Bombers impress in preseason debut (& 12 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Eskimos in preseason action on Friday night by a score of 33-13. Just over 23,000 fans were in attendance to watch the untelevised game at Investors Group Field, the Bombers’ first of two preseason contests ahead of the regular season opener on June 14th. Here are my thoughts on the game.

1. The biggest question facing the Winnipeg Football Club is at quarterback where, following the retirement of Darian Durant, the club is without a proven commodity behind starter Matt Nichols. There’s a limit to how much one can glean from a preseason game — particularly one in which the Eskimos left almost their entire starting defence in Edmonton — but Chris Streveler’s performance has to have the Bombers breathing at least a small sigh of relief.

Streveler, a rookie out of South Dakota, completed all ten of his pass attempts for 140 yards and a touchdown in approximately twenty minutes of action. The 23-year-old also showed off his impressive athleticism, making plays with his legs that resulted in 37 rushing yards on just four attempts. It’s important to reiterate that preseason statistics are to be taken with a grain of salt, but there’s no denying that Streveler looked impressive in his first official CFL action.

Streveler said all the right things post-game, commending his offensive line, receivers, and coaches for the success he enjoyed in his CFL preseason debut.

On the flip side, the play of Alex Ross has to have the Bombers feeling at least somewhat concerned. Currently pencilled in as the club’s primary back-up, Ross completed one of eight pass attempts on Friday night for just eight yards. Ross brings with him a year of experience — he was a member of the B.C. Lions a season ago — but those numbers won’t help him as he looks to nail down the club’s back-up job.

2. The Bombers’ decision to retain defensive coordinator Richie Hall raised some eyebrows around the league this past off-season following a 2017 campaign that was marred by defensive breakdowns. Winnipeg allowed 7,144 yards of offence last season — second-worst only to the lowly Montreal Alouettes — with big plays through the air chronically plaguing the club’s defence. A few moves were made — defensive backs coach Tony Missick was let go, while a number of veteran defensive backs were brought over from B.C. — but as many as nine defensive starters from last year will return to the line-up in 2018.

Despite the lack of changes, the early returns on the Bombers’ new defence are encouraging.

Winnipeg hosted the Eskimos for a preseason game last year, a contest in which Edmonton fielded a young roster of (mostly) unproven players. The Esks proceeded to rack up 455 yards of total offence and a whopping 38 points against a Blue Bomber team that played a number of starters throughout the first half. It was a disappointing performance that turned out to be a sign of things to come in Bomberland.

Last night Winnipeg hosted the same Edmonton club that again fielded a youth-laden roster — the results, however, couldn’t have been more different. The Bombers held Edmonton to just 165 yards from scrimmage and six offensive points on Friday evening. Zach Kline, the youngster who tossed for 127 yards and a touchdown in last year’s preseason match-up, was held to just 3-of-11 passing for 50 yards and an interception in this year’s contest.

The Bombers have a long way to go before we can declare that they’ve fixed the defensive issues that haunted them all of last season, but Friday night’s great performance certainly represents a step in the right direction.

3. Johnny Augustine had a breakout game on Friday night, a debut I’ve been waiting on for over a year.

Augustine had an excellent performance at the CFL combine one year ago, impressing in the rushing, receiving, and pass blocking drills. The Guelph product was even added to the CFL’s final scouting bureau ranking as the seventeenth-ranked player heading into the draft.

The only problem? Augustine didn’t get drafted.

Eventually signed by the Eskimos as a free agent, Augustine was released following training camp and played out his final year of USports eligibility with the Gryphons. Having since completed a brief stint with the Riders, Augustine signed with Winnipeg just prior to training camp where he was thought to be in tough to earn a spot on the roster due to the club’s depth at the running back position.

Despite that, Augustine may have won himself a job with the Bombers this season on the strength of Friday night’s stellar outing. With 81 yards on just eight carries and a touchdown, Augustine was by far the most productive ball carrier in last night’s preseason action.

Augustine also looked solid in pass protection and recorded a special teams tackle, displaying the type of versatility often required by depth Canadian players. Augustine also lined up to return at least one kickoff, though the ball was not kicked in his direction.

4. Speaking of undrafted players, Cody Speller looked comfortable at centre throughout the second half of Friday’s game. The McMaster product returned to school last season after participating in Winnipeg’s training camp and has the ability to play all three interior spots along the offensive line. The club is high on Speller, one of the reasons why the team shied away from selecting an offensive lineman in the first few rounds of last month’s draft.

5. I kept a close eye on Faith Ekakitie throughout the second half of Friday’s game. Ekakitie, the first overall pick of last year’s draft, had a subpar rookie season during which he recorded just five tackles and was scratched four times. The Iowa product failed to jump off the page again versus the Eskimos, struggling in one-on-one match-ups with depth Edmonton offensive linemen Kwabena Asare and Curtis Krahn. For a team facing a cap crunch — Adam Bighill’s contract was a sizeable late addition to the club’s pocketbook — Ekakitie will be making a lot more than he’s worth unless he begins showing progress in the very near future.

6. Speaking of sore spots, Eskimos’ general manager Brock Sunderland should be worried about the state of his offensive line. Tommie Draheim and Kelvin Palmer, both of whom have started meaningful games in the CFL, struggled mightily against the Bombers’ pass rushing trio of Jackson Jeffcoat, Craig Roh, and Tristan Okpalaugo. Colin Kelly will be the club’s starting left tackle, but Draheim or Palmer will likely start on the right side come week one. If Edmonton wants to get a full eighteen regular season games out of Mike Reilly, they may need to reevaluate how they plan to protect him off the edge.

7. I was hoping to get a good look at the Bombers’ defensive backs on Friday night — they currently have twenty on the roster — but the Eskimos simply weren’t able to test them very much as the night went on. We’ll have to wait until next week to see more from Winnipeg’s secondary, particularly the club’s young players who should have a larger role versus the Lions.

8. Rookie receiver Corey Washington has garnered some hype in training camp and was the first second-team receiver to see the field when the Bombers began relieving their starters midway through the second quarter. That didn’t translate into production, however, with the Newberry College star failing to record a single reception in Friday night’s game. It was a quiet night across the board for the Bombers’ international rookies in the receiving corps with Myles White, who spent some time on Winnipeg’s practice roster a year ago, making the lone big play on his 80-yard touchdown reception from Chris Streveler. That group — Washington, White, A.J. Coney, Rueben Randle, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Donteea Dye — should see more action in next week’s preseason finale.

9. Drake Nevis had a monster night for the Bombers, recording two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack in the first quarter alone. I was surprised that the Bombers retained Nevis after a pedestrian 2017 season, but it appears (for now, at least) that he’s poised for a more impactful season in 2018.

10. Maurice Leggett told anyone who would listen during CFL Week in March that he would be healthy to start the season. The regular season hasn’t started yet, of course, but Leggett didn’t appear in Friday night’s preseason game and it’s safe to assume that he won’t suit up next week, either. The Bombers shouldn’t rush Leggett back from the Achilles injury he suffered last October, but his status will be a major storyline as the season unfolds. Leggett is a game-changer — even with the addition of versatile defenders Chandler Fenner and Adam Bighill, the Bombers will need him to contribute this season as soon as he’s ready.

11. Félix Ménard-Brière had a nice game for the Bombers, connecting on both of his field goal attempts and booting three punts for an average of 50.0 yards (35.3 net). Selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft, Ménard-Brière is the likely heir apparent to 34-year-old kicker Justin Medlock. The question now becomes how the Bombers plan to retain Ménard-Brière with his USports eligibility now exhausted.

12. Something that will make the Bombers’ coaching staff smile: not one player left Friday evening’s game due to injury. There will inevitably be bumps and bruises that appear overnight, but Winnipeg (for now, at least) appears to have avoided suffering any serious injuries with one preseason game officially in the books.

13. I invite you to come back to 3DownNation for the rest of the post-game pieces that I will be writing this season. This is my fifth year covering Blue Bomber games and I’m always happy to see new readers find and (hopefully) enjoy my content. Also know that I co-host the Blue Bomber Talk Podcast, a weekly show that covers all things Bombers along with some general CFL talk. That, too, can be found right here on 3DownNation. Stay tuned.

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