Bombers get Lucky in home opener (& nine other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Eskimos by a score of 28-21 in front of 25,336 fans on Thursday night at I.G. Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

A-Head of the game

The Bombers started 18 different rookie American receivers in 77 games from 2014 to 2018, only one of whom remains with the team (*).

The players are as follows: Justin Wilson; Jerrel Jackson; Kevin Cone; Mike Willie; Jhomo Gordon; Troy Stoudermire; Justin Veltung; Jace Davis; Thomas Mayo; Gerrard Sheppard; Kris Adams; Chris Givens; L’Damian Washington; Timothy Flanders; T.J. Thorpe; Corey Washington; Kenbrell Thompkins; and Charles Nelson*.

Thompkins leads the group with 421 receiving yards, while Flanders — who also spent time at running back — caught the most touchdowns passes with three.

Lucky Whitehead has almost eclipsed both marks just two games into his CFL career.

The former Dallas Cowboy recorded seven receptions for 155 yards on Thursday night, also chipping in two touchdowns. Whitehead garnered a lot of attention during the preseason for his abilities as a return specialist; it turns out he’s a blue-chip receiver as well.

White-hot speed

Let’s take a closer look at Whitehead’s 75-yard touchdown from late in the first quarter.

The Bombers bunched their field-side slotbacks, positioning Drew Wolitarsky (82) on the line of scrimmage. This allowed Whitehead (7) to use the waggle in an isolated look against cornerback Godrey Onyeka — a tall order for the second-year cover man.

Whitehead simply outran the defender, made the catch, and took the ball to the end zone. It’s that simple.

Teams will have to prepare for this play design in the future, finding a way to limit Whitehead’s ability to get a one-on-one look. Knowing Paul LaPolice, I suspect his offence will have a number of options built into the formation to capitalize on ensuing defensive adjustments.

My inner football nerd looks forward to seeing them.

Defensive front

The Bombers spent a lot of money along the defensive line this winter, extending the contract of Jackson Jeffcoat before signing Willie Jefferson in free agency.

It’s still early, but Winnipeg’s front-seven hasn’t been the vaunted unit many expected ahead of the regular season.

The Eskimos didn’t use a lot of max protection on Thursday night, often providing Winnipeg’s pass rushers with one-on-one opportunities. They responded by recording just one sack — courtesy of Jeffcoat — and failing the generate a consistent pass rush.

Adjustments will be made as the season progresses, of course, but the Bombers need to get the most of their talent up front. That was supposed to be the strength of this defence coming into the season. It hasn’t been so far.

Starting hot

Credit where credit’s due — even taking into account his quality protection, Trevor Harris is playing excellent football.

Harris has been spectacular through three games with the Eskimos. Learning a (slightly) new system with (mostly) new receivers in Edmonton hasn’t hurt his production. If anything, he’s better than he was a season ago in Ottawa.

The 33-year-old has completed 92 of 128 pass attempts for 1,086 yards and six touchdowns in green and gold. He has yet to turn the ball over.

Edmonton appears to be a lot better than most pundits — including yours truly — expected heading into the season. Harris has been a big part of that early success.

The rookie returns

Chris Matthews made his much-anticipated 2019 regular season debut on Thursday night, though he recorded just two receptions for 16 yards. He caught a 46-yard long bomb in the first quarter — after which he landed on his head — though it was called back due to a holding penalty.

Matthews last suited up for the Bombers in August of 2013, a 38-17 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in which he recorded one reception for 11 yards. It was a season to forget for the star receiver — and the team in general, quite frankly — appearing in just five games due to injury.

It was a disappointing follow-up to Matthews’ sensational rookie year in 2012 that saw him finish sixth in CFL receiving with 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns on 81 receptions. The Kentucky product was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie that season, parlaying his success into a four-year stint in the NFL.

Matthews returned to the CFL in October of last year, helping the Calgary Stampeders beat the Bombers in the West Final en route to a Grey Cup title. Needless to say, Winnipeg feels pretty excited to have him back.

I expect we’ll see more from the 29-year-old throughout this year.

Roster swap

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the Bombers might look to get an extra defensive back on the roster to help out at field-side cornerback.

Nick Temple was moved to the practice roster this week, creating a spot for rookie defensive back Marcus Rios.

Chandler Fenner remained the starter at field-side cornerback on Thursday night, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rios take reps there before long. Fenner had an impressive knockdown on Kenny Stafford in the first quarter, but struggled at times as the game progressed.

The Bombers love Fenner’s ability to make tackles on special teams, but he’s yet to firmly establish himself as a starter in the secondary.

Football really sucks sometimes

Running back Brady Oliveira made his professional home debut on Thursday night when he sustained an injury to his right leg in the second quarter.

The Winnipeg native was selected in the second round of last month’s draft and earned the back-up spot behind Andrew Harris out of training camp. His injury was quickly assessed by the team’s trainers, one of whom immediately called for the cart.

The Bombers won’t announce the severity of Oliveira’s injury for awhile, but I’d bet against the North Dakota product returning to the field anytime soon.

Regardless, it was gut-wrenching to watch a young player suffer what appears to be a serious injury in such an important game.

Expect second-year man Johnny Augustine to be promoted to the active roster next week in Oliveira’s place.

Butts in seats

I wrote this week about how CFL attendance is down 6.5 per cent to start the 2019 regular season.

The article acknowledged that Saskatchewan and Winnipeg — two of the CFL’s most consistent markets — had yet to host a game.

The announced attendance for Thursday’s game at I.G. Field was 25,336, an almost negligible decrease from last year’s lightning-delayed home opener that drew a crowd of 25,485.

Here’s hoping that the crowd in Winnipeg is the end of a (brief) trend of declining CFL attendance.

Centre of attention

The CFL held a supplemental draft on Wednesday with offensive lineman Jake Bennett as the lone player available.

Bennett was a three-year starter at Colorado State and recently played centre for the AAF’s Salt Lake City Stallions. I spoke with a number of scouts who felt Bennett was worth a first or second-round bid, identifying Edmonton and Saskatchewan as the teams most likely to secure his rights.

Bennett’s rights ended up going to the Roughriders for a third-round pick in 2020, which most personnel people seem to consider a bargain.

The Lions signed 2017 second-round pick Jean-Simon Roy off Edmonton’s practice roster following training camp, leaving the Eskimos thin at centre. Edmonton currently has just five national offensive linemen under contract — and that’s including 33-year-old J’Michael Deane, a journeyman who was added to the practice roster this week.

We don’t yet know if Bennett will contribute much north of the border, but I suspect Edmonton may regret not pushing more to secure his rights as the season progresses.

Next up

The Bombers go on the road next week to meet the 2-0 Ottawa Redblacks on Friday Night Football. The club will face former back-up Dominique Davis, who’s impressed in the early going this season in victories over Calgary and Saskatchewan.

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