QB Tyrrell Pigrome shines as Blue Bombers down Elks (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks by a score of 25-23 on Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium in CFL preseason action. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Terrific Tyrrell

It’s not often that a rookie earns a roster spot after their first-ever drive in professional football but that’s exactly what Tyrrell Pigrome may have done after taking over the controls early in the fourth quarter.

The first-year passer faced adversity on his very first play when a snap from Liam Dobson sailed high and wide, resulting in a 17-yard loss. Pigrome made a 33-yard throw to third-round pick Jeremy Murphy on the ensuing play, converting on second-and-extremely-long.

The five-foot-ten, 200-pound native of Birmingham, Ala. finished the drive himself shortly thereafter as he broke contain off the right side and ran 45 yards for a touchdown. It was a sensational run and it was clear the Elks weren’t ready for the level of speed he brought to Winnipeg’s offence.

“The line did a good job up front with their blocking and the fullback on that play did a nice job of blocking the end,” he told 680 CJOB‘s Derek Taylor. “I just read his block and took it to the end zone. The receivers played a good part in it, they were blocking downfield. I feel like everybody contributed on that play, it takes more than one, so I feel like everybody played a part in that play and helped me score that touchdown.”

Pigrome wasn’t a vaunted passer during a nomadic collegiate career that included stints at Maryland, Western Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Towson. He completed 57 percent of his passes for 3,439 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions along with 286 carries for 948 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Though it was a small sample size, Winnipeg appears to have found not only their new short-yardage quarterback, but a young passer worth developing at the professional level.

Start line

CFL teams traditionally use their road preseason game as an opportunity to rest their veteran players, though Winnipeg fielded a pretty star-studded group in Edmonton. The regular starters played a little over one quarter of football, which head coach Mike O’Shea said was done to ensure they’ll be well-rested for the regular season opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on June 9.

“I think it’s just dictated by the fact that we play Friday (June 2) versus [Saskatchewan]. We can dress everybody and then we’ve got basically another game on Friday (June 9) against Hamilton, so it’s a very quick turnaround,” he told CJOB.

“Right after the Saskatchewan game is basically the end of camp that night and we’ve got to make our decisions the next morning. I thought this was the best opportunity to play our guys and still have them fresh in a couple of weeks.”

Those who didn’t dress for Saturday’s game include Brady Oliveira, Dalton Schoen, Jackson Jeffcoat, Jake Thomas, Adam Bighill, Desmond Lawrence, Winston Rose, Sergio Castillo, and Marc Liegghio. Oliveira, Jeffcoat, Bighill, and Rose haven’t been practicing due to undisclosed injuries, though there’s always a chance we’ll see them briefly next week.

Don’t expect the team to officially confirm the severity of any injuries before they have to declare their roster for Week 1 of the regular season.

Kicking the habit

The kicking game has been a hot topic of conversation for months in Bomberland and three rookies — placekicker Chandler Staton and punters Jamieson Sheahan and Karl Schmitz — handled all the kicking duties against Edmonton.

Staton connected on his only field goal attempt from 34 yards out along with all three of his one-point covert attempts. He also kicked off four times for an average of 67.8 yards, which is impressive.

Sheahan and Schmitz both punted four times for a net average of 41.0 and 38.7 yards, respectively. Schmitz’s third punt was placed brilliantly near Edmonton’s one-yard line but rolled out of bounds in the end zone after taking an awkward bounce.

All in all, it was an impressive night for the three newcomers, albeit in limited work. It’ll be interesting to see who handles the kicking duties in next week’s preseason finale.

Depth chart delusion

Winnipeg did not issue a depth chart before Saturday’s preseason game, instead providing a game-day roster listing players by position in numerical order. The club has done this for preseason games for the past several years and, frankly, it’s silly.

The purpose of a depth chart is to allow fans and members of the media to anticipate who will start the game and who will fill their respective depth roles. Every other team in the league issued a proper depth chart this weekend. Winnipeg should do the same.

It’s also unclear what the team hopes to gain by not providing a traditional depth chart. The players all know who is starting and how they’ll be used throughout the contest. Why the lack of transparency for those outside the locker room?

For the record, here are the 24 players who started for Winnipeg on Saturday. Please note that the list below differs from many of the names featured on the league’s official game report.

Quarterback — Zach Collaros

Running back — Johnny Augustine

Receiver — WR Kenny Lawler, SB Brendan O’Leary-Orange, SB Nic Demski, SB Rasheed Bailey, WR Drew Wolitarsky

Offensive line — LT Stanley Bryant, LG Geoff Gray, C Chris Kolankowski, RG Patrick Neufeld, RT Jermarcus Hardrick

Defensive line — DE Willie Jefferson, DT Ricky Walker, DT Tanner Schmekel, DE DeJaun Cooper

Linebackers — WLB Malik Clements, MLB Barrington Wade, SAM Alden Darby

Defensive back — CB Demerio Houston, HB Deatrick Nichols, S Brandon Alexander, HB Evan Holm, CB Jamal Parker

Lemon-aid

Winnipeg traded promising defensive end Cedric Wilcots II to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season and didn’t replace him with anyone with CFL experience. This is a departure from recent years in which the club has had players like Keion Adams, Tobi Antigha, and Craig Roh serve in depth roles coming off the edge.

Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat are firmly entrenched as the starters, of course, but it’s important to have rotational options to help keep everyone fresh along the defensive line. First-round draft pick Anthony Bennett should take some reps off the edge but it takes time to adjust to the professional level; asking him to do too much too quickly probably isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

Bennett got some penetration in the first quarter, though he failed to wrap up Kevin Brown’s legs on a second-down carry. He helped guide Taylor Cornelius to the sideline on the following play, taking a smart angle and flashing his speed.

With Jeffcoat out due to an injury of undisclosed severity, why don’t the Blue Bombers take a run at Shawn Lemon? The reigning West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player was released by the B.C. Lions last week and shouldn’t command a hefty price tag given that he remains unsigned.

Lemon will turn 35 in August but it’s clear that Winnipeg doesn’t care about being the league’s oldest outfit. This team is built to win now.

Trench defence

Caleb Thomas was the most noticeable newcomer along the defensive line as he sacked Taylor Cornelius late in the first quarter after rerouting his pass-rush lane to the inside. He also may have blocked a potential game-winning 52-yard field goal attempt from Dean Faithfull, though that remains unconfirmed from the league.

The issue is that Thomas is six-foot-one and 300 pounds, making him solely an interior defender, not the edge rusher Winnipeg needs in a depth role.

Aaron Sterling was the best newcomer at defensive end as he beat Javion Caldwell for a sack in the fourth quarter. Overall, however, the Blue Bombers didn’t have much success pressuring Edmonton’s quarterbacks without sending extra pass rushers, which they seemed to do more frequently as the game went on.

The unit also had a rough night defending the run, giving up 28 carries for 160 yards. This problem should improve when players like Bighill, Jeffcoat, and Thomas return to the starting lineup, though it remains unclear when that will occur.

Oh snap!

Former first-round pick Liam Dobson struggled mightily at centre on Saturday, firing off two bad snaps in limited action.

The Texas State product played primarily guard and tackle at the collegiate level but is clearly working to become a more versatile player along the interior of the offensive line. He fired a snap high and wide on Pigrome’s first play of the game and almost launched the ball over the head of Josh Jones on Winnipeg’s final drive.

Winnipeg’s offensive line was decent on the whole, providing strong pass protection for all four of the club’s quarterbacks. Where the unit struggled was in the running game as they struggled to open lanes for the team’s running backs, who finished the game with eight carries for one yard (no, that’s not a typo).

Secondary opinion

Jamal Parker is a sensational tackler for such an undersized defensive back. Willie Jefferson lost contain on Shannon Brooks late in the second quarter and Parker made an excellent tackle to prevent a big play. In the second half, he absorbed a shoulder from Brooks while cutting out his legs in the open field.

Abu Daramy-Swaray had an excellent pass knockdown early in the third quarter, batting a would-be touchdown from the hands of Raphael Leonard. The receiver got his revenge on Daramy-Swaray later in the game, beating him for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Between the play of Parker and Daramy-Swaray, Demerio Houston’s return from injury, and Evan Holm’s improvement, it’s tough to see a spot for Winston Rose in the starting secondary. The former all-star took a pay cut to return to the team this past off-season but he might be in tough to make the roster.

Wrap it up

Jake Kelly, Winnipeg’s second-round pick out of Bishop’s University, delivered a huge shot on Maurice Ffrench early in the third quarter, coming down from his safety position to deliver a perfectly-timed shoulder to the receiver’s chest. General manager Kyle Walters spoke after the draft about Kelly’s challenges with tackling as he sometimes prioritizes generating big hits over wrapping up opposing ball-carriers.

Later that same quarter, Kelly tried to deliver another big blow as Tre Ford scrambled towards the end zone. Ford hurdled over a diving Kelly and broke the plane for Edmonton’s first major score. Kelly’s got a lot of upside — his athletic testing at the CFL Combine was off the charts — but he’ll need to do a better job of tackling at the point of attack.

Brown bag

Kevin Brown showed why Edmonton made him the league’s fifth-highest-paid running back despite playing only seven games last season, recording four carries for 55 yards.

I left Brown off my ballot for TSN’s top 50 players list due to his lack of experience and I’m already questioning that decision. His combination of speed, quickness, balance, vision, and power is truly special.

Teach me how to Doege

It was unfortunate to see rookie Elks’ quarterback Jarret Doege miss Saturday’s game due to an injury he sustained in Edmonton’s first preseason game. The former West Virginia standout was the best passer in that contest, completing 78.6 percent of his passes for 136 yards and one touchdown in essentially one quarter of work.

The CFL needs more talented young quarterbacks for fans to get excited about. It was a very small sample size, of course, but Doege showed enough to earn another look.

Concurrent conundrum

The CFL scheduled two preseason games for the same time on Saturday as the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats faced off at Tim Hortons Field while the Blue Bombers and Elks battled in Edmonton.

The league’s schedule was finalized six months ago, which presumably came well before they decided to livestream all non-televised preseason games.

It’s worth noting that TSN was initially going to televise Saturday’s game between Toronto and Hamilton, though it was axed from the broadcast schedule due to undisclosed reasons. It seems safe to question whether or not TSN regrets not televising the contest given that big-name quarterbacks Chad Kelly and Bo Levi Mitchell started for their respective teams.

Playing two games concurrently limits the value of livestreaming as viewers are forced to choose between multiple contests. If the league plans to continue livestreaming preseason games in the future, they’ll have to ensure that they don’t overlap.

The Elks deserve credit for hiring Dustin Nielson and Doug McLean to do stream-specific commentary instead of merely syncing the local radio feed. The livestreams have been a great addition to the preseason this year but, in future, it’d be great if viewers had the ability to pause or rewind the streams as well as watch them back following their completion.

Blast from the past

Veteran strong-side linebacker Alden Darby Jr. has switched to No. 2 this season, which was worn by Greg Ellingson a year ago. He sprinted up the field to make a tackle in the first quarter and bore a striking resemblance to Jovon Johnson, who wore the same number during his best years as a member of the Blue Bombers.

A similar moment occurred when rookie quarterback Josh Jones rolled out to his right wearing No. 15 late in the fourth quarter, looking virtually identical to Matt Nichols. It’s funny how the combination of a number, position, and a player’s appearance can instantly remind you of someone who hasn’t been on the team for years.

Musical interlude

Saturday’s livestream featured “Belittled” by Timothy Infinite during its commercial breaks, which means it got stuck in my head almost immediately.

I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism but the song is highly reminiscent of “A Nightmare On My Street” by D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. The tracks have virtually identical tempos, are played in almost the same key, and have similarly spooky-sounding melodies.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will host the Saskatchewan Roughriders for their second and final preseason game on Friday, June 2 with kickoff slated for 8:30 p.m. EDT. This will mark the first of four meetings between the clubs this year and the first of two that will be played at IG Field.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.