The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 39-12 in front of 23,517 fans at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday night. Here are my thoughts on the game.
1. The Bombers’ (5-2) first four wins of the season each came by eight points or less, a common area of criticism from the club’s doubters. After comeback wins against Montreal and Ottawa, some fans and pundits from across the country were doubtful about whether or not Winnipeg was for real; after all, the club could easily be 2-4 — 1-5 if you consider that Winnipeg needed overtime to beat Saskatchewan in week two. After Saturday’s blowout win over Hamilton, however, the Bombers proved they could achieve victory without a miracle comeback or last-second score. The Ticats haven’t won a game all season, but that doesn’t matter — in past years, this is a game the Bombers would have dropped. Instead, Winnipeg got a key win to keep pace in the ultra-competitive West Division (more on that in a moment).
2. The Bombers put together an outstanding six scoring drives in the first half of Saturday’s game… that resulted in a measly 19 points. If there’s one area of concern for this club (now that the secondary appears to have figured things out, anyway), it’s the lack of production in the red zone. Justin Medlock has attempted a whopping fifteen field goals over the past two games, as many as he attempted in the team’s first five games combined. Field goals may be enough to beat Hamilton and Ottawa, but the Bombers will need touchdowns to beat the top teams in the West Division.
3. Andrew Harris had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season on Saturday, recording 107 yards on fourteen carries. His yard-per-carry average has improved to 4.9 yards after a pair of strong games, but I can’t help feeling that the Bombers may be best-off moving Harris to slotback next season. Harris will be 31 next year — with the amount of abuse running backs take, a change of position could help extend his career (see: Durie, Andre). Winnipeg also doesn’t have a back-up Canadian running back, which would force the club to change its ratio should Harris get hurt. If Harris were to play receiver full-time, playing a Canadian in his place wouldn’t be nearly as much of a hassle. I’m not saying Harris should never get a carry after this season, but he’s already a running back who mostly excels catching passes — perhaps it’ll soon be time he becomes a receiver who mostly catches passes.
4. Clarence Denmark had his strongest game of the season on Saturday, almost doubling his season-best totals in a seven-reception, 69-yard performance. The numbers aren’t gaudy, but they may be enough to keep the veteran in the line-up when Weston Dressler returns from injury.
5. Zach Collaros is a shadow of the player who set the CFL on fire two seasons ago. His supporting cast does him few favors — Collaros is the most-pressured quarterback in the CFL and his receiving corps lacks experience — but there’s something amiss about his game. I compared Collaros to Khari Jones earlier this week — two quarterbacks that burnt very brightly for not very long. The Ticats will be going through a rebuilding stage in the next short while (the club is already making changes); is Collaros the quarterback to lead them into a new era?
6. Speaking of 2015, Saturday marked just over two years to the day of Winnipeg’s humiliating 38-8 loss at Tim Hortons Field. Winnipeg gave up seven sacks, punted twelve times, and lost Drew Willy to a season-ending knee injury in that game. The Ticats, who have lost ten straight games dating back to last season, had won nine-straight games at Tim Hortons Field when they smashed the Bombers back in 2015. It’s remarkable how fast things can change in the CFL.
7. Matt Nichols has yet to fully shed his ‘game manager’ label (to some, at least), but he’s on pace for some stellar numbers in 2017 — 5,205 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, and ten interceptions. This would be the second-best single-season passing yardage total in Blue Bomber history (Khari Jones had 5,334 passing yards in 2002) and tie the great Jack Jacobs for fourth-place in club history for most touchdown passes in a season.
8. Kent Austin’s career head coaching record has dipped below .500 as a result of Saturday’s loss, now sitting at 48-49. Mike O’Shea’s career mark has improved to 28-33 after a rough 13-28 start in Winnipeg.
9. The Bombers released veteran halfback Bruce Johnson earlier this week after his season-opening stint on the six-game injured list. I thought Johnson’s release might be somewhat premature — it was just one week ago that Winnipeg’s secondary first held an opposing quarterback to under 330 yards passing this season — but rookie Brian Walker has shown fast improvement at Johnson’s old field-side halfback spot. Still just 21, Walker is hard-hitting, quick as a hiccup, and had a great diving interception that helped ice Saturday’s contest.
10. Remember when Brandon Banks was the league’s most explosive player? It’s not long ago that people were declaring Banks the second-coming of Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams. As it stands, Banks sits eighth in kick-off return average (min. 10 attempts) and fifth in punt return average (min. 10 attempts); it’s also been close to a full calendar year since Banks last scored a return touchdown.
11. Something needs to be done about the disparity between the CFL’s East and West Divisions. The Ticats (0-7) are just two more points out of first place in the East (Montreal, 3-4) than the Bombers (5-2) are in the West (Edmonton, 7-0). I’d start by doubling down on the crossover rule, as it’s possible the fifth-place team in the West will finish with more points than the second-place team in the East. I’d also propose allowing the team with the better record to host each playoff game regardless of division, giving the more-deserving team home-field advantage and the game’s gate revenue. It would be silly for a team in B.C. or Calgary to host the East Semi-Final, sure, but it’s also silly that the Eskimos have as many wins as the entire East Division put together.
12. The Bombers will play host to the Edmonton Eskimos (7-0) on Thursday, August 17 at Investors Group Field. Despite 5-2 record, a lot of pundits don’t give Winnipeg much of a shot in the West Division, calling it a three-horse race between Edmonton, Calgary (5-1-1), and B.C. (5-2). A win against the Eskimos would inject the Bombers into that conversation as well as tie the club’s record for most consecutive wins at Investors Group Field (three games). Winnipeg will go into Thursday’s contest on a short week, but the Esks are banged up, losing veteran defensive linemen Almondo Sewell and Marcus Howard to injury in Ottawa this past week.