Blue Bombers bruise their way to fourth-straight Grey Cup with West Final win (& 13 other thoughts)

Courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the B.C. Lions by a score of 24-13 in the West Final on Saturday in front of 32,343 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Lights out

Winnipeg’s defence did a near-perfect job of keeping Vernon Adams Jr. in the pocket as he finished Saturday’s game with only seven rushing yards. He clearly didn’t like what he saw down the field for most of the contest as he appeared to repeatedly second-guess his reads, often hanging onto the football for far too long.

The Blue Bombers had a lot of success changing up their defensive fronts and didn’t have to rely on sending extra pass-rushers to generate pressure. When they did, the extra defenders often got home for sacks as Redha Kramdi, Malik Clements, and Kyrie Wilson each took Adams down.

“We’re aggressive, constantly coming. On the edge, we were gonna go three-man pass rush, we knew who was gonna get a double team, sometimes a triple team. We knew the inside guy was gonna get a double team. For us, we just wanted to keep getting up the field, keep pressing the pocket, not giving him escape lanes and our linebackers fill those gaps,” said Willie Jefferson.

“We knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to keep Vernon in the pocket, we wanted to eliminate him from scrambling and that’s what we did.”

Demerio Houston came up huge when he shut the door on B.C.’s best drive of the night near the start of the fourth quarter. The all-star cornerback was in coverage on Justin McInnis, who motioned to the right side of the formation before taking off on an intermediate route near the sideline. Houston jumped it and returned the interception 21 yards to help set up a 10-yard field goal from Sergio Castillo.

The defence finished with four takeaways and nine sacks on the night, allowing only 202 net yards. The Lions were unstoppable on offence in the West Semi-Final but were completely outmatched in Winnipeg.

“They were flying around and getting after it. They limited Vernon in terms of his production with his feet. A defence has to be completely married, all three groups from the defensive backfield to the linebackers to the D-line have to really understand what each other are doing,” said head coach Mike O’Shea.

“I think it’s a credit to the coaching staff and the players how they accomplish that. It started years ago. I think the players have a really great understanding of what everybody else around them is doing.”

Run, Brady, run

Brady Oliveira was clearly the focal point of Winnipeg’s offensive game plan as he touched the ball nine times on their ten-play opening drive, which he capped with an eight-yard touchdown run with his entire offensive line pushing him across the plane.

The local product finished the first half with 14 carries for 101 yards and one touchdown but barely saw the ball the rest of the way, rushing seven times for eight yards. Oliveira saw the ball so little that it seemed fair to question whether or not he’d been knicked up, though he was no worse for wear after the game.

B.C. played nine defensive linemen during the West Final, which was more than they dressed throughout the regular season. Marcus Moore was elevated from the practice roster for last week’s West Semi-Final and remained on the depth chart against Winnipeg, presumably in an attempt to help slow the run. O’Shea credited the Lions for stuffing the box to stop Oliveira, though he indicated he didn’t care about the stats, only getting the win.

In the end, B.C. managed to shut down the Blue Bombers’ rushing attack when it mattered most but it still wasn’t enough to get the win. Head coach Rick Campbell joked on Friday that his squad was a soft west coast team. Though they deserve credit for tightening up late, there’s no doubt that they were the less physical team in the West Final.

Grey Cup glory

Since the CFL was officially founded in 1958, only two teams have appeared in at least four consecutive Grey Cups. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats played in five straight from 1961 to 1965, while the Edmonton Football Team made six straight appearances from 1977 to 1982.

As of next week, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will make it three.

One could argue it’s harder to win consistently in the modern CFL than it was at any other point in its history. Salary caps have been put in place to ensure spending is relatively even across the league’s nine teams. Free agency has become far more robust as players frequently change teams. It’s also become more common for top CFL talent to get opportunities in the NFL, making it more difficult to retain top young talent.

Nobody will ever match Edmonton’s dynasty, which included five straight Grey Cup victories, but one could argue that Winnipeg’s current run is as impressive as any in league history given the context of the modern game. The rules are designed to punish success and help struggling teams get back on their feet as quickly as possible. Instead, Winnipeg just keeps on winning.

The Blue Bombers are 58-18 since 2019 (playoffs included) with four straight Grey Cup appearances. If they win next week, they’ll certainly be considered a dynasty. One could argue they should be considered a dynasty even if they lose.

The Montreal Alouettes never made it to four straight Grey Cups during their run of success in the 2000s, nor did the Calgary Stampeders in the 2010s. The Als won three Grey Cups, while the Stamps won two. Winnipeg already has two on their current run. Now they’re looking for number three.

No Show(en)

Dalton Schoen didn’t play due to an ankle injury on Saturday, while Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey, and Brendan O’Leary-Orange were listed as game-time decisions. All three ended up playing, though they combined for only three catches for 37 yards.

Kenny Lawler became the sole focal point of Winnipeg’s passing game as Garry Peters, B.C.’s best defensive back, spent most of the game following him in coverage. The veteran receiver made two long receptions on the team’s lengthy third-quarter drive, including a highlight-reel grab near the right sideline. The drive would have resulted in points, though Sergio Castillo doinked a 34-yard field goal attempt off the upright.

Lawler made another big grab on Winnipeg’s first drive of the fourth quarter when he was left wide open over the middle of the field. The pass went for 29 yards and put the team in field goal position. The club scored another field goal on the following drive when Lawler drew a 39-yard pass interference penalty that initially went uncalled. It was a clutch challenge for Mike O’Shea, who waited until the last five minutes to throw his flag.

Winnipeg spent a lot of money this off-season to sign Lawler back following his one-year stint with the Edmonton Elks. This was done when it became clear that the club needed some extra firepower in its receiving corps late last year. Greg Ellingson had a few great games in 2022, but he was mostly an afterthought during the postseason and caught only one pass with the Montreal Alouettes this season.

Peters made it clear on Friday that he has a tremendous amount of respect for Lawler, who was briefly his teammate with the Lions. Peters had a solid game but it’s clear that Lawler got the best of his old squad, catching six passes for 83 yards.

All hail Hallett

Veteran defensive back Nick Hallett made arguably the play of the game as he blocked a Stefan Flintoft punt midway through the second quarter, recovered it, and returned it for a touchdown. He likely would have been brought down shy of the goal line but teammates Brian Cole, Malik Clements, and Thiadric Hansen helped him break the plane.

Special teams always plays a major factor in three-down football but especially after the weather turns. Sergio Castillo missed a 48-yard field goal but Hallett’s big play erased the error as his blocked punt came only three plays later.

Bring the noise

The Blue Bombers sold out Saturday’s game, marking the team’s best-ever attendance for a West Final. The club sold 31,160 tickets to the game in 2021 and 30,319 in 2022, both of which fell short of sell outs. The weather probably helped the attendance as it was minus-one at kickoff, which is substantially warmer than the last two years. In 2021, it was minus-thirteen, while it was minus-seven in 2022.

On Friday, Willie Jefferson called the crowd at IG Field part of the team’s defence and part of the team’s culture. Vernon Adams Jr. acknowledged that Winnipeg has the loudest fans in the CFL, while Mike O’Shea expressed his appreciation for how passionately the fans have helped support the team each week. The noise was palpable again on Saturday as B.C. took one illegal procedure penalty and two offsides during the first half alone.

“They are just the best, there’s no discussion. If anybody wants to challenge that then they should fly here, buy a ticket to a home game and sit in that crowd and they’ll understand what goes on,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “They’re into it, they’re loud, proud, they’re passionate, they’re relentless. We’re so thankful to have them. The players in that locker room really understand that and they truly value playing in front of a group of fans like that. It’s not like that everywhere.”

Lions’ receiver Keon Hatcher admitted this week that the team wasn’t prepared to deal with the noise at last year’s West Final. The club didn’t have enough hand signals to call plays efficiently in the final moments of the game, which cost them valuable time on their final offensive drive. The club practiced at BC Place Stadium with piped-in crowd noise all week but it wasn’t enough to help them overcome the crowd at IG Field.

Big-hill problem

Adam Bighill went down with a non-contact injury just before halftime and didn’t return, finishing the game with one tackle. He was able to leave the field under his own steam but left for the locker room on a cart once he reached the sideline. The club hasn’t confirmed anything but it resembled an Achilles injury, which would require surgery and a year-long recovery.

“That’s my captain, that’s my leader,” said Willie Jefferson. “He’s a key voice in my ear every play and he’s a big piece to our defence and seeing him go down, it really hurt. It really hurt me, it hurt everybody on the defence, but it’s next man up. We’ve got the utmost confidence in all our boys.”

Predictably, head coach Mike O’Shea wouldn’t rule out Bighill for next week’s Grey Cup, though he called him arguably the best linebacker of his generation. Regardless, Winnipeg will be pushing to win a championship next week with Bighill in mind.

“If he’s not able to go, for sure it gives us some extra juice,” said Jesse Briggs. “He’ll be right in there. He’s basically a coach at this point, so whatever happens with him, he’ll be helping us out regardless.”

The three-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player is one of the best linebackers in league history but he recently turned 35. If his injury turns out to be a ruptured Achilles, it’s possible that he’s played the final game of his CFL career. If so, it won’t be long before his gets his call to the Hall of Fame.

Chris Kolankowski also left the game late due to injury and was momentarily replaced at centre by Tui Eli, though he returned to finish the game. The York product went overlooked in all-star voting but was the best centre in the CFL this season.

Quiet Collaros

Zach Collaros had a relatively quiet game as he completed 14-of-21 pass attempts for 158 yards, though he kept the ball out of harm’s way. The two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player will become the first quarterback in league history to start four consecutive Grey Cups next week and got emotional when talking about his long-time teammates.

“I’m just so grateful to be in this organization, to be around the people that I am every single day. To be able to play this sport, it’s a special sport because it’s a team sport, it really takes twelve guys,” he said.

“I feel like I’ve been with this organization my entire career because the people are just so special, especially in the locker room. … I kind of get emotional when I think about just being around those people.”

Just for kicks

Siriman Bagayogo, B.C.’s second-round pick of out Guelph, entered the game near the end of the first quarter after halfback T.J. Lee went down due to injury. He and safety Adrian Greene were in double coverage on Kenny Lawler in the end zone when Zach Collaros threw it over 50 yards trying to connect with his star receiver.

All three players appeared to lose their footing as the ball was arriving, though Lawler was in the perfect position to make the catch. As the ball met his hands, Bagayogo’s foot came up out of nowhere to knock the ball free, forcing the incompletion. On replay, it was clear the coverage was clean. Defensive backs aren’t taught to use their feet to knock passes down but it’s hard to criticize unorthodox technique when it’s effective.

Secondary shuffle

Winnipeg started Jamal Parker at field-side cornerback over veteran defensive back Winston Rose, who was a healthy scratch. On Friday, head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that Parker simply came on stronger down the stretch, complimenting his competitiveness and willingness to “stick his nose in there” on defence. He also said that Rose handled the demotion like a professional.

The Blue Bombers shut down Vernon Adams Jr. for virtually the entire first half until the final play from scrimmage when he launched the ball for a 50-yard Hail Mary into the end zone. Parker was in coverage on Dominique Rhymes and knocked the ball away, though it landed in the waiting arms of Justin McInnis for a touchdown.

Parker was solid for most of the game, though he allowed a 23-yard completion to Alexander Hollins midway through the third quarter.

Rose was sensational in 2019 when he made a league-best nine interceptions and was named a CFL all-star. The performance earned him an NFL shot with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020 before he returned to the Blue Bombers the following year. The New Mexico State product has never managed to reclaim the magic he displayed in 2019 since and struggled noticeably at times this season.

The Inglewood, Calif. native will turn 30 later this month and is a pending free agent. It seems fair to speculate that it’s unlikely he’ll be back with Winnipeg next season.

Lest we forget

Head coach Mike O’Shea isn’t happy that the league held the East and West Finals on Remembrance Day. The holiday is near and dear to the veteran head coach as his father served as a navigator-bombardier in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Both of his grandfathers also served.

“If I had my say, we probably won’t be playing on Remembrance Day, but I don’t make the schedule,” O’Shea said on Friday while sporting a Royal Canadian Air Force hat. “I’ll do my part [Saturday] morning for sure.” He declined to elaborate on what he had planned for Saturday morning, calling it a personal matter.

Toronto and Winnipeg both recognized Remembrance Day as part of their pregame ceremonies and deserve credit for doing so, however, one could argue our veterans deserve a full-day celebration, not just a pregame recognition.

The next time Remembrance Day takes place on a Saturday will be 2028, so the league has plenty of time to consider making a change that year. However, if the league has its way, the Grey Cup will already be over by that point as expansion to ten teams would allow the playoffs to move up two weeks. The CFL doesn’t seem to have anything imminent regarding expansion but a lot can happen in five years.

Out-of-town scoreboard

One downside of the CFL moving its playoff games to Saturday is that they overlap with the already under-reported U Sports conference finals.

The St. FX X-Men advanced to the Mitchell Bowl with a 34-23 win over the Bishop’s Gaiters. They’ll meet the UBC Thunderbirds next weekend, who defeated the Alberta Golden Bears by a score of 28-27 out west in the Hardy Cup.

Meanwhile, the Montreal Carabins beat the Laval Rouge et Or 12-6 to win the RSEQ and advance to the Uteck Bowl. The team will host the Western Mustangs, who defeated the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks by a score of 29-14 in the Yates Cup to win the OUA.

The Saskatoon Hilltops also became CJFL champions after defeating the Westshore Rebels in the Canadian Bowl 17-10.

Next up

The Blue Bombers are off to the Grey Cup for a fourth consecutive season where they’ll meet the Montreal Alouettes at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 6:00 p.m. EST.

I’ll be making the trip for the full week to provide all kinds of on-site news, insight, and analysis alongside my 3DownNation colleagues Justin Dunk, JC Abbott, and Josh Smith. Please stay tuned to the website as well as our various social media feeds throughout the week. It should be a good one.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.