Winnipeg Blue Bombers fall flat in Grey Cup rematch with Alouettes (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo: Neil Noonan/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 27-12 in front of 30,140 fans at Princess Auto Stadium on Thursday night in the CFL’s regular-season opener. Below are my thoughts on the game.

The Zach attack ain’t back

Winnipeg’s choice not to play Zach Collaros during the preseason drew criticism from fans and members of the media, though head coach Mike O’Shea indicated that he, Collaros, and offensive coordinator Buck Pierce were unanimous on the decision.

The two-time Most Outstanding Player struggled badly during the opening half of Thursday’s season opener, particularly on his first few drives. He one-hopped a pass to Nic Demski on Winnipeg’s first possession, missed an open Kenny Lawler for a would-be touchdown, and badly underthrew a corner route to Dalton Schoen that was intercepted by Marc-Antoine Dequoy. After the game, Collaros called the interception “inexcusable.”

“It’s a long season. We’ve played a lot of ball together but getting back into the flow of things, we’ve gotta be better,” said Collaros. “At the end of the day, it’s about execution. You can make every excuse in the book — we’re not going to, I’m not going to. I have to play better for us and that’s it.”

“I don’t want to take anything away from (Montreal), they do a really good job over there. It always comes down to execution and they executed their plan.”

In the end, the veteran passer completed 20-of-33 pass attempts for 209 yards and one interception. It wasn’t a strong performance from a pivot who was recently named the top player in the CFL for the third straight season.

O’Shea fell on the sword in his postgame interview, taking the blame for his team coming out flat in their much-anticipated home opener.

“I’m not happy. I’m more pissed at myself for probably seeing this coming and not doing enough about it, but I understand the commitment level these guys have had for so long that you never doubt them. You move on quickly, as we always have regardless of what our record is — win or lose — you move on quickly and I don’t think there’s a reason to change that. These guys, they’ll know. They’ll be hurting,” said O’Shea.

“I don’t know that I haven’t prepared well enough for this one — missing that step, missing a bit of that football sense as we went along. We could have done a better job, I could have done a better job getting them ready. That last bunch of practice in training camp probably could have been a little different.”

The veteran bench boss also bemoaned that the game was “a bit of a yawner” for the fans but credited both defences for their strong play. He didn’t seem to regret not playing his veterans more during the preseason, though he wasn’t surprised that those who missed training camp showed some signs of rust.

When asked if he regrets not playing in the preseason, Collaros indicated that he wouldn’t change anything.

“I felt we had a good plan there,” said the 35-year-old. “We practice hard, we go full speed in practice versus our defence. I’ve gone preseasons playing and not playing, so I wouldn’t contribute that at all.”

Winnipeg took Brady Oliveira out of the game late when the score was clearly out of reach, though Collaros remained in the contest, almost as if he needed more reps. If he needed meaningless reps, perhaps he should have taken them during the preseason.

Younger defence

New defensive coordinator Jordan Younger made it clear this week that he wants his unit to be more versatile, while veteran defensive end Willie Jefferson hinted at different personnel packages the team could show on first down versus second down.

Winnipeg dressed seven defensive linemen for Thursday’s game, the composition of which was interesting. Jake Thomas and Miles Fox started at defensive tackle, as expected, with Tanner Schmekel and Jamal Woods as the backups. Thomas is the smallest of the bunch at 274 pounds, while Fox, Schmekel, and Woods are each over 290 pounds.

Winnipeg’s only backup defensive end was Devin Adams, who is listed at 290 pounds. Not many defensive ends are that heavy in the NFL, much less in the CFL. If a CFL team has ever dressed five defensive linemen that big for a game before, I can’t remember it.

Dressing four defensive tackles is a rarity in the CFL given the limited nature of rosters. Bigger-bodied players have less value on special teams, which usually leads teams to stock up on defensive ends and linebackers.

Souleymane Karamoko, who spent almost all of last season on the practice roster, took a lot of reps at weak-side linebacker despite being listed as a third-stringer on the team’s official depth chart. He appeared to be tasked with setting the edge on running plays, allowing Winnipeg’s many big-bodied defensive linemen to rally to the football.

One of the challenges with playing odd fronts on second-and-long is that it’s easy to lose contain on a mobile quarterback. Cody Fajardo got loose for a first down up the sideline in the first quarter. Winnipeg’s contain improved in the second half, as Kyrie Wilson — making a surprise start at middle linebacker despite being listed as the starter at weak-side linebacker — pursued him from depth and forced a throwaway.

Streveler returns

It’s not uncommon for the backup quarterback to be the most popular player on a professional football team, though it’s usually because the starter isn’t any good. Winnipeg is the exception. Zach Collaros is still the best quarterback in the CFL, but the star power of Chris Streveler has captured the hearts and minds of those in Bomberland.

Streveler got a huge cheer when he took the field for the first time midway through the first quarter. The crowd started to cheer Mike O’Shea’s decision to gamble on third down, though the noise became deafening once Streveler was shown on the video screens. Through the wall of sound, a “Streveler” chant was discernable, which the veteran quarterback was able to hear.

“To get that type of reception is exciting,” said Streveler. “You get in the huddle and take a deep breath and, ‘OK, let’s focus now on.’ These people have shown me a lot of love and I’ve got a lot of love for the city and that’s why I’m here.”

Winnipeg’s short-yardage quarterback finished the game with seven carries for 32 yards, one of which came on a play that saw him and Collaros on the field at the same time. It seems fair to speculate we’ll see more two-quarterback packages as the season continues.

Streveler’s biggest run came late in the third quarter when he dodged a diving Darnell Sankey on third-and-short to break off 13 yards. Second-year strong-side linebacker Reggie Stubblefield appeared to violently jerk the quarterback’s ankle after making the tackle, causing Streveler to scream in pain and complain to the official. No flag was thrown as Streveler indicated the official told him he didn’t see it.

“There’s no place in football for that stuff. We’re all out here trying to win and play hard within the whistle. Stuff like that, there’s no place in the game for it, so I needed to say something,” said Streveler. “We’re all playing hard, but I thought it was after the whistle and I thought it was completely unnecessary and that’s why I said something.”

Stubblefield needed to be carted off after the following play on what appeared to be a non-contact injury and did not return. He has since posted on social media indicating that the injury is season-ending, though he later deleted the post.

Down on the corner

Terrell Bonds won the starting job at boundary cornerback, beating Tyrique McGhee, who started both preseason games. Bonds was tasked with covering Charleston Rambo, who was the darling of Montreal’s training camp after catching seven passes for 138 yards during the preseason, prompting the release of veteran Tevin Jones.

Bonds was tested early on a deep shot to Rambo, which fell incomplete after the receiver overran the route and struggled to fight back to the ball. Bonds also made a nice play near the end of the first quarter to force Rambo out of bounds, bringing up a third down. Rambo finished the game with two catches for 10 yards.

Tyrell Ford, a former second-round pick out of the University of Waterloo, struggled at field-side cornerback as he appeared to give up two touchdowns to Tyson Philpot, who caught 10 passes for 141 yards.

Ford was victimized for the biggest play in the game, a 76-yard flea-flicker from Cody Fajardo to Philpot that came midway through the fourth quarter. Ford set his feet after the ball was handed off to Walter Fletcher, allowing the receiver to get behind him and the entire defence. Fajardo hit him over the middle of the field and the University of Calgary product outran Ford and Evan Holm in a footrace to the end zone.

“It’s just eye discipline — it was bad on my part,” said Ford postgame. “I looked and I’d seen the running back had the ball and he was still running. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a handoff,’ then he pitched it back and I was like, ‘Oh, shoot.’ Bad eyes. My eyes are supposed to be on my guy. Stuff happens.”

Late in the first quarter, following a fumble from rookie returner Myron Mitchell, Ford appeared to be out of position on a short pass to Philpot. He flew upfield but missed the tackle and Philpot dove into the end zone. Fans will remember Philpot as the same receiver who made the last-minute, game-winning catch in last year’s Grey Cup.

Ford also appeared to get beaten deep near the start of the third quarter as Tyler Snead got behind him and Holm for a 47-yard catch up the left sideline. It’s unclear which of the two defenders had deep responsibility on the play, though the coverage was insufficient. The mistake led to a 19-yard field goal from David Côté.

There’s a lot of pressure on Winnipeg’s cornerbacks because their halfbacks are so good. Nobody throws at Deatrick Nichols — he’s arguably the best defensive back in the league — and Holm was named a West Division all-star last year. Opposing offences will target the edges of the field early and often, which means Ford will have to be better.

The right solution

Eric Lofton made his first start at right tackle in place of three-time West Division all-star Jermarcus Hardrick and appeared to play well. The protection for Zach Collaros wasn’t perfect, though very little of the pressure came from Lofton’s side of the line.

Shawn Lemon got home for a sack on Winnipeg’s second position, though Lofton didn’t appear to be at fault as he sprinted immediately to his right on what appeared to be a bubble screen. Collaros went through multiple reads — there appeared to be confusion on the play, though it’s impossible to say without knowing what was called — and never threw the ball. Lemon squeezed around right guard Patrick Neufeld and met Mustafa Johnson at the quarterback.

Montreal’s second sack came when veteran defensive tackle Derek Wiggan, who spent the past seven seasons in Calgary, got to Collaros early in the second quarter after fighting through a block from centre Chris Kolankowski.

“I thought (our pass protection) did a good job,” said Collaros. “They do a really good job over there (in Montreal) of throwing different looks at you. Watching the tape, we’ll see how we did — it exposes everything all the time — but I felt comfortable in the pocket. I think our guys do a great job week in and week out.

Lofton is no spring chicken. The 31-year-old has been in and around the CFL since he signed with the Ottawa Redblacks in 2017, though he’s made only 17 career starts. Offensive linemen generally flourish later in their careers relative to other positions, so it might yet be possible for Lofton to make strides.

Lawler goes down

Kenny Lawler was Winnipeg’s most effective receiver early on in Thursday’s game, catching three passes for 26 yards. He left for the locker room near the end of the first half with what appeared to be an injury to his wrist or hand and did not return.

Needless to say, the two-time West Division all-star would be a massive loss for the Blue Bombers if he missed considerable time. Dalton Schoen is excellent at finding space on second down and Nic Demski is a top deep threat, but Lawler is the one who can consistently beat man coverage.

“Kenny is one of the best players in the league — he might be the best player in the league. It’s tough,” said Collaros. “I thought the young guys did a good job of stepping in and filling that role. You’re never going to really fill that void that is Kenny Lawler. I’m just really disappointed for him coming out of the game. He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around, so that’s what makes it really tough.”

Mike O’Shea did not have an update on Lawler after the game.

Not-so-special teams

Thursday’s game marked Mike Miller’s coaching debut as the league’s all-time leader in special teams tackles was named Winnipeg’s special teams coordinator early this past off-season. It was only one game, but the early results were mixed at best.

Myron Mitchell, who won the return job after preseason hero Chris Smith suffered an injury and was released, struggled in his first career CFL game, returning seven punts for 37 yards and four kickoffs for 71 yards. He fumbled his second punt return of the game after Tyrice Beverette got a hand on the football, which immediately led to a Montreal touchdown. Mike O’Shea challenged for no yards on the play but indicated postgame that he agreed with the command centre’s ruling to uphold the non-call.

“I like (Mitchell’s) grit. That’s what we liked in training camp — he showed a lot of grit and I thought he attacked pretty well. There’s some stuff that you need to learn as a young returner that you can do differently, that he can do differently,” said O’Shea.

“It’s pro football, you’re not just going to the ground. Until you are on the ground — Montreal, teams, football players — will rip that football out and I think he just lost sight of that for a split second. … I don’t think that will happen again. I do like the way he hit things, I thought he probably maximized his yardage.”

Winnipeg took 35 yards in penalties on special teams. Jamieson Sheahan booted an illegal punt out of bounds near the end of the first quarter, Souleymane Karamoko took a 15-yard no yards penalty early in the second quarter, and Michael Chris-Ike threw an illegal block late in the third quarter.

James Letcher Jr. broke a punt return up the right sideline for 37 yards in the first quarter but was mostly held in check from then on, finishing the game with four punt returns for 83 yards and two kickoff returns for 31 yards.

In fairness to Miller, Montreal probably has the best special teams units in the league. This was a tough test for the first game of the season, though that doesn’t change the fact that Winnipeg was outplayed.

As an aside, Chandler Worthy, who was named an East Division all-star as a returner in 2022, remains a free agent. The Blue Bombers might be wise to give him a call.

How the chips fall

Sergio Castillo missed field goal attempts from distances of 38 and 40 yards, finishing one-for-three on the night. He also missed the convert following a one-yard touchdown run from Johnny Augustine late in the fourth quarter.

Castillo, who has made 86.7 percent of his career field goal attempts, chalked up his misses to the CFL’s new microchipped footballs, indicating that he made 90 percent of his kicks in practice using non-chipped footballs and between 50 and 60 percent of his kicks in practice using chipped footballs. He also claimed the league’s other kickers have had similar struggles and raised their concerns to the league.

The veteran kicker’s comments deserve a standalone column. Stay tuned.

Newcomers

In total, the Blue Bombers dressed 12 first-time CFL players — five more than last year’s season opener — including quarterback Terry Wilson, fullback Michael Chris-Ike, receivers Ontaria Wilson, Myron Mitchell, and Kevens Clercius, offensive lineman Gabe Wallace, defensive linemen Jamal Woods and Devin Adams, linebackers Max Charbonneau and Michael Ayers, and defensive backs Terrell Bonds and Marquise Bridges.

Congratulations to Clercius, Winnipeg’s first pick in the 2024 CFL Draft out of the University of Connecticut, on making his first career catch. He finished the game with two catches for 16 yards, taking a lot of reps following the injury to Kenny Lawler.

Chris-Ike dropped the only pass intended for him, while Wilson made one reception for 16 yards. He also appeared to be lined up incorrectly near the start of the fourth quarter as Collaros and a few other teammates ushered him to the opposite side of the formation, which was likely due to him playing out of position in Lawler’s spot.

Adams made Winnipeg’s only sack, though it came after Willie Jefferson forced Cody Fajardo to step up into the top of the pocket. Ayers had two special teams tackles and Woods had two defensive tackles.

Canadian content

Winnipeg started nine Canadian players on Thursday, including some at untraditional positions like running back, strong-side linebacker, and field-side cornerback. Shayne Gauthier was listed as the starting middle linebacker, though he barely saw the field. Kyrie Wilson was the true starter at middle linebacker, while Global Souleymane Karamoko started at weak-side linebacker.

The Alouettes, who are coming off their first Grey Cup in over a decade, also started more than the minimum requirement of seven, including two along the defensive line. Though their depth charts have yet to be finalized for Week 1, it’s likely that the Toronto Argonauts and B.C. Lions — two of last season’s top teams — will also start extra Canadians.

Anyone who argues against the ratio or the incorporation of Canadian players in the CFL has an agenda. If the best teams in the league consistently start more than the minimum requirement, it means there’s plenty of talent to go around.

Fall football

The start of the CFL season is always exciting, though it certainly didn’t feel like a late spring evening at Princess Auto Stadium. The temperature was 14 degrees at kickoff — feeling like 12 — with almost full cloud cover. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was almost Halloween.

I’m not one for hot weather, so I won’t complain about having to layer up. Thursday’s game just didn’t feel at all like a season opener. It felt wrong — like opening Christmas presents at the beach. I’d imagine the weather adversely affected late ticket sales as the game fell just short of a sellout.

Rest in peace

The Blue Bombers commemorated two franchise legends who passed away this off-season as Kenny Ploen’s name and number were added to the north end zone and Gerry James’ name and number were added to the south end zone.

Ploen and James won four Grey Cups together during the 1950s and 1960s and both died on Feb. 13. Their names are also beside one another in the club’s Ring of Honour, located on the east side of Princess Auto Stadium.

Ploen, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1975, passed away in Winnipeg at the age of 88, while James, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, passed away in Parksville, B.C. at 89.

Winnipeg also held a pregame moment of silence to recognize the anniversary of D-Day, which took place on June 6, 1944.

Name game

Here’s a fun stat: there are only four players in the CFL with the last name “Wilson” and three of them dressed for Winnipeg on Thursday: third-string quarterback Terry Wilson, boundary slotback Ontaria Wilson, and weak-side linebacker Kyrie Wilson.

Keep your programs close, everyone. It’s going to take some time to get used to all the fresh faces in Bomberland — especially given that the club will likely continue to tweak the roster over the coming weeks.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (0-1) will visit the Ottawa Redblacks (0-0) on Thursday, June 13 at TD Place Stadium with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m. EDT. Dru Brown, who threw nine touchdown passes for the Blue Bombers last season, is expected to make his debut as the new franchise quarterback in the nation’s capital.

Winnipeg dropped its only game against the Redblacks last season, a shocking finish that saw rookie quarterback Dustin Crum score the game-winning touchdown in overtime in his first career start. The Blue Bombers led 25-15 at the three-minute warning but coughed up the lead as Zach Collaros threw a late pick-six and Crum repeatedly escaped the pocket.

Brown was well-liked in Winnipeg’s locker room and remains close with many players on the team, but he shouldn’t expect any favourable treatment now that he’s wearing enemy colours. Surely, the Blue Bombers will be hungry to avenge last year’s embarrassing loss.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.