Defensive breakdowns cost Bombers in season opener (& 11 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Edmonton Eskimos by a score of 33-30 in front of 25,458 rain-soaked fans at Investors Group Field on Thursday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.

1. Einstein said that the definition of insanity was repeating the same action while expecting different results.

The Bombers made some defensive adjustments this off-season — Craig Roh, Anthony Gaitor, and Chandler Fenner were brought over from B.C., while Mike O’Shea and Glen Young said that they would become more involved in the club’s defensive schemes. Adam Bighill was also added on the eve of training camp, providing the team with the type of game-changing middle linebacker they’ve lacked for the better part of a decade.

Changes aside, Richie Hall was retained as the club’s defensive coordinator.

Hall’s three-year tenure in Bomberland has been marred by his unit allowing huge amounts of yardage through the air. Winnipeg has given up 14,487 passing yards over the past two years, by far the most of any CFL team over that time period. The trade-off has been the defence’s ability to force turnovers — Winnipeg is plus-43 in the turnover differential since 2016, a number that has gone a long way to helping the Bombers win 23 of a possible 36 regular season games.

Thursday night saw the Bombers allow 408 yards through the air while generating just one turnover, a fourth quarter interception by Kevin Fogg.

Mike Reilly is the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Player for a reason — he’s a dominant passer, strong runner, and very tough bring down.

With that said, there is simply no excuse for allowing over 400 yards through the air. Reilly owned the Bombers in last year’s West Semi-Final, a game in which he threw for 334 yards and three touchdowns passes en route to a 39-32 victory. How is it that he was able to improve on that performance on Thursday night after the Bombers had all winter to make adjustments to their defence?

Maurice Leggett’s absence undoubtedly hurt Winnipeg’s secondary, but the Eskimos were without three starting defensive backs on Thursday night (Arjen Colquhoun, Johnny Adams, and Aaron Grymes) and barely skipped a beat.

The Bomber defence needs to play well if the club is to avoid falling into the basement of a tough West Division while Matt Nichols rehabs his knee injury. I have a feeling that simply maintaining the status quo won’t result in much positive change.

2. Chris Streveler became the first CFL quarterback straight out of college to start a season-opening game since 1994. The results? Not too shabby.

Streveler shook off an early sack and interception to finish Thursday’s game 15-of-28 for 178 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. The South Dakota product also showed off his size and athleticism in the run game, rushing seven times for 30 yards.

It was a performance as good as the club could have reasonably expected from Streveler given some tough circumstances. I was particularly impressed with Streveler in the red zone — the Bombers crossed the Eskimos’ 25-yard line three times and came away with three touchdowns, all of which were scored through the air.

It’s too early to start getting too excited about the 23-year-old passer, but it appears Streveler has all the required tools to be an effective CFL quarterback. I’m intrigued to see how he fairs next week against the Alouettes.

3. Kevin Fogg’s second quarter missed field goal return was a reminder of why you never leave a CFL game early. It was an electrifying return that ignited the few thousand fans who remained at the game through almost three hours of weather delays. Thursday’s contest may have been the first of the CFL regular season, but Fogg’s long touchdown will be a serious contender for return of the year.

4. The Bombers need to monitor Andrew Harris’ touches in 2018 — now 31, the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian is unlikely to remain healthy all year if he records another 250-plus touches this season. With that said, I would have liked to see Harris get more than 14 carries against the Eskimos on Thursday night. Harris rushed 30 times against the Eskimos last year for 236 yards, an impressive 7.9 yard-per-carry average. Between fielding a rookie quarterback and the game’s rain-soaked conditions, I thought Harris should have been used more liberally on Thursday night.

5. I found it interesting that it was Chris Randle, widely considered to be the leader of the Bomber defence over the past several seasons, who allowed the first “explosion” play of the year when he was beaten by Derel Walker for a 101-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Adam Bighill, who has taken on a leadership role with the club, told the Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen this week that “there is no acceptance for any big play.” What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall during defensive meetings this week…

6. Speaking of Adam Bighill, he’s a tremendous player who comes as advertised. Recording a game-leading eight tackles, Bighill was a big part of the reason that C.J. Gable was held to three yards or less on all but four of his carries. I’d like to see the Bombers use Bighill as a pass rusher less frequently in order to take advantage of his ability to cover receivers and spy opposing quarterbacks.

7. Speaking of Derel Walker, there’s a reason that I picked Edmonton’s boundary wide receiver to lead the CFL in receiving yards this season. Walker’s eight-catch, 176-yard season debut is just a sign of things to come for Mike Reilly’s number one target.

8. I was intrigued to see which Bomber receiver would have the most chemistry with Chris Streveler in Thursday night’s game. The answer was Weston Dressler, who led the Bombers with 74 yards receiving and a touchdown on four receptions. Adarius Bowman, targeted just three times, failed to register a catch after joining the club as a free agent back in January.

9. Thursday’s game marked the third time that the Bombers have faced delays at Investors Group Field over the past two years. A lightning delay in August of 2016 delayed a Winnipeg-Hamilton contest for two hours, while the #LooseMoose (google it) delayed last year’s Banjo Bowl by thirty minutes.

10. Speaking of the weather delay, the crowd of 25,458 is the lowest attendance figure the Bombers have had for a home opener since the 2014 season (24,827). It’s possible that some people stayed home for fear of thunderstorms, but you’d like to see more fans at a home opener.

11. It was nice seeing J.C. Sherritt back on the field for the first time since last June when he suffered a torn Achilles. Sherritt is a heck of a player — he recorded three tackles and an interception against the Bombers — and the league is better when he’s on the field.

12. The Bombers are heading out on an eastern road trip over the next two weeks with dates in Montreal and Hamilton. Returning to Winnipeg with an 0-3 record simply isn’t an option — the club needs to sort out its defensive issues. Fast.

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