The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks by a score of 28-14 on Thursday night in front of a crowd of 28,512 at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Kenny Lawler made his season debut after missing the first six games of the year due to an immigration issue that arose after he pled guilty to impaired driving.
The star receiver got a warm welcome from the crowd during player introductions, drawing arguably the second-loudest cheer behind only Zach Collaros. It’s hard to tell who is more excited about Lawler’s return: fans, who want to see him make big plays on offence, or members of the media, who no longer have to fruitlessly inquire about when he will return.
The game didn’t start well for Lawler as Collaros targeted him on a mid-depth route down the left sideline on Winnipeg’s second possession, which resulted in an interception for Marcus Lewis. Lawler wasn’t open on the play but Collaros was under pressure and clearly felt Lawler was the best candidate to bring down a contested pass.
Lawler’s first big play came on Winnipeg’s third possession with the offence buried deep in their own territory following an interception by Cameron Lawson. He made a sensational grab up the left sideline on a ball that initially appeared to be uncatchable. Upon replay, it was clear that the play should have been ruled an incompletion, though Winnipeg was able to run their next play before Edmonton threw the challenge flag.
The best play of the game for Lawler came right before halftime when he caught a short pass to convert on second down and made a defender miss to sprint up the sideline. He could have simply stepped out of bounds at the end of the play but chose to run into a defender at full speed, maximizing the gain at 21 yards.
The 29-year-old finished the game with seven receptions for 93 yards on a team-leading nine targets.
It should be noted that Lawler’s suspension saved Winnipeg some money against the salary cap as he wasn’t paid for the games he missed. He got a $125,000 signing bonus to join the Blue Bombers in free agency plus a $125,000 salary, which would normally be paid in equal instalments for each regular season game. As such, his absence saved the team close to $42,000, though a decent chunk of that money would have gone to dressing his replacement.
Winnipeg’s defence struggled to contain mobile quarterback Dustin Crum late in last week’s loss to the Ottawa Redblacks and the same problem spilled into Thursday night as Taylor Cornelius had 55 rushing yards in the first half. Athletic passers have given the Blue Bombers fits at times in recent years and the club needs to find a way to keep them from escaping contain.
The defence tightened up well in the second half, limiting Cornelius to virtually no production along the ground. Ricky Walker made a brilliant tackle on the quarterback late in the fourth quarter when he looked to take off on second-and-seven but was brought down on a shoestring tackle.
“The guys were a little more conscious of their rush lanes, we wrapped him up a little better,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “[Cornelius] is blessed with the ability to scramble and make plays with his legs if it’s not looking good downfield, so I’m glad we shut it down because it does look different if he’s able to do some running.”
Cornelius isn’t exactly a dangerous threat from the pocket. He’s improved since the two abysmal showings he had to start the year but he still has the worst completion percentage in the league among passers with a minimum of 60 attempts. Winnipeg has two more meetings against the Elks this year and, assuming Cornelius remains the starter, they’ll have to ensure he doesn’t hurt them with his legs.
Spread the wealth
The Blue Bombers opened as 15.5-point favourites for Thursday’s game, which was by far the largest initial spread for any CFL game this season. That number decreased slightly over the course of the week but never got below two touchdowns, which goes to show the disparity between Edmonton and Winnipeg.
The Elks have now lost 20 consecutive home games, 11 consecutive regular season games, and eight consecutive regular season games against the Blue Bombers. Perhaps they can take solace in (barely) covering a massive spread.
As an aside, I suspect Winnipeg has started occasionally wearing white uniforms at home in an effort to sell white t-shirts and jerseys to fans who already own plenty of blue merchandise. This year, the club had the added benefit of forcing the Elks to wear their green home uniforms, which haven’t seen a win in what feels like forever.
The Blue Bombers benched left guard Geoff Gray on Thursday, ending his streak of 24 consecutive starts along the offensive line. I spoke with Gray after the game and he indicated that he “wasn’t quite feeling right,” on Wednesday, though he declined to elaborate further regarding his status.
The local product was replaced by Liam Dobson, the club’s first-round pick in the 2021 CFL Draft, and the results were mixed. The Texas State product allowed a pressure from Sam Acheampong in the first quarter, which contributed to Zach Collaros throwing an interception. In the third quarter, he was beaten for a sack by Jake Ceresna, ending a drive just shy of midfield.
“Anytime you get to play football, it’s an awesome experience but starting makes it extra special, especially with some of the guys we have on that field,” said Dobson. “You can go there and they always have your back, play some hard football and enjoy afterwards.”
Winnipeg also struggled in short yardage, twice getting stuffed on third-and-short. The club seemed optimistic that their short-yardage woes would be behind them after Dakota Prukop returned from the USFL but that hasn’t been the case.
“We had a couple of hiccups and that’s something I really take pride in, so I was really disappointed in myself but to see the way the guys rallied around me, that’s the kind of environment that it is. It was just ‘wash it,'” said Prukop.
“Then we had the touchdown and then on the next one we just had another mistake, lost control of the football. Crucial situation, crucial yardage and it was the same thing, guys didn’t waver, guys are picking it up on the sideline. I’m just really proud of how the guys got us going and dug us out of the mistakes I made.”
On the bright side, the unit was able to run the ball effectively late in the game, which helped kill the clock. Brady Oliveira finished the game with 17 carries for 110 yards, extending his league-leading rushing total to 526 yards.
“Offensive linemen love playing that style football and that’s just a credit to the guys we have up front, Chris (Kolankowski) getting us all on the right page and we’re making our plays, making our blocks and Brady’s running behind his pads, the receivers are out there getting the battles going. It’s really just a great feeling when all 12 players are clicking on the same page.”
The Blue Bombers’ offensive line is the oldest unit in the league, so it makes sense for the unit to undergo some turnover. The catch is that Gray is Winnipeg’s only starting offensive lineman under the age of 30. He’s a few years older than Dobson, but replacing him won’t help the unit get much younger.
One thing worth noting is that Dobson is signed through 2024 on his rookie deal, which will help the team against the salary cap if he proves he can start full-time. Gray is the highest-paid player along the interior of Winnipeg’s offensive line.
Double double move
Thursday’s otherwise middling contest came to life midway through the third quarter when Nic Demski’s 70-yard touchdown catch was almost immediately followed up by an 80-yard touchdown reception by Dillon Mitchell.
Loucheiz Purifoy and Demerio Houston are good defensive backs but neither player will be looking forward to film study this week. Demski was in the slot and Mitchell was out wide but the two plays appeared virtually identical: the receiver ran a double move and the defender lost track of them with no help over the top.
“[Edmonton] first lined up in a coverage where it looked like they were gonna bring a plus one pressure and they didn’t,” said Collaros. “It was nice, you saw the flat top there and they didn’t bring a sting pressure. We had quite a few routes that were going (deep).”
“I think [Demski] turned the [strong-side linebacker] around and he was wide open. I just threw it and was like, ‘Don’t overthrow it.'”
Sergio Castillo was one of two CFL kickers to be 100 percent on his field goals heading into Week 7 but that ended following a rough outing on Thursday. The veteran missed the convert after Winnipeg’s first-quarter touchdown and was wide right on a 45-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half.
For the record, the league’s only remaining perfect kicker on the year is Marc Liegghio, who was released by the Blue Bombers at the end of training camp.
Drew steps up
When it was announced that Lawler would be ineligible for the start of the season, many questioned who would step up to fill the void in Winnipeg’s receiving corps.
Rasheed Bailey and Carlton Agudosi were two popular predictions but it turned out to be Drew Wolitarsky, who made 21 catches for 279 yards and four touchdowns over six games. Bailey and Agudosi, the latter of whom is now on the practice roster, combined for 240 yards and two touchdowns during that same stretch.
Wolitarsky had a quiet night on Thursday with only one reception for 13 yards but is still on pace to smash his previous career highs.
The Blue Bomber drew only 25,662 fans for their Thursday game against the B.C. Lions in Week 3, which was a relatively low number given the strength of the club’s recent attendance figures.
Winnipeg’s two Friday home games this season both drew crowds of over 29,000, illustrating that the preferred night to attend IG Field is at the end of the work week. The local faithful deserve credit for a solid showing against the Elks with a crowd of 28,512, proving that Thursday can still be a strong night for ticket sales.
Dalton Schoen left Thursday’s game late in the third quarter with what appeared to be a lower-body injury. He made two catches for 42 yards in the game and absorbed a hellacious hit from two Edmonton defenders on the second one, which he described as a “car wreck” in a postgame interview.
“I’m a little beat up but I’ll be alright,” he said, appearing in good spirits. “That’s football, you’re gonna take some hits like that and so is what it is.”
The star receiver was replaced by Greg McCrae, who was recently in the starting lineup before Kenny Lawler returned to action. McCrae has a knack for making big plays but he’s not anywhere near Schoen when it comes to pure receiving ability.
It doesn’t appear as though Schoen’s injury is serious, though he agreed the club’s upcoming bye is coming at a convenient time.
“I honestly think our bye weeks are timed up pretty good in this schedule,” he said. “It’s been obviously a tough seven-week stretch. In football, it’s kind of a long time to go without a bye, so it’s definitely much-needed right now to get some rest and just reset a little bit. It’s always nice to go into the bye on a win, too.”
Edmonton head coach and general manager Chris Jones recently addressed why Canadian quarterback Tre Ford hasn’t seen the field this year, saying the young passer needs to play better to earn an opportunity.
Ford hasn’t necessarily done enough to be the team’s full-time starter but Edmonton’s decision to let him rot on the bench is foolish. The former first-round pick is the fastest quarterback in the league and should at least be used in a limited offensive package that makes use of his ability to run the ball.
Winnipeg’s defence has struggled against athletic quarterbacks at times this season. Edmonton could have used Ford to try to exploit this weakness but elected not to on Thursday night, instead letting Taylor Cornelius have full control of the offence.
It’s fair for Jones to expect more from Ford but it’d be nice if he applied the same standard to Cornelius. The third-year quarterback has regressed badly this season and has a much lower rating (73.1) than rookie passer Jarret Doege (88.4). If it weren’t for the guaranteed money Cornelius is due next year, it seems fair to question whether or not he’d even still be on the team’s roster.
Congratulations to former University of Manitoba receiver Gavin Cobb on making his first career CFL reception. It’s hard to imagine a better fit than a quarterback named “Corn” throwing to a receiver named “Cobb.”
Thanks for the tinnitus
Andre Proulx’s microphone was left on for multiple plays during the second quarter, amplifying the sound of his whistle to an alarming volume level in the press box. If any lawyers would like to represent me in a civil suit once I inevitably develop tinnitus as a result of Thursday’s game, please contact me (for clarity, this is a joke).
The Blue Bombers (5-2) are entering their first of three bye weeks this season, after which they will have a critical contest against the B.C. Lions (4-1) on Thursday, Aug. 3. The Lions dominated the first meeting of the season between the two teams with a 30-6 win on June 22, making this a must-win game for Winnipeg if they hope to secure the all-important season series.
On a programming note, I will not be on a bye this upcoming week as I’m off to Halifax to cover this year’s edition of TD Atlantic. Stay tuned to 3DownNation for plenty of coverage from the Maritimes on topics including the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Toronto Argonauts, league expansion, and more.