Chris Smith shines but offence sputters again as Blue Bombers fall to Calgary (& 13 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 31-10 on Friday night at Princess Auto Stadium in the club’s second and final preseason game. Below are my thoughts on the matchup.

Anemic offence

It was another miserable preseason performance for the Blue Bombers on offence as the club managed only six first downs and 110 net yards. The unit scored a meager three points — Winnipeg’s lone touchdown came on special teams — with the biggest gain of the day coming from the second-string punter (yes, you read that correctly).

When asked about the ineffectiveness of the offence, head coach Mike O’Shea offered little insight other than to commend the team’s pass protection for handling oncoming pressure “pretty well.”

Rookie quarterback Terry Wilson played most of the game as Darren Grainger, the only other quarterback who dressed for the game, didn’t return after halftime. Wilson finished the game completing 10-of-17 pass attempts for 59 yards and two interceptions.

The 26-year-old native of Oklahoma City, Okla. impressed in his preseason debut against Saskatchewan but was unable to take the next step against the Stampeders. Strangely, his most productive drives came in the first quarter when Calgary had a number of their starters on the field.

Wilson took a sack for a 12-yard loss to end Winnipeg’s first offensive drive, though it came after facing almost immediate pressure from two edge rushers and making the first one miss. You’d never confuse Wilson for Chris Streveler or Tre Ford, but he’s certainly athletic. He reportedly ran a 4.59-second forty-yard dash at his pro day coming out of college, which is pretty darn fast.

The six-foot-three, 207-pound passer still hasn’t proven he can hit the deep ball, however. He was wildly inaccurate on a deep shot to Keric Wheatfall late in the first quarter, passing up an open crosser from Myron Mitchell to throw it deep. He later missed a deep shot down the right sideline with the ball landing out of bounds.

Wilson’s first interception went to Ben Labrosse, Calgary’s first-round pick in the 2024 CFL Draft, late in the third quarter on a pass intended for Keric Wheatfall. It appeared the ball was thrown slightly late on a comeback route, which is dangerous. Wheatfall tried to come back to the quarterback to secure the catch but Labrosse simply beat him to the spot.

His second pick was intended for Jeremy Murphy up the left sideline, though the second-year receiver and former third-round CFL draft pick was outmuscled by Tyler Richardson. The ball bounced up in the air and Richardson made an acrobatic move to secure it before stepping out of bounds.

It’d be unreasonable to expect Wilson to play at a high level consistently considering his inexperience and the inexperience around him, but it would have been nice to see him improve from Winnipeg’s first preseason game. Instead, he appeared to slightly regress.

Wilson’s pass protection was generally pretty good, though Winnipeg’s offensive line was unable to generate any lanes in the run game. The team’s running backs, Chris Smith and Jonathan Rosery, combined for 11 carries for 22 yards, which is abysmal.

Check your program

During the preseason, teams generally start their veterans at home and play mostly rookies on the road. Friday’s game between Calgary and Winnipeg was the complete opposite of that.

The Blue Bombers dressed an extremely inexperienced roster on Friday, a decision that was made presumably due to the team’s tight turnaround ahead of the regular season. Liam Dobson, Eric Lofton, Miles Fox, Tyrique McGhee, and Tyrell Ford are the only projected starters who played on Friday, plus whoever wins the open receiver spot. Of those mentioned, Lofton is the only one who’s been a full-time starter in the CFL before.

The Stampeders fielded almost all of their projected starters, minus Sean McEwen, Mike Rose, James Vaughters, Julian Howsare, Micah Awe, Cameron Judge, and Branden Dozier. In total, Calgary’s starters outnumbered Winnipeg’s somewhere around 17 to five.

Winnipeg’s performance was still undeniably poor, though it can be at least partially attributed to the imbalance of experience between the two rosters.

Point of no return

Mike O’Shea joked this past week that he was going to ask Calgary to punt on every second down so his team could get more reps for their returners.

In the end, the Blue Bombers didn’t need many reps as Chris Smith returned a punt 109 yards for a touchdown near the end of the second quarter, while his two competitors both made at least one major error. Regardless, here’s a full breakdown of each return.

Smith was unable to return the opening kickoff as Campbell Fair’s boot went out of bounds, drawing a penalty. The five-foot-nine, 194-pound speedster was also unable to bring back Calgary’s first punt of the game as Cody Grace’s kick landed near the sideline and rolled out of bounds only 33 yards downfield.

Aron Cruickshank was in the end zone for Fair’s field goal attempt late in the first quarter, which went through the uprights from 30 yards out. He returned the ensuing kickoff for 22 yards on a play that didn’t appear to set up nicely for a big return.

Josh Vann, who spent time with Calgary last season, returned his first punt near the end of the first quarter and initially appeared to break contain, though he was caught by Cam Bright for a gain of only three yards.

Smith got back in near the start of the second quarter but was quickly smothered on a 51-yard punt from Grace, returning it only four yards. He brought back a 71-yard kickoff from Fair midway through the second quarter and had plenty of room to operate, finding a seam to generate 23 yards.

Cruickshank’s punt return near the end of the second quarter was a disaster as he let the ball bounce in front of him, then needed to run backward around 20 yards to corral it. He then retreated as he tried to dodge incoming defenders but failed to do so and was enveloped for a six-yard loss.

Smith’s touchdown came late in the second quarter as he found a seam and took full advantage, accelerating through the hole to daylight. He appeared to lose steam near the end of the run, though he just managed to get into the end zone for Winnipeg’s first points of the game.

“I waited just a little bit, then it opened up,” said Smith, who admitted he ran out of gas near the end of the return. “It felt amazing. I didn’t play football for over a year and just to get back in the end zone, that’s my first punt return for a touchdown since high school, so that felt amazing.”

Vann got back in the game shortly before halftime and broke contain around the left side for a 43-yard gain, though it was negated by illegal block penalties on Russell Dandy and Lucky Ogbevoen. He also brought back the first kickoff in the second half and avoided the first wave of defenders for an 11-yard return.

Cruickshank returned a punt midway through the third quarter but had little room to operate near the sideline, managing only one yard. He also brought back a kickoff early in the fourth quarter for 14 yards.

Vann built up a nice head of steam on a kickoff return midway through the fourth quarter but fumbled the ball after a 15-yard gain, leading to a turnover.

Myron Mitchell returned Calgary’s kickoff in the late stages of the fourth quarter and showed some explosiveness, returning it near the middle of the field for 26 yards.

Secondary opinion

Tyrique McGhee was beaten badly down the sideline by Cam Echols, who made a 53-yard catch to extend Calgary’s second drive of the game. Winnipeg blitzed on the play with linebacker Johnny Petrishen as the free rusher, though veteran quarterback Jake Maier got the ball away just in time.

“We were in a straight zero coverage, ho help. Hopefully, we can get to the quarterback fast enough where the ball doesn’t go deep but, as a [defensive back], you’ve gotta be ready for the ball to go deep, whatever happens,” said McGhee.

“That’s a tough coverage — we only call that when we’re trying to get home. Hopefully, we can get home but we didn’t. At the end of the day, we still gotta get it covered.”

Interestingly, Winnipeg left McGhee in the game longer than Tyrell Ford, who started at the opposite cornerback spot. As he currently appears to be penciled in to start next week, it was surprising to see him on the field for the better part of a half.

Jake Kelly, Winnipeg’s former second-round pick who started at safety, made a brilliant play near the start of the second quarter when he got in front of a corner route by Marken Michel. The Bishop’s product timed his jump well and appeared to get both hands on the ball, though he failed to bring down the interception.

Demetries Ford also made a couple of nice pass breakups, though he also should have secured one for an interception. Travon Fuller appeared to be victimized for a couple of intermediate throws, while Bill Hackett let Colton Hunchak get behind him once to set Calgary up in the red zone.

Catching on?

Myron Mitchell caught a crossing route from Terry Wilson on Winnipeg’s first play of the game and turned it up the sideline for a nine-yard gain.

For a player with a relatively slight frame, Mitchell runs with a lot of anger. Having an extra receiver who can make plays after the catch could help remove some pressure on Nic Demski, who takes a lot of abuse on crossing routes, quick outs, and digs.

Mitchell finished the game with three catches for 17 yards. Fellow rookie Josh Johnson led the Blue Bombers in receiving, making two catches for 26 yards, while Kevens Clercius caught two passes for 12 yards and Ontaria Wilson caught two passes for 10 yards.

There weren’t any receivers who truly jumped off the page, which makes it unclear who will fill the starting job vacated by Rasheed Bailey next week.

Newbie

Rookie quarterback Darren Grainger took over the controls for Winnipeg at the start of the second quarter, which is pretty remarkable considering he signed with the team only six days ago. The results were predictable given his lack of experience, however, as he completed one-of-six pass attempts for 13 yards in 15 minutes of action.

The 23-year-old native of Conway, S.C. wasn’t afraid to test the middle of the field, almost threading the needle to Myron Mitchell through a tight window on second-and-long near the middle of the second quarter. He also took a bad sack near the end of the second quarter, failing to get rid of the ball against an oncoming blitz to give up a safety, which cost Winnipeg its one-point lead at the time.

It remains unclear if the Blue Bombers have something in Grainger. It seems fair to speculate that Wilson has won the No. 3 job, which means the newcomer will likely end up on the practice roster, injured list, or be released. Mike O’Shea didn’t have an update on Grainger after the game.

The PAS

Princess Auto Stadium’s new turf and video boards have made an already fantastic venue that much better. The playing surface features the same end zone logos as before, minus the Princess Auto Stadium logo at midfield, with the numbers at the 55-yard line outlined in blue. The ribbon video screens also are significantly brighter than the old ones.

The Ring of Honour is now located solely on the east side of the building with members listed in the order in which they were inducted. The most recent addition, James Murphy, is located close to the 40-yard line on the south end of the field, leaving room for approximately 10 more names. I’m told this year’s inductee has been chosen, though an announcement has not yet been made.

On the west side, the club has listed all 12 of its Grey Cup wins with its most recent one from 2021 located near midfield, leaving plenty of room for more in the future. The club will be looking to add another title to the list this year, of course, plus another in 2025 when the big game is hosted in Winnipeg for the first time since 2015.

It’s clear that the Blue Bombers aren’t resting on their laurels and deserve credit for doing so. The team wins consistently, the facility and gameday experience are excellent, and the club consistently turns a substantial profit. It’d be easy for the club’s leadership to kick up their feet and ride the positive momentum they’ve created, but they’re instead continuing to improve their product. Some other CFL teams could take note.

Mastro-stroke

Rookie punter Dante Mastrogiuseppe dropped the ball midway through the third quarter on a would-be punt but turned the mistake into a positive play as he recorded a first down.

The University of Toronto product picked up the ball, deked out the only oncoming defender — who was completely unblocked — and found nothing but open space in front of him. He took off and ended up rushing for 28 yards off the left side, setting up a 42-yard field goal from Sergio Castillo.

It was the longest gain for the Blue Bombers on the day and Mastrogiuseppe finish as the team’s leading rusher, which speaks volumes regarding the anemic nature of the offence.

Thunderstruck

There was a 40-minute delay to the start of the third quarter due to severe weather in the area of Princess Auto Stadium. Hopefully, this means this year’s weather delay is officially over with and there won’t be another one this season. Safety is paramount, of course, but delays stink for the players, fans, and the media.

Bye-bye, Barriere

Winnipeg released Eric Barriere this past week following a poor performance in Regina during which he threw two interceptions. Mike O’Shea explained the decision at practice later that same day, essentially saying that Barriere had fallen behind the rest of the competition and that Darren Grainger, who was signed in Barriere’s place, expressed interest in coming north.

Any player on a CFL negotiation list can enforce a 10-day window during which they must either be offered a contract or removed from the list. This mechanism is meant to prevent clubs from squatting on a player without having any intention of signing him, possibly with the goal of trading his rights to another team. It’s unclear if Grainger enforced the 10-day window, though the Blue Bombers were clearly keen to bring him in.

In the case of Barriere, who starred at the same collegiate program that produced Bo Levi Mitchell, Vernon Adams Jr., and Matt Nichols, he was added to Winnipeg’s negotiation list on Oct. 6, 2018, per source. This means that the team waited over five years to sign him, yet cut him barely two weeks into training camp. Such is life in the CFL, where it’s always hit-or-miss with even highly-touted prospects.

Stats success

The CFL’s embattled live stats system was awful during Winnipeg’s first preseason game but worked almost flawlessly on Friday night. Hopefully, this trend will continue for the rest of the season after all the complaints the league has received over the past year.

Cuts like a knife

CFL teams must complete their final roster cutdown by 10:00 p.m. local time on Saturday, so expect Winnipeg to announce their moves no later than Sunday morning.

“We’ll watch the film right now and we’ll watch it again in the morning and have good discussions,” said O’Shea. “The last (cuts) are always really tough, the last 10 or 15 guys. It’s not easy. They’re all good.”

Clubs are permitted to carry 45 players on the active roster and 13 players on the practice roster, plus those who are injured. Players on the one-game injured list count against the salary cap but don’t necessarily need to be hurt. Players on the six-game injured list must be hurt as they do not count against the salary cap.

Prediction time

With the preseason over, I have officially made my record prediction for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this season: 12-6. For what it’s worth, I predicted the team would go 13-5 last year and they outperformed my expectations, finishing 14-4. Click here for a breakdown of my analysis and here for each CFL team’s over/under win totals this year.

Stay tuned to 3DownNation for a predictions article next week in which all of our contributors will make their picks for Most Outstanding Player, Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Most Outstanding Canadian, and the Grey Cup.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (0-0) will host the Montreal Alouettes (0-0) at Princess Auto Stadium to open the CFL regular season on Thursday, June 6 at 8:30 p.m. EDT for a rematch of the 110th Grey Cup.

The Alouettes have kept most of their championship roster intact, including defensive end Shawn Lemon, who has appealed his indefinite suspension for a betting violation. The club’s most notable losses include William Stanback (B.C. Lions), Austin Mack (Atlanta Falcons), Lwal Uguak (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and Almondo Sewell (unsigned). Otherwise, it’s essentially the same roster that upset the Blue Bombers in Hamilton.

Winnipeg will be without Adam Bighill to start the year due to injury as well as Canadian defensive tackle Cameron Lawson. Mike O’Shea has acknowledged that Lawson will miss more than six games to start the year, but my sources indicated that the injury was, in fact, season-ending.

Looking at the map on Ticketmaster, it appears the game could sell out, especially given that the forecast is 26 degrees and sunny. I’ll see you there.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.