The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 21-6 in front of 31,080 fans at Mosaic Stadium on Saturday night.
Below are my thoughts on the game.
Best in the West
The stakes for Saturday’s clash between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan rose dramatically when the Montreal Alouettes did both clubs a favour just prior to kickoff.
Montreal defeated the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 21-17 on Saturday afternoon, completing an unlikely season sweep. Bo Levi Mitchell completed 31-of-43 pass attempts for 464 yards and a touchdown, but the Alouettes forced five turnovers.
The loss dropped Calgary to 9-5 and snapped the club’s four-game winning streak. It also meant that the winner of Saturday’s clash between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan would gain sole possession of first place in the West Division.
And that’s exactly what the Roughriders did, led by a 193-yard performance from receiver Shaq Evans.
Red zone turnovers cost the Blue Bombers dearly — Chris Streveler threw two second-half interceptions and lost a fumble midway through the third quarter.
Streveler has been criticized for not throwing the long ball — he was very conservative through the game’s first three quarters — but both of his interceptions came on under-thrown deep balls.
The second-year pivot finished the game with 254 yards on 26 completions, but plenty of that yardage came in garbage time. Streveler threw for just 59 yards in the first half and finished the game with 48 rushing yards on 12 carries.
The 25-year-old is not improving as time goes on — one could even argue that he’s regressing.
There’s little reason to consider the Bombers a serious threat come playoff time unless a change is made at the quarterback position. Whether that means playing Sean McGuire — who has never taken a CFL regular season snap — or acquiring a new quarterback, something’s gotta give.
The standings are tight at the top of the West Division, which makes the season series significant. If the Bombers and Riders finish the year with the same record — which seems unlikely at this point — Saskatchewan will finish on top.
The Blue Bombers have three games remaining: vs. Montreal; at Calgary; vs. Calgary. The Riders have four: at Calgary; at B.C.; at Edmonton; vs. Edmonton.
Saskatchewan only needs to win two of its remaining games to secure a spot ahead of Winnipeg in the standings.
Unless the Riders finish 0-4, Winnipeg will have to win all three of its remaining games to have any chance of catching Saskatchewan.
Defensive coordinator Richie Hall missed Saturday’s game due to a personal matter. He wasn’t with the Blue Bombers during the week and the club has not yet provided a timeline for his return.
There was some speculation from fans on social media that Hall’s absence is related to the poor play of his defence over the past two weeks. I’ve done a little digging and can confirm that Hall is indeed away due to a personal family matter.
Take off your tinfoil hats, folks. Hall is widely considered one of the nicest guys in the CFL and he and his family deserve privacy at this time.
Weak-side linebacker Kyrie Wilson had the best game of his career in Regina, recording six tackles and one sack. The first-year starter is now the Bombers’ third-leading tackler on the year with 51.
Wilson was moved to middle linebacker when Adam Bighill missed three games in July due to injury. Bighill’s absence was noticeable then and his presence is rarely noticeable now.
Bighill did not record a tackle in Regina, marking the first time he was held off a CFL stat sheet since November 7, 2015. The 30-year-old hadn’t been nearly as noticeable this year. Usage plays a factor, of course, but there’s a reason why nobody expects Bighill to repeat as the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Considering what the Bombers are paying Wilson and Bighill, respectively, Wilson shouldn’t be the one making all the big plays.
Andrew Harris carried the ball 11 times on Saturday for 67 yards. Given how close the game was — and how ineffectively Winnipeg threw the football — it’s curious that Harris wasn’t given more carries particularly in the second half.
Nic Demski carried the ball just once, while Johnny Augustine rode the bench all game long. That doesn’t make sense. If Winnipeg is going to be a run-first team, they need to go all-in and use every available ball carrier.
The Bombers got torched through the air in consecutive losses to the Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, giving up a combined 847 passing yards.
Vernon Adams Jr. threw for 342 yards in the second half of Week 15, while Dane Evans threw for 308 yards in the first half of Week 16. This means that Winnipeg gave up a jaw-dropping 650 passing yards in the span of just four quarters.
A few changes were made in the secondary with Brandon Alexander starting at safety in place of Jeff Hecht, Marcus Rios moving to strong-side linebacker for Anthony Gaitor, and Nick Taylor making his first start at field-side halfback.
Hecht was seen arguing with boundary halfback Marcus Sayles last week after a long completion to Bralon Addison. It’s clear that tempers were getting high in the defensive backfield and the presence of Alexander — a team leader and all-around workhorse — was designed to quell them.
Winnipeg’s secondary was much better against Saskatchewan, keeping most of Cody Fajardo’s completions in front of them. Shaq Evans made all three of the Riders’ big receptions, one of which came on a tip from Winston Rose.
Also helping was the amount of pressure that the Blue Bombers generated up front, sacking Fajardo four times.
Start to finish
Four Blue Bombers were held out of the starting lineup on Saturday for the first time this season: Drew Wolitarsky, receiver; Steven Richardson, defensive tackle; Anthony Gaitor, strong-side linebacker; and Jeff Hecht, safety. Wolitarsky and Gaitor missed the game due to injury, while Hecht and Richardson didn’t start due to a ratio change.
Only nine players have started every game for Winnipeg this year: Stanley Bryant, left tackle; Michael Couture, centre; Jermarcus Hardrick, right tackle; Drake Nevis, defensive tackle; Willie Jefferson, defensive end; Kyrie Wilson, linebacker; Winston Rose, cornerback; Marcus Sayles, halfback; and Chandler Fenner, cornerback.
Grey Cup tickets
The Roughriders made an announcement on Thursday regarding ticket prices for next year’s Grey Cup. Capacity for the game has been set at 35,000 and it will be the first championship contest held at new Mosaic Stadium.
The Bombers last hosted the Grey Cup in 2015 and it’ll be a long time before another is played at IG Field. If you’re a Manitoban looking to attend a Grey Cup without spending a ton of money on airfare, next year’s game is your best bet.
Tickets go on sale June 16, 2020 and are expected to move quickly. Set a reminder on your phone to avoid missing out on the big game.
Andrew Harris was the only Blue Bomber to leave Saturday’s game due to injury, but he returned shortly after leaving the field.
Three to go
The Blue Bombers host the Montreal Alouettes (8-6) next week before back-to-back meetings with the Calgary Stampeders (9-5).
Winnipeg has lost three consecutive games for the first time in 13 months and are 4-6 over their last 10 games.
It may not be fair, but the 2019 edition of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have the weight of a 28-year Grey Cup drought bearing down upon them. They don’t have to like it, but they have to embrace it. It’s real.
Fans are angry — and rightfully so. The team still has a reasonable chance of hosting a playoff game provided they take care of business over the next three weeks.
It’s time to get to work.