The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders on Thursday night by a score of 26-24 in front of 25,354 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Taken for Grant-ed
Janarion Grant enjoyed one of the most exciting CFL debuts in recent memory, recording two punt return touchdowns in the first half of Thursday’s game.
The first one went for 75 yards less than seven minutes into the game.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) August 9, 2019
The second came from 83 yards out just before halftime.
— CFL (@CFL) August 9, 2019
Grant was cut by the Baltimore Ravens last season after fumbling twice in two games. He was also in training camp with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats earlier this year, but didn’t make the final roster.
The 25-year-old fumbled again in his CFL debut, though an interception by Marcus Sayles prevented Calgary from scoring on the ensuing drive.
Grant is the fifth player to serve as the Bombers’ primary returner this season.
Charles Nelson had a hot start to the year, though he was placed on the six-game injured list in late July. Lucky Whitehead has continued to rotate into the return game, though his responsibilities as a starting receiver have limited his availability on special teams.
Kenny Walker and Mike Jones have taken turns as well, though both are now on the practice roster. Walker struggled with ball security two weeks ago in Hamilton, while Jones had limited success last week in Toronto.
Considering his debut, I think it’s safe to say Grant has won the job for the time being.
Killing the clock…
It was refreshing to see Chris Streveler operate the Bombers’ ball control offence for the final 90 seconds of the game.
Winnipeg’s offence grew stagnant in the second half last week in Toronto, which played a role in the Argos’ comeback victory.
This week the Bombers were able to close out the clock with Harris and Streveler each carrying the ball twice for a combined 28 yards, securing the victory.
…and not so much
Winnipeg had a chance to put away the game with 2:18 remaining in the game, but failed to generate a first down. Andrew Harris was held to a three-yard rush, followed by an incompletion intended for Drew Wolitarsky.
It wasn’t a banner night for Winnipeg’s offence, generating just 297 yards and 12 points against a stingy Calgary defence. That said, the unit didn’t turn the ball over and finished the game with 33:41 time of possession.
The offence still needs to improve, but the unit certainly had a better second half than a week ago.
Winnipeg’s defence allowed Nick Arbuckle — more on him in a moment — to throw for 167 yards in the first half. For a unit that gave up a ton of yardage late last week to McLeod Bethel-Thompson, it was a troubling start.
The defence tightened down in the second half, however, limiting Arbuckle to just 93 yards and getting a late interception to help secure the victory.
Winston Rose — who made the pick — now has a league-leading six interceptions. No player in the CFL had more than five all of last season.
Pay day on way for pending FA
Nick Arbuckle is slated to become a free agent in February, which is great news for the 25-year-old pivot.
With Bo Levi Mitchell set to return next week, Arbuckle has finished his six-game tenure as Calgary’s starting quarterback with a 4-2 record. He has thrown for 1,713 yards this season, along with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.
Jeremiah Masoli and Cody Fajardo are pending free agents, which means there could be quarterback vacancies in Hamilton and Saskatchewan. Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto could be in the market for the new starter as well, which will only increase Arbuckle’s potential earnings.
Young quarterbacks aren’t always able to replicate success with new teams — just ask James Franklin in Toronto. With that said, Bo Levi Mitchell is under contract with Calgary through 2022; it’s hard to imagine Arbuckle staying with the Stamps beyond this season.
Hallett the Mallet
Nick Hallett was drafted by the Bombers in the seventh round of May’s CFL draft. He made the team out of camp and has been solid on special teams, recording six tackles.
Hallett also made one of the game’s most important plays when he forced and recovered a Terry Williams punt in the fourth quarter. The play set-up Winnipeg final field goal, which turned out to be the game-winning points.
I’ve written extensively about the importance of preserving the CFL’s national ratio, but I feel it’s a point worth reiterating. Without the ratio, a player like Nick Hallett would never have had the opportunity to play professional football.
And that’s not for lack of talent. It’s because there’s no reason for teams to scout and develop talent from places like the University of Toronto when a vast number of players graduate from big-name NCAA programs every year.
Credit to @TheBlueNGoldGuy for christening Hallett’s new nickname.
— Chris (@TheBlueNGoldGuy) August 9, 2019
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Mercy Maston was signed this week to shore up Winnipeg’s secondary following an injury to Brandon Alexander. Alexander was placed on the six-game injured list last week, suggesting the third-year halfback won’t be back anytime soon.
The 26-year-old was forced into action in the first quarter following an injury to rookie Chris Humes, recording three tackles.
Maston appeared in 19 games with the Eskimos over the past two seasons, recording 57 tackles and two interceptions. He signed an NFL contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in January but was waived in May. The Boise State product remained a free agent until the Bombers came calling.
Evidently, Maston was a timely depth addition for a club that is suddenly banged up in the secondary.
Maston was one of the players featured on our comprehensive guide to Canadians and former CFL players in NFL training camps.
Training camp cuts won’t come for another month, but two players to keep an eye on are Kacy Rodgers II and Shaquille Richardson. Both played in the CFL as recently as 2017 and are currently free agents.
Rodgers II was a solid boundary cornerback in Saskatchewan, while Richardson played well at strong-side linebacker in Calgary.
Winston Rose and Anthony Gaitor have played well for the Bombers at those two spots respectively, but Rodgers and Richardson are game-changers. One injury could land them in Winnipeg (or elsewhere).
Reload & retool
I don’t think the Stampeders have gotten enough credit for how the club’s defence has remained dominant despite losing so many key players this past off-season.
Calgary lost linebackers Alex Singleton and Jameer Thurman to the NFL along with defensive end Jason Vaughters. They also watched defensive end Ja’Gared Davis (Hamilton), safety Tunde Adeleke (Hamilton), and CFL all-star defensive tackle Micah Johnson (Saskatchewan) depart via free agency.
The Stampeders entered Thursdays game allowing just 5.82 yards per play — second-fewest in the league — and have forced a league-leading 20 turnovers. Considering how much talent that defence lost this winter, those are outstanding numbers.
Field-side halfback Chris Humes left early in Thursday’s game and did not return. As stated above, he was replaced by newcomer Mercy Maston.
Left guard Cody Speller suffered an injury in the first half and was replaced by 2019 first-round draft pick Drew Desjarlais. Speller didn’t return to the offence but continued to play in short yardage situations, albeit with a slight limp.
The Blue Bombers (6-2) host the B.C. Lions (1-6) next Thursday at IG Field for the final meeting between the two clubs this season. Winnipeg beat B.C. in week one by a score of 33-23 in a contest that saw Andrew Harris rush for 148 yards on 16 carries.
The Lions don’t play in Hamilton (5-2) until Saturday, which means they’ll have just four days to rest before next week’s game. This is an advantage for the Bombers — playing on a short week is tough, especially when so much travel is involved.
The Bombers should thank the league’s schedule-makers. Winnipeg doesn’t have any short weeks this season, though they benefit from two opponent short weeks.