Blue Bombers down Stampeders in sloppy Cowtown slugfest (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders on Friday night by a score of 19-18 in front of an announced crowd of 20,106 at McMahon Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Bend but don’t break

Winnipeg’s defence stepped up when it mattered most on Friday, keeping the Stampeders out of the end zone and limiting the team to two second-down conversions on a whopping 17 attempts. The performance was especially impressive given that the unit had to defend four relatively short fields: one following a blocked punt and three after impressive returns from Tommylee Lewis.

Kyrie Wilson was arguably Winnipeg’s best defensive player on the night, recording a team-leading five defensive tackles. He was essential in limiting Calgary’s vaunted run game as Ka’Deem Carey and Dedrick Mills combined for 48 yards on 15 carries.

Demerio Houston made the most important play of the game as he recorded his seventh interception of the season and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. It was the only touchdown of the night and increased his league-leading interceptions total, which puts him ahead of Calgary’s team total (six) and one behind the B.C. Lions, Edmonton Elks, and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (eight).

‘Bend but don’t break’ isn’t a phrase fans like to hear as it’s a relatively boring style of defence that prioritizes limiting big plays and forcing the opposition to patiently and methodically move down the field based on what the defence is willing to give up. On a cold and windy night in the dank confines of McMahon Stadium, it was an appropriate strategy against a struggling offence.

Winnipeg won this game by a razor-thin margin and the team has its defence to thank, particularly given their sloppiness on offence and special teams.

Olive the yardage

Brady Oliveira had a sensational first half and finished the game with 14 carries for 80 yards and two receptions for 19 yards despite being mostly held in check for the second half. He now has 783 rushing yards on the year, which is well over 200 yards more than any other ball carrier in the CFL.

The five-foot-ten, 222-pounder now has 1,076 yards from scrimmage on the season, which is only 177 fewer than he had all of last year.

The 26-year-old has always been a good player but I didn’t envision his ceiling being this high. At a time when Winnipeg’s offensive line is less dominant than it’s been in recent years, the local product is putting up the best numbers of his career, showing improved speed and a stronger ability to break tackles.

Oliveira deserves credit for a lot of the offensive success on Friday night, though his late-game four-yard run on a key second-down run was all Jermarcus Hardrick. The veteran offensive tackle pushed Oliveira forward after he collided with centre Chris Kolankowski, setting up a game-winning third-down plunge by Dakota Prukop.

Dru Brown to Cowtown?

One could argue that Jake Maier has been the most disappointing player in the CFL this season. After throwing for 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over his two first seasons in the league and beating out Bo Levi Mitchell for Calgary’s starting job, the 26-year-old has been largely ineffectual this year, throwing for eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

As reported last week, Dru Brown is a pending free agent and appears ready to be a full-time starter in the CFL. Maier has guaranteed money on his contract for 2024 but I wouldn’t be surprised if Calgary made a pitch for his services. It’s probably unfair to write Maier off at this stage of his career but it’s hard to believe in a quarterback that’s regressed so dramatically from his rookie season.

Brown didn’t play very well on Friday night despite recording his first career win as a CFL starter. He completed 17-of-27 pass attempts for 171 yards and should have had an interception late in the second quarter when he hit defensive back Tre Roberson square in the chest on a pass intended for Kenny Lawler, though the veteran cover man dropped it.

It wasn’t an impressive night for Winnipeg’s offence overall as they managed only 12 points and 264 net yards. The offence didn’t commit any turnovers, which was a borderline miracle given Brown’s throw to Roberson and their three fumbles.

One of the worst plays of the night came shortly after the three-minute warning when the club took a time-count violation on third-and-short from their own 49-yard line. Brown was left in the game despite Dakota Prukop typically handling the club’s short-yardage plays, drawing speculation that Winnipeg was merely looking to draw Calgary offside.

Head coach Mike O’Shea told 680 CJOB postgame that this wasn’t the case as the team was looking to convert for a first down. This makes sense in hindsight as the Blue Bombers started to run what appeared to be a shotgun handoff to Brady Oliveira shortly after the play was blown dead.

The penalty pushed the ball back five yards, which was costly given that Winnipeg had to punt into the wind. Were it not for Rene Paredes coming up short on his 50-yard field goal attempt on Calgary’s ensuing drive, it’s likely that Winnipeg would have lost this game.

Blocked

The Blue Bombers allowed a blocked punt for the second time this season as Shaquille Richardson, who signed with Calgary on Wednesday, came unblocked off the right side of Winnipeg’s formation. Canadian strong-side linebacker Redha Kramdi released mere moments before Richardson got a hand on Jamieson Sheahan’s punt, which seemed odd given that there wasn’t another player in position to block the veteran defensive back.

I spoke with Kramdi and Jesse Briggs after Winnipeg allowed a blocked punt against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Week 1 and they chalked it up to a communication issue stemming partially from Mike Miller’s absence from the lineup. It’s now Week 11. The punt cover team shouldn’t be having communication issues at this point of the year.

Roughing the passer?

Calgary defensive end Julian Howsare was penalized for roughing the passer after he appeared to deliver a two-handed strike to Dru Brown’s upper chest in the fourth quarter. TSN’s Duane Forde suggested that Howsare’s right hand may have contacted Brown’s helmet, though it was unclear if this was the case upon replay.

The Stampeders were visibly frustrated with the call, though Dave Dickenson had already used his challenge. The irony was that a clear hit to the head of Zach Collaros went unpenalized last week, while the officials went out of their way to protect Brown. It was a different officiating crew than last week’s game in Edmonton but the league should still strive for more consistency when dealing with quarterback safety.

The officials also charged defensive back Evan Holm with unnecessary roughness for an incidental hit on Reggie Begelton that appeared clean on the replay. O’Shea told 680 CJOB postgame that he didn’t understand the call, though he was unable to challenge it.

Read-option fail

Winnipeg was smart to use short-yardage quarterback Dakota Prukop in what was presumably a run-heavy package. The problem was the execution, which was atrocious.

Prukop twice tried to execute what appeared to be a read-option, though the exchange between him and the ball carrier resulted in a fumble both times. The first fumble occurred with Greg McCrae at running back, while Brady Oliveira was in for the second. Prukop recovered both fumbles, though they were still costly unforced errors.

It’s important to take pressure off a young starting quarterback and getting another quarterback into the game briefly can be a good way to do that. However, if Prukop can’t develop better chemistry with the club’s running backs, it’s time to ditch this particular package and go back to the drawing board.

Hallett the Mallet

Canadian defensive back Nick Hallett continues to be an unsung hero for Winnipeg on special teams. The former seventh-round pick out of the University of Toronto has recorded at least one special teams tackle in each game this year, including a season-high of four against Edmonton last week.

On Friday, he scooped up a punt that Greg McCrae mishandled and tried to break the return around the edge before being tackled by Jordan Herdman-Reed. The play was negated by a no-yards penalty but that doesn’t matter. It was yet another heads-up play by an often-overlooked special teamer who always seems to be in the right spot at the right time.

QB rest

It appears as though CFL teams are getting smarter about resting their franchise quarterbacks, recognizing that the season is more of a marathon than a sprint. The B.C. Lions held Vernon Adams Jr. out long enough for him to make a full recovery from a knee injury he recently suffered, while the Toronto Argonauts sat Chad Kelly until his ankle returned to 100 percent.

It’s a smart strategy, especially considering how the Saskatchewan Roughriders handled Cody Fajardo’s knee injury last season. Instead of sitting him for a few weeks in the summertime to ensure he’d be healthy for the fall, the Riders kept their franchise quarterback in the lineup behind a leaky offensive line. The results were disastrous as Fajardo’s knee hampered his performance as the club lost 11 of their last 13 games.

For those wondering why Zach Collaros didn’t dress on Friday despite being kept on the active roster, it’s because the CFL now mandates that all teams have three passers available for games. Winnipeg only has three quarterbacks in the building, so they didn’t have a choice but to keep Collaros on the active roster.

The club could have signed someone new to dress as the third quarterback but that wouldn’t have made financial sense.

If Collaros were out long-term — which he won’t be, according to my sources — the club could put him on the six-game injured list so his weekly cheques didn’t count against the salary cap. Teams don’t get the same cap relief when a player is on the one-game injured list, so they can actually save money by keeping an injured player on the active roster instead of moving him to the one-game injured list and paying someone to replace him on the active roster.

Personally, I still think it’s foolish for Winnipeg not to have a quarterback on the practice roster — virtually every team does, except for those who have suffered injuries at the position — but in this case, I’m not sure whoever they had on the practice roster would have been called up even with Collaros out of the lineup.

Hey now, you’re an all-star

3DownNation unveiled its midseason CFL all-stars on Thursday with six Blue Bombers cracking the first-team list: Brady Oliveira, Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski, Chris Kolankowski, Willie Jefferson, and Deatrick Nichols. Zach Collaros, Jermarcus Hardrick, Demerio Houston, and Evan Holm were also listed as second-team selections.

Our contributors each filled out ballots to make the selections and I think the results were good, though I would have liked to see Patrick Neufeld earn at least a second-team nod. Sergio Castillo has been excellent this year, though kickers around the league have generally been stellar.

It’ll also be interesting to see how much ground Kenny Lawler can make up as the season progresses after missing the first six games. After making a huge impact in his first two games back from suspension, Lawler had another quiet night on Friday with two catches on five targets for 20 yards.

Slip, slip, slide

It’s sad to see the state of the Calgary Stampeders as they continue their decline on and off the field. If the season ended today, Calgary would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and set a 30-year attendance low.

As local reporter Danny Austin recently pointed out, the team doesn’t even add new members to the Wall of Fame anymore. Inductions were made biennially from 1985 to 2014 before suddenly ceasing without explanation. It’s worth noting that the stoppage coincided with John Hufnagel taking over as president in 2016, the same year attendance fell by almost 10 percent. Ticket sales have since fallen another 15 percent.

The Stampeders honoured the 1998 Grey Cup champions on Friday night, which is a good start for a team looking to reconnect with its history and its fans. Hopefully, the club invests in more similar initiatives moving forward.

Though there’s little chance the two teams will finish anywhere close to one another in the West Division standings, it’s worth noting that Winnipeg has officially won the season series against Calgary. The clubs have one final meeting scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27.

Imagine going back in time 25 years and telling people that the CFL was thriving in Ottawa and Montreal but struggling in Edmonton and Calgary. They would have thought you were nuttier than a bowl of almonds.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (8-2) will return home next week to host the Montreal Alouettes (5-3) on Thursday, Aug. 24 with kickoff slated for 8:30 p.m. EDT. The Als are visiting the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday, Aug. 19, which means they’ll be on a dreaded short week when they travel to IG Field. Cody Fajardo is listed as a game-time decision against Ottawa.

The clubs have already met once this season as the Blue Bombers won on Canada Day by a score of 20-17. Blue Bombers fans will remember Montreal’s most recent visit to Winnipeg clearly as Marc Liegghio missed two late field goals to help the Alouettes complete a shocking upset 20-17 victory in overtime.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.