Blue Bombers overcome 22-point deficit to beat Elks (& 11 other thoughts)

Courtesy: Sherri Lacasse/CFL

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Edmonton Elks by a score of 38-29 on Thursday night in front of an announced crowd of 19,921 at Commonwealth Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Downtown Dru Brown

Dru Brown took over the controls from Zach Collaros early in the second quarter and was sensational, completing 17-of-24 pass attempts for 307 yards and four touchdowns.

Winnipeg was down 22-0 when he entered the game and wasted little time getting his team back into it, scoring 10 points before halftime. Mere moments after the start of the fourth quarter, the Blue Bombers had their first lead on a sensational catch from Kenny Lawler.

The third-year passer made throws from the pocket. He made throws on the run. His touchdown pass to Nic Demski showed elite touch, while his 27-yard second-down conversion to Rasheed Bailey showed brilliant accuracy. It was simply an excellent performance.

“I’ve got great guys around me, we all prepare really hard. We talk through the scenarios, we’re all involved in what goes on. The process that I have weekly is pretty much the same every week and it’s gotten me this far,” Brown told 680 CJOB.

“You don’t feel any type of anxiety. You feel some excitement. It’s really cool to be able to instead of making an impact during the week in preparation, make an impact on the field on game day. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Shortly after he took the field, I shared my opinion that Brown is better than a number of CFL starting quarterbacks. The tweet garnered a surprising response — I didn’t realize it was a hot take — and I received inquiries from a number of people asking me to name those who I considered worse than Brown.

In the interest of transparency, the only CFL quarterbacks who I believe are better than Brown are Zach Collaros, Vernon Adams Jr., Dane Evans, Trevor Harris, Chad Kelly, and Cody Fajardo. I’ll reserve comment on Jeremiah Masoli, since it’s been so long since he was healthy for a meaningful amount of time. The rest are worse, in my opinion.

Brown’s performance led some to anoint him the heir apparent to Collaros but I don’t think that’s how things will play out. Collaros is signed through 2025 with guaranteed money in the final year of his contract, while Brown is a pending free agent. Barring a shocking development, Brown will likely depart via free agency this winter to become a starter elsewhere in the league. He’s earned the opportunity and Winnipeg won’t be able to afford to pay him to remain their backup.

The pick-six (and piss-poor officiating)

Zach Collaros, evidently channeling his inner Taylor Cornelius, threw a pick-six early in the second quarter while falling to the ground after evading pressure from Noah Curtis. It was a poor decision and even worse execution. Collaros should simply have thrown the ball away or taken the sack. Instead, Loucheiz Purifoy extended Edmonton’s lead to 22-0.

Kony Ealy landed on Collaros’ head after the ball was released, causing his neck to wrench violently to his right. The veteran passer, who has a history of concussions, remained on the turf and received attention from trainers before returning to the sideline under his own steam. Moments later, he jogged to the locker room accompanied by a member of the training staff. Later, he was shown watching the second half from the sideline in street clothes.

Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea challenged for roughing the passer, though the ruling on the field was upheld. The command centre evidently didn’t see enough to overturn the call, which was shocking given the CFL’s criteria for roughing the passer, presented here how it appears in the rulebook.

Courtesy: CFL

Edmonton’s 275-pound defensive tackle appeared to violate at least three portions of the rule: the hit was late; he unnecessarily stuffed Collaros to the ground; and he delivered a blow to the head. It’s ridiculous that the play wasn’t overturned.

“[The officials] said that [Ealy] braced himself and didn’t hit him in the head and didn’t land on him full force and he tried to avoid it,” O’Shea told 680 CJOB. “Obviously, I disagreed with that, so I challenged it.”

For what it’s worth, the league tweeted the following statement from their football operations account: “After review, the replay official ruled there was no clear evidence of unnecessary contact at full speed that met the standard for a roughing the passer penalty. Therefore, the ruling made on the field of no call stood.”

Collaros has been easily the CFL’s best player since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. If the 2023 season ended today, he would likely be named the league’s Most Outstanding Player for the third straight year. The CFL needs to protect all of its quarterbacks, especially its best one. By allowing Ealy’s hit to go unpenalized, they failed to do so on Thursday.

O’Shea said after the game that Collaros is “good,” though he requires further evaluation.

Inconsistent D

Edmonton’s offensive line created a mile-wide hole for Kevin Brown on their first offensive play of the game and he carried the ball 65 yards for a score, going virtually untouched.

Kyrie Wilson followed Manny Arceneaux on a quick out route, while Adam Bighill was too far over to the strong-side to make a play on the ball carrier. Perhaps the most shocking element of the play was how Brandon Alexander, widely considered one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the league, got crushed on a block from Dillon Mitchell.

The energy level from Edmonton’s offence was off the charts to start Thursday’s game. The unit failed to score a point in their last contest, which led to offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo and quarterback Taylor Cornelius being demoted during their bye week. With a new coach, a new passer, and presumably some new schemes, it’s clear the players had a renewed sense of hope. They looked fresh, motivated, and physical.

Tre Ford didn’t drop back to pass for the first time until Edmonton’s third drive of the game. Deatrick Nichols came free on a halfback blitz but lost contain, allowing Ford to get the edge and scamper for 17 yards. It was a bewildering mistake from one of the team’s best players. Nichols didn’t need to get the sack, he needed to set the edge to ensure Ford didn’t break contain with his elite speed.

Later in the drive, Bighill appeared to spy Ford behind five-man pressure and simply lost the footrace to the corner of the end zone after the young quarterback took off, scoring an eight-yard touchdown run.

The defence tightened up the following quarter as Ford was unable to make plays with his legs. Edmonton generated only 30 offensive yards in the frame along with one first down. It’s clear that Winnipeg’s early defensive adjustments worked.

The unit played well for the rest of the night with the exception of one explosion play late in the third quarter when Demerio Houston missed a tackle on Kyran Moore. The slippery receiver side-stepped the cornerback after catching a quick-hitch and took off at a sprint, outrunning Brandon Alexander and Winston Rose to the end zone, scoring a 70-yard touchdown up the sideline.

Winnipeg’s defence blitzed on the play, leaving Houston as the only player in position to make the tackle on Moore. He should have compensated by giving the receiver more room, making it easier to complete the tackle.

He is Kenough

Kenny Lawler made arguably the catch of the year on a 32-yard touchdown grab early in the fourth quarter. He finished the night with a relatively quiet performance with two receptions for 49 yards, though the score was highlight-worthy on its own.

The veteran target entered Week 10 ranked No. 26 in CFL receiving yards despite having played only two games. Every player ahead of him had dressed for at least five, while among those listed behind him were Nate Behar, Lucky Whitehead, Jevon Cottoy, Kurleigh Gittens Jr., and Marken Michel.

Lawler had his second career 200-yard performance against the B.C. Lions last week and I asked him postgame if there was any particular reason he liked facing the team from the west coast. His answer seemed to indicate that he didn’t have any animosity against the Lions, nor any other team in the league.

“It’s just a standard. When you consider yourself the best receiver in the league, you’ve just gotta go every day and work your tail off. That’s what it is, it’s just a standard,” he said. “I’m not surprised, the guys aren’t surprised, and they’ve seen it all during this whole week of preparation. When you prepare that hard, this is the results you get.”

The veteran receiver didn’t take any potshots at the Elks after leaving the team as a free agent this past season, though he told the media it was a “hard situation to be in” last year, presumably due to how badly the team struggled on the field. Lawler also missed six games due to injury.

Holm is where the heart is

Evan Holm made his first career interception on Thursday, picking off Tre Ford early in the fourth quarter on a corner route intended for Kyran Moore. The ball was thrown slightly late and behind and the second-year defensive back took advantage, stepping in front of the receiver to generate the turnover.

Holm was been knocking on the door all season, coming into this week’s game with eight pass knockdowns. Winnipeg has dominated that list all season with Willie Jefferson (nine), Holm (eight), Desmond Lawrence (five), and Deatrick Nichols (five) all in the top six league-wide.

Midway point

We’ve officially reached the midway point of the season in Winnipeg with the team sitting atop the West Division standings at 7-2.

The club’s remaining schedule is as follows: at Calgary; vs. Montreal; at Saskatchewan; vs. Saskatchewan; at Hamilton; vs. Toronto; at B.C.; vs. Edmonton; at Calgary. The games against the Argonauts and Lions stand out but otherwise, the schedule is perfectly reasonable. It also includes two bye weeks and zero short weeks. My preseason record prediction of 13-5 appears to have been a good one.

For those curious, here’s how I’d currently vote for the club’s individual awards: Most Outstanding Player, QB Zach Collaros; Most Outstanding Canadian, RB Brady Oliveira; Most Outstanding Defensive Player, DL Willie Jefferson; Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, KR Janarion Grant; Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman, LT Stanley Bryant; Most Outstanding Rookie, P Jamieson Sheahan.

Headwear battle

Mike O’Shea and Chris Jones sported some eclectic headwear when speaking to the media this past week. Who wore it better?

Courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers/Edmonton Elks

O’Shea pulled off the straw hat well but the dark hood perfectly reinforced Jones’ image as the CFL’s Darth Sidious. For that reason alone, Jones takes it by a hair.

How the mighty have fallen

Chris Jones now has a CFL regular season head coaching record of 57-60, which is remarkable considering he went 26-10 over his first two seasons in Edmonton.

The veteran bench boss has made a litany of mistakes this year, perhaps none more egregious than keeping Tre Ford on the bench for the club’s first eight games. The young Canadian still has a lot to learn but he’s clearly the team’s best option under centre.

Ford completed 12-of-16 pass attempts for 189 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on Thursday along with five carries for 50 yards and one touchdown.

Fantastic fans

Kudos to the fans in Edmonton who showed up for Thursday’s game despite poor weather and the club’s atrocious home losing streak, which now stands at 22 games. When the Elks finally turn things around — and they surely will, someday — the fans who have continued to support this team are the ones who will most enjoy their return to respectability.

Indigenous image

The Edmonton Elks debuted a new Indigenous logo for Thursday’s game, which is an improvement on an already strong design.

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

B.C., Winnipeg, and Edmonton have now donned Indigenized versions of their respective logos and all three have improved upon the originals. Here’s hoping the rest of the league’s teams join in on the initiative.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (7-2) will visit the Calgary Stampeders (3-5) at McMahon Stadium on Friday, Aug. 18. The Stamps have a game between now and then as they are scheduled to visit the B.C. Lions on Saturday.

The two teams met at IG Field in Week 5 with Winnipeg coming out victorious by a score of 24-11. This will mark the second of three meetings between the club this season, meaning the Blue Bombers can clinch the season series with a win.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.