Following consecutive blow-outs in weeks 1 and 2, the Bombers entered Tim Hortons Field in a must-win situation. Hamilton has dominated the Bombers in the Kent Austin regime, and another loss to open the season would result in a small, angry crowd at Investors Group Field for merely a week four contest.
But the Bombers, against all odds, prevailed, beating the Tiger-Cats by a score of 28-24 and silencing Mike O’Shea’s critics. The game was a roller-coaster ride from start to finish, which made the Bombers’ victory all the more impressive – and surprising. Mike O’Shea’s ball club proved something tonight.
1. Adversity (ad-vur-si-tee), noun: An adverse or unfavorable event or fortune; a condition marked by misfortune, calamity or distress. The Bombers faced major adversity several times throughout this game, and overcome it they did – on the road and in Tim Hortons Field, no less. Whether it’s a slow start to the game or a big play against – i.e. missed field goal, pick-six, etc. – this team has consistently succumbed to pressure ever since the 2014 Banjo Bowl. This was emphasized in week 7 last season – in Hamilton, no less – which, as a result of the team folding following a Drew Willy pick-6, saw the Bombers on the wrong end of an insurmountable lead merely 8 minutes into the game. So when a 10-point swing occurred as a result of a missed field goal being returned 120 yards for a touchdown by Brandon Banks, this game was supposedly headed for another drubbing at the hands of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. But then the Bombers’ offense did something no one expected: they responded. Collectively, the offense remained level-headed, methodically driving the ball into the red-zone for three points. And then they did it again – responding to adversity – again and again and again. From the Ti-Cats cashing in with a touchdown after Quincy McDuffie fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, to Chad Owens’ huge touchdown catch that shouldn’t have counted, the Bombers continuously fought off momentum swings, never hanging their heads once in the process. For a team that has already been booed at home and been blown-out twice, that is tremendously impressive. Good for Mike O’Shea.
2. The Bombers battled another opponent in the game: the officials. The league introduced a supposedly revolutionary video review official in the off-season, which was suppose to quickly reverse evident mistakes made on the field. It’s for this reason that it’s absolutely absurd that not one Hamilton receiver was penalized for being off-side on Chad Owens’ 36-yard touchdown, as both Owens and Andy Fantuz were clearly off-side – especially Fantuz – and the replay official made no changes to the on-field call. Chad Owens had another grab late in the game that featured at least one infraction that should’ve been called either on the field or from the command center in Toronto. While I understand that Owens was behind the line of scrimmage when he caught the pass on a drag route, and the huge block on Maurice Leggett was legal because the play was deemed a screen, there was a clear clipping penalty during Owens’ run after the catch that, despite being initially flagged during the play, somehow wasn’t applied once everything was sorted out. Video review on scoring plays was a huge talking point last year, and the league’s ineptitude regarding video replay hasn’t improved at all this season.
3. Forcing six turnovers, the Bombers’ defense had a dominant performance against a struggling Jeremiah Masoli. The ‘Cats have one of the league’s best pass-blocking offensive lines in the CFL, but the Bombers’ front-four managed to make them look rather pedestrian. With the exception of one 26-yard rumble, Hamilton running back CJ Gable picked up four rushing yards on six carries against a front-seven that surrendered over 200 rushing yards to the Stampeders last week. Led by Jamaal Westerman and Euclid Cummings, Winnipeg’s pass-rush was fearsome after being limited in weeks 1 and 2 as a result of some porous pass-coverage from both the linebackers and defensive backs. Masoli was never comfortable in the pocket, and it costed his team with multiple interceptions and fumbles. Seeing as they only won by four points despite recording six turnovers and a take-away on special-teams, the Bombers defense clearly carried the team tonight. It was only fitting that the win was sealed by the defense, as rookie defensive end Adrian Hubbard bursted through the A-Gap for a monster, game-winning strip-sack in the final minute of the contest.
4. Adrian Hubbard’s game-sealing sack should’ve secured him a starting spot in the lineup next week against Edmonton. Miami product Shayon Green has been a huge liability for the defense as an edge-defender against the run, while his pass-rushing repertoire is limited to a speed-rush that usually sees him being washed out of the play. Coincidentally, run defense is the strong suit of Hubbard’s game, and if the University of Alabama product continues to make plays going forward similar to what we saw on Hamilton’s last snap of the game, Green could be given a plan ticket home rather soon.
5. Maurice Leggett played his best game in the Blue & Gold since 2014, intercepting two passes, recording five tackles and one sack. Fooling Masoli into thinking it was man-coverage, Leggett’s pick-6 in front of Chad Owens’ curl-route was a special play that gave the Bombers their first lead of the game (aside from a rouge on the opening kickoff, that is). Leggett was finally a menace in the run-game on the very few carries Gable received, as well, while his sack just happened to come on a 1st-and-goal from Winnipeg’s four yard-line. That’s a rare, huge play. The 3rd-year Bomber deserved every bit of the praise he received from Coach O’Shea in the post-game.
6. CFL teams don’t usually win games with mediocre quarterback play, but with Hamilton turning the ball over seven times, the Bombers managed to come away with a crucial victory despite Drew Willy playing a terrible game – albeit with no interceptions. He continues to miss throws down-field – his over-throw to Ryan Smith in the end-zone was unacceptable – and plays with absolutely no anticipation. I can’t emphasize enough how fortunate Willy was to be surrounded with a tremendous amount of talent in this game. He’s late delivering throws, shies away from making plays down-field to open receivers and continues to struggle throwing with pressure in his face. These are crucial flaws that have been more than pressing issues in three games this season. Willy is currently the ninth best starting quarterback in the CFL after showing so much promise in his first two years. He’s regressing, and it’s looking less likely every week that these current issues are reversible.
7. Paul Lapolice’s red-zone play-calling was rather poor in Hamilton, especially inside the five-yard line. The Ti-Cats gave many cover-0 press-coverage looks in the end-zone, and Lapo failed to take advantage. The play-action pass inside the five that resulted in an ugly fumble was one of the more head-scratching calls on the night.
8. You would’ve never been able to tell in a million years that Willy and Ryan Smith have struggled to develop a rapport by watching the incredible, no-look touchdown catch from Smith on a quick-slant in the second quarter. It was an unbelievably lucky catch that we might never see again aside from in Madden. But my question remains: why wasn’t Smith looking for the ball on the play? Hamilton was bringing a heavy blitz, and Smith needs to be looking for that ball immediately. On a night where we saw several receivers fear catching passes across the middle – watch Chad Owens on the play that he drew a pass interference call – this was likely another example.
9. The Bombers’ special-teams were badly missing Canadians Sam Hurl and Teague Sherman on the cover teams. Hurl and Sherman are easily the club’s two best Canadian special-teamers, and it wasn’t surprising to see premiere returner Brandon Banks have a huge game, returning a missed field 120-yards for a touchdown, while also averaging 30.5 yards per return on kickoffs. Second-year Canadian linebacker Garrett Waggoner, fortunately, stepped up in their absence, notching a crucial tackle for an 8-yard loss on a late fourth quarter punt return.
10. The Bombers’ offensive line has improved tremendously this season, but they absolutely need to learn how to run-block against blitzes and, in particular, linebackers. While the feat of allowing only one legitimate sack against a fearsome, complex Hamilton pass-rush is a very, very impressive accomplishment, Bob Wylie’s group continued to catch blocks in the run game instead of delivering them. You can’t run block when you’re pass blocking. This offensive line has been one of the club’s best position groups this season, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
11. Former Toronto Argonauts defensive back Travis Hawkins made his debut in the Blue & Gold in replacement of the injured Bruce Johnson, and he had a rough debut. Signed before the Bombers’ week one contest against Montreal, Hawkins was the victim of an Andy Fantuz touchdown on a fade-route early in the third quarter – the coverage on the play was impressively bad, if that makes sense. It’ll be awhile before Hawkins is comfortable in Richie Hall’s defense, but based on his struggles with Toronto last year, he’s not an upgrade over Bruce Johnson, who finds himself on the six-game injured list.
12. Thursday’s win will silence Mike O’Shea’s critics for awhile – and good riddance. Fans have every right to doubt the third-year head coach, but it’s in no ones best interest for the club to fire their head coach mid-season – nothing good ever comes from that. The Bombers also have no possible interim coach on the roster, as Paul Lapolice is still brand new here, while Richie Hall had a poor stint as a head coach in the past. O’Shea should – and deserves to – receive every opportunity in the 18-game schedule of his third year before the club should event think about his future with the club.
13. The win in Hamilton was awesome and unexpected, but I won’t be sold on this team until Willy shows some life as a passer. I’m not sure if he can reverse his current regression, return to the player he was last season and continue his development from there. Without a legitimate quarterback, this team won’t go very far.
14. The West Division is still wide open, with the Bombers’ win and the Lions’ loss making things interesting. The Bombers are back in action next week at home against the Eskimos, who’ll likely visit Winnipeg with a 1-1 record after beating Saskatchewan.