Whether or not the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ six-game winning streak is necessarily indicative of the team’s contending chances or not, these weeks of winning have allowed Mike O’Shea’s team to discover itself as the wins piled up.
All winning teams have an identity. It might root from a coaching philosophy or a collective attitude, but the players and coaches buy in and have confidence in the process. There’s a direct correlation between the last time the Bombers had an evident team identity and the last time this city saw a winning football team before 2016 – the Swaggerville era of 2011.
The Bombers have sorely lacked any sort of an identity in O’Shea’s first two seasons, with inconsistencies on both side of the ball and plenty of player turnover. A different unit would be at fault in every loss, and the recipe for success was just not clear with that group of players and coaches. Whether Kyle Walters assembled the right group of players, or simply the veteran players and coaches gelled in year three, the Bombers know exactly who they are. And, unsurprisingly, this internal-discovery began when Matt Nichols took over the starting quarterback duties from Drew Willy.
With O’Shea holding onto his job by a thread with a 1-4 record in week six, Nichols helped the Bombers put 30 points on the board for the first time in over a calendar year as the Bombers handily took down the defending Grey Cup Champions in Commonwealth Stadium. And then something happened during the bye week. Or maybe it was sparked by the dominant win over the Tiger-Cats in the next game. Perhaps it clicked when defensive coordinator Richie Hall was forced to make considerable changes to his system following the Calgary game to accommodate for his injury-plagued, inexperienced secondary that really began to click despite rookies everywhere rather immediately.
Regardless, the Bombers found their identity somewhere during that time; an old-school football mentality with a turnover-hungry defense and run-first, ground-and-pound offense. Nichols is merely managing ball games – he’s thrown just one interception to seven touchdowns – as the defense and special-teams units consistently put the offense in healthy positions. Despite terrible red-zone production, the Bombers are still fifth in total points scored.
Field position has been generous for Nichols and the offense, as in his first full year as the Blue & Gold’s special-teams coordinator, O’Shea’s punt return team boasts the third-best return average in the league. Kevin Fogg, who’s had three touchdowns called back, has been electric as a punt returner, while free agent addition Justin Medlock has earned all of his hefty salary having booted a franchise-record of 22 consecutive field goals through the uprights. Equally as effective, meanwhile, has been O’Shea’s cover units. Their lone blemish was a late punt-return touchdown from Kendial Lawrence in the Labour Day Classic on a play where Medlock seemed to out-kick his coverage.
Running back Andrew Harris is currently the league’s second leading rusher with 677 yards, and has 17 more carries on the season than the next leading ‘back. The Bombers’ offensive line has dominated in both run-blocking and pass-blocking ever since Nichols became the starter, having allowed just 8 sacks in his 6 games. The difference could very well be rookie starter Travis Bond, who’s been the first player to solidify the left guard position since Chris Greaves was traded early last season. Bond was promoted onto the active roster after Canadian book-end Pat Neufeld was placed on the 6-game injured list following the Bombers’ home loss to Calgary in Willy’s final start. That pushed Jermarcus Hardrick out to right tackle, providing Nichols with three American blockers up front and the best starting offensive line possible given the Bombers’ personnel from training camp.
In a year of prolific passing offenses, the Bombers boast the league’s third-best record despite a middling offense thanks to the aerial attack. It’s been the defense, which has merely allowed just two more points than Calgary’s no. 1 ranked unit, that has shouldered the weight – an anomaly in 2016. Richie Hall’s defensive backfield has seriously clicked this season, having recorded 9 more interceptions than the next best team despite a slew of injuries. With rookie starters at boundary halfback (Kevin Fogg), both cornerback positions (CJ Roberts and Terrance Frederick) and safety (Canadian Taylor Loffler), the Bombers clearly boast an exceptional amount of young depth – and it’s contributing now.
A sore-spot in past seasons, the defensive line is finally taking pressure off the secondary, as Kyle Walters went out in free agency and acquired help for premiere pass-rusher Jamaal Westerman. Former Argo Euclid Cummings has been fantastic at the 3-tech position, while after each starting their respective seasons terribly, both defensive ends Shayon Green and Justin Cole have come around. This collapsing defensive line has played a huge role in the Bombers forcing a league-leading 39 turnovers – at least 10 more than the next best team. And while recording around six turnovers per game won’t be sustainable against the league’s elite teams, the Bombers defense has shown capabilities of dominating opponents without the turnovers. For reference, Hall’s unit forced just one defensive turnover – a strip by Kevin Fogg on rookie receiver Caleb Holley – while limiting Darian Durant’s offense to 288 net yards and 10 points in the Banjo Bowl. This swarming defense has excelled with and without its top corners, Johnny Adams and Chris Randle. Envisioning this defense together at full-health is scary for opponent offenses.
After taking care of lesser competition, the Bombers face a big test after one more should-be win against the Argonauts sans Ricky Ray. They’ll then face West Division opponents for four consecutive games with matches versus Calgary, Edmonton, and a home-and-home with the Lions.
It’ll be on this stretch where the Bomber faithful finds out if this team is true contenders with the current state of their odd winning ways in comparison to the league’s other dominant teams.
There may not be smoke-n-mirrors surrounding this team – the Bombers are beating the teams they’re supposed to beat – but whether or not they can hold their own against the best teams in the West remains to be seen.