Free-Agent Gurley Could Be Missing Ingrediant in Bombers’ Offense

In need of a late-season pickup to bolster their roster for a run at the Grey Cup, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers may have had a perfect fit fall right into their lap.

With Darvin Adams still recovering from a broken collar-bone, the Bombers need an injection of size and talent in their receiving corps immediately.

Insert Tori Gurley, who appears to be everything the Bombers need right now from a physical stand-point. The 28-year-old stands 6’4″ and weighs 230-lbs, and it just so happens that he who should be “their guy” is suddenly a free-agent that Winnipeg could add for the stretch run.

In what was the case of management removing all toxins from the locker-room with their season all but over, Gurley was one of four talented Toronto Argonauts’ receivers released on Monday following their ugly loss to the Montreal Alouettes in week 14. With a good locker-room that’s stable under the foundation of solidified leadership, Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters has likely expressed some level of interest in inking one of these big-bodied play-makers to bolster his receiving corps for a playoff run. It sure appears as though all three of them come with varying levels of baggage, but the Bombers aren’t setting themselves up for any sort of long-term commitment to a problem child here, and there’s enough talent offered to justify taking a flier on a player they can cut at any time if they don’t fit into the locker-room complexion.

Gurley, who might just be the least problematic of the Big-Three, is someone the Bombers need to sign if they’re serious about giving QB Matt Nichols the weapons to make a Grey Cup run.

Essentially a much better version of injured pass-catcher Gerrard Sheppard, Gurley appears to be the absolute prototype for the Y-receiver position in Paul Lapolice’s offense. He produced incredible numbers at the Z-receiver position in his rookie CFL season, hauling in 791 yards and a league-leading 10 receiving touchdowns. Gurley is a high-level talent who appears to check off every box from a physical and talent stand-point for Lapolice’s ideal inside slot-back at the Y-receiver spot.

For an idea of how I think Lapolice wants to use his inside field slot-back, here’s a look at Sheppard’s first-half route-tree from the Labour Day Classic game. Sheppard was motioned into the backfield to pass-protect twice – however there were games where the now-released Jace Davis was asked to pass protects upwards of 7 times – and played near the box on a lot of run plays. The majority of Sheppard’s routes were short ones across the middle, but considering how willing Lapolice is to aligning his Y-receiver in different spots, expect Gurley’s route tree to include more deep routes if he became a Blue Bomber.

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Sheppard lined up mostly as the most inside slot-back to the wide-side, but also ran one route from tight end, two from field wide receiver, two as the front receiver in a stack formation, one as the point-player in a bunch formation and one from boundary wide receiver, which was a back-side fade in the end-zone. On that play, Nichols and the offensive line performed a half-roll to the left before Nichols looked back to his right and threw a perfect pass over the back-shoulder that Sheppard dropped, leaving six points off the board before half-time.

That was a play that Gurley consistently made with the Argos.

From a schematic standpoint, Gurley is a perfect fit – he can block, he’s sure-handed, he wins at the catch-point and he can use his 230-lb frame to box-out defenders. He also provides the Bombers with a big-bodied deep-threat for while Darvin Adams remains injured, and with four receivers under 6-feet currently starting, the Bombers are solely lacking a player like that right now.

The only thing that could be making the Bombers hesitate is the chance that Gurley’s attitude becomes a detriment to the locker-room. The Bombers have mentioned plentifully on how they value the importance of high-character guys, and the Argos wouldn’t cut such a talented player if he didn’t have a poor attitude. Although there’s a chance Gurley becomes a toxin, signing him to a one-year contract (so the remaining four regular season games and then playoffs) is still low-risk, high-reward. Gurley, who’d probably come for fairly cheap, could be cut at at any time, while the Bombers already appear to have a strong foundation of leadership established in the locker-room to be able to handle one poor-character player. Being released mid-season may also serve as a wake-up call for the former Green Bay Packer, and being separated from Vidal Hazelton and Kevin Elliott may help him, too. Waters are quite hot on losing teams anyway, and Gurley would be entering a locker-room with a high morale in Winnipeg.

Signing Gurley would not jeopardize that strong locker-room that Walters and Mike O’Shea built, and at some point, the Bombers must understand that, problematic or not, these former Toronto Argonauts’ receivers are going to help them win.

It’s playoff time, and Matt Nichols needs weapons if the Bombers want to knock off the Lions and Stampeders. Nichols desperately needs that big-bodied, red-zone threat in particular, and that’s Tori Gurley.

Michael Bell / the Regina LeaderPost (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)
Michael Bell / the Regina LeaderPost (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)

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.

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.

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.

Bombers Enter Critical Year With Improved Quarterback Depth Behind Willy

Over the course of the next few days, as the rookies and veterans report for camp, we’ll be previewing each positional group heading into the upcoming season. We start with the team’s most crucial position, as proved last year: Quarterback.

While not adding a single quarterback in the off-season – Quentin Williams was released shortly after he signed – the Bombers are likely better at the game’s most important position now than they were in training camp last season.

Out of all four quarterbacks under contact, only Drew Willy was a member of the Blue & Gold in training camp last year. Matt Nichols, Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett were slowly brought onto the roster as the coaching staff’s faith slowly diminished in Josh Portis, Robert Marve and Brian Brohm – all of whom proved that, while displaying varying levels of potential, were inadequate for immediate results on the football field.

The failure of three Blue quarterbacks opened the door up for Matt Nichols, who was acquired in a September 2nd trade with the Edmonton Eskimos. Just 10 days following the trade, the six-year veteran signal-caller started his first game in the Bombers’ 22-7 victory over Saskatchewan in the Banjo Bowl. Having earned the trust of Mike O’Shea, Nichols went on to start the next six games – winning one, but playing good enough in spurts to win about two more.

Although he’ll enter camp as the unquestioned no. 2 quarterback, it’s difficult to be convinced that Nichols is the Bombers’ absolute solution as QB insurance. An extremely frustrating talent, Nichols is one of the hardest players in all of sports to understand.

At first glance, Nichols brings valuable experience and an understanding of CFL defensive concepts. And while that’s not at all false, Nichols still makes rookie mistakes quite often, and still doesn’t seem comfortable holding onto the ball past his first read. Nichols has poor arm strength and spotty accuracy, but will at times make an exceptional, tight-window throw that’s especially surprising. Nichols struggles mightily to protect the football – his fumble issues are largely due to his poor pocket presence – and a lot needs to go right for a Nichols-led team to win. He’s a fiery competitor, but Nichols undoubtedly hangs his head after interceptions and has been known to blame others.

Nichols reached his full potential a long time ago, and with how great – and equally horrible – he can be, it’s clear that one word will always hang over his head: inconsistent.

As long as the defense and special-teams play well, Nichols does, sometimes, give his team a chance to win. He kept the Bombers in the hunt for the playoffs all the way until their fate was sealed in week 19, opening the door for first-year player Dominique Davis to get his first-career start in the season finale against Toronto.

A sub-par performance – but one with no mistakes – in his first start, coupled with his play in the pre-season with the Stampeders, leads me to believe that Davis has a firm grip as the third-string quarterback heading into camp. And although he may not get the chance, Davis could become Nichols’ Winnipeg-version of James Franklin should Willy go down once more.

I like Davis quite a bit. With excellent size at six-foot-three and 210-lbs, Davis is a threat to run with his legs at all times. Similarly to Robert Marve, Davis throws a beautiful ball, and does a better job than the aforementioned at keeping his eyes downfield while under duress.

Competing with Davis for the third-string position in training camp will be Eastern Washington signal-caller Bryan Bennett. The former Oregon Duck transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University after losing the starting job to Marcus Mariota prior to the 2013 season. Bennett signed a priority free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts last year, but despite significant game reps, failed to convince the Colts’ staff that he was good enough to warrant carrying a third quarterback.

Bennett is carved out to be the next Robert Marve in Winnipeg – without the chronic knee issues, that is. Having rushed for 1,715 yards and 31 touchdowns with Southeastern Louisiana, as well as 365 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns with Oregon, he’s a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. Bennett possesses the same rocket arm as Marve, too, as he clocked the hardest throw of any QB at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine at 60 miles per hour. He even seems to play like Marve, as NFL.com’s Lance Zierlan says that Bennett “plays the game with too much arm and not enough eyes at this stage. Doesn’t appear to have the awareness or football intelligence teams typically look for in quarterbacks and his accuracy and decision making can be big issues at times.” Sounds like a carbon copy of Marve to me.

While Bennett and Davis battle out for the no. 3 role, Drew Willy will be firmly entrenched as the team’s starter. This season truly is the deciding year for Willy, who’ll be operating a new system under Paul Lapolice while being surrounded with better talent than ever.

It’s exciting to see what Willy can do with the likes of Andrew Harris, Ryan Smith and Weston Dressler around him. He was already having a great 2015 season before suffering a season-ending injury in week seven. When protected, Willy distributes the ball well to his play-makers, displaying a high level of football knowledge and understanding of ball placement. He’s not the most athletic or accurate quarterback, but Willy is more than capable of being a field-general – he has seven career 300-yard passing games in the Blue & Gold.

The calm, cool signal-caller isn’t always calm and cool while under duress, however. Willy can freeze while under pressure, occasionally even peaking down at the pass-rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He’ll probably always be a difficult quarterback to protect, but there’s several ways that Lapolice can compensate for this with his play-calling (spoiler alert: Andrew Harris is key).

The duress and pressure will always be there at some point in a game, and Willy needs to stay away from as many unnecessary hits this year as possible. Seeing as this is a critical year for the Buffalo product, the last thing the Bombers need is another injury-prone quarterback making big money. Lapolice’s usage of Harris on flat, swing, wheel and screen passes as both a running back and slot-back will be huge.

Regardless, Willy’s job as completely secured. Training camp will be huge for the 28-year-old in developing a strong rapport with his receivers while gaining comfort in Lapolice’s system. Matt Nichols’ job is also secure, leaving the third-string battle between Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett the lone competition at the quarterback position.

Some stability at the game’s most important position will be huge for the Bombers, and while the QB depth is far from night and day compared to last year as many pundits say, it’s hard to argue that having the likes of Nichols isn’t slightly more assuring. Even with Nichols, Davis and Bennett, though, the team’s fate rests in the hands of Willy more than any other player.

image via bluebombers.com (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)
image via bluebombers.com (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)