Bombers shutout Riders at Investors Group Field (& ten other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday afternoon by a score of 31-0 in front of 26,070 fans at Investors Group Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Shutdown & out

The Blue Bomber defence was simply dominant on Saturday afternoon with Adam Bighill (three sacks and a forced fumble), Taylor Loffler (two interceptions), Kevin Fogg (one forced fumble and one fumble recovery), and Anthony Gaitor (a fumble return touchdown) all putting forth strong efforts.

Winnipeg’s front-seven was able to generate plenty of pressure on Zach Colloros (and later Brandon Bridge), an impressive outing for a unit that will soon welcome back Jackson Jeffcoat from the six-game injured list.

The hapless nature of Saskatchewan’s offensive attack — more on that in a moment — played a role in Winnipeg’s dominance, but holding a team off the scoreboard in the CFL is rare. Saturday’s shutout was the first in the CFL this season and the Bombers’ first since July 28, 2006 when they blanked the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 29-0 at Ivor Wynn Stadium.

Impressive stuff.

Zach attack, Jones’ judgement getting exposed

I don’t understand why Zach Collaros — and, by extension, Chris Jones — isn’t the subject of more criticism in Riderville.

Chris Jones started his tenure in Saskatchewan by forcing Darian Durant to take a $50,000 pay-cut. After a 5-13 season together in 2016, Jones called Durant a “moderately successful” quarterback in an interview with Rob Vanstone of the Regina Leader-Post. That comment all-but ended negotiations for a contract extension, resulting in Durant being traded to the Montreal Alouettes for a pair of draft picks.

Saskatchewan signed Kevin Glenn shortly thereafter, a move that drew mixed reaction from Rider fans. Jones defended the move by saying he didn’t want to invest almost ten percent of the salary cap (ie. elite quarterback money) in one player. A lot of fans bought into that narrative despite the fact that virtually every Grey Cup team in recent memory has had a starting pivot earning between $425,000 and $525,000 annually.

Elite talent at the game’s most important position is expensive — and for good reason. Quarterback play is often the difference between winning and losing; just as a great quarterback can elevate the play of those around him, a poor quarterback can make talented teammates look ordinary.

Glenn proved to be a bargain for Saskatchewan in 2017, posting solid numbers with the help of a talented receiving corps. Though he was frequently pulled for Brandon Bridge late in the season, Glenn was a solid stop-gap measure for a team that benefited from the cap savings he provided. Saskatchewan finished with a 10-8 record and qualified for a crossover playoff spot, eventually coming within one play of defeating Toronto in the East Final.

And then the Riders traded for Zach Collaros, cutting Glenn unceremoniously the following day.

Collaros brought with him a hefty price tag — try $540,000 — but agreed to a 20 percent pay-cut to $430,000. While the former Ticat doesn’t have the same number of star receivers that Glenn had a year ago, the move hasn’t paid dividends.

Collaros provides none of the salary cap relief that Glenn did, yet his production is significantly worse. He’s also not proven to be any more durable than Durant was in 2016, missing four games this season due to injury.

Com Att % Yards TDs INTs Salary
Darian Durant, 2016  330 496 66.5 3,839 14 7 $450,000
Kevin Glenn, 2017  318 468 67.9 4,038 25 14 $300,000
Zach Collaros, 2018  205 335 61.2 2,595 9 13 $430,000

The Riders have won a decent number of games with Collaros at the helm this season — he’s 8-4 as a starter — but his numbers are abysmal. Where would the Riders be today with average play at quarterback? Heck — what if Jones and the Riders had merely kept Glenn?

When will Rider fans start holding Chris Jones accountable for his mismanagement of the game’s most important position?

Nichols bouncing back

Matt Nichols was pulled against the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the second consecutive meeting — albeit under very different circumstances.

Nichols completed ten of 18 pass attempts for 155 yards and a touchdown in three quarters of work on Saturday afternoon, his second-straight turnover-free outing. While unspectacular, Nichols appears to have regained his form from a season ago.

His touchdown-to-interception ratio sits at five-to-one during the Bombers’ four-game winning streak — an obvious improvement over the four-to-eight ratio he recorded during the club’s four-game losing streak.

Nichols’ play is improving at the right time. Let’s see if he can continue to get better as the season progresses.

What’s the (point) diff?

The CFL caused a kerfuffle on Wednesday when they tweeted the following graphic.

Winnipeg’s odds of appearing in the Grey Cup game were more than twice those of Saskatchewan despite the Riders’ four-point lead in the West Division standings at the time (including a 2-0 head-to-head record). Though the CFL hasn’t disclosed all the math behind their simulator, the factors taken into account are outlined here.

Judging by Wednesday’s tweet, point differential has to make up a decent chunk of the equation. Winnipeg, then 8-7, entered Saturday’s contest with a plus-101 point differential on the season. Saskatchewan, then 9-6, entered the game with a plus-13 point differential.

I’m interested to see what this week’s simulator looks like with the Bombers and Riders now sitting at plus-132 and minus-18 in point differential, respectively.

Banjo Bowl regret

It’s hard to overstate the impact of the Bombers’ loss in the Banjo Bowl five weeks ago.

Had the club won that game, Winnipeg would now sit two points ahead of Saskatchewan in the West Division standings at 10-6. The Bombers would also own the tie-breaker over the Riders by virtue of the club’s 2-1 regular season head-to-head record.

As it now stands, Winnipeg will finish below Saskatchewan unless the Bombers win both of their remaining games and the Riders lose both of their remaining games. That’s in the realm of possibility, but it’s not an easy way to clinch a home playoff game.

Had the Bombers won the Banjo Bowl, that home playoff game would almost be clinched already.

Bryant doubling down?

Stanley Bryant had another solid game at left tackle on Saturday afternoon, holding stud Saskatchewan pass rushers Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes largely at bay.

It’s likely that Bryant will soon receive Winnipeg’s nomination for Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman for the second consecutive season. He captured the award at the league level last season, his first such honour.

Nine players have twice been named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman: Mike Wilson (1979, 1980); Rudy Phillips (1982, 1983); Roger Aldag (1986, 1988); Jim Mills (1990, 1991); Chris Walby (1987, 1993); Mike Kiselak (1996, 1997); Gene Makowsky (2004, 2005); Rob Murphy (2006, 2007); and Scott Flory (2008, 2009).

This is the company that Bryant would join should he win the award this season, which is highly prestigious. No player has ever been named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman more than twice.

This isn’t to say that Bryant won’t have competition for the award — Calgary’s Derek Dennis, Saskatchewan’s Brendon LaBatte, Hamilton’s Brandon Revenberg, and Ottawa’s SirVincent Rogers should all receive consideration for the award as well.

Regardless, Bryant is having another solid season in blue and gold. Look for him to be named a CFL all-star for the fourth time in his career come season’s end.

Other hardware

For the record, here’s who I see winning each of the Bombers’ team awards this season.

Most Outstanding Player — Andrew Harris

Most Outstanding Defensive Player — Adam Bighill

Most Outstanding Canadian — Andrew Harris

Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman — Stanley Bryant

Most Outstanding Rookie — Chris Streveler

Most Outstanding Special Teams Player — Justin Medlock

I’d bet on Andrew Harris winning a second consecutive Most Outstanding Canadian title, while Streveler, Bryant, and Bighill should also receive consideration at the division and/or league levels.

Trade deadline details

I’m told that the Bombers inquired about Toronto slotback S.J. Green prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline but were informed that he was unavailable.

Winnipeg also looked into acquiring star return man Chris Rainey from B.C. earlier in the season, though I’m told those talks didn’t go far. This is understandable given that trades between divisional foes are rare — particularly when a playoff race is underway.

Uninspired attendance

The Winnipeg Football Club likes hosting the Riders twice per season because of the extra gate revenue the games generate. The Bombers have sold more than 33,000 tickets to just six games since 2014, all of which have been against Saskatchewan.

Saturday’s game produced a gate of just 26,070 fans — blue-clad, green-clad or otherwise. I’m sure the lousy weather played a role in keeping fans away, but it’s a shame to see so few people at a rivalry game with a ton of playoff implications.

Bad for Bladek

Dariusz Bladek left Saturday’s game in the first half after getting rolled up on his left knee. Bladek has started every game this season at right guard for Saskatchewan after being selected in the second round of last year’s CFL draft.

Bladek’s a good young player and a really nice kid. He’ll have an MRI over the next few days to determine the extent of the injury, but it’s hard to see him playing again this season.

This makes the Riders’ acquisition of veteran offensive lineman Philip Blake prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline all the more impactful. Saskatchewan’s offensive line depth was thin before Dan Clarke went down with an injury last week. With Bladek now out of the line-up, the Riders can’t afford to lose another big man.

Baby bye, bye, bye

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, now 9-7, have yet to officially punch their ticket to the playoffs.

The club didn’t get any help from Ottawa or Calgary on Saturday with Edmonton and B.C. beating the pair, respectively. The Eskimos and Lions remain within two points of Winnipeg with Edmonton at 8-8 and B.C. at 8-7.

Bomber fans should spend the club’s upcoming bye week keeping a close eye on Friday night’s contest between the Eskimos and Lions. If my math is correct, an Eskimo victory would put the Bombers within one win or a B.C. loss of clinching a playoff spot. Alternatively, a Lions’ victory would put the Bombers within one win or an Edmonton loss of clinching a playoff spot.

Saturday’s game between Calgary and Saskatchewan at McMahon Stadium will also be must-see entertainment for fans of the Bombers. A Rider victory would clinch second place in the West Division for the green and white, while a loss would put Winnipeg within three games — two Bomber victories and one Rider loss — of hosting the West Semi-Final.

For what it’s worth, the Riders are set to start selling tickets to a home playoff game on their website on Monday. Could you imagine the furor in Rider Nation if that game ends up being played in Winnipeg?

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.