Offensive Play-Calling Limiting Nichols, Offense to Merely Field Goals

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers could soon learn that its not always a good thing when your kicker leads the CFL in points scored.

The Blue & Gold’s season completely turned around when sixth-year quarterback Matt Nichols was anointed the starter ahead of their week six match-up in Edmonton – a game they’d go on to win 30-23. The Bombers have since won seven consecutive games and are undefeated with Nichols behind center, and while he’s been a massive upgrade at quarterback, there’s been a visible issue with the Bombers’ offense regarding settling for field goals once entering opponent territory.

The Bombers currently have the fourth-worst red-zone offense in the league, and while that’s probably not good enough for a team that’s serious about contending for a Grey Cup, it’s having the league’s leading scorer in kicker Justin Medlock that speaks higher volumes to the lack of finish shown from the offense this season. While having scored touchdowns on 18 of 34 trips to the red-zone this season is neither good or terrible, Nichols’ unit needs more to show for driving the ball inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. It’s been largely between the midfield stripe and the opponent’s 21-yard line where promising drives are stalling, and that must change with upcoming games on the schedule against power-house offenses that will make Winnipeg pay for not coming away with six points instead of merely three.

While the success rate is, quite obviously, not there, the Bombers’ offense is still an incredible anomaly when it comes to drives ending inside their opponent’s 40-yard line. The Bombers have not allowed a single sack while in scoring range over the last four weeks – excluding a short loss on a failed quarterback draw in the late stages of the Labour Day Classic, that is – and have seen just one drive stall courtesy of a penalty. They’ve converted 4 of 7 second-and-medium situations in that span, as well as 8 of 9 second-and-short situations. Most absurdly, Nichols and Co. have not turned the ball over once while inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, and yet Mike O’Shea’s club has come away with major scores on just a disappointing 6 of their last 16 drives that penetrated into scoring range dating back to their red-zone stinker in Montreal.

The Achilles’ heal of an otherwise efficient offense that makes virtually zero drive-ending mistakes such as sacks, holding penalties or interceptions in scoring range is both massive and outrageous – the Bombers have not converted a single second-and-long situation in their last four games while in scoring range.

The Bombers are fortunate to be quite the productive offense on first down – and credit to offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice and the offense for compensating for their weakness with efficient play-calling and execution 1st-down. The ground-game is averaging 5.5 yards-per-carry, while Nichols has completed nine of fifteen passes on 1st-down for 95 yards over the last four games – an average of 6.3 yards-per-attempt. Four of the Bombers’ six touchdowns in this 4-game span have come from their great short-yardage team, with the remaining two coming on a second-and-six touchdown pass to Clarence Denmark’s corner-route against Toronto and a second-and-six touchdown run from Andrew Harris back in week 10 from 19 yards out. This first-down production while in scoring range has been huge in the Bombers rallying to seven straight victories, as offenses that can’t convert second-and-long situations are typically much more anemic than Nichols’ unit currently is.

The issue is easily found in Lapolice’s play-calls in second-and-long situations. Four of those seven attempts were gadget plays that fooled no one – a quarterback draw, a delayed bubble screen/W-Swing and two running back smoke screens in separate games. Lapolice has not hidden his affection for screen passes – particularly his patented wide receiver hitch screens, which have been quite successful, in fairness – but has not always done a good game job calling them situationally.

Considering the offensive line’s continued success in pass-protection this season, Lapolice will need to soon trust his quarterback to hang in the pocket and deliver first-down throws on five-step drops on second-and-long situations. Although defenses are typically on their heals the most on second-and-medium distances, Nichols’ success as a passer on these plays cannot be over-looked. One of many steps for Lapolice to take is to simply work on diversifying when he calls designed throws (i.e. the WR hitch screen) rather than consistently pulling them out in either first-and-10 and second-and-long situations.

Several pundits have pointed to the Bombers abandoning the run while in scoring range, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case, and it’s not overly relevant to their struggles. Although they’ve passed 15 times on 1st down over the last four games compared to just 8 run plays, as a result of their first-down production, the Bombers find themselves quite often in second-and-short and do not hesitate to use their stout rushing-attack in those situations. The Bombers simply haven’t found themselves in an insurmountable amount of second-and-long situations that follow suit of the result of an incomplete pass on 1st-down. Frankly, just 7 second-and-long situations inside the opponent’s 40-yard line is not many in four games. It’s when a team is converting them – however often they come up in comparison to other offenses – at an identical rate to Lapolice’s group that it becomes a huge issue.

A much larger issue than shying away from the run-game while in scoring range is the absence of injured boundary wide-receiver Darvin Adams. Perhaps the most valuable receiver in on the roster for his unique ability to win both at the line of scrimmage and the catch point, the Bombers don’t have a receiver capable of replicating Adams’ abilities as a deep-threat, red-zone target. Though he has the size and other skill-sets, rookie receiver Gerrard Sheppard has shown in multiple opportunities he’s not capable. (See Sheppard’s drop on a perfectly-placed ball in the end-zone on a fade-route in Regina, or his inability to control his body and get his feet in-bounds on another opportunity down the sidelines back in Montreal).

Weston Dressler has been the Bombers’ best pass-catcher and, at times, their lone threat in the receiving corps. The diminutive speedster has caught five of his last eight targets for 54 yards while in scoring range over the last four games. But his role isn’t to be a large, reliable deep-threat target in the end-zone for Nichols. All three of the incomplete passes thrown his way have been on fade-routes in the end-zone, unsurprisingly.

Adams was averaging 84 yards-per-game before being placed on the 6-game injured list following his huge game in Nichols’ first start of the season. Given his abilities to stretch the field with deceptive speed and high-point catch abilities, Adams’ impact will be noticeable upon his return.

Nichols hasn’t quite gotten the credit for having to work with a patch-work receiving corps during his time as the team’s starter. Of course, when you throw one red-zone touchdown pass in four weeks the “game-manager” label is legitimate. Regardless, the Bombers need to find ways to come away with six points more than three points with the personnel they have, especially considering the current level of which the defense is playing.

LaPolice has surely spent plenty of time adding and evaluating the red-zone section of his play-sheet recently given the offenses current struggles. The Bombers won’t be able to keep up with the Stampeders at McMahon Stadium without finishing drives with majors, and seeing as Nichols will likely still be without several key contributors in the receiver corps once again, Lapolice is going to have to find new ways to out-scheme and out-coach his opponent in the score-zone.

Whether its a matter of scheme of personnel, the Bombers’ current ways, evidently, are not good enough.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Matt Nichols, top, calls the play during first half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterback Matt Nichols, top, calls the play during first half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Bombers’ Secondary Quietly Impresses in Debut of Randle, Adams

Despite receiving great, turnover-forcing football from a young, patch-work secondary throughout their seven-game winning streak, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven’t played a single game in 2016 where both cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Chris Randle are active.

Finally, in their 46-29 win over Dan LeFevour’s Toronto Argonauts, Mike O’Shea’s defensive coaching staff finally witnessed their defensive backfield with both of their star corners in the lineup. Despite the Argonauts scoring four touchdowns in the air and 26 first half points, the early returns of this now-healthy secondary were promising.

The Bombers held another quarterback to under 300 yards passing – LeFevour completed 22 of 34 passes for 276 yards – and recorded another two interceptions, courtesy of Randle and Maurice Leggett. While 445 total yards of offense is too much, it’d be wrong to point the blame at the secondary for those gaudy statistical numbers. A specific group of six starters – Randle, Adams, Kevin Fogg, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler and Bruce Johnson – that the Bombers have been anticipating to see when everyone healed up, this unit, who some were quick to argue struggled in their first game together, played better than it would seem at first-watch or after looking at the final stats.

While it’s fair to say that Randle and Adams didn’t quite live up to all the hype in their first game on the field together, they both showed flashes of why they’re each regarded as elite cornerbacks in the league. Bombers’ fans have debated plentifully which of the two would be moved to field corner upon their return to health, and seeing as they’re each too good to be wasted out wide, the Bombers’ solution was quite intriguing. Rather than having one always align in the short-side and one always align to the wide-side, Randle played 100% of his snaps at left cornerback, and Adams played 100% of his snaps at right cornerback.

This strategy is not seen in today’s Canadian Football League. The standard procedure for teams is to put their best cornerback in the boundary and their worst cover-man at wide-side corner, where he’ll be targeted far less as the throws are tougher to make. The Bombers, however, have two stud cornerbacks, so why not have them each play both positions pending on what side of the field the ball is scrimmaged from?

Coincidentally, both Randle and Adams each played 28 snaps at field-corner and 28 snaps at boundary-corner. Meanwhile, nothing changed for the halfbacks – Fogg (boundary) and Johnson (field) each played all 56 snaps at their regular positions.

Working with a different halfback depending on if they were playing short-side corner or wide-side corner would seem to have been a challenge for Randle and Adams, but there weren’t any visible communication errors. Although it’s unknown if the Bombers will continue to deploy their stud cornerbacks in this fashion going forward, it was a much better first game for this now-healthy unit than some might think.

As expected for this much-anticipated group, the Bombers received solid play across the board from their defensive backs. The outlier, to some degree, was Randle, who the Argos visibly attempted to pick on during his snaps at short-side cornerback, but it wasn’t all bad for the fifth-year veteran. While it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride with Randle, it’s fair to say clear that all six Bomber defensive backs contributed significantly to keeping another passing offense below 300 yard.

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Often isolated in the boundary in man-coverage, Randle had plenty of tough assignments over the course of the game. While he did grade out as the Bombers’ worst defensive back, he wasn’t worse by very much despite allowing more passing yards than the five others combined. Randle was left out to dry on numerous occasions as a result of a bad mixture of missed sacks and poor gap discipline that often allowed LeFevour to escape the pocket and extend plays.

That was the case on Randle’s first touchdown allowed, a 49-yard completion to Kenny Shaw. Randle was isolated to the field-side against Shaw, who, along with having all of the wide-side of the field to work with, also had the advantage of a pre-snap waggle. Randle was forced to cover for an unmanageable amount of time on the play – Jamaal Westerman missed the tackle for a sack on LeFevour, who escaped to the outside – and had no chance. Although Shaw had separation on his original move due to Randle panicking and not staying square in his back-pedal, the damage was caused by a missed tackle on the quarterback.

Randle was also beat for an 11-yard touchdown on a dig-route from Tori Gurley. The Bombers were in press-man in the red-zone, and the 6-foot-4, 230-pound wide-receiver used his big-bodied frame perfectly to box-out Randle and prevent him from making a play on the ball. Randle prevented Gurley from getting separation, but the sophomore receiver simply had the size advantage in the match-up.

While Randle’s not-that-bad-at-all grade (-1.5) might not seem nearly harsh enough considering he allowed 96 yards, he still recorded an interception, two break-ups and a run-stop. In reality, only 50% of his targets were completions, and he was also tasked with fulfilling a lot of tough assignments that Johnny Adams wasn’t simply because of the Argos’ play-calling. We’ve seen much, much better from Randle, who was looking like the league’s best cornerback before injuring himself in the July 21 loss to Calgary, but his return to the lineup wasn’t as horrendous as some of the numbers say.

Adams’ fourth game back from injury was far more quiet, meanwhile. The 2015 All-Star didn’t allow a completion of more than nine yards, and that play should have been a pick-six had he not badly misplayed the ball in the air. After playing 14 of the first 15 snaps at boundary cornerback – which was completely coincidental – Adams spent much of the remaining game at field corner.

It won’t be easy finding a position for newly-acquired defensive back TJ Heath if the Bombers keep playing like this. Bruce Johnson was sound at field halfback, and while he’s been quite inconsistent this season, he played one of his best games of the season on Saturday.

The Bombers’ secondary as a whole played a solid game on Saturday, and it would have seemed much more respectable had the front-seven done a better job keeping LeFevour in the pocket and stopping the Argos’ rushing-attack on the ground.

Randle will bounce back, and although we don’t know if he’ll continue to take all of his snaps at left cornerback while Adams takes all the snaps at right cornerback, it’s all but guaranteed that this now-healthy secondary should continue to build on their quietly solid first game together.

With the soaring Calgary Stampeders next on the schedule, the Blue & Gold secondary needs to live up to the hype against a dynamic aerial attack.

PHOTO CREDIT TO JOHN WOODS OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
PHOTO CREDIT TO JOHN WOODS OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Willy Traded: Bombers Receive Massive Compensation in Salary Dump

“I’ve always said it takes two [quarterbacks] to win in this league,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea told reporters just days before the Drew Willy era would officially end in Winnipeg.

While finding a way to somehow dump Willy’s hefty salary to the Toronto Argonauts in a blockbuster, three-team trade that sent shock-waves across the CFL, Winning Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters also maintained an experienced no. 2 quarterback for his coach by acquiring Kevin Glenn from the Alouettes – and all it cost him was the mere price of a fourth-round pick after acquiring two much better draft selections – and a roster player – for the former backup. Simply dumping Willy’s salary off to another team before bringing in a cheaper backup would have been an even exchange for the Bombers. Walters, however, managed to make it greatly lopsided in his favor.

The return for Willy, a quarterback free-falling downhill, was even more mind-blowing than the idea itself of another general manager acquiring him with his current contract situation. An unproven, 29-year-old veteran, the Bombers’ compensation for Willy was massive – a 2017 1st-round pick, a 2018 3rd-round pick and defensive back TJ Health, who’s tied for first in the CFL with five interceptions.

A third-round pick and a roster player – but not necessarily an emerging rookie star like the aforementioned – would have been a fair trade with Jim Barker. Heck, even two mid-round picks for Willy would have benefited the Bombers’ future as long as long as the trade with Montreal was still made. The fact that Walters managed to negotiate the return he received was pure robbery.

Considering the Bombers acquired their current starting quarterback, Matt Nichols, for about as close to free as it gets – a conditional seventh-round pick – Walters was surely laughing on his way home from the office. (Not really. Like most general managers, Walters probably couldn’t help but ponder how many lives he changed that night). The Bombers now have two first-round picks in the upcoming Canadian college draft, and Toronto’s selection would’ve likely be in the top-five.

The inclusion of Heath in the trade was quite surprising, and not because he found out he was being shipped away just minutes following a multi-interception game on his birthday. The Bombers are absolutely loaded a defensive back – they could field two starting defensive backfields – and there’s no lack of young talent in the position group. O’Shea and his defensive coaching staff already had an upcoming problem – a good problem, that is – on their hands when all their defensive backs healed up. Their decisions will only be even tougher with another exciting rookie added to the group in Heath.

With Ryan Smith potentially back on the shelf for awhile – and the fact that the Argos’ receiving corps is nearly as deep as the Bombers’ secondary – it would’ve made more sense for Walters to go after a receiver since Barker was, oddly, willing to part with a roster player (which seemed unnecessary for this deal). Talented – but, like Duron Carter, problematic – receiver Vidal Hazelton has been a healthy scratch for the past three games, while break-out sophomore Kenny Shaw will see his touches decrease with the rest of Toronto’s receiving corps gaining health. Regardless, the fact that Walters actually pressured Barker into giving away one of his roster players when the Bombers probably didn’t need to be offered any more value is impressive. And the addition of Health has given fans an indication that Walters isn’t done making moves yet.

Although Walters could simply be acquiring trading assets, there’s no glaring positional need for Walters to fulfill mid-season – not even at receiver – which rules out that potential reasoning. With the secondary producing immensely, it’s not as if Walters isn’t satisfied with the play he’s witnessing – however everyone seems to disagree with Bruce Johnson – and even less so with the depth. Heath is in the first year of his rookie contract despite being 29-years-old. If the Bombers weren’t already prepared to allow Johnny Adams to walk in free agency – which would be an eye-brow-raising move to say the least – they certainly are now.

For Willy, once the face of this city formerly dubbed ‘Willypeg’, he enters a really good situation for himself in Toronto. Although the same could be argued regarding the Bombers’ near future at quarterback, there’s room for him to emerge as the long-term starter for the Double Blue. Ricky Ray could retire sooner than we think, and the Argos weren’t prepared behind him to lose the future Hall of Fame quarterback. It’s possible that all Willy needs is a fresh start – see Hajrallahu, Lirim – and given the huge bonus that is having Scott Milanovich, the ultimate quarterback guru of the CFL, being there to guide the lost quarterback, Barker should have a lot of faith in Willy.

Walters, himself, even touched on Willy needing a breath of fresh air in Toronto – both regarding the media and fan-base – in his comments in a BlueBombers.com interview. He was under the microscope early and often this season in Winnipeg, crumbling early on against the pressure.

In year three of the Willy-Walters-O’Shea era, and with big-fish signings all around, that trio had a lot of pressure surrounding them heading into the 2016 season. Willy seemed to have shouldered it all before the regular season had even started, and his confidence fell off a cliff as a result. He’s shown the capabilities of being a starter in the past, but his mental toughness became the defining reason for his exit from the city he owned for a few weeks in the summer of 2014.

The Argonauts won’t look back at this trade too negatively if Willy re-establishes himself in the CFL, of course. But for the Bombers, who had no reason to keep Willy at his current salary as long as they could acquire Kevin Glenn, this trade will be a win-win no matter what happens to Toronto – or even Matt Nichols – in the future.

I’ve long been a supporter of the University of Buffalo product, but after the immense downfall that took place early this season – whether that was a product of Willy’s skills or just his confidence level – he was never going to make it as long as he was wearing Blue & Gold, unfortunately.

Knowing that only makes the ridiculous compensation Kyle Walters received for his expensive, doomed former franchise quarterback even sweeter.

Bombers Discover Team Identity Amidst Winning Streak

Whether or not the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ six-game winning streak is necessarily indicative of the team’s contending chances or not, these weeks of winning have allowed Mike O’Shea’s team to discover itself as the wins piled up.

All winning teams have an identity. It might root from a coaching philosophy or a collective attitude, but the players and coaches buy in and have confidence in the process. There’s a direct correlation between the last time the Bombers had an evident team identity and the last time this city saw a winning football team before 2016 – the Swaggerville era of 2011.

The Bombers have sorely lacked any sort of an identity in O’Shea’s first two seasons, with inconsistencies on both side of the ball and plenty of player turnover. A different unit would be at fault in every loss, and the recipe for success was just not clear with that group of players and coaches. Whether Kyle Walters assembled the right group of players, or simply the veteran players and coaches gelled in year three, the Bombers know exactly who they are. And, unsurprisingly, this internal-discovery began when Matt Nichols took over the starting quarterback duties from Drew Willy.

With O’Shea holding onto his job by a thread with a 1-4 record in week six, Nichols helped the Bombers put 30 points on the board for the first time in over a calendar year as the Bombers handily took down the defending Grey Cup Champions in Commonwealth Stadium. And then something happened during the bye week. Or maybe it was sparked by the dominant win over the Tiger-Cats in the next game. Perhaps it clicked when defensive coordinator Richie Hall was forced to make considerable changes to his system following the Calgary game to accommodate for his injury-plagued, inexperienced secondary that really began to click despite rookies everywhere rather immediately.

Regardless, the Bombers found their identity somewhere during that time; an old-school football mentality with a turnover-hungry defense and run-first, ground-and-pound offense. Nichols is merely managing ball games – he’s thrown just one interception to seven touchdowns – as the defense and special-teams units consistently put the offense in healthy positions. Despite terrible red-zone production, the Bombers are still fifth in total points scored.

Field position has been generous for Nichols and the offense, as in his first full year as the Blue & Gold’s special-teams coordinator, O’Shea’s punt return team boasts the third-best return average in the league. Kevin Fogg, who’s had three touchdowns called back, has been electric as a punt returner, while free agent addition Justin Medlock has earned all of his hefty salary having booted a franchise-record of 22 consecutive field goals through the uprights. Equally as effective, meanwhile, has been O’Shea’s cover units. Their lone blemish was a late punt-return touchdown from Kendial Lawrence in the Labour Day Classic on a play where Medlock seemed to out-kick his coverage.

Running back Andrew Harris is currently the league’s second leading rusher with 677 yards, and has 17 more carries on the season than the next leading ‘back. The Bombers’ offensive line has dominated in both run-blocking and pass-blocking ever since Nichols became the starter, having allowed just 8 sacks in his 6 games. The difference could very well be rookie starter Travis Bond, who’s been the first player to solidify the left guard position since Chris Greaves was traded early last season. Bond was promoted onto the active roster after Canadian book-end Pat Neufeld was placed on the 6-game injured list following the Bombers’ home loss to Calgary in Willy’s final start. That pushed Jermarcus Hardrick out to right tackle, providing Nichols with three American blockers up front and the best starting offensive line possible given the Bombers’ personnel from training camp.

In a year of prolific passing offenses, the Bombers boast the league’s third-best record despite a middling offense thanks to the aerial attack. It’s been the defense, which has merely allowed just two more points than Calgary’s no. 1 ranked unit, that has shouldered the weight – an anomaly in 2016. Richie Hall’s defensive backfield has seriously clicked this season, having recorded 9 more interceptions than the next best team despite a slew of injuries. With rookie starters at boundary halfback (Kevin Fogg), both cornerback positions (CJ Roberts and Terrance Frederick) and safety (Canadian Taylor Loffler), the Bombers clearly boast an exceptional amount of young depth – and it’s contributing now.

A sore-spot in past seasons, the defensive line is finally taking pressure off the secondary, as Kyle Walters went out in free agency and acquired help for premiere pass-rusher Jamaal Westerman. Former Argo Euclid Cummings has been fantastic at the 3-tech position, while after each starting their respective seasons terribly, both defensive ends Shayon Green and Justin Cole have come around. This collapsing defensive line has played a huge role in the Bombers forcing a league-leading 39 turnovers – at least 10 more than the next best team. And while recording around six turnovers per game won’t be sustainable against the league’s elite teams, the Bombers defense has shown capabilities of dominating opponents without the turnovers. For reference, Hall’s unit forced just one defensive turnover – a strip by Kevin Fogg on rookie receiver Caleb Holley – while limiting Darian Durant’s offense to 288 net yards and 10 points in the Banjo Bowl. This swarming defense has excelled with and without its top corners, Johnny Adams and Chris Randle. Envisioning this defense together at full-health is scary for opponent offenses.

After taking care of lesser competition, the Bombers face a big test after one more should-be win against the Argonauts sans Ricky Ray. They’ll then face West Division opponents for four consecutive games with matches versus Calgary, Edmonton, and a home-and-home with the Lions.

It’ll be on this stretch where the Bomber faithful finds out if this team is true contenders with the current state of their odd winning ways in comparison to the league’s other dominant teams.

There may not be smoke-n-mirrors surrounding this team – the Bombers are beating the teams they’re supposed to beat – but whether or not they can hold their own against the best teams in the West remains to be seen.

Photo credit to CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)
Photo credit to CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)

Stock Market Report: Bombers vs. Argonauts

It’s official: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are streaking, and it shouldn’t end soon.

Having somewhat survived the gruesome opening third of the season, their schedule gets much easier for awhile. In their next three games, the Blue & Gold will play in Montreal and the home-and-home with Saskatchewan. That’s three games that the Bombers are expected to win.

Yes, that makes it six consecutive games the Winnipeg Football Club is expected to win.

The club’s 34-17 win in Toronto, which featured five interceptions from the defense, a 100-yard rushing game and zero sacks-surrendered, has certainly got the ball rolling for the next part of their schedule. This game was another huge confidence booster and, for once, I don’t have this feeling deep down that the team will let the fans down in the next three contests, losing two or more.

BLUE CHIP STOCKS

1. Jamaal Westerman, DE: The Bombers’ Most Outstanding Player nominee in 2015 didn’t even crack the stat-sheet, but he was the best player on the field on Friday. Westerman recorded two quarterback pressures – one of which featured a QB hit – and was consistently grading positively on his pass-rushes on Argos’ LT Chris Van Zeyl. He showed above-average awareness compared to fellow defensive ends when dropping into coverage, and as long as the 31-year-old continues his outstanding work against the run, he’ll continue to earn blue-chip stocks (and be labeled as the best, all-around defensive end in the league).

2. Travis Bond, LG: This was only the rookie’s third ever start, and while he has graded positively in all three starts, the 6-foot-7, 256-pounder is still ironing out the wrinkles in his game. When he makes a good play, it’s always an outstanding play. But, despite these promising blocks, he’s still making plenty of minor errors or leaving some plays on the field. Evidently, Bond has sky-high potential, and since he’s already showing well, it’s hard to imagine just how good he’ll be once he has more experience under his belt. Bond was the Bombers’ best pass-blocker all night, and while he started to catch blocks in the run-game as the contest wore on, his raw strength was enough to open up lanes for running back Andrew Harris.

3. Ian Wild, LB: The fourth-year Bomber has had some good/great games as well as some poor games in 2016. The Argos’ game was undisputedly his best performance all season. Wild played a near flawless game, showing his tremendous range and quickness against the pass, while the Richie Hall’s signature 4-3, 50-front finally worked, opening up lanes for Wild, his MIKE linebacker. Back in week one, the Alouettes attacked Wild in the air, flooding his zone to take advantage of the single high inside linebacker look. But since that game, and as the season has progressed, he’s been absolutely outstanding against the pass. He covered acres of the field, and his nearly decapitating hit on receiver Kenny Shaw during Kevin Fogg’s interception is one of several examples from this game. Wild dropped high and to the right to fulfill a deep, middle-hook zone – almost as an inside robber keeping his eyes on the quarterback while trusting his peripherals (something that Taylor Loffler needs to work at). He then immediately flips to the left faster than most linebackers as Kilgore winds up to throw, and somehow makes it to the receiver to deliver the knockout blow, covering a ton of ground in the process. There aren’t many linebackers in the league that are expected to make that play, with Wild and Adam Bighill being the exceptions.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

1. Andrew Harris, RB: Although Harris had a spectacular second half on route to a 123-yard rushing game, his rough start, which included a handful of runs with straight tunnel-vision (he made a lot of lackluster reads and missed cut-back lanes), brought down his grade just enough. It wasn’t perfect, but from there on Harris consistently scraped for every yard despite merely OK run-blocking. He put on a clinic on breaking tackles and keeping feet moving while running through contact, as none of his runs came easy. Harris, at times, needed to create for himself or make up for missed assignments from the offensive line. The Winnipeg native is now first in the CFL in rushing with 503 yards.

2. Euclid Cummings, DT: While nose tackle Keith Shologan’s success was primarily against two young, inexperienced linemen in RG Corey Watman and rookie C Sean McEwen, Cummings managed to dominate All-Star LG Tyler Holmes. The former Argo continues to be a gem as a pass-rusher, notching two pressures on Logan Kilgore. Playing second fiddle to Westerman, the 6-foot-3, 298-lb three-tech was a threat on the edge when Bombers used stunts between the defensive end and defensive tackle, which few of his size can. Cummings also breached the blocking for two tackle-for-losses in one his best, all-around games of the year.

3. Maurice Leggett, SAM: Likely the face of the defense to Bombers’ fans, Leggett was on cue for his weekly programming of entertainment. The third-year defensive back snagged a pair of interceptions – one of them being returned 98-yards for a touchdown  – and was effective against the run. Although his first interception earned a neutral grade, his second, which only came about a minute later, was much more of an impressive play. As Leggett dropped deep and to the sidelines as a deep-zone defender in cover-3, he picked up receiver Wallace Miles’ corner route. He then climbed the ladder to make a beautiful catch over Miles while keeping his feet in bounds. It was his nicest interception of the season – he leads the CFL with four – in a game where he didn’t surrender a single catch allowed.

(Just missed: Keith Shologan, Stanley Bryant)

JUNK BONDS

1. Manase Foketi, RT: Based on his preseason, Foketi’s regular season debut went as expected: it wasn’t good. Although his run-blocking was the biggest issue, he struggled blocking across his face, being fooled badly by the out-n-in moves of Shawn Lemon – a premiere pass-rusher – from over-committing. In terms of run-blocking, which is typically an extremely easy job for offensive tackles in the CFL, Foketi struggled with both down-blocking and going up to the second-level. Considering how good Jermarcus Hardrick was playing at right tackle, I’d be counting down the days until his return.

2. Chris Normand, FB: In typical rookie fashion, the 1st-year starter – but sophomore Canadian – followed up a great two-game stretch with a poor one. Normand wasn’t quite as involved in the offense like usual, but he hurt the team more than he helped when on the field.

3. Matt Nichols, QB: Sure, Nichols’ grade would have been better if he needed to do more, but the ground-attack was looking unstoppable, and the defense kept forcing turnovers. In the 28 drop-backs he took, he happened to make a lot of mistakes and miss some throws. Nichols’ first interception came on a throw to rookie receiver Kris Adams, who rounded behind the DB in zone coverage to run his in-route, which was a risky throw based on the following: both FS Thomas Gordon and LB Cory Greenwood saw Nichols staring at Adams, while the halfback seemingly noticed the receiver cutting behind him. It would’ve been a great play if Nichols completed the pass in the small window, but instead he sailed the ball high and to the right. Nichols should have also thrown a second interception, except Greenwood chose to tip the ball up rather than making the easy interception. The veteran signal-caller was looking for Jace Davis on a dig-route across the middle, but Greenwood was sitting right in the passing lane – a rookie mistake for Nichols. He also badly under-threw Adams wide open down the sidelines on a go-route in the third quarter, and other than that, he simply missed some open receivers in the direction he was looking and attempted passes to others that were well covered.

(Just missed: CB CJ Roberts, RG Sukh Chungh)

BUY/SELL

BUY: Kevin Fogg is legit. Two interceptions, a sack, a fumble recovery and an outrageously good return average; Kevin Fogg played the best game any rookie has played this season (at least in the box score). With Chris Randle, Johnny Adams and Julian Posey soon returning from injury, Fogg will not be the one losing his spot. I’d expect these six starters in the secondary: Adams (B-CB), Fogg (B-HB), Loffler (FS), Leggett (SAM/SS), Johnson (F-HB), Randle (F-CB). Both CJ Roberts and and Terrance Frederick will be kept around – possibly on the 1-game injured list.

SELL: Clarence Denmark has returned better than ever: Look, I’m cheering for Denmark as much as anyone, but all three of his touchdowns have been the result blown coverages. His touchdown in Hamilton was on a fake screen pass, and his 79-yard major in Toronto was off play-action that made the Argos’ entire defensive backfield bite. His other touchdown in Toronto was also blown coverage on his corner-route – HB Devin Smith, who had a deep-third in cover-3, ran with Thomas Mayo’s post-route by mistake. He also had a 35-yard catch in the third quarter that was also as a result of deadly play-action pass.


NEXT GAME: Friday, August 26 in Montreal.

rory
ALL CREDIT TO THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Fogg Emerging as Potential Candidate for Most Outstanding Rookie

As the Bombers’ defensive backfield crumbled from injuries, their one consistent defender in the secondary just happened to be a rookie. Kevin Fogg, a 1st-year player from Liberty University, has gotten better every week since winning a roster spot following constant interceptions in training camp.

Fogg’s four tackle, two interception and one fumble recovery game – with a 16.3 average on punt returns –  last week in Toronto was likely the best game any rookie has played this season. He was, however, burned for a touchdown on Diontae Spencer’s corner-route, and while he’s not always consistently a shutdown defensive back, it appeared as though Fogg thought the ball was already thrown given he had stopped running on the play. Playing the game’s most difficult position in the secondary, boundary halfback, while also proving to be a threat in the return game, Fogg is gaining the reputation of an exciting, highly-entertaining play-maker in his rookie year.

In a weak rookie class, Fogg could even be considered the leading candidate for the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie award, in fact. There’s very little competition as the season nears September; his biggest competition is perhaps Saskatchewan’s Ricky Collins Jr., who’s become an inconsistent performer given the struggles of the Riders’ offense. Loucheiz Purifoy is starting to come around in British Columbia, but at this point, there’s a lack of notable rookies at skill-positions.

When it comes to league awards, the voters don’t typically look very far past final statistics and other outliers, such as the success of the player’s team, injuries to other rookies, etc.. The level of difficulty of the player’s role/position in their system is not really considered – a defensive back could have five interceptions, but two of them, for example, came when he was in trap-coverage where he’s expected to make the play as the quarterback fell for the trick of the defense (see CJ Roberts’ pick-six against Hamilton) – or necessarily the amount of negative plays accumulated, or even his value to the team. There’s a difference between the ball being thrown to you, and making a play on the ball. Although it’s a different league and group of voters, Kansas City Chiefs’ cornerback Marcus Peters was crowned the AFC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year thanks to a whopping 7 interceptions, but he also allowed the fourth-most touchdowns and second-most yards in the entire league.

Fogg is accumulating those big, eye-popping numbers; he already has 3 interceptions, 42 tackles, a sack, a fumble-recovery and two return-touchdowns called back. It won’t be, but what should be considered is that he plays the defensive backfield’s toughest position in boundary halfback, which consists of being on a complete island in several coverages. The wide-side halfback has constant support from the strong-side linebacker – the short-side halfback does not.

Fogg has also dropped two easy interceptions – one against Montreal and one against Calgary – which would have boosted his stat-line even more, giving him three interceptions where the ball was thrown right at him and a total of five not even at the midway mark of the season.

Deservedly so, Fogg’s performance as a punt returner is causing a buzz around the CFL. He’s been electric back there, proving to be patient behind his blockers before bursting through the seem. It’s unknown if he’s sustainable as a punt returner since he’s more of an east-west runner, but the historic NCAA FCS returner is still young enough to be coached out of his bad habits. With blazing speed and cut-on-dime ability, Fogg has all the physical abilities required, but there’s no guarantee that head coach and special-teams coordinator Mike O’Shea won’t hand the return duties back to Quincy McDuffie when he returns from injury. McDuffie is quite capable, while in Fogg’s case, playing full-time on defense and special-teams is usually too much for a player to handle.

Regardless, if he keeps making big plays on defense, and the Bombers’ defense continues to improve, the accolades will come for Fogg. He could still be underappreciated for how well he plays away from the ball, but a Rookie of the Year award – the first Bomber to win since Chris Matthews in 2012 – would still be quite the feat for number 23.

NATHAN DENETTE (THE CANADIAN PRESS) I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
NATHAN DENETTE (THE CANADIAN PRESS) I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Serviceable Quarterback Play Showcasing Bombers’ Contending Roster

Both Bombers’ general manager Kyle Walters and his personnel department have, through three seasons on the job, built a contending roster for head coach Mike O’Shea.

It’s for this reason that the Bombers’ terrible start to the season was so puzzling, as none of the free agent signings were underwhelming, and it was very evident that the roster boasted the talent to dominate. Naturally, the blame was pointed directly at O’Shea, but as Bombers’ fans know better than most from experience, the success of a Canadian Football League team is heavily dependent on the quarterback no matter the supporting cast on offense or defense. Drew Willy, the franchise pivot who was signed to mega, $415,000 annual contract, was simply not getting it done.

With Matt Nichols now supplying consistently serviceable play, the Bombers’ entire roster is being showcased, and they appear to be one of the most talented teams in the CFL. The defense, which has played the last few games missing nearly their entire secondary, leads the league in takeaways with 27 – the next team on the leader-board is the Argonauts at 16. The run-game is finally taking off under star, Canadian running back Andrew Harris, who leads the CFL in rushing at 505 yards now that opposing defenses have to, at least, respect the Bombers’ aerial attack. In a league that has underwent a passing explosion since drastic rule changes in 2015, having done it two games in a row, the Bombers are proving to be one of the only teams to be able to win with under 300 yards passing.

Walters’ master plan, which was completed this off-season with free agency and the draft after a planned, three-year rebuild, is coming into fruition. The missing ingredient during the tumultuous start of the season just so happened to be at the most crucial position in the game: quarterback. With Nichols now inserted into a starting role, the Bombers’ last few off-seasons are looking great.

No matter the free agent signings, teams’ scouting departments must be able to consistently discover American players who are sitting on their couches, waiting for a call to resume their professional football careers. Winnipeg’s scouting department has sorely underachieved during Walters’ term, annually failing to uncover a starting caliber American rookie offensive lineman, receiver and defensive end – not to mention some depth at the position – until this year. Travis Bond and Jermarcus Hardrick, although the latter had already spent some time in the CFL, have solidified the offensive line, while Jace Davis and Thomas Mayo are each better than any rookie receiver the Bombers have brought in since Chris Matthews.

Finding young defensive backs has been the only consistent discoveries of the scouting department until this season – Johnny Adams and Bruce Johnson were great acquisitions – and they’ve continued that trend in 2016. Boundary halfback and dynamic kick returner Kevin Fogg is a threat to win Rookie of the Year, while Terrance Frederick and CJ Roberts are developing into future starters as they fill in for the injured Chris Randle and Johnny Adams. Rookie Canadian Taylor Loffler, meanwhile, has solidified a starting safety spot just months after being drafted in the third-round.

Johnny Adams was one of the league’s best defensive backs in his rookie season, while Chris Randle was playing at a higher level than any defensive back in 2016 before suffering an injury. Without them, the Bombers’ secondary has been a dynamic, turnover-machine, displaying the depth of this team.

Walters nailed free agency this signing – the Bombers inked contracts with six big-name free agents: Euclid Cummings, Andrew Harris, Euclid Cummings, Keith Shologan, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – defying the foolish belief that free agency is a terrible idea for rebuilding teams, and that there’s always a reason the players weren’t initially re-signed, and it rarely works out, etc. His acquisitions in 2015 have panned out good, too, as Darvin Adams has emerged into a go-to receiver, and two-time All-Star Stanley Bryant has been consistent protecting his quarterback’s blind-side.

The Bombers’ offensive line has been one of the teams weakest positional groups during all of Walters’ tenure, but they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved while Drew Willy was behind center during the first five games of the season. Versatile international pick-ups Jermarcus Hardrick and Travis Bond were great acquisitions, while 3rd-year Canadian Mathias Goossen, who’s in his first season as a full-time starting after being selected with the second overall pick in 2014 – is blossoming into an elite center. According to 3 Down Nation’s John Hodge, the Bombers surrendered an average of 3.2 sacks-per-game with Drew Willy at the helm. Under Nichols, who’s decisiveness and movement in the pocket is the difference, the average sack-rate has dropped to 1.66 sacks-per-game since making the switch at quarterback.

The defensive line, meanwhile, has been good all season, and they’re making the flashy plays now that the defensive backfield is encouraging offenses to run the ball, and quarterbacks to hold onto the ball. A unit that has plagued this defense over the last two seasons, former Toronto Argonaut Euclid Cummings has been a one-man wrecking crew at defensive tackle, supplying the needed pressure from the pass-rushing, three-tech position. Jamaal Westerman continues make a case as to why he’s the most well-rounded defensive end in the game, and opposite him, Shayon Green is finally coming along after a tumultuous start to his rookie season. This unit has dominated the opposite offensive lines three weeks in a row – all of which were played in front of a supposedly patch-work secondary.

There’s no direct correlation between Matt Nichols and the defense, of course, but the offense is finally controlling both the time-of-possession and the field-position. He hasn’t had to carry the team, passing for 350-to-400 yards on a consistent basis like most quarterbacks for their team to have a chance – in fact he hasn’t even had to pass for 300 yards. But he’s managing the production on first down, recognizing busts in coverage and giving his receivers opportunities to make plays. In two of three starts, Nichols has simply stuck to basics of the system, managing the game and delivering the ball to his play-makers – and kudos to Nichols; Drew Willy wasn’t capable of fulfilling even the simpler job for pivots in Paul Lapolice’s offense.

It’s scary to imagine how good this team would be if an elite quarterback like, say, Mike Reilly was leading the charge – at the end of the day, quarterbacks make the entire roster better. But, for now, Nichols is holding up his end of the bargain, and his serviceable play is proving to be enough on a team with a great supporting cast, from the starters all the way down to the practice squad.

PHOTO CREDIT TO NATHAN DENETTE OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
PHOTO CREDIT TO NATHAN DENETTE OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Stock Market Report: Bombers vs. Eskimos

No, Milt Stegall is not an active Bomber, and it’s not 2006. A modern-day Blue Bomber football team arrived in Edmonton, conquered the Eskimos, and left the City of Champions with a legitimate victory. The Bombers’ 30-23 victory was the club’s first win in Northern Alberta since 2006, indeed.

And Stegall wasn’t the miracle performer. Instead, a pair of Canadians provided the magic in the club’s huge win for Mike O’Shea’s desperate group.

BLUE-CHIP STOCKS

1. Andrew Harris: The Winnipeg native has been due for a break-out game on the ground, and he certainly delivered in Edmonton – a team that he’s coincidentally been known to dominate during his days as a BC Lion. Rushing for 127 yards on 5.8 yards-per-carry, Harris’ finest hour came in week six. While the Bombers’ offensive line played their best game of the season, I try to make sure that the play of the offensive line (and the opposition’s defensive line) has no impact on my observation of the running back’s performance; he’s assessed for his reads and what he does after making the right (or wrong) read. He could grade equally as successful in a game where he averages 2.6 yards-per-carry or 5.8 yards-per-carry. Harris made confident reads with anticipation, and showed no signs of hesitation and good pad-level hitting the hole in the second game versus the Eskimos’ struggling defense in 2016. He broke three tackles at the point-of-attack, but also consistently kept his feet moving through contact for extra yards. With Harris’ star-studded performance, the Bombers’ offensive line’s best game of the season run-blocking, and Edmonton’s demoralizing interior defensive line play, the recipe for great offensive success running the football was in place for the Bombers – 127 yards was the result.

2. Jamaal Westerman: Six pressures, an unblocked sack, but a QB-stop nonetheless, and ridiculous run-support, Westerman was, once again, the Bombers’ best defensive player; in other news, there’s nothing to see here. Eskimos’ LT Tony Washington proved to be the next offensive lineman incapable of blocking Westerman’s patented counter pass-rush move, but it’s hard to blame him considering the NFL veteran’s huge tool-box and unpredictability at his stem that’s claimed so many victims in the CFL. Along with his club move, Westerman could also hit lineman with a grab, rip or swim move after the initial bull-rush, and if they begin to guess, he’ll take advantage by continuing his bull-rush all the way, or turn his rush into a speed-rush. Essentially, Westerman is unblockable, and his counter/club move claimed victims three times three times to provide severe pressure on QB Mike Reilly.

3. Darvin Adams: The fourth-year veteran has become the Bombers’ most valuable player in the receiving corps, and an integral contributor to the offense; in other words, he’ll be heavily missed for the next 6 weeks as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Adams connected with QB Matt Nichols in each of his first seven targets on route to a total of 10 catches on 13 targets for 121 yards and a touchdown, which was the result ofa a good release off the versus press-man but largely a bad play from CB Pat Watkins, who was caught peaking into the backfield. Adams’ performance before the injury proved his worthiness, as his consistent play can be broken down to four really good plays and two spectacular plays. Adams’ 1st-quarter leaping, out-of-bounds grab qualified as two of those huge plays, as he perfectly drove CB Pat Watkins to flip his hips around exactly as he began a quick, sharp cut to the sideline that was proceeded with a fantastic catch. An incompletion early in the third quarter was his other exceptional play, where Adams fought off a physical press-coverage with power and his cut-on-a-dime ability to create great separation on another out-route.

4. Jamarcus Hardrick: The first-year Bomber looked right at home back in his natural position at right tackle. Hardrick did not surrender a single QB pressure despite being matched up with an All-Star DE, Odell Willis, and strict sack-master, Markus Howard. With prototypical size, raw strength and natural, quick feet, Hardrick possesses all the physical gifts to be a great book-end, and with Willis and Howard each playing poor games, his physical gifts were all he needed. As he continues to polish his technique, Hardrick will win more battles three yards into the pass-rush when the quarterback hits the top of his drop and the defensive end is forced to make a decision on how he’ll attack the play. But, regardless, Thursday was a major step in the right direction with the Bombers relying on Hardrick to be a staple at right tackle as Canadian starter Pat Neufeld is out for an extended period of time.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

1. Travis Bond: I’ve always believed that if Bond hadn’t missed the Bombers’ second preseason game in Ottawa due to an ailing injury then he’d have won the starting spot at left guard out of training camp – he was that good in his first and only preseason against the Alouettes. Bond showed exactly why the Bombers thought he was worthy to store him on the two-man active roster reserve all season in his season debut in Edmonton. Thursday was the best the offensive line has looked all season, and Bond was a significant contributor. He saw a lot of one-on-one blocking, too, as defensive coordinator Mike Benevides loves to eliminate the opposition’s center from double-teaming in obvious pass-blocking situations by aligning both defensive tackles as 4-techniques that shade the inside of the offensive tackles, with defensive tackles outside the tackles. Bond, as a result, saw a lot of All-Star interior defender Almondo Sewell, and made him look rather pedestrian, frankly. One of Bond’s few, and only major, blemish was a sack allowed from Howard – the defensive end who aligned as a three-technique, and beat the rookie left guard with a spin move.

2. Taylor Loffler: The eventual third-round pick in the 2016 draft has shown this season exactly what I concluded in my pre-draft work: he was the most pro-ready CIS defender available in the draft. So when a series of past injuries consequently made the former University of British Columbia Thunderbird drop to the nineteenth selection, the Bombers knew exactly who they were getting. That pick has already payed dividends just a few months since the draft, as Loffler was an integral piece of the Bombers’ success against the Esks’ aerial in his first-career start. Formerly a member of NCAA D1 program Boise State for four years, Loffler broke up two passes with big hits, and despite not recording a solo tackle, he was in on a lot of gang tackles. He also managed to, impressively, allow just one catch – a 24-yarder to Chris Getzlaf in garbage time – whereas starting FS Macho Harris allowed two touchdowns to Cory Watson when the Eskimos visited Winnipeg a few weeks ago. Harris is still an upgrade over the Canadian rookie at this point in his career, but Loffler should remain a legitimate option to complete the Bombers’ seven starting Canadians while RT Pat Neufeld is out.

3. Khalil Bass: It’s no coincidence that Bass has had a considerably larger impact on the defense since he’s been allowed to play linebacker rather than basically playing defensive tackle, aligning head-up on an offensive lineman on the line-of-scrimmage on first-down. Bass’ best two games of the 2016 campaign have come in the last two weeks, with Richie Hall attacking the run-threat of Jerome Messam and John White differently than in past games this season. He showed great anticipation and took good angles to the ball against the Eskimos on Thursday, but made two really huge plays in second quarter on John White in the hole, absolutely laying a lick on the start runner at the 12:13 mark, and then doing a great job scraping from the back-side to the cut-back lane at the 6:22 mark, making another physical stop. While Bass played a huge role in limiting White to just 8 yards rushing, he was better than usual in pass-coverage, making a great play to quickly change directions and instinctively pick up – and knock-down – Derel Walker’s crossing route later in the second-half.

(Just missed: LB Ian Wild, CB Terrance Frederick, C Mathias Goossen)

JUNK BONDS

1. Justin Cole: Yes, the Bombers still have a huge hole in their defense at front-side defensive end. Shayon Green, though he easily had his best game against Edmonton by a mile, should have been cut two weeks ago after getting numerous chances to supply something in his starting role; former Alabama rush-end, Adrian Hubbard, did no better excluding a game-winning sack vs. Hamilton, and has since been cut; and Justin Cole’s season is certainly off to a rough start given his performance in Edmonton. Green ended up receiving more reps than Cole as the game wore on, as the latter was unable to do anything from the 3-tech position – the Bombers will often bring in three defensive ends in certain sets, with one aligning at defensive tackle – and looked ineffective on the edge. Cole looked indecisive and uncomfortable in his pass-rush techniques, which could be due to his lack of reps in practice ahead of this game. He was cut in training camp due to a major injury, and after sticking in Winnipeg for awhile to recover, he went home at some point in the regular season before only recently returning. The Edmonton game can be excused as a warm-up to get re-accustomed to live action, and he should be much better against Hamilton – the Bombers need him to be the answer.

2. Keith Shologan: If the Bombers had one disappointing free agent signing this season it’d be 30-year-old nose guard Keith Shologan. Fourth-year Canadian backup Jake Thomas has consistently out-played the former Saskatchewan Roughrider and Ottawa Redblack in passing situations, and while Shologan is better as a run-defender – Thomas has never be great against the run – he still hasn’t lived up to expectations. The Eskimos and Stampeders have likely set a precedent for attacking the Bombers’ defensive line, consistently calling their protections to the side of Euclid Cummings in four-man fronts with no immediate blitzing threats, even if Cummings’ side of the alignment is the weak-side. The Bombers need Shologan to win those 1-on-1 match-ups to take the pressure off of Cummings.

3. Stanley Bryant: Winnipeg’s premiere left tackle certainly played his worst game of the season against two struggling defensive ends in Willis and Howard. He allowed a bad sack after whiffing on a block on DB Cord Park’s blitz, and was bailed out several times by quick throws from Nichols. The Bombers will need a bounce-back game from their key free agent signing in 2015 against Hamilton’s John Chick, who’s playing at a much higher than level than anyone on the Esks’ defensive line.

(Just missed: WR Rory Kohlert, SB Gerrard Shephard, FS Brendan Morgan, CB C.J. Roberts)

BUY/SELL

BUY: Nichols played good, but Edmonton’s struggling defense was the biggest factor. His stat-line – 26/33 for 304 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs – would say otherwise, but Nichols was rather average against the Eskimos, which is still better than Drew Willy has ever been in 2016. The Eskimos’ defense is nearing 2015-like Roughriders’ ineptitude, and the newly-appointed Bombers’ starter more of less took simply took what the defense gave him. Pat Watkins stood no chance covering emerging wideout Darvin Adams, while both of their halfbacks, Marcell Young and Cord Parks, were simply terrible in this game. A dominant rushing attack helped the offense dramatically, but there’s no denying that Nichols certainly did his job distributing the football to his play-makers. And the best news? Nichols, who isn’t necessarily known as a mentally-tough quarterback, never got down on himself, and also responded to the little adversity he faced. It was refreshing to see the Bombers’ offense under Nichols respond to Edmonton’s third quarter touchdown drive with a six-point drive of their own. The Eskimos – Nichols’ old team who traded him away for virtually nothing- were the perfect team for the six-year veteran to start his stint as the starter against.

SELL: Kyle Walters’ team is still plagued by a lack of depth. The Bombers have had razor-thin depth in the past from the 2012 season to the end of the 2014 season, but that’s no longer much of a pressing issue anymore. Walters has drafted his Canadians exceptionally well, and the scouting department is beginning to actually find their own International players. OK, so finding defensive backs has never been an issue for the U.S. talent-finders in recent years, but holding the CFL’s leading passer to under 300 yards and no touchdowns until garbage time with four backup defensive backs is ludicrous. LG Travis Bond, meanwhile, provided an instant spark off the two-man reserve, while SB Thomas Mayo has been solid when his number is called. Oh, and Matt Nichols is a solid backup – well, now starting – quarterback.


OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: RB Andrew Harris
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: DE Jamaal Westerman


Credit to DailyNorseman.com for the format


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.
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. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO. ALL CREDIT TO JASON FRANSON AND THE CANADIAN PRESS.

Blue Review: Nichols’ Win in Edmonton Puts End to Drew Willy Era

In the words of Doug Brown, “If Nichols plays, O’Shea stays.”

With a confident Matt Nichols playing solid, turnover-free football in his first start of the season, the Bombers added a rare win to their formerly 2-25-1 record in Alberta since 2003, defeating a stunned Eskimos team 30-23.

It also, perhaps prematurely and by default, unofficially put a nail in the coffin of WillyPeg in the capital province of Manitoba which, despite a porous 2016 season for starting QB Drew Willy, remains an inconclusively positive or negative check-point for the Bombers.

Here are my thoughts are the Bombers’ huge win at the Brick Field in Commonwealth Stadium.

1. Mike O’Shea’s decision to bench franchise quarterback Drew Willy in favor of Matt Nichols did exactly as intended: it sparked the rest of the team, emphasizing that no one’s job is safe, and that the Bombers are in must-win mode. Although Edmonton’s defense is nearing ’15 Saskatchewan-like ineptitude, and it possibly still would have been won if Willy was at the helm, it was a great confidence builder for a team that definitely needed a boost after dropping back-to-back games at Investors Group Field.

2. Matt Nichols undeniably played smart and poised football in his first start of the season while operating with no pressure on his shoulders, and he deserves a ton of credit and a string of consecutive starts. But it’s hard not to think that the team would’ve also left Alberta with a win for the first time in 10 years even if Willy was operating the offense in place of the eight-year veteran. I doubt he’d have been as successful as Nichols, and it could’ve held the Bombers back for a few weeks until Nichols inevitably took over the reigns down the road, but for the first time this season, the Bombers’ defense consistently gave the offense back the ball, and the run-game was working. With that being said, it’s hard not to wonder how much of this was sparked due to the change at the most polarizing position in sports – quarterback. At this point, it’s hard to argue with Mike O’Shea’s decision at quarterback; while Drew Willy had perhaps his best of the season in Calgary, and the Edmonton game could’ve been a confidence builder, the offense clearly has a limited level of potential under the third-year starter given what has transpired this season.

3. It hurts terribly to lose a key, Canadian starter – particularly when it’s a rare, Canadian right tackle in the case of Patrick Neufeld – to injury, but the loss appeared to be a blessing in disguise for the offense – for a couple games, that is; Canadian depth isn’t as important in the short-term. With LG Jamarcus Hardrick shifting out to right tackle, American rookie Travis Bond filled the hole at left guard and was a crucial difference-maker. The 6-foot-7, 356-lb rookie, with deceptively quick feet and an uncanny amount of knowledge, was sound pass-protecting, and he evidently proved to have the size, power and technique to over-power defenders in the run-game. Paving the way for much of Andrew Harris’ season-high 127 yards rushing, Bond proved in his 1st-career start why, exactly, I thought he was the Bombers’ top performer on both sides of the football in the preseason. Bond has been stashed on the 2-man reserve all season, and it’s clear to see why the Bombers like him so much.

4. 3rd-round pick Taylor Loffler had as admirable of a game as a rookie free safety can have in their first-career start, proving to be a legitimate option to be one of Winnipeg’s seven Canadian starters with Neufeld on the 6-game injured list. Although Macho Harris is, of course, a far more reliable option at safety this young into Loffler’s career, the former Boise State Bronco and UBC Thunderbird, who I dubbed as the 2016 draft’s most pro-ready defender coming out of the CIS in the pre-draft, is already proving to be somewhat serviceable just five games into his pro career. Sliding into the 3rd-round of the draft with teams scared off due to his injury history, Loffler has a promising career ahead of him after two straight exceptional games, and he could be pressed into full-time action sooner than anticipated.

5. Despite still being well-documented, the Bombers’ defensive ineptitude has been over-looked in 2016. But with four rookies starting the secondary with Johnny Adams, Chris Randle, Macho Harris and Julian Posey all injured, the defense ironically played their best game of the season against the league’s best offense. Esks’ QB Mike Reilly was held to under 300 yards with no touchdowns (excluding garbage-time stats) just one week after this exact group, while all playing out position, nearly limited Bo Levi Mitchell to under 100 yards passing in the second-half. The Bombers, evidently, have great depth at defensive back, and a well-deserved cap-tip goes to defensive coordinator Richie Hall for creating a masterful game-plan.

6. Matt Nichols is not a better quarterback than Drew Willy, but number 5’s confidence is shattered and, with the starter struggling mightily, Nichols took advantage of a favorable situation. The quarterback change surely benefited the Bombers – and especially Mike O’Shea – in the short-term, but it doesn’t help the Blue & Gold much in the future. Willy undeniably has a higher ceiling of potential, but after pulling him against Calgary and then starting Nichols this week, his mental-state as a quarterback is perhaps at an irreparable phase for as long as he is a Blue Bomber. See, Willy likely played his best game of the season against Calgary, and given what he’s shown in the past, he likely deserved 1 more start before giving way to Nichols. And if his play against Calgary, which still wasn’t good enough, is as good as it gets for Willy in 2016, then the Bombers will have got a definitive answer in regards to their supposed franchise quarterback, and they’ll have known exact when it’s time to move on. After starting Nichols against Edmonton, the Drew Willy era in Winnipeg will, somewhat by default, officially come to an end when the season is over.

7. Albeit two weeks apart, both CBs Terrance Frederick and CJ Roberts made their CFL debuts against the Eskimos’ lethal offense, and the results were night-and-day. Roberts allowed 3 catches for 116 yards in week four, including the game-winning, 74-yard touchdown pass to Derel Walker, while Frederick notched a game-sealing interception, back-to-back crucial big-hits in the 1st-half to limit gains, and a low completion percentage against from his wide-side corner position, which inevitably had him cover Derel Walker at times. Despite the frequent speed bumps this season, it’s hard not to be incredibly psyched about the talent the Bombers’ will boast in the secondary when everyone returns to health.

8. Nichols and offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice did a sound job remaining afloat despite the losses of starting receivers Weston Dressler, who had 111 yards in the first half alone, and Quincy McDuffie, which threw international rookie Gerrard Shephard and veteran Canadian Julian Feoli-Gudino into the offense. Already without Ryan Smith due to injury, Nichols got the ball to Rory Kohlert at crucial moments in the game, and heavily relied on the play-making ability of Darvin Adams – one of the league’s best role-players at receiver. Finishing with 10 catches for 121 yards and a key touchdown reception versus press-man after Edmonton had gained some momentum with a 7-point drive of their own, Adams is great weapon to have, but the Bombers will certainly still need one of Smith or Dressler to be healthy next week.

9. Free-agent acquisition Euclid Cummings finally notched his first sack of the season with a beautiful speed rush around the edge on a play that’s designed to simply open-up the B-Gap for the defensive end to twist inside and press. Cummings, who notched 8 sacks in his first full season with the Argonauts last year, is only on pace for 3 sacks, but he’s been anything but a bust this season. The sacks will come from his pass-rushing, 3-technique position, as he graded as the Bombers’ best defensive lineman in three games so far this season.

10. The Bombers shocked many with the second-round selection of Queen’s defensive back Brendan Morgan in the 2015 draft, and the sophomore FS has been quite the burden for the Bombers on special-teams. Whereas young Canadians Taylor Loffler and Derek Jones have either been making plays or at least filling their lanes while veteran Canadian DB Teague Sherman is the big-time play-maker, Morgan has taken countless, unnecessary no-yards penalties, missed countless tackles, lost contain too times and has struggled to get off blocks downfield blocks in about one-and-one-third seasons in the CFL.

11. Despite a huge victory that featured a brilliant performance from Matt Nichols, Bombers fans are encouraged to closely watch – and root for – Hamilton QB Jeremiah Masoli. Although he isn’t a pending free agent, if the Bombers’ brass believe he can be a franchise quarterback, they won’t hesitate to organize a deal with Eric Tillman in the off-season. But that only happens if Masoli continues to play at a high level while Zach Collaros is still sidelined.

THE CANADIAN PRESS
THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stock Market Report: Eskimos vs. Bombers

With another losing season in the headlights, countless undeserving Bombers have fingers being pointed at them for both the season and the 20-16 loss to the Eskimos and their struggling defense. The same can be said about the weak-spots on the roster – the underlying issues may not be entirely clear at first glance.

The Bombers don’t have much time to get it together, but all it takes is one win at home to get the fans back behind Mike O’Shea’s club. Given all the negativity surrounding this club, we start this Report with the good news.

BLUE-CHIP STOCKS

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PHOTO: JOHANY JUTRAS

1. Maurice Leggett: The third-year veteran followed up a career-best day in Hamilton with another spectacular performance in week four. Heading into his first full season at strong-side linebacker, Leggett was a proven, respected defender in the box against the run. The concern with moving Leggett down towards the line of scrimmage was the increase in man-coverage and the overall expanded duties in all pass-coverages, which he has recently answered in an emphatic way. While Leggett only found himself in man-coverage situations against Eskimos’ FB Calvin McCarty – defensive coordinator Richie Hall called mostly zone coverages for three quarters – he truly excelled in his zone responsibilities, demonstrating his athleticism and decisiveness with a great understanding of the system. Leggett, magnificently, was not documented once for allowing a single completion against the Eskimos’ prolific aerial attack. For reference, Kevin Fogg and CJ Roberts each allowed over 100 yards receiving, and FS Macho Harris allowed two touchdown passes to Cory Watson (one of which was called back). Evidently Leggett, 29, is proving to be an All-Star caliber player at two separate positions in the defensive backfield.

2. Euclid Cummings: There’s no questioning that the Bombers aren’t much better than when they put together a pitiful, 5-13 record in 2015. But under no means does that indicate that the Bombers’ free agent signings from February are anything close to busts. Euclid Cummings is the perfect example of this, as he’s been a terror for offensive lineman this season despite an overall mediocre pass-rush in Winnipeg. With the 1-tech, Keith Shologan, typically drawing the double-teams in four-man fronts, Euclid Cummings is winning his one-on-one match-ups handily. The former Argo had three less pressures than Jamaal Westerman, who recorded five, but he consistently drew help from RB John White and continually gained penetration from his 3-tech alignment. He was solid against the run, too, often scraping to the play-side with good angles and body positioning. Cummings, an outstanding pass-rusher, is close to a break-out game on the stat-sheet, and he certainly has 12-sacks-per-season potential in him.

3. Jamaal Westerman: One strip-sack, five pressures and consistent gap discipline – Westerman did it all against Edmonton. He’s the Bombers’ best player and is likely the best defender in the entire league – it truly is a treat to watch him play. Westerman does all the small, unnoticed things that make him so valuable, such as spinning back to the outside to maintain contain after attempting an inside pass-rush move, or using deception to play the read option perfectly so the offense is mistaken no matter what decision is made. Oh, and in case you weren’t sure, the seven-year NFL veteran is an unbelievably talented, refined and well-rounded pass-rusher who does his job extremely well and more, going the extra mile that few defensive ends can. It was no surprise that on practically every play-call that had Westerman either drop into coverage or not featured as a primary pass-rusher, but rather a role-player to open up a lane for a twisting linebacker, the Bombers’ pass-rush struggled mightily, allowing QB Mike Reilly to step up and create big plays downfield. Although the Bombers’ pass-rush may have seemed rather sluggish against Edmonton, Westerman was certainly not an issue.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

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PHOTO: JOHANY JUTRAS

1. Ian Wild: After a decent first-half that saw, among other things, Wild miss a potential tackle-for-loss in the backfield after riskily driving an open inside gap on a toss sweep to Eskimos’ RB John White, the 26-year-old came alive in the final two quarters. While not necessarily being the one making the tackle, he worked off blocks against the run, and finally wasn’t picked on underneath in the passing game. I thought he read, reacted and mirrored Reilly’s movements very well to take away passing lanes over the middle, while his near back-to-back plays made in the final two minutes of the third quarter essentially kept the Bombers in the game until the end. Reading the play nicely on both occasions, Wild showed off his athletic traits as he chased down Reilly on a roll-out in the end-zone, forcing an intentional grounding call on the 1-yard line. One play later, after not being fooled by play-action, Wild was in Reilly’s face as he turned back to the play on the boot-leg, throwing an interception under pressure to Julian Posey. As the weak-side linebacker in Richie Hall’s defense, Wild is involved in an excessive amount of plays, and after a very rough start to the season in weeks one and two, he’s back to playing at a high level.

2. Weston Dressler: The Bombers’ offense has had a tough time getting the ball to both of their 5-foot-7 receivers from North Dakota, as Willy completed just 37-percent (3/8) of his passes to boundary WR Weston Dressler in the win against the Tiger-Cats, often appearing to be on the wrong page. The QB-WR connection was, at least, somewhat efficient against the Eskimos, hooking up on a 3/6 attempts on cornerback Pat Watkins for 67 yards, which should read 3/4 if Willy hadn’t thrown completely errant tosses to a wide open no. 7 on two occasions. While Dressler also caught four of Paul Lapolice’s patented hitch screens for exactly zero yards, the lack of success on this play cannot be put on the shoulders of Dressler. Lapolice has, somewhat rightfully, abused the hitch screen this season, and Esks’ defensive coordinator had a direct plan to stop it, aligning his weak-side linebacker closer to the boundary against select offensive packages. Although the legendary Saskatchewan pass-catcher has yet to reach the end-zone as a member of the Blue & Gold, he put himself in a position to score his first touchdown in dream-scenario fashion, blowing past Watkins with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter only to be under-thrown from the struggling Bomber quarterback. With Dressler now doing his part in the Bombers’ offense, Willy has no excuse not to get the ball deep down-field to the receiver who they pay to run hooks, posts and corner-routes.

3. Mathias Goossen: Winnipeg’s best offensive lineman against a stout Edmonton front-seven, Goossen is developing into a stellar Canadian at the center position. The third-year middle-man was the Bombers’ top offensive lineman in week four, and would have been in the Blue-Chip section if it weren’t for his worst blunder of the night: a sack allowed from Reuben Frank, as the defensive end twisted into the A-Gap and gave the Bombers’ quarterback no chance to deliver the ball. That mistake, however, resulted in Goossen’s lone pressure allowed on the night, and although the Eskimos didn’t have too many stunts and twists in their game-plan, Goossen helped himself greatly with his work in the run-game. Often down-blocking with his guards working to the second-level, Goossen won his match-ups handily against even All-Star nose tackle Almondo Sewell. After witnessing the near-disaster that was a 33-year-old Dominic Picard fill the center position last year, it’s quite refreshing to see solid play at the heart of the offensive line.

4. Chris Randle: A staple in either positively-graded sections of this report, Randle has been arguably the CFL’s best defensive back in 2016 since moving back to the short-side cornerback position, surrendering only two catches for 26 yards despite having star receiver Derel Walker aligning in front of him at boundary wide-receiver. Although Walker finished with 154 yards, Randle’s two catches allowed came against a Chris Getzlaf sit-route at 7:14 in the 1st-quarter, and Cory Watson’s high drag route, which went for 18 yards near the end of the second-quarter, as Randle got good depth while covering the flats but was late reacting to Watson crossing his face before missing the tackle. Allowing only two catches is a great feat against the ridiculous duo that the Eskimos post in the boundary, and it’s this type of effort that Bombers’ fans are becoming accustomed to witnessing from the Utah State product.

JUNK BONDS

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PHOTO: JOHANY JUTRAS

1. Shayon Green: Undoubtedly the most outstanding weakness on a struggling defense, Green has more than officially out-stayed his welcome on the Bombers’ game-day roster. The rookie rush-end was the only Bombers’ defensive lineman to notch zero QB pressures – Jamaal Westerman, for reference, was credited for six – and was no better in run defense. Green, a one-dimensional pass-rusher, is continuously washed out by offensive tackles, as it’s easy to defend a defensive end who only has one move in his repertoire. Green is restricted to a very mediocre speed-rush, which gave Reilly constant step-up lanes and plenty of time to find an open receiver. Green should’ve been demoted to the practice roster after Adrian Hubbard’s performance in Hamilton, and now given his unacceptable illegal block penalty on Kevin Fogg’s punt return touchdown, he should be given one-way plane ticket to the United States.

2. Patrick Neufeld: He didn’t give up a sack, but Neufeld struggled mightily in the loss to Edmonton. He gave up a team-high five pressures, and while speed-rushes, at last, were not the issue, Eskimos’ rushers Markus Howard and Odell Willis excel with power and finesse moves, which Neufeld could not defend. Neufeld has been serviceable this season at right tackle, and as was the case for the entire offensive line as a unit against Edmonton, he certainly had a poor game.

3. Julian Posey: In fairness, covering perennial All-Star slot-back Adarius Bowman is no easy task, but when a player is responsible for five of his catches alone for 67 yards, they belong in this section. The ability Posey displayed in man-coverage was promising – 18 of Bowman’s yards came on a beautifully run out-route, which Posey covered perfectly, but the ball-placement was better – however it appears as though he’s still lacking instincts in zone-coverage.

4. Drew Willy: Slow reads, poor decisions and missed throws; Willy’s downward spiral towards an irreparable regression continued against the Eskimos. His lack of comfort and confidence in Paul Lapolice’s offense is still evident about 10 weeks into the campaign. Willy inexcusably missed seven throws to open receivers that was clearly the quarterback’s fault, and evidently made questionable-to-poor decisions on 10 occasions, with two of them resulting in interceptions in triple coverage. And yet despite all this, the Bombers would have came away with the win if only Willy hadn’t under-thrown a streaking Weston Dressler down the sidelines behind coverage with 26 seconds left in the game. Regardless, I fully believe that, as well as with head coach Mike O’Shea, the Bombers must have Willy go down with his ship. He gives the Bombers the best chance to win, and as long as the Bombers aren’t officially eliminated from the playoffs, he must be the one taking the first snap of the game.

5. Sukh Chungh: In one of the worst games of Chungh’s career, the 2015 second-overall pick gave up two sacks and missed countless blocks in the run-game. There’s been clear improvement in his game in 2016, but the Edmonton game was a small step back.


BUY: The run game must be more effective on first-down. The encouraging progression of this young offensive line is undeniable, but they’ve been incredibly inconsistent on the ground. Often following up a fantastic block with a disastrous one, the Bombers are the worst offense on first-down and much can be contributed for their rushing attack on 1st-down. Andrew Harris has been great at running back, but he needs holes to hit more consistently.

SELL: Dominique Davis and Brian Bennett are not upgrades over Willy. While both young quarterbacks caught the attention of Bombers’ fans when the Blue & Gold scored a mass amount of second-half points in the first preseason game, both had very underwhelming performances against Montreal’s second and third-strings, especially if they were held to the standards of a starting quarterback. Bennett’s accuracy was surprisingly poor, while Davis appeared to work through his progressions slowly. Neither of these youngsters are currently upgrades over Willy, and at this point, I’m not interested in seeing either behind center until either a game is a blow-out, or the Bombers are eliminated from playoff contention.


OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: WR Weston Dressler
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: LB Maurice Leggett