Winnipeg Blue Bombers fall to 0-2 in loss to rain-soaked Redblacks (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Ottawa Redblacks by a score of 23-19 on Thursday night at TD Place Stadium, falling to 0-2 for the first time since 2016. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Zach off track

Zach Collaros had another up-and-down night, completing 15-of-31 pass attempts for 285 yards and two interceptions. The 35-year-old has now thrown for 494 yards, zero touchdowns, and three interceptions through two games this season, which aren’t the type of numbers we’re used to seeing from the two-time league M.O.P.

Collaros wasn’t at fault for his first interception as the ball was batted up by veteran defensive tackle Michael Wakefield and landed cleanly in the hands of Adarius Pickett.

The second interception was entirely on Collaros as he appeared to lock in on Dalton Schoen from the snap of the ball, forcing a throw down the seam despite Alonzo Addae being in perfect position to pick it off. Pressure also didn’t appear to be a factor, unlike several plays during the second half.

On the positive side, Collaros threw a perfect ball to Nic Demski on a 47-yard corner route near the end of the second quarter, setting up the team’s first touchdown of the game.

He also threw great strikes to Schoen and Drew Wolitarsky on Winnipeg’s second-last drive, though he was off the mark on a fade route to Keric Wheatfall and failed to escape the pocket on third down, taking a sack.

Head coach Mike O’Shea defended Collaros in a postgame interview with 680 CJOB.

“He gave us a chance to win, that’s what you want your quarterback to do,” he said. “He certainly gave us a chance to win and we were right there on the doorstep.”

Collaros was far more critical of himself, as well as the offence as a whole — which has generated only 31 points through two games this season.

“Offensively, we have to play better, that’s no secret. It starts with me. I have to do a better job completing balls and not put us in bad situations. Gotta find a way to get us into a rhythm and stay on the field, especially in a situation where your defence is undermanned. Hats off to Ottawa but we’ve gotta do a better job. I have to do a better job.”

The veteran quarterback also indicated that he didn’t consider the rain a factor in his performance.

On the mend

Winnipeg lost three defensive starters to injury on Thursday, none of whom were available for the second half.

The first injury occurred early on as second-year defensive end Celestin Haba crumpled while rushing off the edge on Ottawa’s first offensive drive. He grabbed his knee immediately and appeared to be in a lot of pain, though he was able to walk to the locker room under his own steam, albeit gingerly.

Boundary halfback Deatrick Nichols was shaken up early in the second quarter when he made a key tackle to stop Ottawa from converting on second-and-long. The two-time CFL all-star stayed in the game for a series or two but didn’t return after halftime with rookie Marquise Bridges taking over his spot.

Defensive tackle Miles Fox also didn’t return after halftime, leaving Winnipeg with only four defensive linemen. Former fourth-round pick Tanner Schmekel replaced Fox, while Devin Adams filled in for Haba. Adams doesn’t have a prototypical build for an edge rusher at six-foot-two and 290 pounds, though he sacked Dru Brown midway through the first quarter on a stunt, blowing by left guard Drew Desjarlais to bring down the passer.

Injuries are tough enough to deal with on a week-to-week basis. In-game injuries, especially when they happen early, are even tougher. Assuming not everyone will be ready to play next week — Mike O’Shea, as expected, didn’t update the status of any injured players after the game — Winnipeg’s depth is about to be tested in a big way.

Breaking down

Winnipeg’s offensive line had a second half to forget as Zach Collaros, who didn’t face a lot of pressure in the first half, was under frequent duress late. Ottawa finished the game with three sacks.

There were plenty of concerns about Eric Lofton at right tackle coming into the season regarding how well he’d replace Jermarcus Hardrick, but he seemed mostly solid for a second straight week. It was the interior of the offensive line that struggled most as centre Chris Kolankowski was beaten for a sack by Michael Wakefield and guards Patrick Neufeld and Liam Dobson took fourth-quarter holding penalties.

O’Shea declined to answer a question from 680 CJOB regarding whether or not the team’s protection issues are their biggest concern, suggesting he needs to watch the film to make a proper assessment. Collaros defended the offensive live, saying he has 100 percent confidence in their abilities.

“I have to do a better job of getting the ball out of my hands on time,” he said. “There’s always an array of things that happen in the game up front — down, distance, depending on all those things. Our offensive line? I wouldn’t want to go into battle with anybody else. I’m very, very confident in that group.”

Biggie returns

Adam Bighill, the CFL’s three-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player, made his regular season debut on Thursday after missing last week’s loss to the Montreal Alouettes due to injury. The move pushed Kyrie Wilson back to weak-side linebacker, where Souleymane Karamoko started last week.

The 35-year-old finished the game with four tackles and one knockdown and made his presence known, breaking up a short pass to Bralon Addison with a bone-crushing hit and smacking Jaelon Acklin on a crossing route midway through the second quarter. He also stuffed Dustin Crum once at the goal line, though the short-yardage quarterback scored a touchdown on the following play.

As a whole, however, Winnipeg’s run defence left much to be desired as Ryquell Armstead and Bralon Addison combined for 102 rushing yards in the first half alone. Brandon Alexander failed to wrap up Armstead on a 31-yard carry midway through the first quarter, while strong-side linebacker Redha Kramdi wasn’t able to close the lane when Addison broke off the left side for 19 yards early in the second quarter.

The unit showed improvement in the second half, which was especially impressive considering the injuries they faced. Regardless, they can’t afford to start so poorly.

Wheat farming

For the second straight week, a receiver made his first career CFL start for the Blue Bombers as Keric Wheatfall filled in for Kenny Lawler at boundary wide receiver. The newcomer spent most of the game working against Monshadrik ‘Money’ Hunter, a former East Division all-star who played only four games last season due to injury.

Wheatfall finished the game with three catches for 111 yards, easily leading the entire team. His biggest play on the day came midway through the third quarter when he beat Hunter on a double move for a 76-yard bomb, setting up a two-yard touchdown plunge from Chris Streveler. It was a massive play that helped the Blue Bombers take the lead for the first and only time in the game.

The Fresno State product also made a key catch for a first down on Winnipeg’s second-last offensive drive and drew a pass interference penalty midway through the second quarter while fighting back to the ball near the right sideline. Ottawa head coach Bob Dyce initially challenged the call, though he withdrew it after the officials provided him more information (whatever that means).

It doesn’t appear as though Lawler, who reportedly suffered an arm fracture, will return anytime soon, so it was nice to see a newcomer impress in his spot.

Ontaria Wilson, who made one catch for 16 yards in his debut last week, finished with zero catches and was unable to reel in a long toss on the second-last play of the game, which would have put Winnipeg deep in Ottawa territory.

Built Ford tough

Tyrell Ford had a rough season-opener last week as he allowed Tyson Philpot, the same receiver who scored the game-winner in last year’s Grey Cup, to score two touchdowns, including a game-sealing 76-yard bomb on a flea-flicker from Cody Fajardo.

The University of Waterloo product was much better on Thursday, passing an early test in the red zone on Ottawa’s opening drive. Dru Brown looked to veteran receiver Justin Hardy on an in-breaking route but Ford was in his hip pocket, preventing a touchdown.

Ford was brilliant in coverage again in the third quarter on Dominique Rhymes, breaking up a 20-yard pass that would have given Ottawa a first down at Winnipeg’s five-yard-line, earning props from TSN colour commentator Matt Dunigan.

The field side of Winnipeg’s secondary had a tough rep on Justin Hardy’s fourth-quarter touchdown as Ford executed a switch and Evan Holm, the halfback, didn’t. It’s unclear which player was at fault, though it’s obvious that a mistake took place as two defenders went with Dominique Rhymes and Hardy was uncovered.

On the opposite side of the field, boundary cornerback Terrell Bonds appeared to have another strong game. He allowed a 14-yard catch from Jaelon Acklin midway through the first quarter but made a brilliant play in run support two plays later, helping contain Ryquell Armstead for no gain.

Wild weather

Thursday’s game was delayed with 2:09 remaining in the fourth quarter and the break lasted almost an hour. Halftime was slightly shortened to try to avoid the thunderstorms in the forecast, though they still arrived just before the game was over.

If you’re a hardcore CFL fan — and, if you’re reading this, you probably are — it’s worth bookmarking the league’s weather policy, especially for summertime games when thunderstorms are more prevalent.

Essentially, once a game reaches the halfway mark of the third quarter, it will be ruled over if a weather delay occurs and lasts more than 60 minutes. If the game has yet to reach the midway point of the third quarter, the rules are far more nuanced and change depending on the score and whether or not the teams play again later in the season.

I received several angry messages from fans on social media suggesting the policy is unnecessary or lacks flexibility. Here’s the reality: it’s unfair to players, who rely on their health to earn a living, to sit for hours at a time and be expected to resume play. This policy was developed in partnership with the CFL Players’ Association for a reason. It’s great that Thursday’s game could be finished but it would have been unreasonable for play to resume had the thunderstorms lasted significantly longer.

It’s also tricky to have a rule with any subjectivity. Making the policy black and white ensures there’s no risk to the integrity of the game as, when these delays happen, there will inevitably be one team that desperately wants the game to continue and another that desperately wants it to end. Asking a league official to make a judgment call wouldn’t be appropriate given the stakes.

If the policy needs to be revised, so be it. However, it should be changed during the offseason with input from the league, the teams, and the players — not randomly on the fly. It should also be noted that this is not a new policy, as some fans seem to believe. It was created in 2019 and has since remained unchanged.

Here’s Johnny

Reigning CFL all-star running back Brady Oliveira missed Thursday’s game due to a knee injury, leaving Johnny Augustine to make his fourth career CFL start.

The 30-year-old native of Welland, Ont. carried the ball seven times for 31 yards and scored Winnipeg’s first touchdown of the game, punching it in from four yards out late in the second quarter. His best play came on an outlet pass moments before the score, which went for 17 yards to move the Blue Bombers into scoring position.

Augustine is a fine player but you have to wonder if the passing game would have opened up had Brady Oliveira been in the backfield. It’s easier for defences to play off the ball and drop more players into coverage when there’s not an elite threat at running back.

Lacking coverage

Winnipeg’s kick coverage units struggled for the second straight week, allowing a 28-yard return on the opening kickoff and a 49-yard punt return near the end of the first quarter. Brian Cole looked like he was blocked from behind on the play, while Nick Hallett hit the turf after being knocked off balance and Michael Chris-Ike was blocked out of the play.

Dedmon finished the game with 82 yards on six punt returns, which is too many. Former second-round pick Bailey Feltmate, who signed with Winnipeg this past week, made two special teams tackles, as did Tanner Cadwallader.

No return policy

Myron Mitchell got his second chance to serve as Winnipeg’s kick returner following a poor debut last week and showed signs of improvement, though it was far from a dominant performance.

He finished the game with 73 kickoff return yards and 35 punt return yards, though he didn’t fumble this week. His biggest play came midway through the second quarter when he found a seam and returned the ball 29 yards to Winnipeg’s 50-yard line.

As I wrote last week, former East Division all-star Chandler Worthy remains a free agent and it might be smart to give him a call. Winnipeg’s blockers don’t appear to be creating a lot of space in the return game but the unit certainly needs a boost.

Osh and Bud

Mike O’Shea has officially tied Bud Grant for the most regular season games as the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at 160.

Grant coached 10 full seasons in Winnipeg, though the CFL only played 16-game regular seasons during his tenure from 1957 to 1966. O’Shea has coached 18 games per season since arriving in Bomberland in 2014, minus the league’s cancelled season in 2020 and shortened season in 2021.

Due to the break during the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Shea is already the longest-tenured head coach in team history based on raw timeframe. Next week, he’ll become the longest-tenured head coach in team history based on regular season games.

Grant recorded 102 wins as the head coach of the Blue Bombers, while O’Shea has 96. O’Shea should theoretically surpass Grant by the end of the year, though nobody expected Winnipeg to start the year 0-2.

Looking slick

This space is generally reserved for thoughts on the Blue Bombers, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on Ottawa’s new home jerseys, which are a brilliant spin on an old classic.

The Rough Riders were hapless for the final two decades of their existence, but that doesn’t change the fact that they won nine Grey Cups and had some of the best players in CFL history, including Russ Jackson, Damon Allen, Tony Gabriel, and Angelo Mosca. It makes sense to honour their legacy and tap into the nostalgia of local fans.

Winnipeg’s uniforms improved vastly once they moved to what are essentially modernized versions of what they wore during the 1970s and 1980s. They looked great on Matt Dunigan, Chris Walby, John Helton, and Less Browne and they still look great on Zach Collaros, Dalton Schoen, Willie Jefferson, and Adam Bighill.

More teams should embrace their history with retro-inspired looks. Alternate uniforms are great for experimenting with elements that are innovative, flashy, and new. When it comes to permanent uniforms, however, classics are classics for a reason.

We’re all with you, Ted

Longtime CFL reporter Ted Wyman was recently diagnosed with cancer and returned home this week following a round of chemotherapy.

Wyman has been in sports media for almost four decades and has covered the Blue Bombers extensively for much of that time. If you haven’t already, please send him well wishes on social media. He’s one of the good guys.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (0-2) will host the B.C. Lions (0-1) on Friday, June 21 at 8:30 p.m. EDT for a heavyweight West Division tilt. These two teams have met in back-to-back West Finals and will meet three times this season, giving this upcoming game huge implications in the season series between the two clubs.

B.C. lost to the Toronto Argonauts in Week 1 as the team allowed six sacks on Vernon Adams Jr. and committed five turnovers. They will play between now and Week 3 as they’ll host the Calgary Stampeders (1-0) on Saturday, June 15 for their home opener, which will feature a performance from rap icon 50 Cent.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.