Winnipeg Blue Bombers fall to 0-4 as Collaros fails to share the love (& 11 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Angela Burger/Calgary Stampeders

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 22-19 on Saturday night in front of 22,386 fans at McMahon Stadium. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Sharing the love

The loss of Dalton Schoen to a season-ending knee injury was a tough blow for the Blue Bombers, though his absence created an exciting opportunity for Zach Collaros and the rest of Winnipeg’s receiving corps to produce. Instead of spreading the ball around, however, Collaros yet again decided to lock in on one target for most of Saturday’s game.

Before leaving the game at halftime due to an undisclosed injury — more on that in a moment — Collaros threw 12 pass attempts, seven of which were targeted at Nic Demski. Fellow receivers Ontaria Wilson, Josh Johnson, and Jeremy Murphy — all of whom were in the starting lineup — weren’t targeted once.

The veteran quarterback focused heavily on Schoen after Kenny Lawler suffered an arm fracture, arguably to the offence’s detriment. Collaros was at fault for two interceptions over Winnipeg’s first three games, both of which came when targeting Schoen in double coverage. Schoen’s a great receiver, but he’s no more likely to be open when facing two defenders than any other receiver working against one.

It’s understandable for a quarterback to focus on his most trusted target but there’s something to be said for spreading the ball around, especially to those who aren’t being guarded by the opponent’s best defensive backs.

The offence looked completely different with Chris Streveler at the helm for the second half. Though the dual-threat passer doesn’t have the same arm talent as Collaros, he made quicker decisions with the football and used his entire receiving corps. He threw five passes to Johnson, four to Wilson and Wolitarsky, and three to Demski, which resulted in a much better passing attack overall.

Arguably the best offensive play of the game came at the start of overtime when Wilson caught a short pass near the sideline and made an incredible move to dodge a would-be tackler, breaking the play for 19 yards. I’m not a professional scout, but he looks like the type of player who should see the ball more often.

Head coach Mike O’Shea has repeatedly touted the calibre of receivers that Winnipeg’s personnel department brought in this past off-season, so — assuming he’s not blowing smoke, which it doesn’t appear he is — Collaros should be using the newcomers. Streveler did and it’s part of the reason he accomplished something his teammate hasn’t through four weeks of the season: throwing a touchdown pass.

Zach will be back

Though he didn’t return after halftime, it appears franchise quarterback Zach Collaros will be just fine. Mike O’Shea told 680 CJOB the decision to sit the veteran quarterback was “precautionary” while commending Streveler’s ability to run the offence.

Collaros was injured late in the second quarter when six-foot-four, 325-pound defensive tackle Josiah Coatney broke through the middle of the offensive line and delivered a hit to the passer’s chest immediately after the ball was thrown. Presumably, Collaros had the wind knocked out of him or the injury may have been to his ribs. Either way, don’t expect any details from the team as Winnipeg rarely (if ever) addresses injuries publicly.

The two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player finished the game eight-of-twelve for 55 yards and one interception, which came when defensive end Clarence Hicks dropped unnoticed into coverage as Collaros fired a pass to Drew Wolitarsky on a dig route.

Streveler finished the game 14-of-24 for 170 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, which he threw to former Blue Bombers’ cornerback Demerio Houston in overtime while facing an all-out blitz. The native of Naperville, Ill. told Derek Taylor on 680 CJOB after the game that his arm was hit as he threw, which explains how badly it was underthrown.

Margin of error

I’ve had several people ask me what’s wrong with the Blue Bombers to start the season and my best answer is that they’re currently not outplaying their margin of error.

In past years, this team had more than enough talent and experience to account for mistakes as they happened. When a linebacker jumped offside, a teammate would get a sack on the next play, followed by a long return on the ensuing punt. When a running back missed a blitzing linebacker, the quarterback would dodge the oncoming rusher and make a great throw to move the chains. When a receiver fumbled the ball, the defence would get a turnover right back to flip the field.

Right now, Winnipeg simply has a much narrower margin of error. Between the injuries they’ve suffered and the talent and experience drain that occurred during the off-season, this team has to play cleaner football to get the same results they did a year ago. At 0-4, it’s clear they’ve not yet been able to do so.

Chris Kolankowski flinched before snapping the ball late in the fourth quarter, pushing the offence back five yards. Chris Streveler missed two crossing routes in the second half, both of which would likely have resulted in first downs. Defensive end Ali Fayad took a foolish roughing the passer penalty. Zach Collaros failed to get the ball out facing a six-man blitz. Left tackle Stanley Bryant was called for illegal procedure. These mistakes add up fast.

Extending the Olive branch

Brady Oliveira has made no secret of the fact that he wants more touches, even going as far as to suggest the club’s record would be better if he’d seen the ball more through the first three weeks of the season.

On Saturday, the Winnipeg native had very little room to work, finishing the game with 10 carries for 26 yards and five catches for 37 yards. Though the league doesn’t publish these figures, most if not all of Oliveira’s rushing yardage would have come after first contact. He only got five touches in the second half as Chris Streveler did a fair amount of running, finishing the game with six carries for 27 yards.

It’s clear the Stampeders prioritized stopping the run, which is understandable given that Winnipeg has yet to show much in the passing game. At the end of the day, football is the ultimate team game — for the running game to open up, the Blue Bombers will have to prove they can throw it.

Drive it like you stole it

Tyrell Ford notched his first career interception on Saturday, exploding up the field to pick off an out route intended for Clark Barnes. He and the receiver arrived at the football almost simultaneously, though the defensive back wrestled the ball away to secure possession in Calgary territory, leading to a field goal from Sergio Castillo.

Winnipeg’s defence generated only two takeaways over their first three games and matched that total on Saturday in the first half alone. With the Blue Bombers struggling on offence, the importance of providing the unit with short fields can’t be understated.

The defence had a solid outing overall, allowing 21 first downs and 307 yards of net offence in the loss. It would be interesting to see how those numbers may have changed, however, had Jake Maier been more accurate with the football.

Where’s Willie?

I kept a close eye on Willie Jefferson throughout the first half of Saturday’s game wanting to see how the Stampeders planned to block him. The five-time CFL all-star entered Saturday’s game with three tackles and one sack over three contests, an unusually quiet start to the year, though it seemed possible that he was drawing extra attention given how many injuries Winnipeg has experienced along the defensive line.

To my surprise, Jefferson saw few, if any, double teams from Calgary. He was often left one-on-one against an offensive tackle, rarely if ever being chipped by a slotback or running back on an outlet route.

Jefferson was almost invisible until midway through the third quarter when he took a rep inside and registered a pressure against left guard Bryce Bell. Two plays later, he broke up a pass — his first knockdown of the season — to end a Stampeders drive. He had another knockdown on Calgary’s next drive, forcing another punt from Cody Grace.

Though they’ve shown improvement this season, the weakness of Calgary’s offensive line is still at the tackle position. Winnipeg failed to take advantage and now has only three sacks through four games. If the defence can’t do a better job of getting to the quarterback, this team will continue to have trouble winning games. Jefferson needs to lead the way in that regard and play like the future Hall of Famer he is.

Ali Fayad, the only defensive lineman who registered much pressure against Vernon Adams Jr. last week, didn’t get close to Jake Maier until late in the third quarter when he was called for roughing the passer. Winnipeg’s defensive line did a nice job against the run, but more pressure is needed in the passing game.

Déjà vu

Every once in a while, history repeats itself in such a way that it makes you question the fabric of time and space.

This type of phenomenon occurred during the third quarter on Saturday when long snapper Mike Benson fired the ball high and wide to punter Jamieson Sheahan, who snagged it with one hand and ran for 18 yards off the right side for a first down. It was only three yards shy of Winnipeg’s longest gain from scrimmage on the night.

The play was shockingly similar to Winnipeg’s preseason game against Calgary last month when rookie punter Dante Mastrogiuseppe, who didn’t make the team’s final roster, dropped a snap, picked it up, deked an oncoming defender, and broke a 28-yard run for a first down. It was Winnipeg’s longest gain from scrimmage on the night.

Though the Blue Bombers and the CFL posted the play on social media labelled as a “fake punt,” Mike O’Shea admitted on 680 CJOB that it was simply an errant snap followed by a heads-up play from the second-year punter.

Making history

Sergio Castillo kicked the longest field in Winnipeg Blue Bombers history early in the fourth quarter when he hit a 60-yard boot with the wind at his back. The previous team record of 58 yards was held jointly by Justin Medlock and Bernie Ruoff.

Castillo made a 55-yard field goal on the preceding play, though it was negated by an illegal procedure penalty on Liam Dobson, which pushed the ball back five yards. Dobson probably owes Castillo a beer for still making the kick.

Special special teams

After a slow start to the season, Winnipeg’s special teams had its first really strong outing of the year against Calgary. Sergio Castillo went a perfect four-for-four on field goals, Erik Brooks was a non-factor in the return game for the Stampeders, and rookie linebacker Michael Ayers made three tackles.

Chris Smith returned five punts for 63 yards and looked close to breaking a couple of attempts for long gains. It seems like only a matter of time before he fully breaks contain and goes off to the races, much like he did during the preseason against the Stampeders.

Biggie milestone

Congratulations to Adam Bighill on reaching 900 career defensive tackles, becoming only the sixth player in CFL history ever to do so. The three-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player and six-time CFL all-star sits only behind Willie Pless, Mike O’Shea, Alondra Johnson, Chip Cox, and Barrin Simpson on the all-time list, which dates back to 1987.

Next up

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (0-4) will host the Ottawa Redblacks (1-1) on Friday, July 5 at 8:30 p.m. EDT. The teams met on June 13 when the Redblacks prevailed 23-19 as Damon Webb batted away a potential game-winning touchdown pass to Dalton Schoen following a lengthy weather delay at TD Place Stadium. Winnipeg’s offensive line struggled in the matchup as Zach Collaros, who threw two interceptions, was sacked three times.

Ottawa will travel to Princess Auto Stadium coming off a short week as the club will host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday, June 30 at 7:00 p.m. EDT as they look to improve to 2-1 against Bo Levi Mitchell and company.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.