Bombers flex in the fourth quarter, beat Als (& 12 other thoughts)

Photo: Nik Kowalski/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday night by a score of 31-21 in front of 22,933 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Facing adversity

The Blue Bombers overcame adversity on Saturday, negating a seven-point deficit late in the third quarter to beat the Alouettes by two scores.

Winnipeg’s hallmark this season has been their physicality. The club dominates the line of scrimmage and manhandles their opponents at the point of attack. I thought Montreal did a nice job of punching Winnipeg in the mouth in the first half — William Stanback had ten carries for 75 yards through two quarters — before the Blue Bombers took over late.

Football is a collision sport and the team that is more physical will win the vast majority of the time. The Als deserve credit for coming out and playing Winnipeg tough, even if they weren’t able to sustain it into the fourth quarter.

Fourth quarter dominance

Winnipeg gave up three touchdowns on Saturday — they’d allowed just nine in their first eleven games — but shut things down in the fourth quarter. The Blue Bombers have yet to allow a touchdown in the fourth quarter all season, outscoring their opponents 116-6 in the final frame.

The defence was stellar again on Saturday, intercepting Trevor Harris twice and sacking him once late in the game.

When asked about his team’s remarkable play in the fourth quarter, head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that he doesn’t know why his team has been so effective late in games this year. He also suggested that he wants the team’s fourth quarter dominance to permeate more throughout the game’s opening quarters.

“You definitely want it for four quarters,” said O’Shea. “Not just the fourth quarter.”

Ssssssserigo!

Sergio Castillo made his 2021 debut with the Blue Bombers since being added via trade from the B.C. Lions in October. He finished the game three-for-four on field goals with his miss coming from a distance of 38 yards. He also connected on a 48-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, though it was negated by an illegal procedure penalty.

Winnipeg had a chance to try a 53-yard field goal following the penalty, though O’Shea opted to punt. After the game he told the media that he thought it would be smarter to “play the field position game” instead of asking Castillo to make such a long kick.

If you missed it earlier this week, check out my story on how Castillo was mistaken for a lunchroom worker after signing with the New York Jets. It’s pretty funny.

Unsung hero

Jake Thomas got home for two sacks against the Alouettes and took rookie offensive lineman Samuel Thomassin for a ride late in the fourth quarter.

Players like Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Adam Bighill get a lot of ink — and rightfully so — but I would argue that Thomas is one of the league’s most underrated players. He knows how to use leverage, get off blocks, and stuff the run.

Are you not entertained?

A number of pundits have criticized the CFL this year for lacking its usual lustre. Offensive production is down league-wide and there have been more sloppy, low-scoring games than at any point in recent years.

Saturday’s game in Winnipeg was awesome. There were 52 points, long plays, big hits, and the game was close late in the fourth quarter. I hope we see more contests like this one as we approach the postseason. The CFL needs to be a fun, high-scoring brand of football and it’s fallen short of that far too often this season.

“Meaningless” games

I took some heat on Twitter from fans who suggested that my criticism of the Blue Bombers was unwarranted because Saturday’s game was “meaningless.” While it’s true that Winnipeg has clinched the West Division, O’Shea teaches his players to disregard the standings and play for each other.

This team is all about playing for their teammates and pride. There will always be extrinsic motivating factors — the standings, money, etc. — but O’Shea would argue that no game is meaningless. Every game matters, especially considering Winnipeg fielded all of their starters for the full game.

Long snappers are people too

Montreal had a nice opening drive on Saturday night, moving the ball from their 31-yard line into Winnipeg territory primarily along the ground. Alexandre Gagne delivered a high snap that punter Joseph Zema couldn’t handle, resulting in the Blue Bombers taking possession at Montreal’s 33-yard line.

Long snappers are like backup dancers — they only get noticed when they do something wrong. And if there’s one statistic that I think we should pay more attention to — particularly in Canada where our field are so large — it’s field position. Starting drives in opposition territory is such a huge advantage, yet it’s rarely reflected on stat sheets.

Play the backups

There was plenty of chatter in Bomberland this week about the extent to which O’Shea should play/rest his starters in Winnipeg’s remaining regular season games. It’s a debate worth having, but one of the challenges he’s facing is the CFL’s small roster sizes.

Let’s use the offensive line as an example: with Jermarcus Hardrick out due to injury, Winnipeg is starting Stanley Bryant, Drew Desjarlais, Michael Couture, Tui Eli, and Patrick Neufeld with Geoff Grey as the backup. The club also has three offensive linemen on the practice roster: Chris Kolankowski, Tomoya Machino, and Drew Richmond.

This means that the team couldn’t rest all of their current starters even if they wanted to — there simply aren’t enough healthy offensive linemen to dress five backups.

It’s also difficult to bench a bunch of starters from a logistical perspective. Outside of the active roster, the only place to stash them is the one-game injured list, which means their salaries would still count against the cap. Paying out 15-20 extra game cheques is tough from a cap perspective, especially this late in the season.

It’s likely that O’Shea will rest some veterans down the stretch, but I’m not sure he could sit all the club’s starters even if he wanted to. I asked Adam Bighill after the game if he would prefer to play or rest over the course of the team’s final two games and he made it clear that he’ll be petitioning to play both contests.

Home sweet home

The Blue Bombers have officially gone a perfect 7-0 at IG Field this season, finishing undefeated at home for the first time since 1984.

For perspective, the Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup in 1984 after finishing second in the West Division with a 11-4-1 record. They scored 32.7 points per game and allowed 19.0 points per game that year, while this year’s club has scored an average of 27.9 and allowed and average of 12.6.

Though he said he’s never preached the importance of “protecting our house,” O’Shea was pleased that Winnipeg fans were able to see so many victories this season.

“The fans are the lifeblood of our league,” he said. “We need to honour them with good play.”

Harris and Adams

Vernon Adams Jr. and Trevor Harris are under contract for next season, though it’s clear the Alouettes can’t afford to keep both under their current deals. Adams Jr. is due a $190,000 bonus on Jan. 15 and Harris is due $300,000 on Feb. 1, so a decision will have to be made relatively early in the off-season.

Adams Jr. has completed just 59.4 percent of his passes this season, though his average completion has gone for an impressive 13.7 yards. He moves well and doesn’t hesitate to push the ball down the field, though he’s not the league’s most consistent quarterback. He’s also only 28, which means his best football may still be ahead of him.

Harris completed 14-of-25 pass attempts for 177 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions in his first start in Montreal with both picks coming late in the game. He’s 35, though he has relatively low mileage on his body given that he became a full-time starter later in his career.

This will be one of the major storylines to follow this off-season: which quarterback does Montreal keep and how does that affect the CFL’s other eight teams?

Stand back, Stanback

Williams Stanback finished the game with 16 carries for 106 yards, reaching the century mark for a league-leading sixth time this season. He also eclipsed the 1,000-yard threshold for the year, which is especially impressive considering he’s missed two of Montreal’s twelve games.

Adam Bighill spoke highly of Stanback after the game, suggesting Montreal has done a great job of using their front to maximize his ability to make quick cuts. Bighill said the way Stanback runs the ball reminds him of Canadian Football Hall of Fame running back Jon Cornish, which is especially high praise.

Beast of the East

Nobody asked me, but the best team in the East Division right now is the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The Montreal Alouettes are a close second, followed by the Toronto Argonauts. I’m not sure if that counts as a hot take, but the Argos are currently two points up on Hamilton and four points up on Montreal for first place in the standings.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (11-1) and Alouettes (6-6) will complete their home-and-home next week at Percival Molson Stadium next Saturday at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will hold no weight for Winnipeg in the standings, though Montreal still has a shot at first place in the East Division.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.