Bombers bounce back in the Big Smoke (& 10 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday afternoon by a score of 38-20 in front of 10,844 fans at BMO Field in Toronto. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Round one to Harris

Saturday’s game featured a battle between arguably the league’s two best running backs in Andrew Harris and James Wilder Jr. The pair entered week six heading in different directions with Harris on pace for a career-high 1,600-yard rushing season and Wilder Jr. averaging just 4.6 yards per carry (down from 7.1 last season).

The Bombers’ official twitter account compared the two prior to the game, boldly stating: “Our RB > your RB.”

After Saturday’s game, that’s hard to argue.

Andrew Harris set a new career-high with 161 rushing yards on 27 carries against the Argos, also chipping in a pair of touchdowns. Harris’ effort was enough to surpass Jon Cornish’s career rushing total of 6,844 yards and now sits second all-time among Canadian ball carriers behind Normie Kwong (9,022).

Wilder Jr., meanwhile, was held to negative-two yards on the ground on just three carries. Toronto’s tailback chipped in six receptions for 42 yards receiving, but there’s no doubt that Wilder Jr. struggled along the ground.

The league’s reigning Most Outstanding Canadian is now on pace for 1,830 rushing yards, 474 receiving yards, and 21 touchdowns this season. It’s unlikely that Harris will be able to maintain that torrid pace, but his play has been exceptional nonetheless. Now 31, Harris’ production should be declining; instead, it’s improving.

Dominant defence

The Bombers had their third impressive defensive outing in a row on Saturday, limiting the Argos to 173 yards of offence and forcing four turnovers. Winnipeg also allowed just six offensive points against Toronto in the form of one field goal, one two-point convert, and one rouge.

Though the club recorded just two sacks — one apiece from Jackson Jeffcoat and Jake Thomas — Winnipeg was able to consistently disrupt James Franklin without relying on five and six-man pressure. The CFL no longer keeps quarterback pressures as an official statistic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson had as many as five in Saturday’s contest alone.

Winnipeg’s young secondary deserves a lot of credit for shutting down Toronto’s passing attack. With Chris Randle out as a late scratch, the Bombers needed second-year cornerback Brandon Alexander to step-up after missing three weeks due to injury. He did, leading a Bombers secondary that featured two rookies in Marcus Sayles and Tyneil Cooper.

Credit where credit’s due — for a unit that’s struggled at times this season (and in past years), Winnipeg’s young secondary was very good against the Argos.

Nicholback

Matt Nichols followed up a poor performance in B.C. a week ago by completing 19 of 27 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. The veteran pivot also threw zero interceptions, his first turnover-free game of the season.

It was a standard Nichols performance — uptempo, decisive, conservative, and largely mistake-free. For the first time since suffering a knee injury in training camp, Matt Nichols looked like Matt Nichols — and that should be cause for relief in Bomberland.

Awful attendance

Writing about attendance trouble in Toronto is cliché, but Saturday’s game at BMO Field was a virtual ghost town. The announced attendance figure of 10,844 was bad enough, but these photos from kickoff indicate that the crowd was considerably shy of that number.

I think it’s also worth questioning how many of the tickets in Toronto are actually being paid for. If the team is papering the house and still seeing such poor turnouts, I’m not sure we’ll ever see the league’s biggest market recover.

The Argos aren’t playing great football at the moment, but the club won a Grey Cup in November. If that doesn’t put butts in seats, what will?

Third and short

The third quarter of Saturday’s game at BMO Field was starting to look like a repeat of last week’s game in Vancouver. The Argos scored ten quick points late in the first half, drawing comparisons to last week’s game in which the Bombers gave up a 17-point lead in the second half.

Winnipeg had their challenges in short yardage last week in B.C., but I loved Mike O’Shea’s decision to go for it on third down from Toronto’s one-yard line shortly after halftime.

It would have been easy for O’Shea to send out Justin Medlock for a chip shot field goal. Those three points would have stemmed Toronto’s momentum and provided Winnipeg with second-half points, something they were unable to generate a week ago.

Instead, O’Shea trusted Paul LaPolice and his short-yardage team. Matt Nichols lined up behind his outstanding offensive line and scored on a quarterback dive. The touchdown made the game 32-13, restoring the Bombers’ three-score lead.

Good teams play to win instead of playing merely not to lose. O’Shea made the right call and he should continue to be aggressive in short yardage situations as the season unfolds.

Off-season oops

There were a number of personnel moves that raised eyebrows this past off-season. Hindsight being 20/20, Toronto’s decision not to retain Lirim Hajrullahu in free agency might be the worst.

Hajrullahu connected on 84 of 100 field goals over two seasons with the Argos (2016-2017) while averaging 43.9 yards per punt. He has improved on those numbers since signing with the Ticats in February, successfully booting 92.9 percent of his field goal attempts and punting for a gross average of 44.8.

Hajrullahu’s replacement, Ronnie Pfeffer, has now converted on just four of eight field goal attempts with Toronto this season. Yuck.

Veteran kickers Sergio Castillo and Swayze Waters are currently looking for work. Neither share Pfeffer’s national status, but one has to think that the Argos will be looking into adding one in the coming weeks (or days).

Slow Bow-tion

Adarius Bowman went without a reception for the third time this season. Targeted just twice in Toronto, Bowman recorded a drop in the game’s opening possession and wasn’t looked to again until the fourth quarter.

I don’t see the Bombers making a change at receiver before the club’s week eight bye, but there’s no denying that Winnipeg needs more production from Bowman’s slotback position. Now 33, Bowman is on pace for just 285 yards on 27 receptions this season.

There are a pair of American receivers on the Bombers’ practice roster in Kenbrell Thompkins and Corey Washington who deserve a look, while Canadian rookie Daniel Petermann has impressed in limited opportunities. Could a change be in the works?

T.O. in T.O.?

The Argos miss DeVier Posey in their receiving corps and, as mentioned above, the team’s attendance has been poor this season. If there’s one player who can help rectify both issues, it’s Terrell Owens.

I’m not suggesting that Owens will be a productive CFL player, but it’s no secret that Jim Popp loves NFL castoffs. T.O. would, if nothing else, get the Argos some extra media attention upon his arrival.

If he’s not scooped up elsewhere, don’t be surprised if we see Owens in double blue at some point this season.

Paging Plesius

As reported by Justin Dunk during Saturday’s game, the Bombers have agreed to terms with linebacker Frederic Plesius.

Plesius was a stalwart on special teams over a two-year stretch with Hamilton (2015-2016) during which he recorded 41 special teams tackles in 34 games. The Laval product should help buoy Winnipeg’s national depth following the injuries sustained by Derek Jones, Shayne Gauthier, Frank Renaud, and Trent Corney.

Smith & Carr

Rookie receiver Rodney Smith made his CFL debut on Saturday and led the Argos with four receptions for 50 yards. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Smith strongly reminded me of former CFL receiver Greg Carr.

Now 32, Carr is now a star in the Arena Football League where he has recorded 4,025 receiving yards and 96 touchdowns (yes, 96 touchdowns) since 2014. If there’s an AFL Hall of Fame, Carr appears destined for it.

Back-to-back second half

Winnipeg and Toronto play the second half of their back-to-back next Friday night at Investors Group Field. The Bombers, now 3-3, have an opportunity to go over .500 for the first time this season as they attempt to climb the West Division standings. The Argos will get defensive tackle Dylan Wynn back from suspension, while the Bombers may see the return of veteran defensive backs Chandler Fenner and Chris Randle.

A quick programming note: I will not be writing a post-game piece next week due to travel plans. I may be able to provide some analysis of the game via my twitter account, but that will depend on my ability to secure a video feed for the game (which may prove tricky). My post-game content will return following Winnipeg’s week eight bye.

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