Blue Bombers start slow, falter late in loss to B.C. Lions (& 13 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the B.C. Lions by a score of 26-24 in front of 31,210 fans at Princess Auto Stadium on Friday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.

0-3

There were reasons for optimism following Friday’s loss but the overwhelming takeaway was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers falling to 0-3 for the first time since 2012.

The club started 0-4 that year with all four losses taking place on the road as the schedule was designed to provide extra time for the opening of the new stadium, which didn’t end up occurring until the following year. The team can’t use the same excuse this year as two losses have taken place in the friendly confines of Princess Auto Stadium, matching their home loss total from the last three seasons combined.

Friday also marked the first time Winnipeg has lost consecutive games at home since 2018 and the first time they’ve lost three consecutive games since the late stages of the 2019 season when Zach Collaros was acquired via trade from the Toronto Argonauts.

Many pundits predicted that Winnipeg would fall short of its regular season win total from a year ago — myself included — but nobody saw them starting 0-3. It remains early but in a tough West Division, the Blue Bombers have dug themselves a significant hole if they hope to host the West Final for a fourth straight year.

Allowing explosions

Winnipeg’s defence was unfairly criticized to start the year as, entering this week, they ranked third in net yardage allowed, which is a slightly flawed metric as it doesn’t take into account how long defences spend on the field. The better metric is yards allowed per play, in which the Blue Bombers ranked second behind only the Montreal Alouettes.

Things changed against the Lions this week as Vernon Adams Jr. threw for 398 yards and two touchdowns, hitting reigning CFL all-star Alexander Hollins seven times for 215 yards and both scores. The pair twice connected for gains of over 60 yards, the first of which opened the scoring on a 71-yard touchdown, and the second of which sealed the game with under two minutes remaining.

Defensive end Ali Fayad got to Adams twice in the third quarter as he and Brian Cole each tackled the star quarterback, though neither play counted as a sack as Adams made it back to the line of scrimmage for no gain. Other than that, Adams was rarely pressured, allowing him to skewer Winnipeg’s young secondary.

Mike O’Shea credited B.C.’s blockers for his team’s challenges getting after the passer, while veteran linebacker Adam Bighill wants to see more chemistry from his teammates as they rush the passer.

“In general, we haven’t been able to get in sync and that’s something that you can see by the quarterback not being on the ground a ton and getting the ball out of his hands and having opportunities downfield,” said Bighill. “We have to disrupt the quarterback to get him off the spot and get him off his read so we don’t make it easy pitching catch. It’s hard to cover in the CFL in the back end, so we have to all put it together.”

It’s understandable that Winnipeg lacks chemistry up front as they have four defensive linemen currently on the six-game injured list, two of whom were hurt just last week. Regardless, they’ll need to find a way to improve quickly if they hope to do more to help the team’s young secondary.

The Blue Bombers generated one turnover as Marquise Bridges forced Travis Fulgham to fumble and Brandon Alexander recovered it. O’Shea was also complimentary regarding how the unit tightened up in the red zone.

“In (B.C.’s) four trips to the red zone, they kicked four field goals,” said O’Shea. “That’s pretty damn good.”

Brady on the bench

Brady Oliveira returned to the field after missing last week’s game due to a knee injury, though he wasn’t in the starting lineup. The league’s reigning Most Outstanding Canadian didn’t see the field until the second quarter and didn’t get his first touch until the final three minutes of the first half, a two-yard rush that got stuffed off the left side.

“I thought he was good, he was ready to go when he was asked to go,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “We weren’t going to give him the full game, we wanted to make sure he got eased into it a little bit.”

Oliveira finished the contest with nine carries for 64 yards, including a 28-yard rush early in the fourth quarter when he broke one off the left side. The key blocks came from Gabe Wallace, a second-round pick out of the University at Buffalo, and veteran Tui Eli.

The Winnipeg native clearly wasn’t thrilled with coming off the bench — he appears to be 100 percent healthy — but made it clear he’ll do what’s best for the team.

“It is what it is, I just know when I get in there, I’m gonna make my presence known and I think I made it known out there tonight,” said Oliveira. “I play every snap with grit and physicality and like it’s my last snap. I’m just gonna keep on doing that and however it looks moving forward, I know what I can do and I know how it can impact football games.”

On one hand, the CFL season is a marathon, not a sprint, and Winnipeg will need their start running back when it matters most in the fall. On the other hand, this team is now winless heading into Week 4 and it might have been wise to give the league’s highest-paid running back more than nine touches.

Johnny Augustine, the six-year veteran who started ahead of Oliveira, finished the night with 15 yards on four carries.

Off the clock

Winnipeg’s offence moved the ball well following a turnover near the end of the first half but squandered the drive by letting the clock expire before kicking a field goal, an error that looms particularly large given that they lost by two points.

With five seconds left, Zach Collaros snapped the ball from B.C.’s six-yard line and rolled out to his right before firing a pass out of Dalton Schoen’s reach. There initially appeared to be one second remaining, though the officials ruled that the clock had started late following the snap of the ball and time had expired.

O’Shea indicated after the game that there was an alignment issue that caused the play to last slightly longer than normal. He remains confident that, had the play been executed correctly, there still should have been one second left on the clock.

“From the way we practice, we know all sorts of plays and all sorts of throws that take three seconds, four seconds, five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds. We have that, we’ve been doing that for years — timing specific plays out — and this one didn’t work out that way,” said the veteran coach.

“We’ve timed all these plays out over and over again for years now. We put ourselves in those situations over and over and over again — four seconds, six seconds, seven seconds, yardage stuff — so we believe that we can throw that ball and still have one second left.”

Changing the quarterback’s launch point — whether it was by design or not — was probably unwise given the limited time available, though Winnipeg’s time management problems arguably started well before that.

The offence executed five run plays on the drive, which seemed odd as the clock keeps running after a rushing play unless the ball-carrier goes out of bounds. The most egregious play call came on second-and-two from B.C.’s 16-yard line with eight seconds remaining as offensive coordinator Buck Pierce dialed up a hand-off to Brady Oliveira.

Pierce is a great offensive coordinator but sometimes smart coaches can outthink themselves. Had Collaros fired a pass into the end zone with eight seconds left, the play would have resulted in a touchdown or an incompletion. Had the latter occurred, Sergio Castillo could have kicked a field goal to cut B.C.’s lead in half to end the second quarter.

For what it’s worth, 3DownNation contributor Ben Grant timed the play digitally and said it came in at just under five seconds, though it was extremely close.

Everybody hurts

The Blue Bombers, who are already without Kenny Lawler, appear to have suffered another big blow to the receiving corps as Dalton Schoen left the game in the third quarter and didn’t return, appearing unable to put much if any weight on one of his feet.

Schoen was his quarterback’s favourite receiver on the day before exiting the game, catching five passes for 54 yards on seven targets. Without Lawler in the lineup, Collaros has looked Schoen’s way early and often all season long.

Rookie wideout Keric Wheatfall left the game early in the fourth quarter after suffering a non-contact injury on Brady Oliveira’s big run off the left side. He received assistance from two trainers on his way back to the bench, appearing to favour his right knee.

Kevens Clercius took the field after Schoen left the game, but Winnipeg didn’t have another receiver available to replace Wheatfall, leaving backup quarterback Chris Streveler to play receiver for the entire fourth quarter. Defensive tackle Jamal Woods also left the field with trainers late, though the nature of his injury was unclear.

Head coach Mike O’Shea didn’t have an update on any of the injuries his team sustained.

Tyrell Ford appeared to have suffered a serious injury midway through the first quarter as the field-side cornerback Tyrell Ford left the game favouring his wrist area. The injury occurred after he climbed the ladder to knock down a deep pass intended for Justin McInnis near the Winnipeg goal line.

The former second-round draft pick struggled in the team’s season-opener but was excellent against the Redblacks last week, earning the highest grade among all CFL defensive backs from Pro Football Focus. Brandon Alexander moved to cornerback following the injury with Nick Hallett taking over Alexander’s spot at safety, though Ford returned after only missing one drive.

Nic Demski also left the game briefly in the third quarter after making a 24-yard catch near the sideline. He left the field under his own power, appearing to favour his groin, but returned soon after.

Big blockers

Winnipeg’s offensive line was under fire following a rare poor outing in Ottawa but appeared to bounce back nicely against B.C. Right tackle Eric Lofton gave up a sack on the team’s first possession as Pete Robertson, who signed with B.C. this off-season following a three-year run in Saskatchewan, walked him into the lap of Zach Collaros.

After that, Collaros worked from a clean pocket for most of the night. He took a couple of hits, one of which was flagged for roughing the passer, but wasn’t sacked again.

“They do a great job every week,” said Collaros. “They’re prepared. We go over a lot of stuff in that room, (offensive line coach) Marty (Costello) does a great job getting those guys ready and I thought (centre) Chris (Kolankowski) did a really good job of making the calls and giving me a clean pocket all night long.”

The two-time CFL M.O.P. finished the game 23-of-30 for 247 yards. It was his best outing of the year so far, though he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the third straight game with Chris Streveler accounting for all of Winnipeg’s scores in short yardage.

When asked about yet another slow offensive start, Collaros offered few words.

“Just a lack of execution,” he said. “That’s it.”

Smith returns

Chris Smith made his regular season debut with the Blue Bombers after being a surprise cut following training camp, though it was later reported that his release was injury-related.

The rookie from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette didn’t have much room to operate early on as Stefan Flintoft’s only first-half punt landed at Winnipeg’s five-yard line with a slight backspin, allowing B.C.’s cover team to surround the young returner.

Smith broke a return for 35 yards off the right side late in the third quarter, though it was called back due to a blindside block penalty on Nick Hallett. It was an especially impressive effort from Smith as he was momentarily held up by a B.C. defender, yet was still able to accelerate around the edge.

The Blue Bombers averaged only 5.7 yards on punt returns over their first two games with Myron Mitchell handling the duties, the lowest in the league. Clearly, Smith has provided a noticeable boost.

The 24-year-old also had a nice kickoff return late in the fourth quarter, bringing Flintoft’s boot back 27 yards to give Winnipeg possession at their own 40-yard line.

Taking cover

Winnipeg made several changes to their special teams units this week as rookies Michael Chris-Ike and Max Charbonneau were sent down to the practice roster and Michael Griffin, who dressed for 13 games with the Calgary Stampeders last season, was promoted to the active roster. He made a stellar special teams tackle in the fourth quarter, stopping Terry Williams from breaking contain off the left side.

Williams managed only 15 yards on three punt returns, which was nothing considering Winnipeg allowed an average of 16.5 yards per punt return over their first two games, easily the worst in the league. Shayne Gauthier and Michael Ayers led the way with two special teams tackles apiece.

Drop shock

Chris Streveler lined up beside Zach Collaros in shotgun midway through the first quarter and ran an outlet route that left him wide open in the flat. Collaros hit him perfectly in stride and the play appeared destined for a big gain — except Streveler dropped the ball.

Catching isn’t brand new to Streveler — he played some receiver at the University of Minnesota — but it’s a play he’d surely love to have back. When he reaches full speed, he’s as hard to tackle as any player in the CFL. He finished the game with 10 carries for 24 yards and three touchdowns.

After two poor performances to open the year, it was nice to see offensive coordinator Buck Pierce dial up a creative look.

Regarding his surprise role as a full-time receiver in the fourth quarter, Streveler made it clear he’s open to filling any role when called upon.

“I’m thankful I’m able to plug in and help the team. Ultimately, it just wasn’t enough tonight and I think we’re all feeling pretty disappointed. I think we all have some plays that we want back and it’s frustrating,” said Streveler. “It’s just doing about whatever we need to do to win. Whatever that looks like for me, I’m willing to do — we’ve just gotta find a way to get one.”

Youth movement

Marquise Bridges, a former Indoor Football League standout, made his first career CFL start in place of Deatrick Nichols, Winnipeg’s two-time all-star boundary halfback. The rookie got picked on a little bit early as the Lions consistently fed Alexander Hollins, though he wasn’t in coverage on either of the reigning CFL all-star’s touchdowns.

Through three games, Winnipeg has now had seven players make their first career CFL start, including Bridges, Ontaria Wilson, Keric Wheatfall, Devin Adams, Jamal Woods, Souleymane Karamoko, and Terrell Bonds. That figure doesn’t include Tyrell Ford, who entered the season with one career start, or Liam Dobson and Celestin Haba, who combined for six previous starts.

For comparison, the Lions have also fielded seven first-time CFL starters this season, though Travis Fulgham and Christian Covington started extensively in the NFL before coming north this off-season.

Tenured

Mike O’Shea is now officially the longest-tenured head coach in Winnipeg Blue Bombers history, surpassing Bud Grant with 161 career regular season games at the helm.

The 53-year-old native of North Bay, Ont. still trails Grant in regular season wins (102 to 96) but should overtake him by the end of the season — assuming, of course, this team starts winning at some point. He also trails Grant in Grey Cup appearances (six to four) and Grey Cup wins (four to two).

Balmy weather

It was 24 degrees with the humidex at kickoff on Friday, a far cry from Winnipeg’s unusually cool home-opener earlier this month. Between the chilly weather and how poorly the Blue Bombers played, the matchup from two weeks ago almost feels like a preseason game in hindsight. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, it still counts in the standings.

The nice weather certainly helped buoy attendance, which topped the home-opener’s crowd of 30,140 by just over 1,000 fans.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (0-3) will visit the Calgary Stampeders (1-1) on Saturday, June 29 at McMahon Stadium with kickoff slated for 7:00 p.m. EDT.

Winnipeg has gone a perfect 6-0 against the Stampeders over the past two seasons, though Jake Maier is off to a strong start this year, throwing for 591 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception in starts against Hamilton and B.C.

Calgary is currently on a bye, which means they’ll be well-rested when the Blue Bombers come to town next week.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.