Bombers suffer epic collapse against Boatmen (& ten other thoughts)

Photo Scott Grant /
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Toronto Argonauts by a score of 28-27 on Thursday night at BMO Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

What the hell was that?

The Bombers coughed up a 20-point lead in Toronto, losing the game on an 11-yard touchdown to S.J. Green with ten seconds remaining. It was a shocking outcome for a game that appeared to be over before halftime.

Winnipeg suffered collapses in all three phases of the game, allowing the Argos to mount a comeback over the course of the second half.

The Bombers lost last week’s contest in Hamilton largely due to a lack of balance on offence. Andrew Harris was given just eight carries in the game despite a solid 6.6-yard average, forcing the club to make plays through the air.

That mistake was repeated when Harris was given just six carries in the second half of Thursday’s game. The perennial all-star was the best player on the field, averaging a stellar 10.1 yards per carry.

Why offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice would go away from his best weapon with a big lead is incomprehensible. The Bombers needed to run out the clock and Toronto couldn’t stop Harris; handing the ball off should have been a no-brainer.

Winnipeg’s defence shares in the blame for the loss. Richie Hall continued to dial-up blitz packages even when McLeod Bethel-Thompson was beating them consistently. Toronto’s quarterback didn’t throw an interception and repeatedly took advantage of the cushions underneath Winnipeg’s soft zone coverage.

Hall never seems to call three-man pressure, which is a shame. Dropping nine players back into coverage on second-and-long was part of what made Chris Jones’ defence so effective. The Bombers have the personnel to get pressure with just three down linemen — Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Craig Roh — so there’s no reason not to experiment with three-man looks.

Special teams contributed to Winnipeg’s collapse as well. Chris Rainey returned a third quarter punt for 78 yards, which led to a seven-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Campbell. Rainey would have hit the end zone had it not been for a diving tackle from rookie Kerfalla-Emmanuel Exumé.

A 20-point lead doesn’t disappear unless a team struggles in all three phases of the game. Unfortunately for Bomber fans, that’s what happened on Thursday night.

Let’s talk about Matt Nichols

Matt Nichols had a poor performance in last week’s loss to Hamilton, tossing three interceptions.

“In professional football you’re not going to win every game. I’ve been around football long enough to know that,” he said following the loss. “It doesn’t make losing easy, it makes me hungry and wanting to get back to work. I’m happy we’re on a short week and we get to go play Toronto on Thursday.”

Considering he was looking forward to Thursday’s game, Nichols’ performance at BMO Field was very disappointing.

Nichols finished the night 21-of-31 for 169 yards and one touchdown. He didn’t throw any interceptions, but he also showed a complete unwillingness to test Toronto’s secondary.

Nichols’ longest attempt of the game came on a 24-yard pass to Chris Matthews in the second quarter. Even as a relatively inexperienced Argonaut secondary played closer to the line of scrimmage, Nichols never took a deep shot.

Nichols completed seven passes in the second half for just 42 yards, 20 of which came after the catch. That’s 22 “air yards” in 30 minutes of football, which is pretty sad.

Protecting the football is essential — everybody knows that. But there’s such thing as playing too safely and Matt Nichols looks like he’s playing scared. That’s not a recipe for success in professional football.

Let’s talk about McLeod Bethel-Thompson

Credit where credit’s due — McLeod Bethel-Thompson played well on Thursday night.

Just one day after his team made a trade for a veteran quarterback — more on that in a moment — Bethel-Thompson went 37-of-49 for 343 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 44 yards on five carries, which was impressive for a pivot who rarely leaves the pocket.

Bethel-Thompson is days away from his 31st birthday and the Argos are his 13th professional team. Bringing his team back from a 20-0 deficit may not have only saved his team’s season but also his career.

Let’s talk about Andrew Harris

Harris was spectacular in Thurday’s game, recording 15 carries for 152 yards and two touchdowns. He was also Winnipeg’s leading receiver, catching six passes for 45 yards.

The former Most Outstanding Canadian entered Thursday’s game on pace his a new career-high in rushing yards. A monster performance in Toronto has improved Harris’ season-long projection to 1,653 yards.

It’s worth noting, however, that Harris lost a fumble deep in Toronto territory in the second quarter. It was Harris’ fourth fumble of the season, three of which have been recovered by the opposition. As elite as Harris is, his ball security is beginning to become a concern.

Let’s talk about Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews returned to the starting line-up after missing last week’s game in Hamilton as a healthy scratch. Matthews took the place of an injured Darvin Adams at boundary wideout, a spot that suits his six-foot-five frame.

Matthews struggled to produce in two starts this season and dropped the first pass thrown his way on Thursday night. Eventually settling down, Matthews finished the game with three receptions for 43 yards and his first touchdown of the season.

Thursday’s game was an opportunity for Matthews to make a real impact. Kenny Lawler had a pair of drops and Lucky Whitehead was only targeted four times. The table set for Matthews to have a big game.

That didn’t happen. Sadly, Matthews has yet to resemble the player who helped the Calgary Stampeders win last year’s Grey Cup.

Let’s talk about Jonathan Kongbo

Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo appeared in his first professional football game on Thursday night, recording one knockdown.

The 23-year-old was selected fifth overall in May’s draft out of the University of Tennessee. Kongbo would have had NFL opportunities had he not suffered a torn ACL during his senior season with the Volunteers.

I spoke with one scout leading up to the draft who felt Kongbo was the best player available. Though his stats from Tennessee aren’t jaw-dropping — 51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions in 23 games — they’re respectable figures for someone who was asked to play a number of different positions.

Kongbo was called for roughing the passer and holding penalties in the second quarter, costing the Bombers 25 yards. Our own JC Abbott pointed out that Kongbo’s struggles with penalties date back to his tenure in the NCAA.

Winnipeg is the least penalized team in the CFL; Kongbo will need to learn to play cleaner football if he hopes to maximize his playing time.

Let’s talk about Winnipeg’s offensive line

Winnipeg’s offensive line had its worst outing of the season last week, a performance that can be excused (in part) due to unbalanced play-calling.

The unit struggled in pass protection again in Toronto, mostly in the second half. The Argonauts were able to generate a fair amount of pressure through the middle of the line, particularly against play action.

Patrick Neufeld has completed his stint on the six-game injured list. He didn’t return to practice this week, which is a sign he may not yet be ready to return from sick bay.

His absence, however, is becoming increasingly noticeable. The Bombers miss his veteran presence on the interior.

Let’s talk about Zach Collaros

A big trade was made on Wednesday morning when Saskatchewan sent quarterback Zach Collaros to Toronto in exchange for a conditional draft pick. Riders’ general manager Jeremy O’Day spoke with 3DownNation about the trade, an interview that is well-worth a read.

Collaros has yet to throw a pass this season and didn’t look sharp in 14 starts last year, tossing nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions with Saskatchewan.

There’s also the matter of Collaros’ health. Given the number of head injuries he’s sustained, one could argue that allowing the 30-year-old to continue playing professional football is irresponsible.

Even so, Collaros has reported to Toronto to presumably become the team’s starting quarterback. The club is scheduled for a bye next week before a date with the Eskimos on August 16.

I just hope Collaros remains healthy while in double blue; seeing the veteran suffer another head injury would be awful.

Jonesin’ for Jones vs. Jones

Rookie defensive back Mike Jones made his CFL debut on Thursday, primarily as a returner. I’m sad he didn’t play last week in Hamilton where the Ticats start a veteran wide receiver who is also named Mike Jones.

Here’s hoping Jones and Jones go head-to-head when the Bombers host the Ticats in September.

Reality check

The Blue Bombers have been atop the 3DownNation power rankings all season long. The club started the year 5-0 and looked like the team to beat in the West Division, especially after Bo Levi Mitchell landed on Calgary’s six-game injured list.

That’s no longer the case. Winnipeg is struggling to move the ball through the air and the defence has been ordinary. This team needed a reality check and hopefully — for their sake — a loss to an 0-6 football team can force them to refocus in a hurry.

Home sweet home

Fresh-off a pair of contests in southern Ontario, the Bombers (5-2) will return home for a two-game stretch against the Stampeders (4-2) and Lions (1-6).

Calgary doesn’t host Edmonton until Saturday, which means they’ll play in Winnipeg on just four days of rest. That’s a big advantage for the Bombers.

Winnipeg and Calgary are scheduled to meet three times this season — once next week and twice in late October.

It’s never too early to start thinking about playoff scenarios. Whichever team takes next week’s game will gain a major advantage as they’ll only need a split of October’s home-and-home to win the season series.

Bo Levi Mitchell is said to be targeting a mid-August return from his shoulder injury, which means Nick Arbuckle should start at quarterback for the Stampeders.