The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks on Friday night by a score of 26-16 at Commonwealth Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Harris goes down
Andrew Harris suffered an apparent knee injury after making a five-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter. He appeared to be in pain before taking a hit from defensive back Jonathan Rose, then grabbed his right knee when the play was over.
Winnipeg takes the lead, but at what cost?
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 16, 2021
The veteran running back was checked over by the team’s training staff before leaving the field under his own power. He began walking with a heavy limp, though it diminished progressively as he made his way to the bench. He did not return to the game and watched the second half from the sideline wearing a tracksuit.
Harris’ injury is a tough break for him and his team. The future Hall of Fame inductee entered Friday’s game with a decent shot at capturing a fourth-straight rushing title despite missing the first three games of the season with a calf injury.
If this new injury costs him many starts his chances of repeating as the CFL’s rushing king will all but disappear. It would also make it impossible for Harris to reach a few key milestones as he sits 377 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards on the season and 339 yards shy of 10,000 rushing yards on his career.
The West Final remains over seven weeks away, which means Harris has plenty of time to heal up for when the games matter most. Brady Oliveira played well in a relief role — he ran for 105 yards on 16 carries — but the Blue Bombers are at their best when Harris is in the backfield.
A Hall of a defence
Winnipeg’s defence had another strong game, allowing just 258 yards of total offence and forcing a turnover on downs late in the contest. The unit did not give up a touchdown in the fourth quarter, which continues a streak dating all the way back to the 2019 season.
The front-seven generated a lot of pressure on Taylor Cornelius in the first half but allowed the rookie quarterback to repeatedly dodge tackles. Willie Jefferson acknowledged after the game that he felt frustrated by Cornelius’ escapability, though the club racked up four sacks by the end of the night.
Winnipeg’s run defence was stout against Edmonton and has now allowed just 149 yards on 39 carries (3.8 yards per attempt) over the past three games. That’s way down from the league-worst 5.7 yards per carry the unit allowed through the first seven weeks of the season.
Defensive coordinator Richie Hall indicated this week that the return of Steven ‘Stove’ Richardson at defensive tackle has helped in the run game, though the elimination of explosion plays is the biggest factor. He felt the early numbers were skewed by a handful of long runs the team allowed and shutting them down has reflected well on the stat sheet.
I also asked Hall this week who he thinks should be voted the team’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player this season. He did not single out any individuals, stressing that the play of the unit’s stars only serves to help their teammates get better.
Asotui Eli made his first career CFL start on Friday night at right guard in place of Patrick Neufeld, who shifted to right tackle in place of an injured Jermarcus Hardrick. The native of Richmond, B.C. has a very interesting backstory, having temporarily retired while experience injury woes at the University of Hawai’i.
The 25-year-old would have been a first-round pick in the 2019 CFL Draft had there not been questions regarding his conditioning and commitment to the game. Winnipeg took a risk selecting him in the fourth round and the gamble has paid off.
Winnipeg’s pass protection struggled at times in Edmonton but the run game was sensational, producing 175 yards on 26 carries.
Offensive line coach Marty Costello told the media this week that Eli took advantage of the year off in 2020 to come back with a completely different body-type. He appears to have dropped some bad weight while adding muscle, as demonstrated by his ability to blow-up defenders in the run game.
I asked Costello about the physicality Winnipeg has along the offensive line and he made it clear the unit has fully embraced a smash-mouth-style of football.
“I think the room has created a standard of anybody that’s going to play for us is going to try to play to that expectation and mindset,” he said. “We’re definitely are making a point of emphasis of it this week and go back to try to do what we do best and smash into people.”
Winnipeg missed Hardrick in pass protection — defensive end Thomas Costigan got the best of Neufeld a few times — but it appears the offensive line is still capable of opening big holes in the run game.
Thanks, Captain Obvious
This is hardly hard-hitting analysis, but it still needs to be said: Zach Collaros has to stop throwing interceptions in the red zone.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 16, 2021
I’m not sure if Collaros was expecting Demski to break off his route on this play, but this pass looked late and badly under-thrown. It was the quarterback’s second end zone interception in as many weeks after throwing a pick to safety Jordan Hoover in last week’s win at IG Field.
Collaros should have been charged with another pick in the fourth quarter when he threw an errant pass straight to defensive back Aaron Grymes, who dropped it. To his credit, Collaros immediately followed that up with a 48-yard bomb to Rasheed Bailey before looking his way again for a slick touchdown three plays later.
4th Quarter #Bombers > Everyone
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) October 16, 2021
Mike O’Shea gave embattled placekicker Ali Mourtada a vote of confidence this week, sticking with him despite a poor start to his CFL career. The rookie showed signs of improvement at Commonwealth Stadium, making four-of-five field goal attempts with a miss from 44 yards out.
I admire O’Shea’s willingness to stick with a player who struggled so badly through his first three games, even if it defied logic to an extent. Assuming the kicker has earned himself another game, I’m interested to see how he fares next week in front of the home crowd that recently booed him off the field.
I don’t know if it’s because he was born in Sierra Leone, but there seems to be some confusion regarding Mourtada’s roster designation. He was born overseas, but he is not a Global player. He counts as an American.
I mention this because anytime the ratio is discussed on social media I see tweets from people saying, “Forget the ratio and let the best players play!” Mourtada missed six of his first ten career field goal attempts, yet he still got the call on Friday.
American players are simply afforded more benefit of the doubt than their Canadian counterparts. This has been the case for decades and sadly I expect it will remain true for decades to come.
Missing in action
Darvin Adams made just one catch last week despite being targeted eight times with Kenny Lawler out of the lineup. He caught one pass for seven yards on two targets on Friday, though it was clear the pass should have been ruled incomplete upon replay.
Lawler and Nic Demski are having sensational years, while Bailey is having an excellent season of his own. Adams’ production was bound to dip somewhat as a result — there are only so many passes to go around — but he’s now averaging just 2.3 catches for 33 yards per start. That feels awfully low.
The Blue Bombers were 12-point favourites on Friday, which is a huge line for a team on the road. My prop bet on Adams was a bust, but at least the Elks covered the spread as home underdogs often do.
I’m sure many bettors who picked Edmonton had a mini-heart attack when Greg Ellingson fumbled the ball away with 28 seconds remaining, almost leading to a Winnipeg touchdown. A score there would have allowed the Blue Bombers to cover the spread, torpedoing a number of betting cards.
Under the radar
If you’re looking for an underrated player to watch for, check out Edmonton offensive lineman Kyle Saxelid. The Sacramento native qualifies as a national through his mother’s citizenship and has grown a reputation for being a versatile blocker capable of playing several key spots along the offensive line.
The six-foot-seven, 301-pound blocker has started games this season at left tackle, left guard, and right tackle without skipping a beat. Edmonton’s offensive line was shaky at times on Friday but Saxelid held his own working against Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat. Respect.
Boundary halfback Deatrick Nichols was shaken up after delivering a bone-rattling hit on Derel Walker to force a third-and-one late in the fourth quarter. Nichols is a lot smaller than Walker, but the hit paid off when Edmonton failed to reach a first down on the following play.
Field-side halfback Nick Taylor was scratched on Friday due to a hip injury — O’Shea indicated postgame that it’s not serious — with rookie Demerio Houston making his first career start in his place. If Nichols misses time, I’d expect Taylor to return with Houston filling the other halfback spot.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (9-1) host the B.C. Lions (4-4) on Saturday, Oct. 23 in what is the club’s second-last home game of the regular season. The Lions are slated to host the Calgary Stampeders this week, which means they’ll come to IG Field at either 5-4 or 4-5.
Lucky Whitehead is not expected to be available for B.C. given that he recently underwent surgery to repair two broken bones in his hand. Winnipeg beat B.C. by a score of 30-9 in Week 9, which means they will capture the season series between the two teams with a win, tie, or loss by 20 points or fewer.