The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions in front of 18,058 fans at B.C. Place Stadium on Saturday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.
You’re timeless to me
Father Time is undefeated. Every professional athlete breaks down eventually. It’s inevitable.
Andrew Harris, 32, appears to have staved off Father Time for at least one more year.
The league’s oldest starting running back put on a spectacular performance in Winnipeg’s season opener, rushing for 148 yards on 16 carries. He also chipped in five receptions for 27 yards.
Harris recorded a career-high 1,390 rushing yards in 2018, though he lost out on his second-straight Most Outstanding Canadian award to Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli.
The eleven-year veteran is a fierce competitor who will be looking to set a new career-high in rushing in 2019. The scary part is that he just might get there.
Matt Nichols looked renewed in his first start of 2019, moving the pocket well and zipping the football across the field with accuracy. The veteran pivot was hurt during training camp last year and never appeared to be fully healthy as the season progressed, resulting in a disappointing year statistically.
Completing 21-of-33 pass attempts for 184 yards and three touchdowns in Vancouver, Nichols appears to have returned to form. That’s bad news for the other teams in the West Divison — if Nichols can protect the football and buy time with his feet, the Bombers will be a very difficult team to beat.
Jeff Hecht clearly wasn’t impressed with Duron Carter’s unwillingness to lay out for a pass over the middle in the third quarter of Saturday’s game.
Carter would have taken a big hit from Hecht had he made a play on the ball. The receiver elected to pull up, ending the Lions’ drive.
Winnipeg’s safety responded by flapping his arms in Carter’s direction, presumably calling him a chicken. It was odd and, frankly, hilarious.
Here’s the video clip, courtesy of Nik Kowalski.
Jeff Hecht calling Duron Carter out pic.twitter.com/X9Un7VY912
— Nik Kowalski (@nik_kowalski) June 16, 2019
Hecht had two interceptions on the night, the first of which was returned for 51 yards. That’s a solid performance from a guy looking to fill the void left by three-time CFL all-star Taylor Loffler.
Line ’em up
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about Winnipeg’s success on offence without mentioning the club’s offensive line.
Guards Cody Speller (undrafted) and Geoff Gray (first-round pick, 2017) made their first career starts in place of Patrick Neufeld (injured) and Sukh Chungh (B.C. Lions) and looked solid. Nichols was given plenty of time to operate and Harris was consistently provided with running lanes.
I remain unconvinced that Winnipeg’s offensive line will be as sharp as a year ago — it’ll take time for the unit to gel — but Saturday was an impressive debut for the club’s new outfit.
There were a few areas in which I thought the Bombers may struggle this season — inexperience along the offensive line, turnover in the secondary, unproven starters in the receiving corps — but coverage on kickoffs wasn’t one of them.
Brandon Rutley recorded two huge kickoff returns on Saturday night, one of which went for a 108-yard touchdown.
Winnipeg has generally played well on special teams since Mike O’Shea was hired as head coach in December of 2013. The club will have to invest some time reviewing their kickoff cover units ahead of their next game.
The Bombers suffered a pair of injuries in B.C. with veterans Patrick Neufeld and Chris Matthews already out of the line-up.
Weak-side linebacker Kyries Wilson left the game in the fourth quarter after taking a shot from John White. He appeared to have lost consciousness momentarily before being taken off the field on the cart.
Receiver Drew Wolitarsky left the game in the fourth quarter as well after taking a helmet to the elbow. The third-year man recorded four receptions for 43 yards and two touchdowns; if he misses time, he’ll be sorely missed in the Bombers’ starting line-up.
Fenner-ate an opportunity
Wilson’s injury could impact the way in which Winnipeg structures its roster following next week’s bye.
The Bombers dressed six international defensive backs for five starting spots last season, allowing Chandler Fenner to focus on playing special teams.
Winnipeg dressed just five Americans in the secondary on Saturday, forcing veteran Chandler Fenner to start at field-side cornerback. Mike Reilly targeted him several times in the first half, completing a number of long receptions.
The second-year Bomber is one of the best special teams players in the league but has struggled at times in pass coverage. If the club has a better cover man on the practice roster, he should start at field-side corner.
The Bombers dressed an extra international linebacker on Saturday in Nick Temple. If Wilson is forced to go on injured reserve, his spot could presumably be used to get an extra defensive back on the roster.
The Lions started ten national players on Saturday night: receivers Lemar Durant, Jevon Cottoy, and Shaquille Johnson; offensive linemen David Foucault, Hunter Steward, Sukh Chungh, and Brett Boyko; linebacker Jordan Herdman-Reed; and defensive backs Anthony Thompson and Dominique Termansen.
As noted on TSN’s broadcast by Farhan Lalji, the Lions brought in a number of American receivers and defensive backs who failed to beat-out the club’s nationals during training camp. As someone who’s passionate about the league’s Canadian content and the CFL draft, that makes me smile.
There was a lot of talk this off-season about the CFL reducing the ratio from seven to five national starters. B.C. starting three nationals above the minimum requirement shows how misguided that decision would have been.
Nothing rhymes with orange (or ticket sales, apparently)
The announced attendance for Saturday’s home opener in B.C. was just 18,058, a ten percent decrease from last year’s week one crowd of 20,182.
The Lions have marketed Mike Reilly heavily since he was signed to a four-year contract in February. The team’s new #NothingRhymesWithOrange slogan is odd, though the accompanying videos have been pretty slick.
It seems — in the short term, anyway — that the club’s new marketing scheme has been unsuccessful. And that should be a source of concern for anyone who cares about the CFL.
Better late than never
Brett Boyko made his long-anticipated debut with the B.C. Lions at right tackle on Saturday.
Boyko was the second-ranked prospect in the 2015 CFL draft, though he fell to B.C. at twelfth overall due to his NFL interest. The Saskatoon native finally signed with the Lions in May after four seasons spent in the NFL and AAF.
I thought Boyko — and the whole Lions’ offensive line, for that matter — looked solid against Winnipeg. Mike Reilly was rarely flushed from the pocket and sacked just once.
Considering how often he was forced to block Willie Jefferson, I’ll give Boyko a thumbs up following his first CFL regular season game.
Rookie defensive back Kerfalla Emmanuel Exumé had a strong game on special teams, recording five tackles. The eighth-round pick also made a key block to set-up Charles Nelson’s 25-yard punt return in the first quarter.
That’s a remarkable performance for a player in the first game of his professional career.
Hunter Steward was a college tackle who’s played mostly guard through five seasons with the Lions. He made the switch to centre in training camp this year — 2018 first-round pick Peter Godber remains out with a lingering injury — having never snapped before in his life.
B.C.’s offence spent virtually the whole night operating out of the shotgun and Steward snapped well. Snapping is a thankless gig — nobody notices it until a ball gets fired over the quarterback’s head — but Steward passed his first test of the season. Good for him.
Baby, bye bye bye
Winnipeg has a bye next week, after which they will host the 1-0 Edmonton Eskimos. Early bye weeks aren’t optimal but the timing could be worse with Neufeld and Matthews currently on the one-game injured list.
The West Division standings couldn’t look better for the Bombers after week one. The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders lost to East Division opponents this week, leaving Edmonton and Winnipeg in a tie for first place at 1-0.