Blue Bombers bend but don’t break against Elks to improve to 7-0 (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks by a score of 24-10 on Friday night at Commonwealth Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Bend but don’t break

The Blue Bombers played an ugly game in Edmonton but came away with a victory on the strength of their defence. The unit prevented the Elks from scoring a touchdown, advancing the ball within 15 yards of the end zone or generating a play longer than 25 yards.

Winnipeg’s front seven feasted on Edmonton’s offensive line in the first half with Casey Sayles, L.B. Mack, Cameron Lawson, Les Maruo, and Adam Bighill each recording sacks. The defence rallied to the football all night, punishing opposing receivers with hard, clean hits, including a shot from Malcolm Thompson that forced Kenny Lawler to leave the game momentarily.

Bighill was all over the place (as always) and led the team with six tackles. Willie Jefferson knocked down three passes — one of which resulted in a turnover on downs — and Malik Clements tipped a pass that was intercepted by Deatrick Nichols.

Allowing long drives is far from optimal — Winnipeg’s defence was on the field for almost two-thirds of the game — but wins and losses are determined by what’s on the scoreboard. Considering the circumstances, giving up only 10 points was a remarkable effort from the club’s defence and the only reason the Blue Bombers are still undefeated.

Zach off track

Zach Collaros had arguably his worst game as a member of the Blue Bombers, finishing seven-of-sixteen passing for 188 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

The offence managed just 11:58 time of possession over the first three quarters and repeatedly sputtered. Two of Collaros’ completions went for touchdowns — his 81-yard bomb to Dalton Schoen was incredible — but the aerial attack appeared almost entirely out of sync.

“We gotta execute at a higher level,” Collaros told CJOB after the game. “We’ll celebrate tonight but we’ve gotta get a lot better.”

The offence finally clicked in the fourth quarter as it chewed up 9:33 on a game-sealing touchdown drive, though it was aided by a contacting the kicker penalty against Makana Henry. The drive was capped by a two-yard run from backup quarterback Dru Brown, who was originally ruled down before the play was reviewed by the command centre.

Collaros looked to Greg Ellingson early and often in last week’s win over the Stampeders, targeting him a season-high 14 times. The strategy paid off — he had a career day, making 11 catches for 148 yards — but it hardly seemed sustainable. With Ellingson out of the lineup this week due to a hip injury, Collaros targeted Schoen nine times, accounting for more than half of his total pass attempts.

Rasheed Bailey appeared to be on his way to having a breakout game when he caught a 26-yard touchdown pass on Winnipeg’s second possession. He made just one other reception for 11 yards on the night, continuing what is quickly become a disappointing season from the third-year receiver.

The receiving corps will likely look different next week — more on that in a moment — but with how little he’s spread the ball around over the past two weeks, I’m beginning to wonder how much confidence Collaros has in his secondary receivers.

For those wondering, the last time a CFL team won a game in which they completed seven passes or fewer was Aug. 23, 2019, when Chris Streveler completed seven passes in a 34-28 victory over Edmonton.

Hats off

I picked Edmonton to win on Friday night, largely because I considered it a trap game for the Blue Bombers. The Elks hadn’t won at home since Oct. 12, 2019, and Winnipeg was coming off two excellent performances against two quality West Division opponents.

I defended the pick on Winnipeg Sports Talk with Andrew Paterson on Thursday by trying to say, “I’m prepared to eat my own words.” I misspoke and instead said, “I’m prepared to eat my own hat.”

I’ve been trying to cut carbs out of my diet but I guess I’ve got a baseball cap to eat. Do baseball hats have carbs? MyFitnessPal doesn’t seem to know.

It could have been worse. Danny Austin of the Calgary Sun pledged to get Chris Jones’ face tattooed over his own face if Winnipeg lost. Alas, no such tattoo will occur.

Familiar foe

Kenny Lawler had a solid game against his old team, making seven catches for 98 yards despite missing some plays after a big hit from Malcolm Thompson. It was nice to see so many of his former coaches and teammates embrace him before the game, illustrating the genuine bonds that were formed during his tenure in Winnipeg.

Edmonton made Lawler the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback with a contract worth $300,000 in 2022, beating Winnipeg’s offer by approximately $120,000. I want it on the record that, like Lawler, I’d be happy to work for any potential employer willing to beat my current salary by $120,000.

Brady bunch

Brady Oliveira had easily his best game of the season, rushing 13 times for 62 yards. It was far from a jaw-dropping performance, but he showed some of the power that he’s been missing so far this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can carry some momentum into next week and take some pressure off the club’s passing game.

Walking wounded

Carlton Agudosi went down early in the fourth quarter after his left ankle was rolled on while making a block. He left the field unable to put weight on his left foot. Agudosi caught two touchdown passes in his CFL debut in last week’s win over the Calgary Stampeders but did not make a reception against the Elks.

Nic Demski has now missed four games due to an ankle injury and can’t return to the lineup soon enough. Will he be back? I’m guessing the answer is yes.

Making history

The Blue Bombers are 7-0 for the first time since 1960. This year’s wins haven’t all been pretty, but I’m sure the same was true for the team 62 years ago as well. People always eventually forget how teams won games — they just remember how many they won.

Taylor-made

We discussed Taylor Cornelius recently on the 3DownNation Podcast and I expressed doubt that he would be effective as Edmonton’s starting quarterback.

The second-year passer has proven me wrong — to an extent, anyway. He’s shown impressive mobility for his size — he’s rushed 19 times for 79 yards over two starts — and has protected the ball well. He’s thrown two interceptions, sure, but both were tipped before being picked off.

Cornelius still has some accuracy issues that seem to get worse as he gets closer to the end zone. That wasn’t true last week against Montreal, but it was certainly true on Friday night. He has to find a way to target his receivers a little more effectively.

I’m curious to see what the Elks will do after Canadian quarterback Tre Ford is ready to return from a shoulder injury over the next week or two. He’s played very well for a rookie straight out of U Sports but Cornelius is probably a little further along in his development.

Bring your program

Chris Jones has made significant changes to his roster each week since the beginning of the season. Nyles Morgan made his season debut after completing a stint on the six-game injured list and became Edmonton’s sixth different player to start at middle linebacker this year after Adam Konar, Deon Lacey, Brady Sheldon, Ben Davis, and Tre Watson.

The Elks have started three quarterbacks, three running backs, nine receivers, seven offensive linemen, eleven defensive linemen, seven linebackers, and eleven defensive backs for a total of 51 different starters. For comparison, the Blue Bombers have started 32 different players. Wowza.

Put a ring on it

Sergio Castillo received his 2021 Grey Cup ring before Friday’s game, which he earned after being acquired by Winnipeg late last season. The charismatic kicker went five-for-five on field goals in the 33-25 overtime win over Hamilton and arguably should have been named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Photo courtesy: Paul Boudreau (@bouqb2)

Castillo could make up to $158,000 this year in Edmonton depending on the number of incentives he reaches. He has made 18-of-23 field goal attempts this season (78.3 percent) with a long of 52 yards while handling punting duties intermittently.

Marc Liegghio has posted better numbers in his second CFL season, making 16-of-18 field goal attempts (88.9 percent) while also serving as Winnipeg’s full-time punter.

Indigenous celebration

Windspeaker Media covered Friday’s game in nêhiyawêwin (Cree), making it the first CFL game ever broadcasted in an Indigenous language. O Canada was performed in nêhiyawêwin and English, Grand Chief of Treaty Six First Nations George Arcand Jr. performed the coin toss, and halftime featured an Indigenous performance.

This is what inclusion looks like. The CFL belongs to all of us and it’s great that the Elks chose to celebrate and highlight Indigenous culture.

It’s a damn shame that more fans weren’t on-hand to enjoy it with an announced crowd of just 22,716. For reference, Edmonton averaged 30,321 fans per game in 2019.

Up next

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (7-0) will visit the Calgary Stampeders (4-1) at McMahon Stadium next Saturday with kickoff slated for 6:00 p.m. CDT. The Stamps are currently on a bye, which means they’ll have had plenty of time to review the film from last week’s 26-19 loss at IG Field.

The Blue Bombers will clinch the season series if they beat Calgary, which is critical in a highly-competitive West Division. If the Stamps win, the season series will be decided when the teams meet for a third and final regular season matchup on Thursday, Aug. 25 in Winnipeg.