Bomber defence redeems itself — for now (& 10 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions by a score of 41-19 in front of 26,567 fans at Investors Group Field on Saturday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Defence on display

The Bombers had an excellent defensive showing on Saturday night following a poor performance last week in Hamilton.

Winnipeg rarely sent more than four pass rushers against the Lions, which proved effective — defensive ends Craig Roh, Tristan Okpalaugo, and Jackson Jeffcoat (twice) recorded sacks for a season-best total of four. Sending fewer pass rushers and generating more pressure? That’s a winning combination.

Deploying a less blitz-happy front-seven meant that the Bombers had more freedom to mix and match coverage in the defensive backfield. Winnipeg’s secondary was able to contest more pass attempts, resulting in a number of knockdowns and near interceptions. Chris Randle — who recorded an acrobatic interception late in the game — and Maurice Leggett shone in particular.

The biggest shift in the Bombers’ defence came in the usage of middle linebacker Adam Bighill. Bighill was deployed primarily as an interior pass rusher through the club’s first three games, a bizarre role for the four-time CFL all-star. Against B.C., Bighill was left free to roam the middle of the field, participating in pass coverage, eating up rushing attempts, and chasing down scrambling quarterbacks. He shone in this role, recording six tackles and two interceptions — one of which he returned for a touchdown.

There are still plenty of questions about the Bombers’ defence. The unit needs to demonstrate that it can be successful on a consistent basis, while the Lions’ offence is hardly the stiffest challenge it will face this season (more on that in a bit).

Even so, full credit to Richie Hall and the Blue Bomber defence for an excellent performance against the Lions. I recently wrote about the amazing turnaround Hamilton’s defence enjoyed following the mid-season promotion of Phillip Lolley last year, suggesting that a change at defensive coordinator may be needed in Winnipeg.

Should the Bombers continue to shutdown opposing offences the way they did on Saturday, a change at defensive coordinator will prove unnecessary.

Exacting revenge

It was a good night for former members of the B.C. Lions who now call Winnipeg home.

Andrew Harris recorded four receptions for 22 yards, 12 carries for 109 yards (his first 100-yard rushing game of the season), and one rushing touchdown.

Adam Bighill, as mentioned above, recorded two interceptions and returned one for a score. Chandler Fenner recorded six tackles (two on defence and four on special teams), while Craig Roh recorded two tackles and a sack (more on that later).

The players mentioned above will only get one more shot to face Wally Buono barring a meeting in the playoffs — which, given the state of the West Division, seems unlikely — and I expect them to make the most of it next week in Vancouver.

Jennings regressing

I think it’s time to start questioning whether or not Jonathon Jennings is a legitimate CFL starting quarterback.

Jennings has thrown for just 487 yards in three games this season and his touchdown-to-interception ratio — now 18-to-22 since the beginning of last year — leaves much to be desired. Jarious Jackson was hired as B.C.’s offensive coordinator to rejuvenate Jennings’ career after last season’s lull. It hasn’t worked thus far.

Jennings was sensational in his first two seasons in the league, passing for 7,230 yards, 42 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions. At almost 26, I suspect there is still some good football in Jennings’ future.

If you’re the Lions, I’m just not sure if Jennings is the guy you want leading your organization into the post-Wally Buono era next season following the head coach’s retirement.

Trench warfare

Ed Hervey has always prioritized the play of his offensive and defensive lines, a philosophy that fueled a number of the personnel moves that he made after taking over as B.C.’s general manager in November.

As much as I like some of his additions — Davon Coleman is a very good interior pass rusher, while 2018 draftees Peter Godber and Julien Laurent should develop into quality nationals — there is still a long way to go.

Winnipeg dominated the line of scrimmage all night on Saturday aside from a few nice carries from Jeremiah Johnson. Not only was Matt Nichols not sacked by the Lions, the Bombers starter went the entire game without being touched. How often does that happen?

Look for B.C. to make some defensive adjustments ahead of next week’s game in Vancouver. The Lions have limited personnel on the offensive line, but there’s no reason why their defensive line shouldn’t be able to get a hand on the opposing quarterback.

Rusty return

Speaking of Nichols, I thought that Winnipeg’s starter was somewhat lackluster in his season debut.

That’s not to say that Nichols was poor — he protected the football, delivered some nice passes, and was the victim of a handful of drops. Even the most seasoned veterans need a period to readjust to game speed after time away and, after missing a month with a knee injury, it’s understandable that Nichols wasn’t a game-breaker in his first regular season contest.

With that said, I’m sure the Bombers expect Nichols to throw for more than 162 yards in next week’s game. He’s got a great offensive line in front of him, a solid complimentary run game, and a pretty decent group of receivers to work with. More production would be nice to see, particularly against a suspect B.C. secondary.

Paging Mr. Bowman

On a night that saw eight different Blue Bombers record at least one reception, Adarius Bowman was held off the stat sheet for the second time this season. Bowman has now recorded just eight receptions for 70 yards in four games this year, nowhere near the production that was expected of the veteran when he inked a one-year, $140,000 contract with Winnipeg this off-season.

Bowman’s lone target came late in the game on a corner route in the end zone. The ball may have been slightly overthrown, but Bowman appeared to give up on the route instead of diving for the football.

Bowman hasn’t had a ton of opportunities to make plays this season — why he wouldn’t make the most of a potential touchdown toss is baffling.

LaPo gonna LaPo

Paul LaPolice was up to his usual trickery on this direct snap to Andrew Harris from the five-yard line.

The Bombers scored a touchdown against the Lions in October of 2016 on a play that looked virtually identical to this one. That play saw Harris lateral the ball to receiver Rory Kohlert who then tossed a touchdown pass to Matt Nichols.

Saturday’s version appeared to have the same lateral option built-in — Darvin Adams, the trailing receiver, already has a touchdown pass this season — but Harris kept it for the score.

Wouldn’t it be cool to see the Bombers run this play again next week in Vancouver? It’s two-for-two, after all.

Short yardage

The Bombers found a way to keep the #Strevolution alive even after Matt Nichols returned to resume his role as the club’s starting quarterback.

Chris Streveler scampered for 26 yards off the left side of the offensive line on third-and-short in the first half and remained on the field for a pair of plays that resulted in a first down.

Paul LaPolice’s use of Streveler will be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators this season. The use of hurry-up following Streveler’s carry on third-and-short was intentional — it forced the Lions to keep their short yardage personnel on the field for a pair of regular downs.

This maneuver — one I expect the Bombers to use regularly — creates potential mismatches and miscommunication for the defence given the number of players who are forced to line-up out of position.

Gauthier looking good

It’s not an area that garners a lot of attention, but there’s little arguing against the importance of quality special teams cover units in the CFL.

Third-year linebacker Shayne Gauthier now leads the CFL with nine special teams tackles, two more than the next closest player. Gauthier has missed fifteen games over the past two seasons due to injury, but it’s nice to see the Laval product on the field and making plays.

Season series

The Lions created a stir on social media when they finished off Saturday’s game with a late touchdown drive followed by an onside kick. The game was out of reach, but B.C. and Winnipeg are only scheduled to meet twice this regular season.

This means that, should the Lions win next week’s rematch in Vancouver, the season series will be decided by the point differential in the two games. Hence B.C.’s urgency to add points late in the game.

The rematch

There was a lot of rough stuff late in Saturday’s game that could spill over into next week’s contest in Vancouver. I suspect that many Winnipeg players took exception to Winston Rose’s dangerous hit on Darvin Adams on the aforementioned onside kick, another play that could exacerbate the rivalry between these two teams. Stay tuned.

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