing lights-out football right now and getting it done. It’s just been great so far playing with him.”
BLUE BOMBERS (4-4) at ALOUETTES (3-5)
Kickoff: 6 p.m., Percival Molson Stadium
Streaks: Winnipeg: 3W; Montreal: 1W
Vegas line: The Alouettes are favoured by one point.
Recent history: Montreal has won two straight against the Bombers dating back to September of last season and including this year’s opener. Prior to that, Winnipeg had won five straight against the Als.
THE IRRESISTIBLE FORCE VS. THE MOVABLE OBJECT
It could be argued that not one unit in the entire Canadian Football League can influence a game more than the Alouettes defence. As we indicated Wednesday, Noel Thorpe’s blitz-happy crew can come at an offence from all angles and essentially put an offence on its heels from the very first possession.
“They’re trying to minimize what you can do,” said Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. “A team that pressures you a lot, you have to spend a lot of time on protection, you have to spend a lot of time on how you’re going to handle this… how you’re going to handle this in the run game, how you’re going to handle this in the pass game.
“They’re good at what they do and, certainly, they make you prepare even more.”
But that kind of high risk/high reward scheme isn’t impenetrable, either. Montreal ranks last in stopping the run (97.0 yards surrendered per game) and if the Bombers protection holds against pressure, it can also mean the Alouettes secondary is vulnerable. Montreal does have two experienced defenders in their secondary in Jovon Johnson (149 career starts) and Marc-Olivier Brouillette (55 starts) but, like the Bombers, does have some fresh faces back there in Jonathan Mincy (8 starts), Ethan Davis (7) and Greg Henderson (2).
Winnipeg’s offence has found some balance too, with two of the last three games featuring rushing totals of over 135 yards.
ROLLING, ROLLING, ROLLING
This is the kind of sidebar story that gets beaten to a pulp during a bye, so excuse us for piling on with more of the same. The Bombers were rolling with three straight wins over Edmonton, Hamilton and Toronto when the bye week appeared on the schedule.
And whether that break was well timed or not won’t be measured until the scoreboard reads 00:00 Friday night. A Bomber win and the bye will be seen as the perfect break. But a loss will open up questions as to whether it killed any kind of momentum.
Of note: the Bombers are 0-4 coming off a bye week since 2013. Their last win after a bye came on Aug 16, 2012 in a 32-25 victory over Hamilton.
“Each coach has a different opinion on how they handle bye weeks,” said Mike O’Shea. “And the coaches all talk about it and when you end up at one of those CFL deals (offseason meetings) you’re always asking questions about how people handle things differently schedule-wise.
“I look at what we’ve done in the past in terms of time off and practicing and you just try and tweak it. Everything’s been tried.”
HELLO, OLD FRIEND
Bomber fans have seen this movie too many times before: Kevin Glenn, kicked to the curb by the franchise in 2009 when then-head coach Mike Kelly hitched his wagon to Stefan LeFors, comes back to haunt his old squad. Truth be told, Glenn has played for so many teams in this league now – Saskatchewan (twice), Winnipeg, Hamilton, Calgary, B.C. and Montreal (he was also technically a member of both the Argos and REDBLACKS before they dealt him before he could take a snap) – this subplot could play out almost every week.
The 37-year-old has hall of fame numbers, but the knock on him forever has been he’s just good enough to get you beat. His career record is exactly .500 – 94-94-1 – and the last couple of weeks have been a perfect representation of that. He was 22 of 39 for 271 yards and two late interceptions in a tight loss to Edmonton on Aug. 11, but followed that up by connecting on 25 of 30 attempts for 382 yards with five TDs in last week’s blowout win over Ottawa.
The five TDs tied a career high (first set in 2005 as a Bomber) and moved him into select company in the Alouettes record books with QBs who have done the same: Sam Etcheverry (5), Anthony Calvillo (3) and Gerry Dattilio (1).
Bombers coach Mike O’Shea was asked earlier this week about the ‘good Kevin/bad Kevin’ and how to prevent the old vet from getting into a groove.
“He’s the good Kevin all the time,” said O’Shea. “He’s a very experienced quarterback in this league and understands CFL defences. To me, he’s good. How do you disrupt him? Same thing… pressure and make sure you are taking away his progression and his first read and get in his face.”
That’s the thing with facing Glenn: defences can’t get fixated on piling up sacks against him because of his quick read and release. But if they can keep him in the pocket and either collapse it or get arms up in throwing lanes, they can make his night a little more miserable.
“He’s a proven playmaker who gets the ball out of his hands quick,” said Bombers defensive end Justin Cole. “And when he gets hot… I mean, he threw for five touchdowns last week. It’s going to be a challenge.
“We’ve got to get some pressure and make him feel the D-line around him, even if we’re not getting to him with sacks. We just want to let him know we’re there and constrict him in the pocket.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 23rd start of his career and the third in a row since July 28th. He is now 10-12 overall and 5-5 as a Bomber since stepping behind centre in Edmonton in late July. He’s completed 70.4 percent of his passes this year with six TDs, one interception, and has a QB rating of 109.6.
- Veteran Kevin Glenn, the former Bomber, is 10-7 lifetime against Winnipeg. His numbers in 2016 include a 70.8 completion percentage with 11 touchdowns against five interceptions and a rating of 102.9.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#20 Johnny Adams
A West Division All-Star who tied for the league lead in interceptions last year with six, Adams is finally making his 2016 debut after spending the first eight weeks – dating back to training camp – battling through what has been called a ‘lower-body injury.’
“He’s competing extremely hard and he looks good out there,” said O’Shea. “He looks fit… they ran him all over the field the other day at practice and he survived that. He looks ready to go.”
But that doesn’t mean the Als won’t have a target on his back once the game starts Friday. As solid as his credentials are, they all came last year.
#15 Matt Nichols
You could pencil in the QB every week as one of the three Bombers to watch, but against a pressure defence like the Als, Nichols will have to be both careful with the ball but also willing to take some shots downfield when the chances are there. His 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is a testament to his play through three starts. But it gets tested against the Als.
#16 Taylor Loffler
He’s been solid since replacing Macho Harris in the middle of the Bombers air defence. Actually, he’s been more than that. He plays the position with the knowledge of a five-year vet and has the athleticism to make plays and the mean streak to stick enemy receivers when they come across his path.
#89 Clarence Denmark
It’s one of the feel-good stories of the first half of the CFL season. Guy gets cut by his team, signed by their archrival, and then unceremoniously cut again. And then he resurfaces with his old team again on an emergency recall; only to pull in 14 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns in two games.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Clarence Denmark story…
“A couple years ago Clarence Denmark was the second-leading receiver in the entire league,” said O’Shea Thursday, when asked what has ‘gotten into’ the veteran receiver. “What’s gotten into him is he’s gotten back on the football field. And that’s it. He’s always been a very likable professional and a very likable guy and he works extremely hard. He’s made good on his return.”
The Bombers have made four changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve) with receivers Gerrard Sheppard and Quincy McDuffie, and fullback James Tuck and D-lineman Padric Scott coming aboard.
Montreal has made a couple of significant additions, as both SB Kenny Stafford and RB Tyrell Sutton return from the injured list.
The return of McDuffie means the kick-return chores will be shared with Kevin Fogg.
The Bombers pass defence vs. Kevin Glenn and the Alouette receivers.
It’s a generic matchup, but the Als move their pieces around so much it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific mano-a-mano battle. Kevin Glenn & Co. can eat up a defence – just ask the REDBLACKS – and the Als’ receiving corps features a little bit of everything, from the dangerous Duron Carter, to Thick Nik Lewis, to Kenny Stafford, Sam Giguere and B.J. Cunningham.
“We have a task on our hands,” said Fogg. “(Carter) is good. He’s going to go get the ball. At the same time, we’re competitors ourselves and I like our odds. It’s making sure you’re in his face and you’re contesting each and every throw that comes his way and making sure he doesn’t have any type of room.”
- During the Bombers three-game win streak, they have trailed for only 12 of the 180 minutes played
- The Bombers were on a bye last week, but the margins of victory in Week #9 action were 24, 28, 23 and 46 points, or an average of 30.3. That’s the highest average margin in a week since July 17-19, 2002 (32.3).
- Montreal is just 2-8 in its last 10 at home while being out-scored 246-187. They are just 1-3 at Molson Stadium this year, losing by margins of 15, 24 and 20 points.
- The Bombers are 2-0 this month, already matching their win total for August in the previous four Augusts combined: Winnipeg was just 2-11 in August from 2012 to 2015.