Blue Bombers avoid giving away big win over Hamilton Tiger-Cats (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo: Mike Still/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 42-31 on Friday night in front of a crowd of 29,057 at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

The Zach attack is back

Zach Collaros made a strong case to win a third consecutive Most Outstanding Player award in his 2023 season debut on Friday, completing 21-of-32 pass attempts for 354 yards and three touchdowns. He was unable to maintain his torrid pace for the full game — he had 288 yards through the air by halftime — but that doesn’t change the fact that it was an excellent performance.

The veteran passer did everything a team could ask of its star quarterback. He processed the defence quickly, protected the football (mostly), zipped passes through tight windows, placed the ball beautifully on his deep throws, bought time with his legs, and avoided unnecessary hits from opposing defenders.

“We had some stuff that we’d been working on and we got the right looks for it in coverage and guys made great plays on the ball,” said Collaros postgame. “Brady (Oliveira) got going a little bit, the offensive line got going, so it was a complete effort on offence. It was good.”

Brady Oliveira finished the night with 22 carries for 115 yards and one touchdown along with two catches for 58 yards. Unofficially, his 173 yards from scrimmage was a new career-high, though this could not be confirmed due to technical issues with the CFL’s official statistics.

Kenny Lawler is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season while he gets some immigration paperwork redone after pleading guilty to impaired driving, but Winnipeg’s offensive attack didn’t miss him on Friday. This unit is as deadly as ever.

Give it away, give it away, give it away now

There was speculation heading into Friday’s game that some of the team’s veteran players could show signs of rust after sitting out for parts or all of training camp. In the end, what plagued the Blue Bombers on Friday might have been better described as brain cramps.

Jamieson Sheahan, who made his Blue Bombers debut at punter, had his second attempt of the night blocked by rookie linebacker Carthell Flowers-Lloyd and recovered in the end zone for a Hamilton touchdown. It appeared as though veteran linebacker Jesse Briggs was late adjusting to the oncoming rush after Redha Kramdi took off in coverage.

Briggs indicated that it was a communication issue stemming from a personnel rotation caused by the absence of Mike Miller, who was a late scratch before Friday’s game.

“Ultimately, I’m the guy running it out there, so it always falls on me when something bad like that happens. It was a miscommunication and we’ll get that cleaned up,” said Briggs. “It’s much better to have it happen now than down the road in a game in November. It’s something we’ll fix.”

Early in the fourth quarter, Zach Collaros was stripped of the ball in Hamilton territory after veteran defensive tackle Ted Laurent shot the gap on a slow-developing play. Chris Edwards returned it 62 yards for a touchdown to bring his team within two scores.

On the ensuing kickoff, Janarion Grant was hit by linebacker Kyle Wilson and lost the ball, which fell into the arms of Fraser Sopik. Johnny Augustine made the tackle at Winnipeg’s two-yard line, though James Butler scored on the next play.

“That was a wild one for sure. I think the viewers at home and the people in the stadium got their money’s worth,” said Collaros. “Our fans were probably a little nervous there at the end but it was a great CFL football game. It’s a great team that we played over there. I thought we did a lot of good things and a lot of things to clean up.”

Head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that his club never felt a sense of panic even as the costly errors translated immediately into points.

“There’s a core group of guys that have been there before and they don’t waver,” said O’Shea. “Eight years ago, the mood on the sideline would have been pretty intense. Now, we’ve been there before. I think even if you come up short in this game, I think they move on very quickly from it and just focus on tomorrow and the exact reasons why.”

On an otherwise miserable night for the club, Hamilton scored three touchdowns as a direct result of turnovers. What should have been a blowout victory for Winnipeg became a late-game adventure, as the Ticats clawed back to an eight-point deficit. As Briggs indicated, perhaps it’s better that the club made so many errors in an early-season outing after already building a commanding lead.

Uh-oh, Bo

Bo Levi Mitchell’s departure for Hamilton following a decade-long run in Calgary was arguably the biggest story of the CFL off-season. Many speculated that Mitchell’s arm was cooked after a few lacklustre final seasons in Cowtown, though he won some skeptics over following an impressive relief performance in the West Semi-Final.

Now that he’s with a new team, Mitchell didn’t show any signs of improvement from his final days with the Stampeders. He completed 18-of-34 pass attempts for 187 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions as the Ticats only sustained two meaningful drives over the course of the game.

Mitchell threw an ugly interception to Demerio Houston — who had an excellent performance following a poor preseason outing last week — on Hamilton’s second drive. It was an odd decision, as the Ticats were already in field goal range and Mitchell could have merely thrown the ball away.

The veteran passer had Tim White open for a long gain down the sideline late in the second quarter and narrowly overthrew him. On the following drive, Mitchell badly overthrew a streaking Terry Godwin II, who had blown past Houston in coverage. He also lost a fumble in the third quarter when his protection completely broke down.

Mitchell could have easily had a third interception when threw the ball behind Duke Williams in the third quarter — almost as if he was expecting the veteran to break off his route. It landed in the arms of Deatrick Nichols, who failed to make the catch.

It was only one game but those hoping to see Mitchell immediately regain his form from 2018 will be sorely disappointed by his Steeltown debut.

Defensive dominance

Winnipeg’s defensive effort might go somewhat overlooked given that the Ticats scored 31 points, even if most of those came as a direct result of errors on offence and special teams.

Willie Jefferson was all over the field as he made three tackles, two sacks, and two knockdowns. He and his fellow edge rushers were so effective that Hamilton appeared to bench Tyrone Riley, their starting right tackle, in favour of Canadian backup Kyle Saxelid.

Photo: Mike Still/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Celestin Haba, who signed with Winnipeg fewer than two weeks ago, beat Joel Figueroa to sack Mitchell on third down on Hamilton’s final possession, which essentially iced the game.

“I’m still taking it in, it felt amazing. The crowd noise, the energy from the team, the defence making that last stop. I’m still visualizing that last play,” said Haba. “I did a little bit of studying on (Figueroa) this week. He’s a great tackle but the mindset I have is to keep going. However good your opponent is, you have to keep going.”

Down under

Jamieson Sheahan won Winnipeg’s punting job in training camp, beating out Canadian Marc Liegghio, who was released, and fellow Global Karl Schmitz, who was moved to the practice roster. Sheahan was the worst of the three in last week’s preseason finale, which is a sobering reminder of how little preseason games actually matter sometimes.

Not including the attempt that was blocked, the Australian punted three times for a net average of 41.7 yards, which is excellent. Sergio Castillo also had a strong night placekicking, connecting on all four of his field goal attempts and all four of his convert attempts. His final field goal of the night, a 50-yarder with the wind at his back, was huge as it gave Winnipeg a two-score lead with fewer than five minutes remaining.

Holm is where the heart is

Evan Holm had a shaky rookie season last year but drew rave reviews during training camp as one of the club’s most improved players. The defensive back started at field-side halfback on Friday and was isolated in coverage early in the second quarter when he made a brilliant play, reaching over Tim White to knock down a deep pass.

Holm was brilliant again early in the fourth quarter when he climbed the ladder to knock down a deep pass intended for Duke Williams. It wasn’t a perfect night for Holm, who was in coverage on Tim White’s touchdown catch in the third quarter, but it was still an impressive performance in place of an injured Jamal Parker.

Stuffed Pig

Rookie quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who was sensational in Winnipeg’s two preseason games, got stuffed on his first career regular-season carry. The offensive line got little push on third-and-goal from Hamilton’s one-yard line and the fleet-footed quarterback was stonewalled by Canadian linebacker Bailey Feltmate, causing a turnover on downs.

Pigrome doesn’t have the prototypical body type for a short-yardage quarterback at five-foot-nine and 206 pounds. Moving forward, he’ll need to do a better job of getting low or using his speed to take the ball around the edge of the defence.

Continuity rules

Winnipeg entered the 2023 season with a level of continuity that is virtually unprecedented in the CFL. All 24 starters in Friday’s game were with the team a year ago and 19 of them started in the Grey Cup, a number that would likely have been higher were it not for injuries to defensive backs Winston Rose and Jamal Parker.

For context, 12 of Hamilton’s starters on Friday — literally half of them — weren’t on the team last year and two had never before played a CFL game. In last night’s regular-season opener, B.C. had three starters who weren’t on their team in 2022, while Calgary had six.

Many of Winnipeg’s older players spoke to the media this week and dismissed concerns regarding the aging nature of the team’s roster. With all due respect to those who granted interviews and wrote off the quotes, what else could the players possibly have said? No veteran is going to say, “Yeah, we should fire my friends and colleagues! Heck, get rid of me while you’re at it! We’re too old!”

With few exceptions, players never really walk away from the game on their own accord, they simply get pushed out by younger guys. Were it not for the XFL and USFL attracting talent that would have otherwise come to the CFL, some of Winnipeg’s marquee players may have already been replaced.

For now, the experience nature of the club is helping them achieve early success this season.

“If it was a group of guys that hadn’t worked together a lot, you probably can’t get to a lot of things that we were able to get to from an installation standpoint,” said Collaros. “You’d probably see stuff like that in weeks four, five, and six. With the continuity and the communication — pregame, in-game, all that stuff — and the faith that our coaches have in us … it’s awesome.”

GOAT goes cruising

One of the best run-blocking reps you’ll ever see from an offensive tackle came early in the third quarter from future Hall of Fame inductee Stanley Bryant. He took off at a sprint to his left on a pitch to Brady Oliveira and knocked over the cornerback before accompanying the ball carrier up the sideline, showing remarkable speed for a 315-pound 37-year-old.

Oliveira was eventually knocked out of bounds by Jameer Thurman but not before gaining 28 yards, which led to a field goal from Sergio Castillo. After playing through an injury last season, Bryant appears to have spent the off-season drinking from the fountain of youth.

“It was just a good play that (offensive coordinator) Buck (Pierce) called and the defence was in perfect position and I was just able to get out there and make the block,” said Bryant, who was coy about how he’s able to move so well at his age. “I don’t know what it is, we’re just playing football and I love to do it.”

Roster shenanigans

The Blue Bombers deserve some credit for not shamelessly taking advantage of the CFL’s roster rules the same way some teams have to start the season. My full column on the subject has all the details but essentially, teams are able to get an extra American on the field for parts of the game if they hold a star player out for the first play from scrimmage.

The B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders both made a mockery of the new rule on Thursday night when players like Ka’Deem Carey and Dominique Rhymes dressed as “backups.” It’s tough to blame teams for taking advantage of the rules — coaches get paid to win, after all — but Winnipeg should still be recognized for not exploiting them.

Photo: Mike Still/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Hamilton took advantage of the new rule as they dressed Duke Williams as a “backup” slotback before inserting him on the second play of the game. Depending on how you look at it, the move was either shrewd or borderline cheating.

The CFL and the CFL Players’ Association have amended the collective bargaining agreement in the middle of a season before. Here’s hoping they do so again to get rid of this ridiculous rule.

SEAL of approval

Damian Jackson made his CFL debut on Friday after Canadian special teams dynamo Mike Miller was moved to the one-game injured list. The 30-year-old rookie and former Navy SEAL came to training camp as an ultra-rare American long snapper and has since made the transition to fullback.

Anybody who knows anything about the CFL’s ratio knows that it’s virtually unprecedented for an American player to dress at long snapper or fullback. In a span of two seasons, the league has now had a Canadian player become a star at quarterback and an American dress at fullback. Apparently, anything truly is possible.

Jackson almost brought down Lawrence Woods III on a kickoff return midway through the first quarter but made the stat sheet in the second half, tackling Ryth-Jean Giraud on a kickoff return in the third quarter.

I’m with stupid

Omar Bayless, a rookie receiver for Hamilton who finished the night with zero targets, threw Redha Kramdi to the ground well out of bounds on a punt in the second quarter. The play drew a flag for unnecessary roughness, which moved Winnipeg up 25 yards when combined with an illegal punt call on Bailey Flint. Some unsolicited advice for Mr. Bayless: when your team is down 17 points on the road, don’t take stupid penalties.

Frankly, Hamilton’s discipline was poor across the board once they fell behind after a rough first quarter. The team finished the game with 14 penalties for 121 yards, most of which were committed by first or second-year players. The club’s coaching staff and veteran players have some work to do to clean up those discipline issues.

Walking wounded

Jackson Jeffcoat left the game in the first half and did not return with what TSN reported was a lower-body injury. The veteran edge rusher was listed as questionable for Friday’s game due to a hip injury, so it’s possible the two are connected. Jeffcoat appeared to watch the second half from the sideline in street clothes.

Rookie edge rushers Celestin Haba and Anthony Bennett were noticeable in Jeffcoat’s absence, though it’s worth noting that Shawn Lemon, the reigning West Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player, remains a free agent.

Do you believe in magic?

Locally-born and world-renowned illusionist Darcy Oake performed at halftime at IG Field on Friday. With all due respect to Oake — his skills are very impressive, no doubt — the best magic trick in CFL history still belongs to last year’s Toronto Argonauts when they made Winnipeg’s Grey Cup three-peat disappear.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1-0) will visit the Saskatchewan Roughriders (0-0) on Friday, June 16 in what will be the club’s home opener at Mosaic Stadium. The Riders don’t play their first regular season game until Sunday when they visit the Edmonton Elks, so they’ll be facing Winnipeg on only four days of rest. Even this early in the season, that should be an advantage for the Blue Bombers.

Winnipeg has won five consecutive regular-season games against their prairie rivals with the most recent loss coming in Week 17 of the regular season in 2019. Winning at Mosaic Stadium is never easy, however, so it should be a highly-entertaining game.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.