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)

Bombers in Risky Business Dropping Johnny Adams for Rookie Corner

With halfback TJ Heath coming over two weeks ago from the Toronto Argonauts in the blockbuster trade of quarterback Drew Willy, it was only a matter of time before the Winnipeg Football Club shipped out one of their many defensive backs.

The Bombers traded former All-Star cornerback Johnny Adams on Wednesday to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the negotiation rights to 6’4″ receiver Mekale McKay – a late casualty in Indianapolis Colts’ training camp this summer.

The trade comes one day after Adams was relegated to the second-team defense. Rookie cornerback Terrence Frederick, who’s been a healthy scratch over the last two weeks, was already set to make his fifth start of the season on Friday against the Edmonton Eskimos’ power-house offense before the trade was announced.

For a plethora of reasons – one of them being that Frederick had simply earned the opportunity – there was no issue to take in that.

For his rough outing against the Calgary Stampeders – but, more specifically, mostly for not diving on a loose ball after Calgary fumbled in Bombers’ territory – Adams had been a recent scapegoat amongst the Bomber faithful. While there’s no denying that Adams hasn’t always resembled his former self in his sophomore campaign, he certainly hasn’t been all bad this season since returning from an injury that kept him out for all of training camp and the first nine weeks of the season, and the decision to give up on the 27-year-old after a couple poor games seems to be a little rash.

It’s clear the Bombers have a lot of confidence in Frederick despite repeatedly choosing to go with fellow rookie CJ Roberts, who’s now on the 6-game injured list after suffering an injury in the Labour Day Classic, instead of Frederick in the past. Frederick has certainly shown promise in the four starts he’s made, and although I had no problem with the Bombers benching Adams for this week, if the Bombers were really intent on dropping their former All-Star corner after a couple of poor games, it’d have been perhaps more assuring if Kyle Walters waited one more week before pulling the trigger on any potential trade – Frederick needs to prove he can play in Richie Hall’s current defense.

Hall’s system truly has changed rather dramatically over the last month. Previously a fairly mainstream system that relied heavily on the standard cover-3 and cover-4 zone coverages that every CFL defense instills, the Bombers have become considerably more aggressive on defense, placing their trust in an ever-talented secondary. Since around the exact week Adams returned from injury, the Bombers have undoubtedly called more man-coverage out of cover-1 and cover-2 than any team in the league. Hall’s added an exotic element to his playbook, relying on his secondary to hold their own in one-on-one match-ups while the Bombers blitz more frequently from different places and drop defensive lineman into coverage to create confusion. This new-found faith in the secondary grew when Adams was inserted into the lineup – whether he’s been a disappointment to some or not, that was no coincidence.

Although Frederick was sound in his first three starts of his career, his role will be much different now despite being at the same position at field cornerback. Almost always dropping into a deep-third from his wide-side cornerback position in his starts against Toronto, Hamilton and Edmonton, Frederick will now be asked be to play a lot more man-coverage and, specifically, some press-man, too.

The Texas A&M product has played one game in this expanded defense – he started at field cornerback in the Banjo Bowl. In what was Adams’ best game of the season – he didn’t allow a single catch all game on one target and had a pass break-up – Frederick had a solid game overall but gave up some plays in coverage, surrendering three catches on three targets for 24 yards.

With Adams having played 3.5 games at boundary cornerback this season and Frederick having played his first 3 games under very different – and, frankly, easier – play-calling, its difficult to do any statistical comparison without the numbers (and even, but to a lesser grade, their grades) being skewed at least somewhat. Regardless, 215 passing yards allowed is a considerable amount in five games even for a short-side cornerback, and Adams needed to be more consistent week to week.

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It’s really still unknown if Frederick will be an upgrade over Adams at field-corner. Heck, it remains to be seen if the Bombers will even trust their secondary as much without having both Adams and Chris Randle together. Though it’s possible that the Bombers have been such a man-coverage-heavy defense because, frankly, it’s when their defensive backs are at their best – which would make them an anomaly in today’s CFL with the current illegal contact rules – it was still a testament to Hall’s trust in his star-studded secondary.

Frederick appears to play with the same confidence that made Adams so dynamic in his rookie year. He stays square and poised in his back-pedal at the stem of the receiver’s route, possesses quick feet and good closing speed. Best of all – and this is a well-refined skill of Adams’, too – is his open-field tacking abilities. Frederick really revealed all these strengths in his first career start against the Edmonton Eskimos, which was also his best game of the season. On his interception that came late in the fourth quarter, Frederick under-cut a late throw to Derel Walker’s rounded deep-out-route to the wide-side, displaying his all his traits and the needed confidence to make that play.

Frederick also did a perfect job staying square in his back-pedal on this incomplete pass to Adarius Bowman. The Eskimos tried to test the rookie corner by attacking him with one of the more common route concepts in the football for defeating single-high coverages like cover-1 and cover-3 – the Post-Deep Cross Hi-Lo. Chris Getzlaf runs the high crosser to pull FS Taylor Loffler out of the middle, while Bowman, who needs to maintain inside leverage on the corner, runs the deep post. Frederick doesn’t bite in the least bit on Bowman’s stem to the corner, and then has the athleticism to quickly open his hips and run step-for-step with an explosive play-maker.

Though he wasn’t credited for allowing a catch, Frederick wasn’t perfect in his debut. Mike Reilly missed a would-be touchdown pass to Adarius Bowman in the second quarter, as Frederick, who had a deep-third in cover-3, was caught staring at the no. 2 receiver’s 10-yard-out, not even acknowledging Bowman’s seam-route. With Loffler favoring the boundary since the Eskimos were in trips to the short-side, Frederick needed to realize that he didn’t have immediate deep-middle help.

That’s more of a rookie mistake that has likely already been corrected. It was, after all, his first career start. Furthermore, with how much man-coverage the Bombers have used recently, his duties will be even more simplified at field corner.

If Frederick can actually prove to be an upgrade over Adams in man-coverage remains the question. Adams hasn’t been consistent this season, but its not as if his terrific rookie season was an anomaly. Frederick could continue to prove to be a keeper, but it’s hard not to think that the trade may have been made a week or two earlier than ideal, and its equally valid to question if the trade was really necessary at all. Dealing away a proven commodity late in the season after a couple bad games can be a risky business, especially when his expected successor is a rookie. Perhaps it’d have been wise to see more of Frederick in action first. Plus, it’s not as if there was a can’t-ignore trade on the table for a player with an expiring contract. Having traded Adams for a player who may never sign a CFL contract, the Bombers essentially outright released him.

The Bombers had an excess of defensive backs, indeed. But is departing with a young player who’s one year removed from a fantastic rookie season – and who has, at times, replicated that success in 2016 – really necessary? The Bombers could need Adams down the stretch, and he could have a bounce-back game any week. While I have no problem – and have confidence – in Frederick starting in his spot this week, it’d be good to have Adams waiting on the 1-game injured list if Frederick does struggle.

The Bombers still have TJ Heath waiting in the wings, but as long as they can stash him on the 1-game, it certainly can’t hurt having a player like Adams waiting for a chance to redeem himself, even if his contract is set to expire.

There was no rush for the Bombers to part ways with their former All-Star cornerback, but it feels as if they may have moved him a week or two early – another games worth of film on Frederick would only provide more clarity and assurance for parting ways with Adams.

And that’s if Mike O’Shea and Co. still felt the need to trade him at all.

Johany Jutras / CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)
Johany Jutras / CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)

Comprehensive Review of Stamps’ Aerial Assault of Blue Bombers’ Defense

Plenty was learned in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ gut-wrenching loss to the Calgary Stampeders in week 13, particularly in regards to the legitimacy of both West Division franchises as the CFL season enters its final stretch.

In a game that saw Calgary’s hurt kicker, Rene Parades, boot a game-winning, 52-yard field goal for a final score of 36-34, there were still a few questions left unanswered, particularly of this sort: what in the world was going on with the Blue Bombers’ defense in the first half, and why did Calgary’s receivers also seem to have a five-yard halo around them?

The Stamps’ offense bullied the league’s second-best ranked defense to the tune of 280 first half net yards and 27 points on the scoreboard. With Mitchell having all day in the pocket to throw to consistently wide-open receivers, those numbers don’t even seem to do the Stamps justice for their absolute domination early on.

Things changed after halftime. Of course, the Bombers’ offense and special-teams began to show life, and the Stamps’ offensive play-calling became more conservative given their initial lead, but there were also obvious defensive improvements in the second half, no doubt.

Defensive coordinator Richie Hall made obvious halftime adjustments, while his players cut down on simple mental errors and actually showed up to play. As a result, the Bombers came within 15 seconds of completing a 24-point comeback in the home stadium of the league’s bench-mark franchise.

The Bombers will want to burn the tape, but that first half performance was far too awful to simply dismiss. These two teams could very well meet for a fourth-time this season in the playoffs, and considering the Stamps have scored over 30 points in all three of their meetings against the Bombers this season, Hall needs to re-evaluate his game-planning for Bo Levi Mitchell and Co.

It was certainly fascinating to see the game-planning of both Calgary’s Dave Dickenson and Winnipeg’s Hall come to fruition, particularly in tracking the success/failure of some of the more obvious adjustments they made to their systems to prepare for one of the most anticipated games of the season.

The Stamps had a plan, and most noticeable was how they seemed to intentionally attack the Bombers’ trips adjustments. Dickenson certainly planned to test the Bombers’ communication and recognition-skills in the assignment switches that are heavily involved in running Richie Hall’s man-coverage-heavy defense – and it payed off.

It’s why the Stamps seemed to find a lot of room for their receivers in the middle of the field, particularly early on. With one linebacker often responsible for spying the running back while the other blitzes, there’s naturally always going to be a weakness in the middle of the Bombers’ defense when the Bombers are in a variation of a man-coverage. For whatever reason, when he’s calls man-coverage, Hall loves blitzing his MIKE linebacker and aligning him near the line-of-scrimmage, while coaching his WILL to cautiously blitz from depth if the running back stays in the backfield to protect. Already the Bomber defensive backs are lacking that inside help from linebackers when covering receivers one-on-one.

Early on, the Stamps tested rookie free safety Taylor Loffler’s awareness, knowing the Bombers would shift him over towards the boundary if the Stamps had three receivers to the short-side. Though they’ll sometimes bring the nickel linebacker over and play straight man-to-man with a cheating safety giving help over the top as well (which, consequently, leaves the wide-side in cover-0, unless an extra safety – TJ Heath – is subbed in for a defensive lineman or inside linebacker – then cover-2), the Bombers will typically pattern-match 3-on-3 against trips in the boundary when the original play-call is either cover-1 or even cover-2. In the most common pattern-matching variations the Bombers utilize, the cornerback is responsible for the outside-breaking route, the halfback switches onto any vertical route and the free safety, though dropping deep, must switch onto any inside-breaking route at the intermediate level. Loffler was late recognizing the inside-breaking receiver a few times, and the Stamps made him pay early. Loffler was late reacting twice on these plays, getting beat across his face for gains of 30 and 19 yards to veteran receiver Marquay McDaniel.

Perhaps the most noticeable downfall of the Bombers’ defense was a completely ineffective pass-rush on Mitchell. The Bombers did not record a sack on Mitchell and, frankly, they hardly pressured the fifth-year passer, if ever. Although Mitchell plays the quarterback position with great anticipation and a quick release – and his offensive line is absolutely second-to-none – the Bombers’ pass-rush was inexplicably poor in Saturday’s showdown.

While, sure, the Bombers’ defensive backs truly did play one of their worst games of the season, they received absolutely no help from the front-seven. Mitchell took full advantage of his never-ending time in the pocket, playing pitch-and-catch against man-coverage  – and, in the process, taking advantage of some rather outrageous routes called that no defensive back should have to cover. Maurice Leggett stood no chance using trail-technique in man-coverage on Marquay McDaniel’s 15-yard juke-route, while Chris Randle’s first catch allowed – which didn’t come until the fourth quarter – occurred on a 20-yard corner-turned-out-route to the wide-side of the field. The defensive backs weren’t to blame in either of those situations – Mitchell cannot be afforded the time to throw those ridiculous routes.

Randle, meanwhile, was one of the lone bright-spots on the Bombers’ defense, however much of his success was simply based on scheme. The Stamps didn’t test Randle in coverage, as the boundary wide receiver spot – which was mostly occupied by Anthony Parker, though it didn’t really change with who was playing the spot – primarily ran different clear-out routes to assure Mitchell good spacing as he attacked the Bombers’ halfbacks and switches in man-coverage. In other words, the Bombers played far more man-coverage than zone, and Randle’s match-up was rarely used as anything more than a clear-out, decoy or check-down route to help diagnose the coverage, such as a short speed-out to keep the corner low while Mitchell threw to dig-routes over top.

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The Bombers continued with the strategy they introduced last week against Toronto, playing Randle exclusively at left cornerback and Johnny Adams exclusively at right cornerback as the two star defenders’ roles sort themselves out. Coincidentally, Randle and Adams each played an equal 28 snaps at boundary cornerback and 28 snaps at field cornerback against the Argonauts. As expected, that balance was not replicated against Calgary, however. Randle played 69.6-percent of the defensive snaps at boundary cornerback, though by virtue of the Stamps’ offensive game-plan, was not under siege very often.

The Bombers challenged the Stamps with basic cover-1 and cover-2 man-to-man all game long, calling significantly less cover-3 and cover-4 than they typically do. Of course, the Bombers have a few different variations of even basic cover-2. The two-deep zone players are occasionally Loffler and weak-side linebacker Tony Burnett, while other times it could be Loffler and Leggett – their nickel linebacker. The Bombers sometimes even bring in a second safety (TJ Heath) and play two-deep over standard man-coverage. Regardless, the Stamps’ won virtually all these man-to-man match-ups on Saturday – and quite handily, at that.

Boundary halfback Kevin Fogg struggled in his match-ups, as all of his catches/yards allowed came in standard cover-1 or cover-2 man-to-man with the exception of a 14-yard catch in the second quarter, which saw his flat-zone flooded with two curls at nearly identical depth, leaving the rookie halfback to choose one to cover in a lose-lose situation.

Field halfback Bruce Johnson was no better in coverage – too often did the three-year veteran allow receivers to dictate their release – while Leggett was, once again, heavily targeted and victimized. Leggett, who’s most commonly used as an underneath “rover” when aligned to the field-side – for reference, see his pick-sixes on Jeremiah Masoli and Kevin Glenn – or as a strong-safety in two-high deep alignments, had increased coverage duties with the Stamps intentionally drawing him to the boundary with their trips formation when the Bombers were in man. The aforementioned Marquay McDaniel, who’s had success against Leggett in the past, had another two receptions against the 29-year-old, taking advantage of no. 31’s trail-technique with crafty moves at the stem of his route.

The touchdown that Leggett allowed was largely just poor communication, but it’s worth noting that he did seem to allow Mitchell to freeze him with his eyes. Randle and Fogg both retreated into deep-zones – indicating cover-4 in the boundary – although that was likely a coverage adjustment they made pre-snap with Leggett following the receiver in motion to the short-side.

The original play-call certainly didn’t have both Randle and Fogg retreating into deep-quarters, but they likely made an adjustment with Leggett coming over to account for the third receiver. The Bombers seemed to make the exact same adjustment twice later in the game, and on both of those plays, Leggett correctly dropped low and underneath any potential 4-route from the no. 2 receiver. If he’d done that on the above play, Lemar Durant wouldn’t have had the easiest touchdown of his young career.

Halftime Adjustments

The Bombers continued to show trust in their defensive backs despite a brutal first half, continuing to call a lot of man-coverage in the third and fourth quarter. They found a way to compensate for the Stamps attacking the middle of the field, however, subbing a second safety in more frequently, and also having Loffler and Leggett – when he aligned as a strong safety – occasionally play the “robber” role.

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Though I’d point to the sustained drives on offense  – as well as the Stamps’ own mistakes and conservative play-calling on offense – in the second half before crediting the Bombers’ defense, they did show some life in coverage at times. While the pass-rush remained invisible, the secondary seemed to communicate better, taking away the Stamps’ attempts to create confusion with the trips formation to the short side.

That led to the Stamps attacking the backside more often, with the Bombers sometimes sacrificing safety help over the top to bring Leggett or Loffler (or both!) over to the boundary against trips. Bruce Johnson and Johnny Adams mostly struggled, but with the Stamps failing to capitalize on some plays – as well as the Bombers’ run-defense stepping up – the Blue & Gold managed to hold the Stamps’ offense to merely nine second-half points.

Aside from not completely packing it in at halftime, there’s still not much for the Bombers’ defense, who’d been outstanding over the summer, to be proud of from this game. While they were undeniably out-schemed, even worse was the way they were out-played on the field. Sure, Richie Hall called an incredibly heavy dose of man-coverage and, at times, put his players in positions to fail, but the Bombers’ defensive backs have proven to be capable of holding their own in these match-ups at least somewhat. The defensive line, meanwhile, has no excuse for their performance. The Stamps’ offensive line simply outclassed them. Fortunately that doesn’t mean this otherwise rather stingy front-four can’t bounce back.

With tough upcoming in-division games, the Bombers’ defense needs to have a rather huge bounce back, in fact. The playoffs are near, and this unit cannot have peaked at the wrong time – summertime. It starts with defensive game-planning, but the players on the field must play better, too.

If the last seven games meant anything, Bombers’ fans should feel confident in this unit playing strong down the stretch despite the debacle that was their loss to the Stampeders and their prolific offense last week.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Brendan Morgan, left, looks on as Calgary Stampeders' Jerome Messam runs the ball during first half CFL football action in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Brendan Morgan, left, looks on as Calgary Stampeders’ Jerome Messam runs the ball during first half CFL football action in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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.

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)

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.

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 Bombers’ Positional Roster Grades: Offense

The Bombers final cuts have been made as the team prepares for their home-opener on Friday against the Montreal Alouettes. In year three of the Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters era, look for the offense, under the guidance of Paul Lapolice, to progress into a top-five unit this season.

Legend:
A or higher = great
B+ or A- = above-average
B = average
C+ or B- = below-average
C or lower:  very poor

QUARTERBACK

Additions: None

Starter: Drew Willy

Depth: Matt Nichols, Dominique Davis, Brian Bennett

Practice-Roster: None

Drew Willy enters his third-season as a starting quarterback with something to prove, whether he admits it or not. It’s clear that he’s starting quarterback material – two years is enough to prove that. What could be Willy’s ceiling, however, remains to be seen; can the 29-year-old develop into an elite quarterback in a division filled with elite quarterbacks? As talented a passer as he is, I think his ceiling tops off as a solid starter with a high floor. He’s a hard quarterback to protect, struggling to make throws while under duress. But a change in philosophy, as well as the upgrades around the Buffalo product, will somewhat compensate for his flaw. For Matt Nichols, however, it takes much more to go right for him to have success. Acquired for a seventh-round pick, Nichols seemed to be a bottom-tier second-string when has brought in from Edmonton. While he’s the best backup quarterback the Bombers have had in years, he’s no Drew Tate or Travis Lulay.

Grade: B-

RUNNING-BACK

Additions: Andrew Harris (FA), Pascal Lochard (FA), Timothy Flanders (INT rookie)

Starter: Andrew Harris

Depth: Pascal Lochard

Practice roster: Timothy Flanders

Andrew Harris’ value to this team cannot be emphasized enough. If the Bombers are going to become a top-3 offense, it’s only possible if Andrew Harris does not miss an extended period of time. His abilities as a pass-blocker and as a receiver is what this club has desperately needed for the past two seasons, as neither Paris Cotton, Nic Grigsby or Cam Marshall were adequate in both areas. Tim Flanders will likely come off of the practice roster to be the starter should Harris miss a start, but it’ll be Pascal Lochard subbing in while Harris is healthy – and that is concerning. Harris, 29, is expected to lead the league in rushing yards and in yards-from-scrimmage, but considering how valuable the running back position is with Willy and Nichols as quarterback, it’s difficult to be content with the depth the Bombers have behind their hometown product.

Grade: B+

FULLBACK

Additions: none

Starter: Chris Normand

Depth: Pascal Lochard

Practice roster: Tim Cronk

One of the few roster transactions the Bombers made on cut-down day that I disagreed with, the Blue & Gold are set to roll with second-year Laval product Chris Normand, with veteran Tim Cronk on the practice. While it’s evident that Paul Lapolice doesn’t intend on using his fullbacks often on offense, I’m just not convinced that Normand is ready to displace Cronk, who was solid in 2015. The move to only roll with one fullback, however, is welcomed; the Bombers have talented Canadians elsewhere that need a spot on roster in a more valuable position. The lone fullback should be Cronk, though.

Grade: C

RECEIVER

Additions: Weston Dressler (FA), Ryan Smith (FA), Jace Davis (INT rookie), Quincy McDuffie (FA), Thomas Mayo (INT rookie), Gerrard Shephard (INT rookie), Kris Adams (INT rookie)

Starters: Weston Dressler (WR), Ryan Smith (SB), Darvin Adams (SB), Jace Davis (SB), Rory Kohlert (SB)

Depth: Quincy McDuffie, Julian Feoli-Gudino, Kris Bastien, Addison Richards (6-game), Kris Adams (1-game)

Practice-roster: Thomas Mayo, Gerrard Shephard

The Bombers completely revamped this unit, signing prized free agents Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith in replacement of Nick Moore and Clarence Denmark. Dressler is still an elite receiver in the league, while Smith should enter that category with another successful season under his belt. Darvin Adams, a solid complimentary receiver, and Jace Davis bring size to the group, while Rory Kohlert is an adequate Canadian pass-catcher at field-side wideout. Davis is an intriguing product, as although he failed to register a catch in his lone preseason game, he seemed to get good separation, and has dominated in practice. For a number of reasons, the Bombers’ pass-catchers have let Willy down since he arrived in Winnipeg, but this group seems poised to fix that.

Grade: A-

OFFENSIVE LINE

Additions: Travis Bond (INT rookie), Jamarcus Hardrick (FA), Manase Foketi (INT rookie), Michael Couture (CDN rookie), Jeff Keeping (FA)

Starters: Stanley Bryant Jr. (LT), Jamarcus Hardrick (LG), Mathias Goossen (C), Sukh Chungh (RG), Patrick Neufeld (RT)

Depth: Jeff Keeping (6-game), Michael Couture, Travis Bond (1-game)

Practice Roster: Manase Foketi

The center, left guard and right tackle positions were two huge burdens on Winnipeg’s offense last year; Sukh Chungh, as expected as a rookie starting in all 18 games, was a below-average right guard; Patrick Neufeld took over in the final third off the season at right tackle, and while he’s still a slightly below-average right tackle in the league, he was easily the club’s best option last year. Goossen, meanwhile, must continue to develop, and he should be an above-average center by years end. The biggest questions surrounds Chungh: he has the potential to become the CFL’s best offensive lineman, but how much of a jump will he take in year two? Playing the hardest position on the line, Chungh’s next step is to become more consistent in year two while continuing to refine his overall game. Stanley Bryant, at left tackle, provides the group with consistently solid play, while Jamarcus Hardrick appears to be a significant upgrade over the Bombers’ recent left guards. Travis Bond should be the starter – he was the best player, both offensively and defensively, on the field against Montreal – but it appears he’ll start on the 1-game injured list while Michael Couture, who’s not nearly ready for this role, will serve as the sixth offensive lineman in Jeff Keeping’s absence.

Grade: B-

THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)
THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)