Winnipeg Blue Bombers sputter in preseason loss to Riders (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 25-12 on Monday at Mosaic Stadium in Regina in their first of two preseason games. Below are my thoughts on the matchup.

Strevolution 2.0

Chris Streveler made his much-anticipated return to Winnipeg’s lineup on Monday as he started in place of Zach Collaros, who didn’t make the trip to Regina. People outside of Winnipeg might not understand how popular he is in the city, but suffice to say he’s reached rock star status. You’d be hard-pressed to find another professional athlete (or person, really) who is as universally beloved in Winnipeg.

The 29-year-old completed seven-of-eight pass attempts for 65 yards and carried the ball three times for 25 yards, looking much like his old self. He also took a nasty sack on his first possession, which might have been his fault. Saskatchewan sent six rushers against five blockers as running back Johnny Augustine didn’t stay in to protect. It’s impossible to say for sure, but either Augustine made a mistake running a route, the near slotback should have picked up the extra rusher, or Streveler was supposed to recognize the free man and throw the ball immediately.

Regardless, it was a decent performance from a polarizing player. Streveler struggled in practice on Saturday but was back to his old form come Monday’s game in Regina. Streveler claims that he’s a better passer now than he was when he left for the NFL following the 2019 season but didn’t prove that on Monday.

It seems unlikely that Streveler is ever going to drop back, go through four different reads, and throw a 50-yard bomb on a rope, but he looks capable of winning games in this offence if Collaros misses time.

In it to win it

Head coach Mike O’Shea has often grimaced at the flippant nature with which some dismiss preseason games as meaningless. On Saturday, I asked him what he wanted to see out of his team in Regina and how badly he wanted to win.

“Winning’s always good, obviously, but regardless of the outcome of the game, we’re gonna learn from it. What you want to see is the guys have a good understanding of how they need to play the game, you need to see them take all the reps that they’ve had in training camp and apply them out there on the field. They’re not going to be mistake-free, but you want to see guys play hard even through mistakes and not think as much, see how well they know their stuff,” said O’Shea.

“There’s gonna be so much information to digest after this game, I don’t even know if we’re gonna be able to list all the stuff you would see. Some of the stuff is not even on a list, you just notice the way a play unfolds and you go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ and mark it down. Certainly, you want to see guys play the game the way it should be played.”

With that being the goal, O’Shea should be disappointed with his team, though he seemed in good spirits when speaking to the media after the game.

According to the league’s live stats — which are notoriously lousy, so take them for what they’re worth — the Blue Bombers took nine penalties for 117 yards, allowed five sacks, committed three turnovers, and had only 22:56 in time of possession. Even if some of those numbers are off, the team’s performance didn’t pass the eyeball test.

Winnipeg’s offence was slugglish almost the entire game and there were a number of explosion plays given up on defence and special teams. Shawn Bane Jr. caught a 65-yard bomb up the seam on Saskatchewan’s first offensive possession, Jerreth Sterns brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for 60 yards, and Dohnte Meyers had a 59-yard punt return in the third quarter, though it was called back due to a holding call.

Depth chart delight

Winnipeg hasn’t released a proper depth chart for preseason games the past few years, which is why it was a pleasant surprise to see them do so for Monday’s game. Not every fan is likely to pour over all 70-something names, but the document gives them and members of the media a better understanding of how players are lining up and against whom they’re competing for jobs. Thumbs up.

At the recent annual general meeting for the Football Reporters of Canada, it was conveyed that CFL depth charts will be more detailed this season, including an explicit stating of the boundary (ie. weak) and field (ie. strong) sides. Assuming teams adhere to this change — Winnipeg and Saskatchewan both did on Monday — this seems like a positive step.

For those not keeping track, the Blue Bombers started six projected starters on offence (receivers Kenny Lawler and Drew Wolitarsky and offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Liam Dobson, Chris Kolankowski, and Eric Lofton) and four projected starters on defence (defensive linemen Cameron Lawson and Celestin Haba and defensive backs Tyrique McGhee and Tyrell Ford). On the flip side, Saskatchewan started 22 projected starters, minus only defensive backs Amari Henderson and C.J. Reavis.

Wils-on target

Terry Wilson was Winnipeg’s best quarterback in practice on Saturday, which is why it was a surprise that he was the third quarterback off the bench for Monday’s game. It’s understandable that Chris Streveler got the start — he’s firmly entrenched as the backup to Zach Collaros — but Wilson clearly led the second-team offence ahead of fellow rookie Eric Barriere.

Lo and behold, Wilson was by far the better of the two young quarterbacks against Saskatchewan, completing 11-of-16 pass attempts for one touchdown. He overcame a slow start to lead an 81-yard touchdown drive, which was capped by an eight-yard throw to second-round draft pick Kevens Clercius.

Wilson is older than most first-year CFL players, which is going to become more common as college careers continue to grow longer than ever before. He turned 26 in January, making him one year younger than Jake Maier and Dru Brown and one year older than Taylor Powell and Dustin Crum.

The native of Oklahoma City, Okla. played six seasons between the University of Oregon, Garden City Community College, the University of Kentucky, and the University of New Mexico ahead of a two-year stint with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. He remains friends with Justin Herbert, who was a fellow freshman with the Ducks in 2016 and has since thrown for 17,223 yards and 114 touchdowns with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Wilson believes that his transient collegiate career could help him adjust to the CFL, as he’s grown accustomed to learning quickly. He played point guard in basketball, which appears to have affected his playstyle under centre. A lot of young quarterbacks like to tout their arm talent or their ability to escape the pocket. When asked for his greatest strength on Saturday, Wilson’s answer was somewhat surprising.

“I’m really a game manager, that’s my biggest priority is being able to manage the game and take care of the football,” said Wilson. “I can be explosive when I need to — I have a live arm — and if I have to take off and run, I have no problem doing that. But overall, just being a game manager and leading the guys to a win.”

Head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that he sees Wilson as more than a game manager but appreciates the young quarterback’s pragmatism.

“If you were to talk to the group of us that are in charge of evaluating, someone who’s self aware is very pleasing,” said O’Shea with a chuckle. “It’s difficult when you talk to guys and they don’t know those answers.”

It would have been nice if Wilson loosened the reigns a little earlier, but he eventually showed what he needed to show. It’s clear he has the tools to play in the CFL.

On the edge

Mike O’Shea has made it clear that the defensive end spot vacated by Jackson Jeffcoat isn’t Celestin Haba’s to lose, though he was complimentary of his play from last year and how well his personality fits inside the locker room. The 24-year-old native of Columbia, S.C. made four sacks as a rookie in 2023 but didn’t appear to play much in Regina on Monday, which could be a good sign for his odds of earning the starting job.

TyJuan Garbutt sacked Mason Fine midway through the second quarter, though it was assisted by a bad snap from Ryan Sceviour. Fine was forced to leap to his right at the start of the play and Garbutt, wearing Ricky Walker Jr.’s old No. 9, swallowed him up almost immediately.

Rick D’Abreu, a rookie out of Texas Christian University, had a couple of nice pressures in the third quarterback working against rookie left tackle Jordan Tucker. Chauncey Rivers victimized Tucker near the end of the quarter as he blindsided Shae Patterson for a sack that forced Saskatchewan into second-and-long.

Catching on

Myron Mitchell and Ontaria Wilson were the two rookie receivers in Winnipeg’s starting lineup, presumably making them the front-runners to win the starting job vacated by Rasheed Bailey.

Wilson made a nice catch off the turf on Winnipeg’s first drive and Mitchell picked up 10 yards after the catch on a crossing route on the following possession. Mitchell laid his helmet into a defender at the end of the play in a nice show of aggression, though he may have overdone it as he had to leave the field with injury.

It was difficult to get a sense of what any young receivers could do because Winnipeg’s quarterbacks struggled for most of the game. Tyler Adams, a rookie out of Butler University, led the team with four catches for 61 yards but lost a fumble to end Winnipeg’s final offensive drive of the game.

On the corner

Tyrique McGhee and Tyrell Ford started at the two cornerback spots, both of which are currently up for grabs with Jamal Parker injured and Demerio Houston in Calgary, and played most of the first half.

McGhee got twisted working in coverage on Kian Schaffer-Baker early in the second quarter and lost the jump ball as the big-bodied target made a 21-yard catch. Two plays later, KeeSean Johnson caught a 10-yard pass on the turf in front of McGhee and was touched down. He also took an unnecessary roughness penalty near the end of the first half, though it wasn’t clear what happened on the stream.

Ford was only tested once and came upfield with a full head of steam to blast Mitchell Picton five yards shy of a first down, which led to a 29-yard field goal from Brett Lauther.

Marquise Bridges made a nice play in coverage on Geronimo Allison late in the second quarter, though he appeared out of position on Shea Patterson’s 38-yard touchdown pass to Ajou Ajou. Travon Fuller, a fellow rookie, let Jerreth Sterns get behind him in coverage for a big gain late in the third quarter, though it was called back due to an offside penalty.

Big hole

Adam Bighill will miss the start of the regular season after being placed on the six-game injured list, though the team is hopeful he won’t miss that much time.

No disrespect to the six-time CFL all-star — he’s one of the best linebackers in league history and will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee — but he turns 36 in October, which means Winnipeg will have to find his replacement in the relatively near future regardless of his health. As such, it’s probably not the worst thing to give potential successors a chance to compete early in the season.

The Blue Bombers don’t need Bighill in June or July, anyway. They need him in November.

Johnny Petrishen and Jeremiah Gemmel started in the linebacking corps as Kyrie Wilson, the club’s incumbent starter at weak-side linebacker, didn’t make the trip to Regina. Petrishen helped make a nice stop on A.J. Ouellette when the Riders gambled on third-and-two deep in Winnipeg territory during the first quarter, while fellow rookie Michael Ayers laid a great hit on Jake Parker near the midway point of the third quarter.

As an aside, moving Brian Cole to strong-side linebacker seems like a brilliant move for Winnipeg. The former NFL draft pick has a rare combination of size and athleticism that could make him a true impact player on the field at that position, though Redha Kramdi has done a good job earning that spot.

No way, Barriere

Eric Barriere was miserable after taking over the controls from Chris Streveler, throwing two interceptions over the middle of the field. The first hit middle linebacker Zakoby McClain square in the hands, while Diego Fagot caught the second while rotating back into coverage.

The 26-year-old native of Inglewood, Calif. made several defenders miss escaping the pocket on Winnipeg’s first drive of the second half, though the play ended in a sack as he ran straight into rookie offensive lineman Ethan Kalra. He finished the game three-of-six for 23 yards and two interceptions.

The rookie quarterback attended Eastern Washington University, the same school that produced Matt Nichols, Vernon Adams Jr., and Bo Levi Mitchell. It would be unfair to write Barriere off after one bad outing but, as of now, it appears unlikely he’ll be the next CFL starter to come out of that program.

Loft-y expectations

Eric Lofton has massive shoes to fill as the 31-year-old looks to replace Jermarcus Hardrick at right tackle. Coincidentally, Lofton made 14 starts at tackle for the Roughriders last season before finding his way to Winnipeg as a free agent after Saskatchewan made Hardrick the highest-paid American offensive lineman in the CFL following an eight-year run with the Blue Bombers.

Lofton gave up a sack to Tre’ Crawford midway through the second quarter on Eric Barriere’s first drive under centre. Crawford went around the horn out wide and caught the quarterback from behind as Barriere was unable to step up into the pocket as Chris Ivy, who’d taken over from Liam Dobson at left guard, struggled to pick up a stunt.

Gabe Wallace, a second-round pick out of the University at Buffalo, started beside Lofton at right guard and was rock solid. The 24-year-old was a three-year starter with the Bulls and has a lot of power to his game, helping him to excel as a run blocker. The concern from scouts before the draft was his lack of foot speed, which was partly due to carrying extra weight on his six-foot-six, 344-pound frame.

The native of Salmon Arm, B.C. indicated that the club hasn’t expressed any concerns regarding his weight, though it appears he’s taken it upon himself to try to cut down a little bit, which is common for interior linemen making the transition from the NCAA to the CFL.

“It’s not a huge thing that I’m working on, but it’s little things like cutting out the crap that I’m eating, don’t grab extra snacks and stuff like that,” said Wallace. “Just eat what’s available from the team and then, of course, we’re lifting, we’re running (in training camp), so it’s definitely helping.”

As for Hardrick, I asked Mike O’Shea on Saturday if he was excited to see the longtime member of the Blue Bombers during the preseason.

“As a person, I’m looking forward to saying hi to him,” said O’Shea. “I’m certainly happy for him and his family and looking forward to catching up in that regard, what his kids are up to and those kinds of things.”

Something interesting to keep an eye on is Khalil Keith and Micah Vanterpool, both of whom are American, being used at guard. With Patrick Neufeld and Tui Eli currently injured, it would make sense for Winnipeg to start three American offensive linemen if needed. The club can certainly afford to do so ratio-wise as it started eight Canadians all last season, which is one more than the minimum requirement.

Return policy

The only position not reflected on Winnipeg’s depth chart was kick returner, which is a vacant spot as Janarion Grant wasn’t retained during the off-season.

Chris Smith returned the opening kickoff for 27 yards, which was impressive considering he had three or four defenders in his face almost immediately. He also excelled on his first punt return as he sprinted forward to catch a line-drive boot from Adam Korsak, returning it 10 yards to limit the net yardage to 27. His third return, a kickoff near the start of the third quarter, went for 21 yards.

Aron Cruickshank, who played at Grant’s alma mater of Rutgers University, returned the game’s second kickoff 22 yards despite momentarily running backward and went for 13 yards on a kickoff late in the fourt quarter. He returned a punt for seven yards near the end of the first half, though he didn’t have a lot of room to operate as he fielded the ball near the sideline. He was also unable to get the ball out of the end zone after Brett Lauther missed a field goal near the start of the fourth quarter.

Kody Case, whose speed was touted coming into training camp, brought back the third kickoff of the game for 27 yards. He also returned a punt 12 yards before being tackled by veteran defensive back Godfrey Onyeka in a hellacious collision.

Ronnie Blackmon returned the last punt of the game but lost three yards after appearing to run the wrong way.

Numbers game

It always takes time to become accustomed to certain veterans no longer being on the field. Rookie defensive back Anthony Witherstone, who wears No. 34, was called for offside near the end of the first half and it was impossible not to think of Jesse Briggs, who spent almost a decade wearing No. 34 in Winnipeg before retiring this off-season.

It was also very strange seeing Jermarcus Hardrick’s old No. 51 being worn by Lucky Ogbevoen, a rookie linebacker who is about half the size of the veteran offensive lineman.

Up the stream

Monday’s game was available on CFL+, the league’s streaming service, which debuted in 2023. This year, they’ve added the option to pause, rewind, and replay, which came in handy during various points of the broadcast when a play required extra viewing.

It took a few moments for the video to stop buffering and the audio to kick in near the start of the broadcast, but the stream ultimately worked well. With TSN only showing two preseason games this year, this service should get rave reviews from fans.

Potholes

Willie Jefferson teamed up with Winnipeg mayor Scott Gillingham for a video this past week in which they repaired potholes around the city. The video was a response to a comment Jefferson, who lives in the city year-round, made during Grey Cup last year calling Winnipeg’s roads “horrible.”

Here’s a note for Gillingham, who’s a big fan of the Blue Bombers: Winnipeg’s spending on road repairs is laughably high considering how quickly they fall into disrepair. We need better training, techniques, and materials for all road repairs. Until then, we’re unnecessarily wasting our money.

Next up

The Blue Bombers will play their second and final preseason game on Friday, May 31 when they host the Calgary Stampeders at the newly-dubbed Princess Auto Stadium.

Final cuts will be announced the following day with the club facing a tight turnaround ahead of the start of the regular season on Thursday, June 6 when they host the Montreal Alouettes for a Week 1 rematch of the 110th Grey Cup.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.