Jamaal Westerman (55), Dominique Davis (6), Kevin Glenn (5), Khalil Bass (2) in the locker room before the game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, AB. Saturday, September 24, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
VANCOUVER – It has become their mantra, repeated over and over again to hammer home the message. And, in many aspects, it’s a slogan that has also come to define the 2016 Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
‘From the handshake.’
It’s a phrase heard almost daily around the Bomber clubhouse, especially on game day. It’s about setting a tone and developing an attitude. It’s about preparation and dedication.
“It means starting fast,” explained defensive end Jamaal Westerman in advance of Sunday’s West Division Semifinal against the B.C. Lions. “It means being in a mindset that as soon as they flip that coin and you shake their hands at the start of the game, that everybody is ready to rock.
“There’s no taking a couple of plays to get ready. There’s no taking a quarter or a half to feel our way through. You have to be ready right from the jump because there are so many teams in this league that are so good. If you’re not ready to start the game with them, the game could be out of hand before you even look up.
“Sometimes we’ve done it and haven’t finished strong, other times we’ve started slow and finished strong,” Westerman added. “But that’s our goal: to start from the handshake and set the tone that it’s going to be a physical, aggressive hard-fought game and that we’re going to do everything we can to get the ‘W.’
“It’s ‘tighten the chinstrap.’ It’s like in track and field when the gun goes off or in boxing when the bell rings… there’s no hiding at that point. It’s you and your teammates and you have to be ready.”
It started in training camp as part of a message delivered by head coach Mike O’Shea. Last year the Bombers were just 2-5 when leading after one quarter and 2-7 when trailling after a quarter. By comparison, the Bombers are 6-1 when leading after the first quarter this year and 7-1 when leading at halftime.
But ‘from the handshake’ isn’t just about those numbers, or a cool catch phrase to rally around. It’s about developing a mental toughness that had been lacking in these parts over the last few years, an ability to take a punch and give a punch and a belief – as hokey as that sounds – that until the final gun sounds this bunch won’t throw up the white flag.
Now, we saw the best and the worst of it in a number of situations this season, a couple of them particularly memorable. There was the rally from a 24-0 hole in Calgary in September that saw the Bombers take a lead inside the final minute only to be beaten on a last play field goal bomb by Rene Paredes. And in the Bombers’ last visit to Vancouver, there was the rally from 10 points down late in the game as part of a 35-32 victory.
And so while preaching it doesn’t guarantee anything, believing in it means everything.
“To me it means not waiting to make things happen, it means going out there and making things happen right from the get-go,” said veteran defensive tackle Keith Shologan. “As soon as that handshake happens at centre field, we’re ready to play football.”
“Osh brought it in. It’s our mentality. If you’re going right from the handshake, it means you’re delivering the first hit. I love it.”
Finally, it’s not about flipping a switch in the moments before the game. It’s about flipping that switch every day on the practice field. Earlier in the week we asked Maurice Leggett about what ‘from the handshake’ meant to him.
And his answer, said through clenched teeth some 72 hours from kickoff, was hardcore evidence of how a player can build his intensity in the DAYS before the ball is put on the tee.
“It means let’s kick their ass right from the handshake,” Leggett said. “That’s it, plain and simple. It’s not complicated. It’s from beginning to the end.
“We say it because you just can’t start off slow in this league or you’ll get punched in the mouth. We started with ‘from the handshake’ and it grew from there into an attitude.
“We’re ready, man. We’re hungry and we still feel like we don’t get any respect. Nobody in the league seems to respect us. But we don’t care. We don’t like nobody, anyway.
“We don’t care who you are, we’re going to come out and dominate you… from the handshake.”
WEST DIVISION SEMI-FINAL
BLUE BOMBERS (11-7) at LIONS (12-6)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (CT) Sunday, B.C. Place, Vancouver.
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; B.C.: 3W.
Vegas line: The Lions are favoured by 5.
Road/Home: The Bombers were a league best 7-2 on the road this season; the Lions were 6-3 at home.
Recent history: The Bombers swept the two-game season series on consecutive weekends, winning 37-35 in Winnipeg on October 8th and then 35-32 on October 14th in Vancouver.
Playoff history: B.C. holds a 6-3 advantage in playoff meetings, including the 1988 Grey Cup – won by Winnipeg – and 2011 championship, captured by the Lions.
Semifinal history: The Lions are appearing in a semifinal for the 26th time in their history and are 8-17 dating back to 1959. Winnipeg is 19-16 in semifinals dating back to 1936.
TAKING THE BALL AWAY
There’s a theory out there heading into the West Division Semifinal that this forcing-turnovers-by-the-bushels thing the Bombers have got going is some sort of high-wire novelty act that is simply not sustainable. And yet the +29 turnover ratio the Bombers posted this year tied a club record that dates back to 1987. Winnipeg was +7 in the two games against the Lions, and generated 26 of their 72 points in those wins off the B.C. mistakes.
All of that is fact, just as are these two numbers – 51.3 and 407.9: The 51.3 is the second-down conversion rate and the 407.9 is the yards allowed by the Bombers defence, both highest in the CFL. The question then becomes how vulnerable Winnipeg’s defensive dozen are when they aren’t forcing turnovers at a record rate.
“I understand what they do well, I understand that they have playmakers, I understand that (Jennings) is a very good and accurate quarterback,” said Bombers cornerback Chris Randle. “We’re the type of defence that will do everything to win. We’re a team that likes to cause turnovers and excels when we do that. That’s our identity and that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
Sometimes lost in all the thievery the Bombers defence and special teams are doing – a league-best 30 interceptions and 19 forced fumbles (tied for second) – is how well the club has protected the ball when it has been in their possession. The Bombers had just 30 turnovers this season, second fewest to Calgary’s 26, and fumbled a league-low seven times.
JONATHON AND MANNY AND BRYAN AND CHRIS AND…
It would be a massive understatement to simply say the Lions have some offensive weapons. Quarterback Jonathon Jennings has been surrounded with some high-octane firepower in receivers Manny Arceneaux (CFL best 13 touchdowns), Bryan Burnham (15 catches of 30 yards or more, also a league best) and the deadly Chris Rainey (led the CFL in combined yards with 2,945). But while Jennings has also moved the Lions up and down the field against the Bombers, it’s worth noting he is also 0-3 against the guys in Blue and Gold in his career and he did throw a league-high 15 interceptions – a third of them in the two games vs. Winnipeg this year.
It has been suggested by many that the Bombers must to bring more heat on Jennings to force him into mistakes. But if their ability to camouflage coverages has produced wins…
“You have to have a strategic plan with all those guys,” said Bombers defensive back T.J. Heath. “Both (Arceneaux and Burnham) had close to 1,500 yards (Arceneaux, 1,566; Burnham, 1,392) and you have to keep your eyes on him.
“Jennings likes to throw the deep ball and they’ve had success with that. Our job is to make him throw the balls we want him to throw. That’s our challenge. We have to play around with him, have fun with him. Make him think twice about the ball he’s about to throw.”
BE SPECIAL ON SPECIAL TEAMS
CFL playoff history is rife with tales of last-second field goals, big-time kick returns, and foot soldiers stepping up in critical moments to decide who moves on and who heads home.
Both the Bombers and Lions are led by head coaches who completely understand the vital importance of special teams, especially in November.
Winnipeg will be without Kevin Fogg, who led the CFL with a 14.2-yard average on punt returns, but still possess a dangerous return threat in Quincy McDuffie, who tied a league record with two kickoff return touchdowns while leading the land with a 27.7 average. B.C. counters with Rainey, an electrifying returner with two punt returns and a league best 1,359 yards in kickoff returns.
The Lions have dusted off veteran Paul McCallum to handle some placekicking chores – he was four for four in his return – and take the heat off Richie Leone, who hit on only 68.6 per cent of his attempts.
But the Bombers have a cyborg in kicker Justin Medlock, seemingly a lock to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Award after leading the league in scoring and setting a new standard with 60 field goals this season.
Asked if he hoped the game came down to his foot, Medlock – a perfect 10 for 10 against the Lions this year – grinned.
“If it comes down to me, I welcome the challenge,” he said. “It’d be excited about it. I’m confident in my ability and if we get into that situation I feel like we have a lot of success. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully it doesn’t. Hopefully we win by 50.”
- Matt Nichols, the Bombers Most Outstanding Player, makes the 33rd start of his career (17-15) and 14th straight this year. He is 10-3 this season, 12-8 overall as the Bombers starter, and has completed 69.5 per cent of his passes for 3,666 yards with 18 touchdowns against nine interceptions and a QB rating of 97.1. His passing yards and 18 TDs are both career highs.
- B.C.’s Jonathon Jennings is making his 25th career start and is 12-6 this season, 15-9 overall. He finished third in the league in passing yardage with 5,226 and a 67.0 completion percentage with 27 TDs and 15 interceptions.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#33 Andrew Harris, RB
We could leave Harris under this category every week, but his importance is magnified even more come the playoffs. He’s the Bombers leading rusher (974 yards), and finished second to Weston Dressler with 67 receptions.
Harris did not post a 100-yard rushing game after August 12th, but did finish with four straight games of 100-plus yards offence (116, 150, 139 and 142) while averaging 17.3 touches per game. Those numbers will only grow if the attack finds the offensive balance that has been critical this year.
#93 Justin Cole, DE
Winnipeg needs to keep Lions QB Jonathon Jennings contained and squeeze the pocket in on him. The Bombers know they’ll get that consistently from Jamaal Westerman, but need more production from the other defensive end spot. Finding consistency here has been a season-long search for Winnipeg, with Cole – for now – the best option.
#38 Ian Wild, LB
He missed five of the last six games due to injury, but returns now with the season on the line. Even missing all that action, Wild still finished third on the team in tackles with 70 and second in special-teams tackles with 10, while adding two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble and fumble recovery. He’s a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who rarely makes an assignment mistake.
Having both him and Khalil Bass against the Lions could be massive.
#94 Euclid Cummings, DT
The Bombers signed Cummings in free agency last winter, along with Keith Shologan, to solidify the interior of their defensive line. Those two men combined for 15 sacks last year – Cummings with eight; Shologan with seven – and have a third of that this year with five. But it’s not always about sacks, it’s about pushing the pocket in pass rush and filing lanes against the run.
Cummings has come on of late, looking more like the force he was a year ago as an Argo and he’ll need to be stout again against the CFL’s leading rushing squad.
The Bombers have made five changes to their 46-man roster (including the two-man reserve list), for the West semi, adding WR Clarence Denmark, OLs Travis Bond and Sukh Chungh and LBs Khalil Bass and Ian Wild. Coming off are WR Tori Gurley, RB Timothy Flanders, DE Shayon Green, DB Kevin Fogg and OL Manese Foketi.
Bombers defensive backs T.J. Heath and Bruce Johnson vs. Lions slotbacks Bryan Burnham and Manny Arceneaux.
Burhnam and Arceneaux went off against the Bombers in their first meeting of the season – Burnham with nine catches for 208 yards; Arceneaux with 10 receptions for 150 yards – but were effectively shut down in the rematch in Vancouver a week later as Burnham finished 4-48 and Arceneaux 2-16. Those two are the most dangerous of the many Lions targets, with Burnham the type who can make the acrobatic catches in traffic and Arceneaux simply a nightmare to bring down in the open field.
The Westermans – Winnipeg’s Jamaal, B.C.’s Jabar – will battle again on Sunday in what Jamaal told Don Landry of CFL.ca will be a “significant moment within our lives.”
Jamaal, 31, is the eldest of the three brothers – along with Jawaan.
“When we were younger, there was a big size difference,” Jabar told Landry. “He used to pick me up and body slam me and lay on top of me. I couldn’t do anything.”
Added Jamaal: “Always in good fun. I think we all have scars somewhere on our bodies with one of the other ones being an ass.”
- The Bombers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, halting a four-year absence that matched the franchise’s longest ever non-playoff run (1967 to 1970).
- Bomber QB Matt Nichols has a seven-game streak with at least one TD pass. Over his first seven starts he had just one interception, but has thrown eight in the last six games.
- B.C.’s Jonathon Jennings averaged 320 passing yards per game over the final six games of 2016 with 12 TDs, but also threw seven interceptions.
- The Lions used 63 players this year and started 42, both lowest in the CFL.