Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Riders represent true test of where Bombers stand

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Games between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rarely, if ever, require the services of a professional hype man.

If we were to go down that road in this week-seven showdown between last year's Grey Cup champions and this year's Cinderella story, the words of retired WWE superstar Ric Flair would best encapsulate the matchup: "If you wanna be the man, you gotta beat the man." Until the 2014 Grey Cup champions are crowned, like it or not, the Riders are still that man.

As surprising as this is to say, on paper at least, Thursday's contest looks improbably one-sided in favour of your hometown heroes. At the most critical position on the field, and a third of the way through the season, Bombers pivot Drew Willy is easily the West division's most outstanding player and has been slinging footballs with all the refinement of foie gras. In comparison to veteran Riders QB Darian Durant, Willy has played one more game, has thrown for 600 more yards with one fewer interception, has a QB rating that is 10 points higher, and a better pass-completion percentage by a six per cent margin.

Willy has also been slinging silk to a receiving core that has three players in the top 10 in the CFL in terms of yardage and receptions. Even though Nick Moore and Aaron Kelly have both missed games this season, in conjunction with Clarence Denmark, they have all been more productive than Rob Bagg, who is Saskatchewan's leading receiver and currently sits twelfth in the CFL in terms of production.

At running back, the comparison continues to look uneven. While Nic Grigsby is second in the CFL in rushing yards and has more carries than any other back, his counterpart on the Riders, Will Ford, wasn't even deemed good enough to break into the two-headed attack the Blue and Gold have been employing of late, and subsequently was sent adrift some three weeks ago.

Defensively, while the Bombers have given up 33 more points overall -- in an extra game -- the defensive dozen for the Blue and Gold is coming off its strongest performance, holding the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to just 218 total yards last week, and seem to be turning the corner in Gary Etcheverry's finger-strong defence.

The defensive backs for these two teams are pretty much a wash, and the front fours are a pick 'em. As impressive as John Chick, Ricky Foley and Tearrius George have been, the majority of their production came in a week-one sack fest against Hamilton, where they picked up 10 QB kills. Winnipeg counters with a rotation of Greg Peach, Bryant Turner Jr., Zach Anderson and Jason Vega, who have been at least as disruptive, if not more so, than the Saskatchewan fab four this season.

That being said, what makes the Riders' visit to IGF this Thursday noteworthy and potentially problematic for the Bombers?

To start with, after a lacklustre beginning the Riders have routed their last two opponents by a margin of 75 to 23. Sure, they were both soft-serve East division teams, but that does not mean the Riders won't be a confident bunch when they travel east with their crew of combines.

The offensive lines may prove to be the biggest determinant in the outcome of the game. The Riders have started the same group all season, and their pedigree boasts three first-round, farm-fed draft picks at the guard and tackle positions, one of the nastiest centres in the game, and a lone American, who was formerly a fifth-round NFL draft pick.

Ford may not have been deemed healthy or talented enough to play for the Bombers this season, but behind that line he is already averaging a yard more per carry than Grigsby and has more touchdowns to boot.

It is no disrespect to the offensive line the Bombers put on the field to concede the Saskatchewan defensive front four doesn't have the same magnitude of challenges in front of them as their Winnipeg counterparts do. Not only are the Riders hogs equally good at pass protection and bull dozing, but when one of the Bombers front four, three or two (you never know in Etcheverry's scheme) does break free, they face a QB that can be highly effective when scrambling.

We have already witnessed enough from the Bombers this year to be awestruck by their unforeseen turnaround. Yet if they want to be considered legitimate contenders, a win against the reigning title holders, who are once again playing like champions, might even convince the likes of Ric Flair.

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2014 $sourceSection0

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