Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blue banking on continuity

Depth chart hasn't changed much from 2012; braintrust hoping that's a good thing

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Tim Burke rolled the question around in his brain for a moment or two, but then didn't hesitate spitting out his answer.

Earlier this week -- the pre-season losses still burning and the focus quickly shifting to tonight's 2013 season opener -- the Winnipeg Blue Bomber boss was asked what he liked most about his squad.

He mentioned the relative health of the troops and the progression of his team's learning curve, especially in comparison to the beginning of 2012. But the first part of his answer was both revealing and, potentially, concerning for Bomber fans.

"I like we're more of a veteran group than what we've been in the past," said Burke. "That's going to definitely help us at the beginning of the year."

Yes, a quick glance at the depth chart tells us not a lot has changed from the team that went 6-12 last season. On offence, Buck Pierce returns at QB, the offensive line is the same. Chad Simpson is the tailback and there are some familiar faces in the receiving corps such as Terrence Edwards, Chris Matthews and Clarence Denmark.

On defence, Jason Vega bolted for the New England Patriots and linebacker Marcellus Bowman used free agency to leave for Hamilton and a spot on the nine-game injured list. Jonathan Hefney was punted during training camp and Cauchy Muamba replaces Ian Logan at safety. Even the specialists remain the same, with challenges to punter Mike Renaud and the audition of new kick returners during camp not yielding any new faces.

And so as the curtain rises on another campaign the Bombers are selling this as the basis for hope: the 2011 Eastern Division title wasn't a mirage as some would suggest, but the disaster of 2012 was. A few tweaks to the offence, a home game or two in the first chunk of the season and the fact the infirmary isn't overcrowded with wounded, they will have you believe, will make all the difference over the next four months... five if they make the playoffs for just the second time in the last five years.

Here's a deeper position-by-position look at the Bombers as the 2013 campaign opens...

 

QUARTERBACKS

STARTER: Buck Pierce*

RESERVES: Justin Goltz*, Max Hall*

KEY STAT: 14 -- Combined number of career CFL passes attempted by Goltz and Hall. We bring this up because... ah, hell, you know why.

ANALYSIS: Same story as last year and the year before that and the year before that: If Pierce can stay healthy, the Bombers have a shot at being competitive. The Bombers, as a team, threw for only 16 passing TDs a year ago. Even in 2011, when he helped guide the Bombers to the Grey Cup, Pierce's numbers were hardly jaw-dropping: 14 TDs against 18 picks and the seventh-best QB rating among starters. Bottom line, though: he is 34-27-1 in his career as a starter.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

STARTERS: Glenn January*, Chris Greaves, Justin Sorensen, Steve Morley, Shannon Boatman*

RESERVES: Paul Swiston, Chris Kowalczuk, Andre Douglas*

INJURED: Tyson Pencer (9-game)

KEY STAT: 6-7-7 -- The Bombers' ranking in sacks against over the past three seasons. Interestingly, in the four years previous, the Bombers ranked first or second in the fewest number of QB kills allowed.

ANALYSIS: The Bombers keep stressing that changes to the protection schemes -- Pierce will handle that now -- and the offensive blueprint will help bring this number down. This crew actually was playing considerably better at the end of last season both in its protection and its ability to control the line of scrimmage and open holes for Chad Simpson.

 

RUNNING BACKS

STARTERS: Chad Simpson*, Michel-Pierre Pontbriand (fullback)

RESERVES: Will Ford*, Carl Volny, Anthony Woodson, Carl Fitzgerald

INJURED: Chris Garrett*

KEY STAT: 6.0 -- Average gain per rush for Simpson. Only Toronto's Chad Kackert, who played in five less games and had 73 less carries, averaged more (6.4). Simpson rushed for 1,039 yards in just 14 games played last season.

ANALYSIS: Arguably the deepest, most-talented spot on the Bombers depth chart. Simpson should be a workhorse, but in Will Ford and Chris Garrett the club also has solid 1A and 1B options. As well, in Volny and Woodson the team's Canadian skill is outstanding.

 

RECEIVERS

STARTERS: Chris Matthews*, Terrence Edwards*, Clarence Denmark*, Jade Etienne, Cory Watson

RESERVES: Rory Kohlert, Isaac Anderson*, Wallace Miles*

INJURED: Kito Poblah, Doug Pierce*

KEY STAT: 1995/5 -- The last Bomber Canadian receiver to finish with a 1,000-yard season was Gerald Wilcox in 1995. In fact, of the 23 Bomber receivers to reach 1,000 yards since 1950, only five were Canadians: Wilcox 1993-95 (3); Joe Poplawski 1981, 1985-86 (3); Rick House 1981-82 (2); Bob Larose 1971 (1); and Ken Nielsen 1967-68 (2).

ANALYSIS: Lots of pieces here, too. Of course, getting the ball into their mitts hasn't been easy with a revolving door at QB last season. Even for all their struggles last year offensively, both Matthews and Edwards went over the 1K mark. This crew could be solid if Watson was to remain healthy.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

STARTERS: Alex Hall*, Bryant Turner*, JT Gilmore*, Kenny Mainor*

RESERVES: Ryan Lucas, Freddie Harris*, Zach Anderson *, Dexter Davis*

INJURED: Jake Thomas

KEY STAT: 34 -- The number of passing touchdowns surrendered by the Bomber defence, most in the CFL.

ANALYSIS: Not sure what to make of the front four, although the pieces appear to be there. Vega will be replaced by Mainor who, despite missing five games due to injury, finished with seven sacks and has 15 in 28 contests over the last two years. Gilmore and Turner should give the inside push to disrupt offences through the middle and Hall had nine sacks from his end. But Burke is not-so subtly hinting he wants more consistency.

 

LINEBACKERS

STARTERS: Terrell Parker*, Henoc Muamba, Desia Dunn*

RESERVES: Pierre-Luc Labbe, Rene Stephan, Ian Wild

INJURED: Johnny Sears, Jr.*

KEY STAT: 5-65-3 -- The juiciest numbers from Henoc Muamba's defensive stat line last year. The Bombers' young middle linebacker tied for the CFL lead in forced fumbles with five, added 65 tackles and three sacks.

ANALYSIS: A young and relatively inexperienced crew that will hardly have nostalgic fans recalling the days of Battle, West and Jones. Muamba, who is all of 24, is the most experienced of the three with 13 starts under his belt. This trio will likely get Sears, Jr. back for Week 2 and his return could be critical.

 

SECONDARY

STARTER: Jovon Johnson*, Alex Suber*, Cauchy Muamba, Brandon Stewart*, Demond Washington*

RESERVES: Wesley Pendleton*, Teague Sherman

KEY STAT: 11 -- Interceptions by the Bombers in 2012, lowest in the CFL. In their Grey Cup run in 2011, the Bombers led the league with 55 sacks and tied for first in picks with 25. Those numbers were down to 43-11 last season. Just by comparison, the last Bomber team to win a championship -- the 1990 squad -- set a CFL record that still stands with 48 interceptions. That year, Rod Hill (14) and Less Browne (12) had more interceptions individually than the Bombers did as a team last season.

ANALYSIS: This unit has been under the gun from Burke dating back to last year. It's already cost Jonathan Hefney his job here and Ian Logan was replaced in the off-season. Of course, this unit will look a lot more dominant with more heat from the front seven.

 

SPECIALISTS

KICKERS: Justin Palardy (PK); Mike Renaud (P)

LONG-SNAPPER: Chris Cvetkovic (LS)

RETURNERS: Jovon Johnson*, Will Ford*, Demond Washington*

RESERVES: Billy Pavlopoulos (P)

KEY STAT: 82.7 -- The career field-goal percentage for Justin Palardy, boosted after last year's 86.7 total. Palardy was a solid 92 per cent from the 40-yard ine and in, and five of eight (63 per cent) outside that.

ANALYSIS: Same old, same old in the kicking game. Renaud's 41.9-yard average was second-worst in the league and that, in part, is why Pavlopoulos is still here. There is game-breaking potential in the return game with Johnson, Ford and Washington.

*denotes import

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2013 D2

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