Bombers clinch playoff berth, suffer key injuries (& 11 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions by a score of 26-20 in front of 26,434 fans at Investors Group Field on Saturday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.

1. The story of Saturday’s game centres on the devastating injuries suffered by Winnipeg, a team that until recently was among the CFL’s healthiest squads. Darvin Adams, Brian Walker, Tristan Okpalaugo, and Maurice Leggett all left Saturday’s game due to injury and failed to return to action. The injuries suffered by Adams and Leggett appeared to be particularly serious: Adams, who broke his collarbone last season, has his arm in a sling following the game; Leggett, meanwhile, appeared to suffer a torn Achilles tendon while bringing down an onside kick late in the game. Despite the victory, the atmosphere at Investors Group Field was sombre following Saturday’s win — fans knew that potentially losing two all-star calibre players for the rest of the season meant far more than all-but meaningless victory over the lowly Lions.

2. The Bombers will likely replace Leggett with one of two players: rookie field cornerback Brandon Alexander or reserve defensive back Kevin Fogg. In either case, expect the club to promote at least one defensive back from the practice roster. Robert Porter, who’s appeared in three contests, should be the first man up.

3. Speaking of Fogg, his first quarter punt return touchdown added a nice feel-good element to Saturday’s game. Fogg returned four punts for touchdowns last season, all of which were called back due to penalty. Seeing his reaction to finally reaching the end zone (and having the play stand) was pretty neat.

4. Winnipeg (11-4) can now officially finish no lower than third place in the West Division following Saskatchewan’s 33-32 loss to Ottawa on Friday night. Edmonton (who is hosting Toronto at the time of this writing) can surpass the Bombers for second place only if they win all four of their remaining contests and the Bombers lose their final three. Winnipeg could also technically catch Calgary for first if they won-out with the Stamps lost their remaining three games. These unlikely scenarios aside, bank on Calgary finishing first, Winnipeg finishing second, and the winner of Saskatchewan and Edmonton’s week twenty game at New Mosaic Stadium finishing third.

5. With virtually nothing to play for over the club’s three final regular season games, I’d like to see the Bombers bring in an American running back to take over part of Andrew Harris’ workload. Harris had 22 touches in a remarkably physical game versus B.C. and while I’m sure Harris welcomes the work (Harris is now just 129 rushing yards and 184 receiving yards away from recording 1,000-1,000), this team needs its top Canadian rested and healthy for the playoffs. Timothy Flanders could be back from injury soon, but I’d argue his versatility as a ball carrier and receiver makes him too valuable to overuse down the stretch. LaDarius Perkins is currently sitting on Edmonton’s practice roster — if I was Kyle Walters, he’d be a Bomber by Monday.

6. I’m not sure he will, but Mike O’Shea would be wise to limit the playing time of Matt Nichols down the stretch. Personally, I’d play Nichols for a half in Toronto next week, a half at home versus B.C. in week nineteen, and start Dominique Davis in the final game of the regular season at McMahon Stadium.

7. Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson had another great game, recording four quarterback pressures from his defensive tackle spot. With two sacks and fifteen pressures on the season, Johnson’s numbers are on par with the likes of Almondo Sewell, Cleyon Laing, and Davon Coleman. How Johnson was ever taken out of the starting line-up is beyond me — the guy is a beast.

8. Speaking of pass rushers, Tristan Okpalaugo has really hit his stride since the Bombers lost Jamaal Westerman for the season almost a month ago. The former Argonaut has recorded two sacks and eight pressures in the last three games, showing why the Bombers worked so hard to sign him following a one-year stint in the NFL. Okpalaugo left the game under his own steam on Saturday, an indication that he may not miss much time due to injury.

9. One final thought on Leggett: an Achilles injury would not only end his season and potentially limit his availability for 2018, but it would also hit him in the pocketbook. Though I never expected Leggett leave Winnipeg in free agency this winter, a long-term injury would severely hamper his value on the open market. I believe the Bombers were prepared to make Leggett one of the CFL’s highest-paid defenders next season; with a torn Achilles, Leggett wouldn’t get a deal nearly that lucrative.

10. The Bombers’ depleted receiving corps was very poor on Saturday. Missing arguably the club’s three best targets in Adams, Weston Dressler, and Timothy Flanders, the remaining crew of Clarence Denmark, L’Damian Washington, Ryan Lankford, Julian Feoli-Gudino, and Matt Coates was simply ineffective. The Bombers have three international receivers on their practice roster, highlighted by former NFLer Chris Givens. If Adams is indeed out long-term, the Bombers need to find a way to provide Matt Nichols with better targets.

11. Speaking of receivers, Chris Williams had another middling game for the Lions, recording six receptions for 62 yards. Williams is one of a few once-dominant receivers who may be looking for new homes this off-season. With Weston Dressler not under contract for 2018, is it possible the Bombers consider adding a guy like Williams to the fold? If not, what about Montreal’s Ernest Jackson or Edmonton’s Adarius Bowman?

12. With little to play for over the next three weeks, the focus in Bomberland should be to remain as healthy as possible for what will likely be the club’s first home playoff game in six years. I consider Leggett, Adams, and Westerman to among the Bombers’ six best players — the possibility of entering the playoffs without any of them should be highly concerning for a Bomber team seeking to end the club’s 26-year Grey Cup drought.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.