The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 31-14 on Friday night in front of 24,349 fans at Investors Group Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Nichols bounces back
Matt Nichols returned to form on Friday night with a respectable performance against the Alouettes. Completing 18 of 25 pass attempts for 256 yards and a touchdown, Nichols managed the game effectively while appearing more mobile than he has in previous outings this season.
The Bombers don’t need Matt Nichols to throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns in order to achieve success. Winnipeg has won a lot of games over the past two seasons with Nichols playing conservative, smart football.
The Alouettes led the Bombers in total yards, rushing yards, and time of possession. This game could easily have gone Montreal’s way.
Instead, Winnipeg committed zero turnovers and took just one penalty. That’s clean football. It may not be sexy, flashy or electrifying football, but it’s clean football. Good football. Fundamentally sound football. The type of football that can win you a lot of games.
Nichols and the Bombers still have a long way to go. The club has yet to defeat a team with a winning record this season, something they’ll have to do multiple times down the stretch in order to earn a playoff spot. But Friday’s victory — one that ended a four-game losing streak — was enough to save their season (for now, anyway).
Mike O’Shea chose to start Matt Nichols after several pundits (myself included) said it was time to give the ball to Chris Streveler. While we’ll never know how the rookie would have fared in the starting role, O’Shea’s decision was validated with solid play from his veteran pivot. Good for him and good for Matt Nichols.
Now for a tougher test next week.
Johnny B. Bad
Johnny Manziel played better than I thought he would on Friday night, but the former first-round NFL draft pick has a long way to go.
It’s undeniable that Manziel’s supporting cast needs to be better — Montreal is without a top-tier receiver or a decent offensive line — but I’d argue that the pivot’s stat line actually flattered his play.
A second quarter strip sack that resulted in a Winnipeg touchdown was negated due to an illegal contact penalty. Moments later, Chris Randle dropped a sure pick-six just before the half. If those two plays go differently, Manziel is responsible for fourteen Winnipeg points and Friday’s contest is over by halftime.
I’m not rooting against Manziel — the CFL needs star power and the Alouettes need a spark to reinvigorate their fanbase. I’m just not convinced that Manziel’s going to develop into a decent quarterback, much less a franchise player.
Harris reaches milestone
Andrew Harris eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on Friday night in a seven-carry, 44-yard performance that was cut short due to injury (more on that in a bit).
It’s the fourth time Harris has reached the single-season milestone in his career, though that number is somewhat misleading. The CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Canadian finished with 998 rushing yards with B.C. in 2013 and 974 rushing yards in 2016, falling just shy of the 1,000-yard mark both times. Only three players in CFL history have more than six 1,000-yard rushing seasons: George Reed (11); Mike Pringle (nine); and Kelvin Anderson (eight). That’s impressive company.
He may only be 31, but it’s not too early to start discussing Harris’ eventual candidacy for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. With 11,772 career yards from scrimmage, 70 career touchdowns, four all-star nods, four 1,000-yard rushing seasons (almost six), and a Most Outstanding Canadian award to his name, there’s not much left for Harris to accomplish in order to receive serious hall of fame consideration shortly after his eventual retirement.
Dressler reaches 700
Weston Dressler recorded the 700th reception of his career on Friday night, becoming just the thirteenth player in CFL history to reach that milestone.
There’s no questioning what Dressler’s accomplished in this league — he, too, appears destined for the Hall of Fame — but I’m not sure that I buy into the hype around the veteran’s contribution to the Blue Bomber offence.
The Bombers missed Dressler during his stint on injured reserve, sure. But 38 yards per game — which, at a little over half of last year’s figure, is what Dressler is averaging per game this season — the veteran isn’t contributing much to Winnipeg’s attack.
We all know how much leadership Dressler provides. He can also help free up space for other targets in the receiving corps.
I’m just not convinced that the Bombers can make a playoff run without getting at least one big game from the player they consider to be their best receiver. Can Dressler, now 33, deliver that type of production? I’m interested to find out.
Injuries come in threes
Andrew Harris, Nic Demski, and Adam Bighill all left Friday night’s game due to injury — and none returned.
Harris left in the second quarter after landing awkwardly on his tailbone. Harris hasn’t missed a start since the 2016 season and his absence next week in Edmonton would leave a gaping hole in the Bombers’ offensive attack.
Should Harris be unable to play, expect the Bombers to utilize a combination of Kienan LaFrance and Timothy Flanders in the backfield. Flanders would be the preferred starter, but it may be tough to play him exclusively due to the ratio.
As for Demski and Bighill, expect Daniel Petermann and Ian Wild to enter the starting line-up should they prove unavailable.
Craig Roh had a breakout game on Friday night, recording seven tackles and three sacks. Though he spent most of the night working against a struggling Sean Jamieson, Roh made the most of his opportunity to earn a share of fourth-place in sacks league-wide.
Gerald Rivers also got on the stat sheet, recording his second sack in three games since joining the Bombers following Jackson Jeffcoat’s move to the six-game injured list. Should Jeffcoat return before the end of the season — and I suspect he will — it will be interesting to see whether the Bombers dress Rivers or Tristan Okpalaugo as their rotational defensive end.
Wolitar-sky’s the limit
Drew Wolitarsky recorded three receptions for 57 yards on Friday night, the fourth time in five games he’s eclipsed the 50-yard mark. Though he’s been used predominantly at field-side wideout this season, Wolitarsky could see more time in the slot should Nic Demski miss time due to injury. This would mean more targets and (presumably) more receptions for the second-year receiver.
Wolitarsky needs to average 68.6 yards per game over the next five contests in order to eclipse Cory Watson’s 793-yard total from 2011. This would be the most productive season from a national Blue Bomber receiver since 2004 (and probably longer, though the CFL website only has statistics dating back that far).
No return policy
The Bombers have been without a spark in their return game for much of the season with Ryan Lankford, Kevin Fogg, and Nic Demski failing to generate much production. This led to the club to adding a pair of return specialists to the practice roster last week in Charles Nelson and Boobie Hobbs.
Though I’m never against recruiting fresh young talent, I can’t help but wonder if the Bombers should be kicking the tires on Quincy McDuffie.
McDuffie, 27, left the Bombers for an NFL opportunity following an excellent 2016 season. Signing a high-priced contract with Ottawa last August, McDuffie was released in April following an underwhelming stint with the Redblacks. Though I’ve yet to check-in regarding McDuffie’s availability, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the veteran would welcome an opportunity to return to a team with whom he played so well.
Blue Bomber hall of fame kicker and TSN1290 radio man Troy Westwood shared this quote from a friend regarding Winnipeg’s Grey Cup drought. Judging by the attention the tweet has received, the quote seems to have effectively exemplified the feelings of Bomber fans across the province of Manitoba.
A dear friend expressed the #Bombers Grey Cup drought like this. "If I was sitting at a table with 8 or 9 guys and someone brought 28 plates of food and I didn't get one, I'd be pretty freakin mad." #CFL
— Troy Westwood (@TroyWestwood) September 21, 2018
And now they wait
The Bombers, now 6-7, will have to wait until Saturday night to see how the B.C. Lions fare against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Winnipeg owns the tie-breaker against B.C., but the Lions (5-6) hold two games in hand. Losing Travis Lulay for four-to-six weeks is devastating to the Lions’ offensive attack, but the club’s home-and-home with Hamilton has come at the perfect time. Brandon Banks and Alex Green have been ruled out of tomorrow’s game due to injury, joining Jalen Saunders (torn ACL) and Chris Williams (torn Achilles) on the sidelines.
A Lions loss would be a huge boost to the Bombers’ playoff hopes. A loss would ramp up the pressure heading into next week’s date with Mike Reilly and the Edmonton Eskimos at Commonwealth Stadium.