Blue Review: Preseason Holds True as Bombers Fall Flat in Hope-Opener

The Bombers needed this win. It’s only week one, but this was a crucial loss for a Blue Bomber team that has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons.

With an extremely tough schedule ahead, it would have be huge for the Blue & Gold to start the season off right with a win at home before travelling around the country to take on some of the league’s top teams.

Instead the Bombers fell flat on their faces in their home-opener to the tune of 22-14.

1. Legendary former Bomber Doug Brown said it best: Friday night could have been the first time in football history that the preseason was entirely accurate. The Bombers starters were badly outplayed in both preseason games, largely displaying the same inabilities in week one as in both preseason games. Preseason results are typically dismissed because of the usual, but completely valid excuse that the coordinators are rolling out extremely vanilla play-calls in hopes of not showing their cards for when the regular season kicks off. While it’s a legitimate excuse, it does not seemed to have mattered in the case of the Bombers. The Blue & Gold were once again dissected on defense against the pass, while Drew Willy looked uncomfortable in the pocket and Paul Lapolice’s play-calling was, at times, uninspiring.

2. The Montreal Alouettes are under no means as bad of a football team as many think, but they gave the Bombers every chance to stay in this game with costly penalties. But the Bombers really have nothing to show for it except a misleading final score.

2. Despite several huge additions to the team, there are several legitimate concerns to be had with this football club. But I must remind you that it is, indeed, only week one, and the CFL season is terribly long. It would be ridiculous to compare the Bombers to the 2015 Edmonton Eskimos, but Chris Jones’ former team also laid an egg in the first game of their quest to the Grey Cup. The Bombers experienced plenty of turnover in the off-season, and it’s a lengthy process for the coaching staff to assess what they have and manage the game accordingly. So while it’s undeniable that this team appears to have some underlying flaws, it’s not too late to uncover the issues and adjust accordingly.

3. With that being said, Drew Willy needs to rebound in a huge way from now three consecutive poor showings. The third-year passer seems to be regressing in his development as a starting quarterback despite being in the phase where he should be peaking. I almost didn’t even recognize the 29-year-old out there last night. For the first time in his career, I genuinely thought Drew Willy looked scared in the pocket – and I’d usually never say such a thing about a professional football player. He repeatedly stared down his first read and panicked when it wasn’t there. Willy hesitatingly double-clutched several throws, as alarms seemed to be going off in his head the moment he touched the ball. Struggling to throw against pressure is nothing knew to Willy, though. But it was entirely surprising to see him miss so many throws. Willy over-threw three Bomber receivers deep in this game, and all three likely would have went for touchdowns. His wide-open over-throw on Ryan Smith’s corner route late in the fourth quarter would’ve made it a one-score game. (Willy did, fortunately, hit Darvin Adams deep on the next play to cut the deficit to 8 points). Knowing of what Willy is capable of from previous performances, it’s crucial that he re-gains his confidence, a mental element that was evidently lacking in this game and surely affected his accuracy. There’s absolutely still hope for the 29-year-old passer, but it won’t get any easier against the upcoming stout defenses he’s set to face.

4. Both Kevin Glenn and Henry Burris picked apart the Bombers’ starting defense in the preseason. It was no different in the regular season, with Bruce Johnson, Julian Posey and all three of the Bombers’ linebackers suffering in pass coverage. Specifically, Ian Wild and Khalil Bass need to be much better than how they’ve covered in three games so far. Glenn once again attacked the underneath of Winnipeg’s coverage, with Bass and Wild consistently slow at reading and reacting. Bruce Johnson, meanwhile, continues to get beat across his face by Montreal’s receivers, struggling to make plays on the ball in the air. Johnson emerged as one of the league’s top halfbacks in 2015, but SJ Green has certainly had his number in 2016.

5. The Bombers’ secondary was unacceptably burnt twice on blown coverages, first allowing SJ Green wide open behind the coverage for a 39-yard gain, and then allowing Duron Carter to walk into the end-zone in the second half. Although the latter of which was called back due to a holding penalty, this secondary needs to figure it out fast. Thankfully, Johnny Adams presence could seriously impact this defensive backfield once he returns from a lower-body injury.

6. Perhaps the lone bright spot on the Bombers’ defense was, once again, corner-back Chris Randle. I’ve been raving about Randle’s play all through the preseason, and he warranted even more praise with his week one performance. Randle recorded at least three knockdowns on the short-side corner position, also recording a huge interception on a Kevin Glenn pass at the goal line in the first quarter. Randle might be the only defensive back in the league that has Duron Carter’s number, winning both match-ups against the stout pass-catcher in 2016.

7. Rookie defensive end Shayon Green, who controversy won the opening job at defensive end in training camp, was completely exposed as a run defender by Montreal. The Alouettes managed 15.6 yards on three sweep plays to Duron Carter, challenging Green on each one. Green struggled mightily at setting the edge, an absolutely crucial job for defensive ends in the CFL against zone run-clocking schemes. Currently on the practice roster, Adrian Hubbard, meanwhile, it’s best known for his run defense, and it could already be time for the Bombers to make the switch and see what the Alabama product can do.

8. All things considered, the Blue Bombers’ rough offensive line does not deserve much of the criticism that they will receive in the loss. Although the Bombers surrendered five sacks, really only Gabriel Knapton’s third quarter sack was at the fault of the offensive line. The remaining four can be attributed to Willy holding onto the ball for far too long, failing to recognize a halfback blitz from Jovon Johnson, and the fumbled snap late in the fourth quarter – the ultimate salt in the wound.

9. The offensive line also managed to open up some decent holes for Andrew Harris to run through. The Bombers’ outside-zone play was really effective for stretches of the game, and Harris was the Bombers best skill-position play all game long. Despite registering 13 carries and 6 receptions for 120 total yards, he needs to see the ball more going forward. The Bombers running attack registered 6.2 yards-per-carry against an elite Montreal front-7; Harris needs more than two 1st-half carries going forward.

10. Although Paul Lapolice needs to do a better job of balancing Harris’ workload, his play-calling really was a breath of fresh air in many ways. The Bombers’ rushing offense featured a slew of counters, tosses and otherwise well-executed misdirection. They tried to get the sweep play going to Ryan Smith, and also gave Willy a couple of easy completions in the 1st quarter on back-to-back hitch screens to Smith and Weston Dressler – both of which picked up respectable yardage. With that being said, the Bombers failed to take advantage of a patchy Alouettes secondary that featured two rookies and Jovon Johnson at halfback. While Lapolice breathed some life into this unit, it’s undeniable that he left a lot to be desired.

11. With Dressler possibly out for an extending period of time after absorbing a scary head-shot early in the 1st quarter, expect rookie Jace Davis’ work-load to increase tremendously. While Ryan Smith is struggling to find his groove, Davis came as advertised after failing to register a reception in the lone preseason game he played in. Registering five catches on six targets for 82 yards, Davis tracked the ball well in the air and looked smooth in his route-running.

12. With Darvin Adams, Ryan Smith and Jace Davis in the receiving corps, the absence of Weston Dressler cannot be an excuse for Willy in the coming weeks should the Bombers struggle. Although no. 7 is easily the club’s top receiver, the aforementioned international receivers – plus the addition of Thomas Mayo into the starting lineup – is more than a serviceable corps of pass-catchers.

13. Bruce Johnson, who I’ve said a lot of great things about in the off-season, has had an inexcusable start to the 2016 season, both in the preseason and in last night’s game. Whereas Julian Posey and Kevin Fogg were relatively sound in coverage, Kevin Glenn went to work on the third-year field-side halfback. And with Travis Hawkins signed to the practice squad earlier in the week, Johnson needs to feel the pressure to improve.

14. With Chris Randle continuing to impress mightily at boundary corner, could Mike O’Shea and Richie Hall consider moving Johnny Adams to strong-side linebacker once he returns from the 1-game injured list? We’ve yet to seen how Adams performs when his receiver is running full-speed before even crossing the line of scrimmage, but this move would allow Randle to remain relevant at short-side corner and Maurice Leggett to move back to safety, taking Macho Harris out of the picture. This scenario is likely a stretch, but with Travis Hawkins taking over at boundary half-back, the Bombers’ lone rookie in the secondary would be at wide-side corner.

15. It was good to see Darvin Adams pick up right where he left off last season. Although he had a brutal drop late in the third quarter on a second-down play, he once again continued to play noticeable aggressively, fighting off defensive backs in both his route-running and while tracking the ball in the air. His 63-yard touchdown reception just after the three-minute warning was one play that perfectly exemplified the receiver Adams is, something we first truly say last season in week 19 against Ottawa.

16. Mike O’Shea’s special-teams were the best unit today. Quincy McDuffie was undeniably effective as a returner, while the cover-teams did an excellent job at containing one of the best returners in the league, Stefan Logan. Justin Medlock wasn’t great – he missed a 47-yard field goal, had a kickoff go out of bounds, and his punting was not great – but his 58-yarder was something special.

17. Where was Jamaal Westerman tonight? The league’s best Canadian player had an incredibly favorable match-up against second-year left tackle Jacob Ruby, who’s lunch he ate in the preseason, but Westerman was completely invisible. I’d be interesting to see how the Bombers deployed their defensive ends in their game-plan, as the pass-rush  off the edge was non-existent.

18. The Bombers play their next six games against Calgary, Hamilton and Edmonton. This team needs to figure themselves out fast, or the season will be lost before we know it. If the Bombers can reach the Toronto game at 3-4, they’re in good shape for the rest of the season. But that’s a tough task.

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