Winnipeg Blue Bombers own line of scrimmage, soak Alouettes (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 17-3 on Saturday night at Percival Molson Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Protection perfection

The Blue Bombers were embarrassed on home turf in last week’s loss to the B.C. Lions and responded in the best possible way, dominating the Alouettes early and often in rain-soaked conditions in La Belle Province.

Offensive coordinator Buck Pierce put together an excellent game plan that allowed his offensive line to set the physical tone. The club finished the night with 184 rushing yards between four different ball carriers who repeatedly fought through Montreal defenders to churn out extra yardage along the ground.

Winnipeg’s offensive line had a particularly tough outing last week, as veteran right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick compared the performance to a horror movie. The unit, which is widely considered one of the league’s best, was near-perfect on Saturday.

Geoff Gray was beaten by Mustafa Johnson to force an errant throw from Zach Collaros on the club’s first drive of the night. In the fourth quarter, Nick Usher sacked Collaros when the veteran passer tried to flee the pocket to his left. Outside of that, the offensive line was simply sensational.

Pierce clearly had faith in his blockers, as he mixed in some long-developing pass plays while still prioritizing the run. Collaros generally had a clean pocket, though Brady Oliveira also deserves credit for his usual strong work in pass protection out of the backfield.

Collaros finished the night completing 15-of-23 pass attempts for 193 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. His numbers are far from jaw-dropping but they’re more than respectable given the weather conditions and the absence of two of the club’s best receivers.

Winnipeg’s offensive line appears to have returned to form. Now it’s up to them to continue proving last week’s failure was a one-time thing.

Pestering the passer

Alouettes’ quarterback Cody Fajardo was blitzed early and often on Saturday. Richie Hall’s game plan paid off as his defensive unit got home for five sacks, a number that could easily have been higher had they done a better job of tackling the elusive passer. Montreal connected on a few big plays, which is to be expected given the aggressive nature of Winnipeg’s scheme, but were unable to sustain many meaningful drives.

Willie Jefferson was mostly held off the stat sheet until late, though he finished the night with three tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, and one knockdown. He would have had a third sack had he not let Fajardo escape his clutches late in the game on a scramble.

Jackson Jeffcoat returned to the lineup following a two-game absence due to a calf injury and, though he didn’t crack the stat sheet, he helped flush Fajardo from the pocket a number of times. Backup nose tackle Cameron Lawson, who made his season debut coming off a knee injury, recorded two sacks as the clean-up man, while Ricky Walker got one as well.

“Overall, I think our trenches were pretty good,” head coach Mike O’Shea told 680 CJOB postgame. “Both groups up front did some really good things. The offensive line, I thought, was doing well moving people and the defensive line was getting after it.”

It wasn’t a perfect defensive performance as the Alouettes had well over 200 yards of net offence in the second half but allowing only three points in a CFL game is very impressive regardless of the weather conditions.

McCrae of sunshine

Nic Demski didn’t dress for Saturday’s game as he and his fiancée, Vanessa, are expecting the imminent arrival of their first child. His utility role as a ball carrier and slotback fell to Greg McCrae, who made his season debut after starting the year on the practice roster.

The second-year man wasted little time making an impact, catching a touchdown pass on Winnipeg’s second drive of the game, though it was negated by a penalty. He ripped off a 34-yard run on the following drive, which is the club’s longest carry of the year.

“He’s definitely a good chess piece to have,” Collaros told 680 CJOB. “He’s a great football player, a great teammate, a good person, so I’m just really happy he got the opportunity to get out there tonight and do what he does, and that’s be explosive. He’s a great talent.

Brady Oliveira was still the star of the night, finishing the game with 20 carries for 119 yards and one fumble, while McCrae had four carries for 49 yards and Rasheed Bailey chipped in two carries for 12 yards.

Oliveira is a legitimate starter in the CFL, though he lacks the ability to break off extra-long runs. Winnipeg’s offence is more dynamic when they dress a second ball carrier who brings some breakaway speed. It’s clear the club doesn’t see Canadian backup Johnny Augustine as a fit for that role, so it was nice to see McCrae get a look. If anything, the club should have given him more touches late in the game.

McCrae only caught 16 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown last season over seven starts at slotback. It’s clear that he won’t be named an all-star anytime soon, though he’s got a lot of value as a utility player who can help take some of the burden off Oliveira’s shoulders. The Winnipeg native has 62 carries on the year, by far the most in the league, despite dealing with a nagging chest injury. Oliveira can’t keep getting so many carries given how violently he runs the ball.

Demski’s absence also allowed Jeremy Murphy to dress for his first CFL regular season game, which was convenient given the contest’s proximity to his hometown of St. Bruno, Que. The stands weren’t packed following a lengthy weather delay but the Murphy family presumably stuck around to support one of their own.

The Concordia product made one short catch early in the fourth quarter, though it was negated by a penalty. As TSN’s Duane Forde highlighted on the broadcast, Murphy also came wide open on the interception Collaros threw later that same drive, which may have been the only bad decision the veteran passer made on the night.

Quick fix

Winnipeg’s defence was lights out for the first 40 minutes of Saturday’s game before Cody Fajardo found Kaion Julien-Grant behind coverage for a 69-yard bomb. The former second-round pick ran a post route and got behind not only field-side halfback Evan Holm but also safety Brandon Alexander, who appeared to be caught too shallow in coverage.

On the very next play, Alexander read Fajardo like a book and stepped in front of a short pass intended for Austin Mack. He intercepted the ball and returned it all the way to Montreal’s 46-yard line, breaking several tackles along the way. Winnipeg’s offence capitalized on the turnover, capping a six-play drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schoen.

It’s inevitable that each player will make at least one mistake over the course of a 60-minute football game. The key is to correct the error as quickly as possible, which is exactly what Alexander did on what was arguably the deciding play of the game.

Wet weather

Saturday’s game was delayed over 90 minutes due to inclement weather, which seems to be an increasingly common occurrence for summertime games. O’Shea was complimentary of how his players dealt with the delayed start.

“I think they handled it really well,” he said. “Every time we got told there was another delay, it was just more time for them to hang out and shoot the breeze. They really enjoyed it as a time to just hang around each other.”

Montreal played “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival over the sound system late in the game, which was an interesting choice given that the song’s lyrics depict bad weather leading to the apocalypse.

Winnipeg’s next game is set to be played in six days, so playing a surprise late-night game in Montreal was far from optimal. The Alouettes don’t play again until Sunday, July 9, so the delay shouldn’t have any effect on them.

Oh, snap!

It’s unfortunate that long snappers never get mentioned unless they make an error, but Mike Benson fired a high ball at the end of the second quarter that holder Jamieson Sheahan was unable to handle. Sheahan quickly corralled the ball and tried to throw it downfield, though it was ultimately in vain. The mistake cost Winnipeg a chance at a field goal to close out the half, which would have made the score 13-0 at the break.

Flying blind

Willie Jefferson rushed off the edge late in the second quarter when Montreal right tackle Landon Rice, a native of Brandon who played collegiately at the University of Manitoba, got his hands too high. Jefferson’s face mask was struck awkwardly, causing it to rotate 90 degrees. His face was entirely covered by the club’s ‘W’ logo, while his right ear was visible through the face mask.

What started as a promising pass-rush rep was immediately thwarted as Jefferson was unable to see, rendering him unable to pursue Cody Fajardo. Strangely, Rice wasn’t penalized for illegal hands to the face.

This marks the second time this season that officials have missed that penalty on Jefferson. The first occurrence came in Week 2 against the Saskatchewan Roughriders when Brandon Council struck Jefferson’s face mask, causing his helmet to fly off mid-play.

Where’s the push?

Winnipeg’s defence missed an opportunity to generate an early turnover when Cody Fajardo fumbled the snap from Justin Lawrence on third-and-short on Montreal’s first drive of the game. The veteran quarterback struggled to pick the football up off the turf before finally securing it and gaining two yards to earn a new set of downs.

When a quarterback fumbles the ball on a short-yardage play, it should be an automatic turnover as he’s swarmed immediately by opposing defenders. The fact that Fajardo had enough time to drop the ball, bobble it, pick it up and gain two yards is an indictment of the interior of Winnipeg’s defence.

The unit ultimately bounced back from its slow start, dominating the line of scrimmage for most of the game. Regardless, it would have been nice to see Winnipeg’s defence take advantage of an early unforced error by the Alouettes.

Rad in red

The Alouettes debuted their new alternate uniforms on Saturday, featuring red jerseys and pants adorned with blue and white stripes on the shoulder and pant leg. They’re essentially a copy of the team’s primary uniforms, only with the colours reversed.

The uniforms are sharp, though it’d probably be best if the club avoided wearing red on a regular basis. Montreal has worn red for long stretches of their history but between Calgary and Ottawa, the colour is pretty much spoken for in the modern CFL.

Slurpee drinks

Am I the only one who finds the current run of 7-Eleven commercials borderline disturbing? The ads centre primarily upon the allure of having a Slurpee delivered to one’s home, which is a terrible concept. Unless a Slurpee is constantly shaken or stirred, it will separate in a matter of minutes, rendering it undrinkable. You may as well have a chocolate soufflé delivered to your home.

The commercial also refers to the product as “Slurpee drinks,” which is just plain wrong. Call me a Slurpee snob, but they’re called “Slurpees,” not “Slurpee drinks.” Mind you, the ads clearly aren’t targeted towards Winnipeggers, considering we all live within five minutes of the nearest 7-Eleven anyway.

RIP Twitter

Elon Musk continues to destroy the company he paid $44 billion to acquire as Twitter is in yet another death spiral. While we explore alternative social media outlets, please ensure you bookmark on your web browser and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to ensure you don’t miss the latest news on all things Canadian football.

It felt bizarre watching Saturday’s game without being able to load fresh tweets. Between the CFL’s inconsistent live statistics and the lack of a Twitter feed, it felt like watching a game in 2005. The worst part of the experience was not being able to tweet a joke about it.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (3-1) will host the Calgary Stampeders (1-2) on Friday, July 7 in the first of three meetings between the two teams this season, the other two of which will be played at McMahon Stadium.

The Stamps are currently on a bye and dealing with a number of key injuries on offence with Ka’Deem Carey, Malik Henry, Reggie Begelton, and Jalen Philpot out of the lineup. The Blue Bombers swept the three-game season series between the two teams in 2022.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.