The Winnipeg Blue Bombers scored 33 unanswered points on route to a convincing 36-11 victory over the Montreal Alouettes in the 2016 CFL season’s inaugural preseason game.
This game isn’t all that indicative of either team, as the Bombers pulled away in the second half when the majority of the players on the field will be out of work in a few weeks. But regardless, this was a big win for a Winnipeg football club that needs as much momentum from the city behind them as possible heading into the regular season.
Here are my initial thoughts on the Bombers first victory of 2016. I’ll have a more detailed and conclusive piece out tomorrow after I’ve re-watched the game.
1. QB battle heats up: Dominique Davis and Brian Bennett, two pivots battling to win the third-string quarterback job, both delivered solid, if unspectacular performances. As a result of the Bombers switching between Davis and Bennett each drive, neither performed against a stronger or weaker defensive unit than the other – and frankly, their performances against Montreal’s third defensive unit should be taken with a grain of salt. But they each showed some positive signs, as Davis maintained poise in the pocket and threw into tight windows – something he has shied away from in practice, but shouldn’t given his rocket-like arm. He also showed some touch on a tear-drop corner route to Quincy Mcduffie in the third quarter. Bennett, meanwhile, was slightly slower in his decision-making, but showed off his athleticism on several scrambles before throwing a beautiful, 28-yard back-shoulder TD toss to Fred Williams in the fourth quarter. While both quarterbacks shone at times – neither were necessarily great – I think Davis still has the upper-hand over Bennett.
2. Bombers dominate the trenches: Not enough can be said about the Bombers’ offensive line play in the run game, as both Tim Flanders and Carlos Anderson had huge days on the ground. Travis Bond, in particular, seemed discipline and quick – especially for a 230-pounder – while displacing bodies in the run game. But give credit to Flanders and Anderson, as both hit the hole hard and made tacklers miss in the open field. I don’t believe Pascal Lochard’s passport has his backup duties secure, as the Bombers will have a hard time keeping a backup American running back off of the roster if Anderson and Flanders continue to impress. Which runner, however, will have to be decided on Monday against Ottawa.
3. Receivers struggling to get separation: I was disappointed overall in the play of Winnipeg’s receivers, particularly within the first team. With Drew Willy at quarterback, the Blue receivers got little-to-no seperation from Montreal’s defensive backs, who were mostly in press cover-1 or vanilla man-zone concepts. The Alouettes have a talented secondary, but that shouldn’t overshadow the struggles of Darvin Adams and Ryan Smith. It went far beyond two of Winnipeg’s top pass-catchers, however, as even later in the game, with Bennett and Davis in the game, the balls had to be thrown into very tight coverage. I’m not at all worried about Smith and Adams, but it was still disappointing to not see them come out firing in week one of the preseason.
4. Not all doom & gloom: Although the level of competition that they faced must be taken into account, there are three exceptions in particular to that last thought: Addison Richards, Quincy McDuffie and Thomas Mayo. McDuffie, who was also Winnipeg’s best returner, would have assembled a blue-chip performance had he not dropped a sure touchdown on a 15-yard dig across the middle. He made a few plays downfield, which was a nice surprise, but made his money when given the ball on designed plays in space – as he should. Winnipeg’s second round pick in 2015, Addison Richards must’ve got the monkey off of his back with a couple of catches in the second half. An injury-plagued rookie season saw the game seemingly go 1,000-mph too fast for the Regina product to handle, but it’s slowing down in year two. Richards played really, really fast and made some tough grabs, although it’s clear his route-running needs work before he’s ready to be a key contributor. Regardless, Wednesday night showed that Richards isn’t a player who shrivels when the lights are on.
5. Willy no need to worry: The Bombers pass-attack was no threat when Drew Willy was at quarterback, but that’s nothing to worry about from the standpoint of the franchise’s signal-caller. Sure, his accuracy was off on two deep tosses, and he also forced a near-interception in the direction of Ryan Smith, but Willy received no help from his receivers, with nowhere to throw on most of his drop-backs. Montreal’s first-team defense also looked very good in coverage, while the Bombers’ offense was still quite vanilla being not even two weeks into training camp.
6. Hubbard makes money: Rookie defensive end Adrian Hubbard, along with competitor Shayon Green, received significant playing time against Montreal’s starting offense, and the Alabama star made the most of it. Hubbard made two significant plays in the opening couple drives, setting the edge on a sweep play for Maurice Leggett to make the tackle, and recording a sack on a nice speed-rush on Kevin Glenn’s third drive. That sack, however, was aided by Bruce Johnson’s nice hip-turn to stay in SJ Green’s hip-pocket on a shallow post, taking away Glenn’s read. He was a SEC sack-machine with Alabama, but it was mostly Hubbard’s run defense throughout the night really made him some money in the battle for the opening defensive end spot opposite Jamaal Westerman.
7. Castillo comes through: Sergio Castillo, who has virtually no chance of making this team as long as Justin Medlock is here, booted in four field goals and added two extra point converts. After he is inevitably cut by the Bombers, Castillo now has a good sample of his play assembled that he can show other teams who’ll be needing kickers in the next month or so. Good for him.
8. Randle’s spot is locked in: Chris Randle is one of this team’s top defenders, and there’s no doubt that the club will find a way to start six Americans in the secondary in order for the Utah product to have a spot. It’s quite remarkable how different of a player is Randle, who played boundary corner in Johnny Adams’ absence, when he doesn’t have a receiver running full-blast towards him before the ball is even snapped. Randle seemed comfortable at corner, and with defensive coordinator Richie Hall calling straight man-coverage for the first three plays, he won his match-up against perennial All-Star pass-catcher Duron Carter.
9. Fogg nowhere to be seen: Rookie defensive back Kevin Fogg has had an excellent training camp, but he seemed to struggle in the opening preseason game. A victim of a handful of completions, I haven’t yet seen the Liberty product cover well in zone duties. Whether that’s an issue with his ability to pick up receivers with his peripheral vision while watching the quarterback, or a struggle with zone hip turns – I couldn’t tell you. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he bounced back in a big way against Ottawa; otherwise it will be Julian Posey starting for the Bombers at weak-side halfback in week one.
10. Blue draft class shows well: The Bombers had arguably the best Canadian draft of any team in 2016, and the youngsters played surprisingly well in their first taste of professional football. Trent Corney’s first game was a roller-coaster – recorded a coverage-sack, a tackle for loss, and a couple of decent pass-rushes, but he also made some mistakes. The athletic freak was washed out on a handful of pass-rushes and ran himself out of the play on a couple of snaps in run defense. It was the Virginia product who allowed the Alouettes to get out of their end-zone in one rush in the fourth quarter, getting sealed with a down-block. Michael Couture, albeit against some weak competition, was the most surprising contributor in this win. Winnipeg’s 10th overall selection, Couture was exceptionally consistent in the third and fourth quarter while at centre – his raw-strength was not at question. Taylor Loffler, meanwhile, showed better range than he has in practice, making an exceptional break on the football on Vernon Adams’ final pass of the game. Frank Renaud made a couple huge tackles on special-teams, while Zach Intzandt, who’s still new to the offensive side of the football, did not have a disastrous performance by any means. Nose guard Rupert Butcher deflected an Adams Jr. pass attempt for an interception by Garrett Waggoner. Although Shayne Gauthier and Alex Vitt were nursing injuries and did not play, it was a very good night for Winnipeg’s 2016 draft picks by the standards of it being their first live action in the CFL.
11. Keeping’s importance: I’m happy to hear that Jeff Keeping’s injury might not be as serious as first thought. He’s the most important depth player on this team aside from Matt Nichols, and the Bombers would have to toy with the ratio to make room for another American starter on the offensive line if one of Mathias Goossen, Sukh Chungh or Pat Neufeld are hurt. Although Michael Couture impressed me today, the SFU product still needs a year of seasoning before he is ready to be the sixth man.
12. Harris hits home: Andrew Harris did exactly what we all wanted him to do in his debut in the Blue & Gold: deliver a highlight-reel catch-and-run on one of his first few touches of the game. Harris’ 39-yard touchdown scamper on a screen pass was called back on an illegal block, but it gave Bomber fans a glimpse of what the former Oak Park Raider brings to this offense.
13. Sherman shows off his versatility: Teague Sherman is the Bombers most valuable depth defensive player, and he did it all on Wednesday night (including, for the first time, handling holding duties on the field goal unit). A proven stud on special-teams, Sherman was all over the field on defense from the strong-side linebacker position.
14. Bombers made the right call with Tajh Boyd: We saw on Wednesday night why the Bombers, who had Boyd’s rights for a few weeks in 2015, never offered the former Clemson star a contract. In an almost laughable situation, the Alouettes chose to give multiple series’ to two CIS quarterbacks – one of whom has been Andrew Buckley’s backup at Calgary – instead of seeing what Boyd could do. Seeing as even the best CIS quarterbacks in generations usually can’t crack CFL rosters, Drew Burko and Jimmy Underdahl, as expected, struggled – and struggled mightily. On a side-note, Vernon Adams Jr. likely got a wake-up call in his first CFL game. He wasn’t helped out by any of his offensive mates, but the Oregon star still had a very rough outing.
15. Questions about Leggett island: Maurice Leggett could be the Bombers’ weak-link in man-coverage this year – every secondary has one. Leggett, who’s an elite safety, is a really good player, but it’s clear that he does not match up well against the better receivers in one-on-one coverage. Leggett was beat on a couple Kevin Glenn completions, including his touchdown pass to Nik Lewis on the 245-pounder’s infamous out-route. He’s such an excellent player to have in the box, but I’m still hoping that the Bombers find a suitable rookie to play SAM linebacker, and thus move Leggett back to safety. It’s not likely, however, and while Leggett will get beat in one-on-one coverage against better receivers, he also brings some great abilities to the table while at linebacker – including in pass-defense.
16. Officials win this game: I have absolutely no complaints about the officiating from the contest, and even completely forgot about the new “eye in the sky” replay official until after the game. The penalties were limited and justified, and it really seemed like the defensive backs were granted more freedom in coverage. Last year, defensive backs were penalized for breathing on receivers. This year, not so much.
17. Slick new duds… for one team: Adidas’ new royal blue uniforms were eye-candy for spectators and Bomber fans. But they dropped on the ball on Montreal’s duds, making zero changes to Angry Birds’ uniforms – except one, and it’s terrible. The names on the back of the jersey’s are so small that they’re nearly impossible to read. Not a fan, Adidas.
The Bombers save most of their cuts until after Monday’s contest in Ottawa, when they’re due. That game will also be televised on TSN.