Bombers’ Bye Week Comes at Perfect Time for Team Looking to Peak

For a team looking to play their best football of the season to both solidify the second seed in the West as well as enter the playoffs at their peak potential, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ bye week could not have come at a better time.

Coming off a gutsy comeback win at BC Place Stadium, Mike O’Shea’s group especially needed the bye week to help shorten their injured lists, with several players battling week-to-week injuries and others in need of one last week to return from longer-term ailments. In the young week of practice since resuming from their break, the early returns of the bye week have been promising for the Bombers in preparation for their week 19 tilt against Ottawa.

Both weak-side linebacker Ian Wild and nickel linebacker Maurice Leggett seemed to have benefited from the week off, as the two have suited up for consecutive practices. Wild has been on and off the active roster recently, battling some sort of hindering injury. Leggett, meanwhile, also missed the Bombers’ last game despite returning late in their week 16 game after suffering a then-seemingly serious knee injury early in the second half. With the week off, Leggett’s injury is likely a thing of the past. Wild should be good to go against the Redblacks, too.

The upcoming home-and-home with Ottawa features two important games for the Blue and Gold. Of course the Bombers, who have long clinched a playoff spot, and likely won’t finish lower than third in the West, desperately want that home playoff game, but they also need to put together a complete, all-around dominating performance. That hasn’t occurred since the win over Hamilton in week 8, really.

The Bombers have yet to hit their peak in 2016. Either the defense forces an absurd amount of turnovers and the offense does enough – but nothing spectacular – in approximately a 250-yard passing game, or Matt Nichols and the offense plays great and the defense holds them back (see recent loss versus Edmonton). The latter of which has rarely taken place in 2016 – the offense has been good, not great – but seeing as the first situation has been their most common recipe to success, it’s succeeded more times than it’s caught up to bite the Bombers in the rear. Regardless, it’s time the team reached its peak, with the offense firing on all cylinders, going beyond simply benefiting from turnovers, while the defense continues their ball-hawking ways – all in the same game. That’s where they’ll need to be in the playoffs.

With the injury report looking quite favorable in return from the bye week, the time is now for the Bombers. The offense will get a significant boost in the return of Darvin Adams, who’s been out since week 6 with a collarbone injury. With newly-signed additions Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith still finding their place in the offense, and Drew Willy struggling mightily at quarterback, Adams was single-handily carrying the Bombers’ offense at one point. The Auburn University product was on a tear to start the season, accumulating 503 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games to open his second campaign in Winnipeg. Adams will draw in for newly-signed pass-catcher Tori Gurley at the X-position, who still needs time to perfect that play-book. Offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice, meanwhile, probably still needs more time and another game before deciding which slot-back between Clarence Denmark and Smith will be pulled from the roster to make room for Gurley down the stretch, if the Bombers do, indeed, go that route. Adams’ insertion directly into Gurley’s spot continues the recent theme of a bigger-bodied receiver at boundary wide receiver, who can stretch the field and offer their quarterback a larger catch radius on lower-percentage throws.

Along with Adams, the Bombers received more positive news from the long-term injury front, with versatile Canadian offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld returning to practice for the first time since going down in week five against Calgary. The timing couldn’t be any better for the club, as with RG Sukh Chungh on the 1-game following the win against the Lions, it means they now won’t have to… a) keep not one, but two of their bona-fide starting international receivers on the sidelines for a seventh Canadian starter so the Bombers can start a fourth American on the line in Manase Foketi… and b) press rookie Canadian Michael Couture into the starting lineup, as the Simon Fraser product has shown he needs more seasoning in a depth role before being a starter, even in a one-game scenario.

Neufeld returning to the field following the bye week in time to replace an injured starter is perfect timing, as was the bye week itself. The team needs to reach their peak potential, and it’s now late in the season. The playoffs are just around the corner.

The Blue and Gold are undoubtedly getting healthy at the right. So the question remains: will they play their best football of the season at the right time, though?

Darvin Adams (4) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the pre-season game at TD Place in Ottawa, ON on Monday June 13, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Darvin Adams (4) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the pre-season game at TD Place in Ottawa, ON on Monday June 13, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

Free-Agent Gurley Could Be Missing Ingrediant in Bombers’ Offense

In need of a late-season pickup to bolster their roster for a run at the Grey Cup, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers may have had a perfect fit fall right into their lap.

With Darvin Adams still recovering from a broken collar-bone, the Bombers need an injection of size and talent in their receiving corps immediately.

Insert Tori Gurley, who appears to be everything the Bombers need right now from a physical stand-point. The 28-year-old stands 6’4″ and weighs 230-lbs, and it just so happens that he who should be “their guy” is suddenly a free-agent that Winnipeg could add for the stretch run.

In what was the case of management removing all toxins from the locker-room with their season all but over, Gurley was one of four talented Toronto Argonauts’ receivers released on Monday following their ugly loss to the Montreal Alouettes in week 14. With a good locker-room that’s stable under the foundation of solidified leadership, Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters has likely expressed some level of interest in inking one of these big-bodied play-makers to bolster his receiving corps for a playoff run. It sure appears as though all three of them come with varying levels of baggage, but the Bombers aren’t setting themselves up for any sort of long-term commitment to a problem child here, and there’s enough talent offered to justify taking a flier on a player they can cut at any time if they don’t fit into the locker-room complexion.

Gurley, who might just be the least problematic of the Big-Three, is someone the Bombers need to sign if they’re serious about giving QB Matt Nichols the weapons to make a Grey Cup run.

Essentially a much better version of injured pass-catcher Gerrard Sheppard, Gurley appears to be the absolute prototype for the Y-receiver position in Paul Lapolice’s offense. He produced incredible numbers at the Z-receiver position in his rookie CFL season, hauling in 791 yards and a league-leading 10 receiving touchdowns. Gurley is a high-level talent who appears to check off every box from a physical and talent stand-point for Lapolice’s ideal inside slot-back at the Y-receiver spot.

For an idea of how I think Lapolice wants to use his inside field slot-back, here’s a look at Sheppard’s first-half route-tree from the Labour Day Classic game. Sheppard was motioned into the backfield to pass-protect twice – however there were games where the now-released Jace Davis was asked to pass protects upwards of 7 times – and played near the box on a lot of run plays. The majority of Sheppard’s routes were short ones across the middle, but considering how willing Lapolice is to aligning his Y-receiver in different spots, expect Gurley’s route tree to include more deep routes if he became a Blue Bomber.

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Sheppard lined up mostly as the most inside slot-back to the wide-side, but also ran one route from tight end, two from field wide receiver, two as the front receiver in a stack formation, one as the point-player in a bunch formation and one from boundary wide receiver, which was a back-side fade in the end-zone. On that play, Nichols and the offensive line performed a half-roll to the left before Nichols looked back to his right and threw a perfect pass over the back-shoulder that Sheppard dropped, leaving six points off the board before half-time.

That was a play that Gurley consistently made with the Argos.

From a schematic standpoint, Gurley is a perfect fit – he can block, he’s sure-handed, he wins at the catch-point and he can use his 230-lb frame to box-out defenders. He also provides the Bombers with a big-bodied deep-threat for while Darvin Adams remains injured, and with four receivers under 6-feet currently starting, the Bombers are solely lacking a player like that right now.

The only thing that could be making the Bombers hesitate is the chance that Gurley’s attitude becomes a detriment to the locker-room. The Bombers have mentioned plentifully on how they value the importance of high-character guys, and the Argos wouldn’t cut such a talented player if he didn’t have a poor attitude. Although there’s a chance Gurley becomes a toxin, signing him to a one-year contract (so the remaining four regular season games and then playoffs) is still low-risk, high-reward. Gurley, who’d probably come for fairly cheap, could be cut at at any time, while the Bombers already appear to have a strong foundation of leadership established in the locker-room to be able to handle one poor-character player. Being released mid-season may also serve as a wake-up call for the former Green Bay Packer, and being separated from Vidal Hazelton and Kevin Elliott may help him, too. Waters are quite hot on losing teams anyway, and Gurley would be entering a locker-room with a high morale in Winnipeg.

Signing Gurley would not jeopardize that strong locker-room that Walters and Mike O’Shea built, and at some point, the Bombers must understand that, problematic or not, these former Toronto Argonauts’ receivers are going to help them win.

It’s playoff time, and Matt Nichols needs weapons if the Bombers want to knock off the Lions and Stampeders. Nichols desperately needs that big-bodied, red-zone threat in particular, and that’s Tori Gurley.

Michael Bell / the Regina LeaderPost (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)
Michael Bell / the Regina LeaderPost (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)

Struggles in Trenches Cost Bombers Second Consecutive Game

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were sure to point out how penalties played a role in their most recent 40-26 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos, which awarded the Green & Gold the season series and playoff tie-breaker. There’s no doubt the Bombers shot themselves in the foot at times, with plays such as Weston Dressler’s red-zone fumble swaying the momentum and taking points off the board.

These are all quite general, blame-it-on-yourself excuses that, while certainly legitimate factors in the Bombers losing, don’t acknowledge the fact that the Eskimos were simply the better team on Friday night. Going beyond the penalty troubles, there was one true underlying reasoning for the Eskimos coming away with a huge win – their dominance in the trenches on offense.

This was the second straight week the Bombers’ front-seven cost their team dearly, granting the opposing quarterback ample time in the pocket while also allowing the second 100-yard rushing game in the last three games.

Eskimos’ running back John White averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry on Friday night, rushing for over 100 yards in his return to the starting lineup. QB Mike Reilly, meanwhile, was only pressured on 18.2% of his drop-backs in the rubber-match of the season series, with an average time of 2.56 seconds to throw, which is simply too much time for an elite quarterback to have in the pocket.

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This is the second consecutive week that the front-seven has been completely dominated. Unsurprisingly, the Bombers are 0-2 in their last two games when the opposition’s quarterback has time to re-read the play-call on his wristband post-snap before the pressure gets to him.

The Bombers’ pass-rush was better this week than it was at Calgary, but six pressures on 41 total drop-backs is still nearly unfathomable. Five quarterback hits and two sacks are both good numbers – the Bombers didn’t get home for a sack once last week against Bo Levi Mitchell – but they need to be considerably more consistent.

The Bombers didn’t blitz much against Edmonton, choosing instead to play coverage in hopes of slowing down the likes of Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker. Defensive coordinator Richie Hall called a much more passive game overall one week after the Stamps exploited the Bombers’ cover-1 man-to-man, consistently beating the blitz often before it had a chance.

Jamaal Westerman and Justin Cole were simply not effective enough at defensive end this game. Although Westerman notched a huge sack on second-down in the fourth quarter, together they only recorded one pressure each – that’s not close to good enough, especially against Mike Reilly.

With two hits and one pressure, Euclid Cummings – the Bombers’ interior pass-rush specialist – had a decent game. The Bombers had Cummings play defensive end on numerous occasions, and I was thoroughly impressed with the sheer athleticism he showed on the edge for a 298-lb defensive tackle. Regardless, the Bombers’ decision to only dress three actual defensive ends – as opposed to the four they usually deploy – hurt more than it helped, with Cummings being forced to play out wide and giving Westerman literally no plays off.

The Bombers’ front-seven had been solid all year long up until this recent stretch of two consecutive losses to Alberta foes. A middle-of-the-pack team in terms of rushing yards allowed and opponent’s average yards-per-rush, the Bombers were also an average team with 26 sacks in 12 games. These statistics might not give the Bombers’ front-four quite enough credit, though. Sacks, for example, are not necessarily an accurate measurement of the effectiveness of a pass-rush – hurries and pressures are more indicative – and likely undervalues the play of the Bombers’ pass-rush during their seven-game win streak.

The Bombers have quietly been a mediocre defense against the run. Stout one week but bad the next, their run defense has been mostly hit-or-miss. Cummings and nose tackle Keith Shologan were brought in through free agency to dramatically improve a sluggish interior, and while the Bombers have had some poor games stopping the run, it’d be difficult to justify faulting the defensive line more than the inside linebackers. Veteran weak-side linebacker Ian Wild has had an up-and-down season, and last week’s tilt was one of his down games.

Under no circumstances did the defensive line play a great game against the run – in fact, this was a rather poor game by the standard they set themselves. Westerman was solid as an edge defender, but we’re accustomed to see him going above and beyond in this facet of the game, and he didn’t do much of the sort against an Edmonton offensive line that is really coming together.

The Eskimos didn’t use much misdirection against the Bombers, but rather a plethora of pulling guards and tackles. The Eskimos seemed to run several different plays off one concept that the Bombers could not stop – a combination of counter trey and outside zone.

White’s mesh-point resembled that of an outside zone play, except the Eskimos often pulled both backside lineman. Though they would do so on certain runs later in the game, the play-side offensive lineman did not always down-block to pick up the defenders on the backside. They changed it up as the game went on to keep Westerman honest, but the play-side defensive end was not left for the pulling guard. The Eskimos often had fullback Mike Miller on the backside, and with the mesh-point being out wide, the pulling linemen could simply lead-block up the gap or around the edge for White. The Eskimos ran a few different variances of this concept – including two with an unbalanced offensive line – and it was a concept that the Bombers could not stop.

The Bombers needed good run support from their defensive backs and linebackers to contain the Esks’ game-plan, and Wild certainly had his issues. Khalil Bass had a solid game filling gaps, absorbing blocks and scraping from the backside – unlike Wild, that is. His 10 tackles are an awfully high number, but Wild missed a lot of plays that needed to be made. It’s well-known that Bass is considerably more physical between the tackles – that’s why he was moved to middle linebacker this year – and it showed against Edmonton.

Below is an example of a play that good linebackers need to make. Wild is the back-side linebacker on this trap play, and must scrape towards the play and allow the ball-carrier to commit to a gap before attacking. Bass eats the block from the pulling left tackle, giving way for Wild to make the stop assuming he beats C Justin Sorensen to the point of attack. Unfortunately, Wild over-pursues and does not get big enough in the hole. While Sorensen was an impeding thorn in his side, the Bombers needed Wild to make a good play on White late in the fourth quarter. He could not. This is a play that Khalil Bass consistently makes. 

As a group, the Bombers’ front-seven is struggling down the stretch. They indicated a potential step back in their run-defense when Brandon Whitaker rushed for 100 yards in week 13, and have since lost their pass-rushing abilities, too. This front-seven is full of ultra-talented players, and have certainly proven to be a solid group this season.

They’re simply in a funk right now, and will need to return to form immediately seeing as every game has playoff implications – they cost the Bombers two crucial losses already.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS. (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO. ALL CREDIT TO THE AFOREMENTIONED ABOVE).
JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS. (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO. ALL CREDIT TO THE AFOREMENTIONED ABOVE).