The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 28-16 on Friday night at IG Field in front of an announced crowd of 24,654. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Trouble with the Law-ler
Kenny Lawler was placed on Winnipeg’s suspended list on Thursday in a move that is expected to cause him to miss the first several weeks of the regular season.
The Winnipeg Sun‘s Paul Friesen reported on Friday that Lawler’s suspension appears to have come as a result of an issue with his work permit. He pled guilty to impaired driving in April from a charge that dated back to his first tenure with the Blue Bombers in October 2021. He now needs to acquire a new temporary resident’s permit, which is expected to take three to four weeks.
Head coach Mike O’Shea acknowledged that Lawler being unable to play for the near future will affect the team on the field but that wasn’t his focus regarding the star receiver’s upcoming absence.
“I think the biggest impact is on the personal side,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of guys that are good friends with Kenny and they are concerned about how things are going to shake down with him. They’re more concerned with the person Kenny Lawler than they are the Blue Bombers and what we do in Week 1.”
It’s now all the more critical that the Blue Bombers managed to retain Rasheed Bailey in free agency as he, Dalton Schoen, and Carlton Agudosi figure to be Winnipeg’s three starting American receivers next week. The club will still miss Lawler — they made him the league’s second-highest-paid receiver for a reason — but it remains a solid group.
Missing the start of the regular season will also hit Lawler in the pocketbook. He received a $125,000 signing bonus to join the Blue Bombers in free agency plus a salary of $125,000, which is divvied up into game cheques worth approximately $7,000 apiece. He’ll forfeit one of those for each game he spends on the suspended list, which could be as many as three.
It’s also worth noting that Winnipeg will save money against the salary cap for each game Lawler is suspended, which could help them add a free agent — someone like all-star defensive end Shawn Lemon, for example — ahead of Week 1.
It speaks volumes about the veteran-laden nature of Winnipeg’s roster that arguably the most compelling battle in training camp is for the third-string quarterback spot. With respect to Josh Jones, it seems clear that Tyrrell Pigrome has won the job behind Zach Collaros and Dru Brown.
Pigrome was excellent in limited action against the Edmonton Elks last week, hitting rookie Jeremy Murphy with a long pass before sprinting off the edge for a 45-yard touchdown. On Friday night, he breathed life into a stagnant Winnipeg offence immediately after taking over the controls in the third quarter.
The five-foot-ten, 200-pound passer had a remarkable run on one of his first snaps that saw him break two tackles and dodge five defenders to scramble for a first down. Three plays later, he broke contain for a 21-yard run around the right side to get to Saskatchewan’s five-yard line.
Pigrome initially faltered in the red zone as he threw a pass well behind a wide-open Carlton Agudosi in the end zone. He didn’t go through his reads on the following play, choosing instead to try to find a running lane that wasn’t there. He made up for it on third down, however, as he lobbed the ball to Amare Jones for a five-yard touchdown.
The Towson product hit Agudosi for a 30-yard gain on the next drive, which ended in a four-yard touchdown run from Jordan Salima. It was Pigrome’s final drive of the night as Jones took over the control late in the fourth quarter.
“I haven’t shown my best yet,” said Pigrome. “I’m still learning from the veterans, still learning from the guys, trying to take in everything I can to try and become the best me. I still haven’t reached that yet. Right now I’m still learning and I’ve got a lot of learning left to do.”
This week I spoke with former CFL linebacker Tre Watson, who played alongside Pigrome at the University of Maryland. He called the young quarterback a quiet player who “just goes about his business” and maximized every opportunity he had with the Terrapins. He also indicated that everyone in the locker room simply referred to him as ‘Pig.’
“He’s electric. He’s extremely tough to bring down. He makes plays, which is pretty neat to watch,” said O’Shea. “I think he’s hard to see back there, too. You see him just shrink down, bend the knees and he kind of disappears for a second and comes flying out somewhere. He’s very elusive and greasy.”
We still don’t know much about Pigrome but he seems like someone for whom fans will have an easy time cheering.
Dru Brown played the entire first half and never looked fully comfortable, completing eight-of-fifteen pass attempts for 69 yards. It’s worth noting that Saskatchewan sent its entire starting defence to Winnipeg, while the Blue Bombers rested almost all of their first-stringers on offence. Brown wasn’t willing to use that as an excuse postgame, calling it a “good challenge” for his team.
The offensive line didn’t do Brown any favours, either, as he was repeatedly hurried or flushed from the pocket by Saskatchewan’s front seven. He was sacked twice but that number would have been higher were it not for his mobility.
“I would have liked to be a little more productive,” said Brown. “We’ve just gotta establish a rhythm and stay on the field. It wasn’t great but we’ll look at it and improve from it.”
The 26-year-old passer is a pending free agent and, based on his performance last season, it seemed likely that he would get an opportunity to compete for a starting job elsewhere in the league in 2024. That could still happen — it’s only the preseason, after all — but Brown was mediocre at best in his half of work.
Kick it around
All eyes have been on the kicking game in Winnipeg as the club still has five players battling it out for the special jobs in training camp.
Sergio Castillo kicked the club’s first field goal attempt, which came from a distance of 24 before it was negated by penalty. The ball was moved back five yards and he connected again from 29 yards out. Chandler Staton missed wide right on his convert attempt, while Marc Liegghio connected on his convert attempt.
Liegghio punted first and hit a 43-yarder that landed narrowly out of bounds at Saskatchewan’s 17-yard line. An illegal punt penalty was assessed as the ball landed out of bounds between the 15-yard lines, bringing the net yardage down to 33 yards.
Karl Schmitz punted next and hit a 43-yarder that was returned 14 yards by Devin Jones late in the first quarter for a net of 29 yards. Jamieson Sheahan punted third and hit an ugly ball off the side of his foot that went for 21 yards before flying out of bounds. He was assessed an illegal punt penalty, which shortened the net distance to 11 yards.
Liegghio took Winnipeg’s fourth punt late in the second quarter and hit a 50-yard bomb to the middle of the field, which was returned nine yards by Jones. Schmitz punted fifth and the ball bounced and rolled for 53 yards before Kendall Watson was tackled by Redha Kramdi for no gain.
Sheahan hit a beauty on his second punt of the day right before halftime as the ball flew 52 yards near the sideline and went for no return. Liegghio got the final punt of the night, booting it 54 yards near the left sideline for a return of seven yards.
Unofficially, Liegghio’s net average for the night was 40.3 yards, Schmitz’s was 41 yards, and Sheahan’s was 31.5 yards. Though O’Shea didn’t offer comment on any specific kickers, it appeared as though Liegghio had the best performance overall.
Interestingly, Schmitz was the holder for Castillo’s field goal attempt. Castillo’s holder when he played for Winnipeg in 2021 was Sean McGuire, who retired before last season. If Castillo is comfortable with Schmitz holding, that could be another small boost to his chances of making the team.
There’s also the contractual element possibly at play. By virtue of being selected in the 2023 CFL Global Draft, Sheahan and Schmitz are signed through 2025 at bargain rates. Liegghio is a pending free agent and, given his ability to perform all three jobs as a Canadian, should earn a raise on the open market.
If all else is equal, it makes sense for Winnipeg to go with one of their two Global punters this year. It would save the team money in the long run, though Liegghio appears to have put up a strong fight.
As they’ve done the last number of years during the preseason, the Blue Bombers didn’t release an official depth chart for Friday’s game. For those wondering, here are the 24 players who were in the starting lineup.
Quarterback — Dru Brown
Running back — Johnny Augustine
Fullback — Damian Jackson
Receivers — Carlton Agudosi, Rasheed Bailey, Brendan O’Leary-Orange, Drew Wolitarsky
Offensive line — LT Geoff Gray, LG Jakub Szott, C Liam Dobson, RG Tomoya Machino, RT Drew Richmond
Defensive line — DE Willie Jefferson, DT Jake Thomas, DT Ricky Walker, DE Anthony Bennett
Linebackers — WLB Jesse Briggs, MLB Shayne Gauthier, SAM Redha Kramdi
Defensive back — CB Demerio Houston, HB Jamal Parker, S Brandon Alexander, HB Evan Holm, CB Abu Daramy-Swaray
Janarion Grant has Winnipeg’s returner spot locked down but the club has to find a way to keep Matt Cole on cutdown down.
He brought a punt back 49 yards midway through the first quarter, though it was negated by a holding penalty. Moments later, he showed nice patience following a missed field goal from Brett Lauther and brought it back 64 yards, though he would have scored a touchdown were it not for a shoestring tackle by Lauther.
It wasn’t a great night for Winnipeg’s defence but there were a few players who stood out for positive reasons. Canadian defensive tackle Cameron Lawson had a nice tackle for loss deep in Winnipeg’s territory midway through the first quarter. Caleb Thomas had another nice outing as well, picking up the club’s only sack.
Jake Kelly, the club’s second-round pick in the 2023 CFL Draft, was solid at safety late in the game. He lit up Isaiah McKoy with a crushing hit over the middle and made a touchdown-saving tackle on the very next play, stopping Canadian rookie Thomas Bertrand-Hudon on an 18-yard run up the middle.
Houston, we have a problem
Demerio Houston, who was excellent at boundary cornerback last season before suffering an injury to his abdomen during the Labour Day Classic, was victimized multiple times during the first half of Friday’s game. Derel Walker beat him twice on Saskatchewan’s first drive, including a five-yard touchdown pass over the middle. Houston was also beaten long up the right sideline after the Riders put their second-string offence into the game.
“I think I did pretty good. There’s stuff I gotta work on but overall, I feel like I played pretty good,” he said. “It was great to be back, get back into the groove of things and knock the rust off. I’m thankful to be back, I’m feeling great and just trying to continue to grow as a player and help my teammates however I can.”
For newcomers in the secondary like Matt Cole and Abu Daramy-Swaray, there might still be room to crack the roster.
It’s also worth noting that Jamal Parker left the game midway through the second quarter with a significant limp and headed straight to the locker room. He would be a significant loss for the club as he settled nicely into the field-side halfback position late last season.
Not written in stone
What’s the opposite of “written in stone”? Scribbled in sand? Doodled in dust? Etched in, uh, etch-a-sketch?
Whatever it is, too much is made of preliminary rosters come the end of training camp. Position battles are fun to watch during the preseason but it’s not like they come to an end as soon as the regular season hits.
Looking back at my notes from last year, I was reminded that Tyquwan Glass started the first three games of the 2022 season at field-side cornerback. He entered the campaign with 30 games of CFL experience and appeared to help settle a young secondary but clearly wasn’t in the club’s long-term plans as he was cut on Canada Day.
Jontrell Rocquemore was a day-one starter for Winnipeg in 2021. Remember him? The team’s brass seemed really high on the rookie linebacker but then he got hurt. He returned to the active roster after missing four games but was released with three weeks left in the regular season. He never started another CFL game.
Then there’s Anthony Gaitor, who quit on the team in 2019. The strong-side linebacker wasn’t given his starting spot back after returning from injury late in the year and refused his new role, prompting the club to send him home. Mercy Maston, who was signed midseason following a stint in the NFL, started during the club’s playoff run and was sensational, recording 13 tackles, one sack, and one interception.
The point is that “final” rosters aren’t written in stone. They change over the course of the regular season, just like the people who comprise them. It’s obviously preferable to have the best possible roster in Week 1 but that doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t improve. Even for a well-established team like Winnipeg, history shows that the starting lineup will change at least a little bit by the end of the year.
Personnel people around the CFL often bemoan how the XFL and USFL have made it more difficult to recruit talent from south of the border. Outside of the quarterback spot, the two positions teams have had the most trouble scouting are offensive tackle and defensive end.
Teams have had to get creative to fill these positions with one strategy being the use of more homegrown players. In 2019, Kwaku Boateng was the league’s only full-time Canadian starter at defensive end. Since then, Mathieu Betts, Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund, Mason Bennett, and Robbie Smith have all become starting edge rushers with 2023 CFL Draft first-round picks Lake Korte-Moore, Lwal Uguak, Anthony Bennett, and Francis Bemiy potentially getting looks in the coming years.
If more Canadian players contribute at positions typically reserved for Americans, it only stands to reason that the opposite will also occur with more American players at positions traditionally reserved for Canadians. Las Vegas native Damian Jackson, a 30-year-old rookie and former Navy SEAL, could be a perfect example of this change if he makes Winnipeg’s final roster.
Jackson is the definition of a utility player. He has experience at long snapper and defensive end, though Winnipeg has also used him at fullback during training camp. Even five years ago, having an American player like him on a CFL roster would have been unthinkable. Given the way the landscape of player personnel has changed since then, suddenly it doesn’t seem crazy.
Another way teams have tried to compensate for the lack of available edge rushers is by moving dominant defensive tackles outside. Edmonton and Saskatchewan experimented with this during the preseason with Jake Ceresna and Anthony Lanier II, arguably the league’s two best defensive tackles, starting games at defensive end.
One could argue this trend started last year when Mike Moore moved to the outside for the Alouettes last season. He was highly productive for Montreal coming off the edge, though he was released following the season and subsequently retired.
Get me some stats, stat
The CFL has a new statistics system in place for 2023, though it’s still not working on their website. A league spokesperson indicated that the new system should be up and running soon but it’s unfortunate that the system wasn’t cleaned up well in advance of the preseason. The preseason live streams have generally been good but fans deserve quick and easy access to stats, too.
In the meantime, CFL Connect is up and running and it’s much slicker than the league’s old statistics system, though users need to log in to utilize it. It’s easy to use, updates almost instantaneously, and includes a few statistics the league didn’t previously make available, including tackles for loss.
Feeling hot, hot, hot
Winnipeg reached a high of 37 degrees with the humidity index on Friday. It’s truly disturbing how many days per year this city spends below minus-30 or above plus-30. If nothing else, the club’s finances for 2023 must be off to a good start given there was a relatively large, thirsty crowd on-hand for Friday’s preseason action.
The Blue Bombers (0-0) will open the regular season on Friday, June 9 against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (0-0) at IG Field with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m. local time. The new-look Ticats overhauled their roster this past off-season, adding players like Bo Levi Mitchell, James Butler, Duke Williams, Joel Figueroa, Kwaku Boateng, and Jameer Thurman.
The game will mark the first of two meetings between the two teams this season and the first of Winnipeg’s six games against the East Division. Click here to read about whether or not I think the Blue Bombers can match last year’s franchise-record regular season win total of 15.