Bombers lay egg in quest for second in West (& 12 other thoughts)

1. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers dropped their final home regular season contest on Saturday afternoon against the Ottawa Redblacks by a final score of 23-10. Winnipeg committed five turnovers and failed to reach the end zone until the final minute of the game, disappointing a respectable late-season crowd of 26,032 at Investors Group Field. The loss — by far the ugliest of the post-Willy era in Bomberland — means the Bombers are no longer in control of their post-season destiny with just one week remaining on the CFL’s regular season schedule. More on that below.

2. Simply put, Matt Nichols was putrid on Saturday afternoon. Nichols tossed three first half interceptions before pitching an ultra-conservative second half that included an unfortunate prevalence of quick curls and dump-offs. Nichols’ early errors were predominantly mental — he failed to properly complete his five-step drop on a slant pattern to Clarence Denmark for his first interception, before waiting too long on a deep corner to Weston Dressler for his third. After his second interception, a floating go route intended for Rory Kohlert, Nichols motioned to suggest his arm had been contacted as he threw, accounting for the ball’s poor flight. Winnipeg doesn’t need their starting quarterback to win them games — with a solid run game and hard-hitting defence, the Bombers rarely need 400 yards and three passing touchdowns to earn a victory — but they do need Nichols to keep from costing them contests. For the first time this season, Nichols failed to do that on Saturday.

3. Nichols has now thrown five interceptions in the past two games after tossing just three in his first ten starts this season. That’s a troubling trend with the playoffs looming.

4. Darvin Adams made his return to the Bomber line-up on Saturday afternoon, his first contest in three months. Adams was excellent, recording nine receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown (Adams’ 84.3 receiving yards per start is fifth-best in the league, behind only Adarius Bowman, Derel Walker, Naaman Roosevelt, and Chris Williams), but forced Tori Gurley out of the line-up at boundary wide receiver. Considering the Bombers played Adams at slotback to start the year, I’d like to see Gurley and Adams on the roster next week with Ryan Smith as the odd man out. Smith had six catches for 51 yards versus Ottawa, a mediocre outing that (sadly) still ranks as his third-best outing in blue and gold. The former Rider has simply failed to live up to the hype this season — signed to become the deep threat of the Bombers’ receiving corps, Smith has been largely ineffective. The North Dakota State product has a measly 9.3 yards per reception average this year — barely half of his 16.8-yard average from a season ago — and has done little to produce any yardage after the catch. As per TSN stat man Derek Taylor, Smith has averaged just 3.5 yards after catch (YAC) this season on 10.1 air yards per target. This figure is near the bottom of the league, worse even than Edmonton’s Chris Getzlaf, who, while still respectable receiver, could hardly be considered a “deep threat” at this stage of his career. The Bombers can’t afford to drop next week’s contest in Ottawa and they will need to start their four best American receivers to record a victory. Right now, Smith isn’t one of them.

5. With B.C. (11-6) beating Saskatchewan in Saturday’s second contest, the West Division playoff picture has become quite clear. The Lions should have no problem beating a youth-laden Rider club next week in Vancouver, guaranteeing the Leos second place in the West. The Bombers would then finish third unless they lose in Ottawa next week and Edmonton (9-8) beats the visiting Argos.

6. If there’s one positive thing to take out of Saturday’s loss, it’s the increased chance of Edmonton’s game next week being meaningful in the standings. An Eskimo victory, while possibly detrimental to the Bombers’ playoff seeding, would mean that Toronto’s first round pick in May’s CFL draft — traded to Winnipeg as part of the Drew Willy deal — officially becomes the first overall pick in the draft.

7. Speaking of next year’s draft, the Bombers’ two top needs could not be more evident: offensive line and receiver.

8. Some may wonder why Edmonton would fight to finish third in the West when finishing fourth would mean crossing over to compete in the inferior East Division. The answer? Simple — Jason Maas, like Mike O’Shea, is a gamer. Playing to lose simply isn’t in his DNA.

9. Credit where credit’s due: one lame-duck interception aside, Henry Burris was outstanding on Saturday afternoon. Now 41, Burris consistently demonstrates the arm strength, mobility, and toughness of a player half his age. I know Trevor Harris’ contract is structured to pay him starter-type money next season, but Ottawa GM Marcel Desjardins needs to find a way to keep Smilin’ Hank in the picture through 2017.

10. Andrew Harris’ 98 rushing yards on twelve carries on Saturday brought his season rushing total to 914 yards. With Winnipeg playing to win next week, I expect the first-year Bomber to break the 1,000-yard mark in Ottawa before the final gun sounds.

11. It didn’t end-up figuring into the final score, but the non-call on Jeff Richards’ blatant no yards penalty in the third quarter on Saturday was simply the latest in a long list of egregious officiating errors this CFL season. Two years ago I would have said the solution to catching missed calls like this is making no yards reviewable by replay. Now, seeing how the prevalence of challenges has negatively impacted the game, I think the solution is actually very simple — this league needs better officials.

12. I’ve never been a huge fan of Richie Hall’s cookie-cutter defensive schemes, but he needs some help in the personnel department this off-season. Shayon Green and Adrian Hubbard, the two defensive ends who started the season rotating opposite Jamaal Westerman, are no longer on the active roster. Justin Cole, who has started the past five games, has just one sack in those starts. Meanwhile, Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings — Hall’s defensive tackles — have just four sacks between them in seventeen contests. For a defensive coordinator who likes sending four as often as Hall, the second-year Bomber coach simply doesn’t have the playmakers to generate consistent pressure on opposing pivots.

13. Saturday’s loss saw the Bombers’ home record fall to 4-5 this season, ensuring the fourth consecutive losing season at Investors Group Field. Winnipeg is now 11-25 all-time during regular season play at their new stadium and, barring a miracle, will enter the 2017 season without hosting a playoff game in their new digs.

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