Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whipping exposes abundant flaws

Blue shortcomings ignored until now

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The cliché -- and we peddle that commodity shamelessly in these parts -- is winning fixes everything.

But in the case of these suddenly enigmatic Winnipeg Blue Bombers, you could also argue -- judging by all the evidence from Thursday's 26-3 shellacking at the hands of the Edmonton Eskimos -- all the early winning this Bombers team did this season also papered over some glaring flaws.

Those flaws -- poor pass protection, too many turnovers, dumb penalties, spectacularly inconsistent special teams -- were in ample evidence this season long before they were laid so bare by the Eskimos at Investors Group Field.

It's just no one was paying much attention -- until now -- because the Bombers were 3-0.

Let's remember, Bombers QB Drew Willy was already running for his life long before he ever set foot on the field Thursday night against the Eskimos. Indeed, take away that last -minute, fourth-quarter, game-winning drive in Montreal two weeks ago and the woeful state of the Bombers pass protection would have been the main storyline heading into the Edmonton game.

But winning fixes everything, so it was a subplot in the deep background instead. Ditto the poor play of the special teams unit, which was fumbling and missing converts this season long before they gave up a fake punt to the Eskimos in the fourth quarter Thursday night that effectively sealed the Edmonton win.

Turnovers? Winnipeg lost the turnover battle Thursday for the third time this season -- it was just the first two times they defied long odds to win anyway. (How long were those odds? Coming into this season, the Bombers were 4-51 since 2008 when they lost the turnover battle.)

Bad penalties? The Bombers had an eye-popping 34 of them during their first three games, long before Demond Washington was karate-chopping Mike Reilly over the head in the second quarter Thursday to give Edmonton a fresh set of downs inside the Bombers' five-yard line.

But here's a wrinkle -- instead of wringing a city's collective hands, how about this as a glass-half-full way of looking at Thursday's loss:

If the first step in getting better is facing up to your problems, then the Bombers just had their first real long, hard, 60-minute look in the mirror, courtesy of the Eskimos. They cannot have liked what they saw.

So where do they go from here? Well, in the simplest terms, they go to B.C., where they play Friday against the Lions at BC Place, a stadium where the home team has lost just three times since the fall of 2011 and where Winnipeg is 1-5 in its last six visits.

If that daunting prospect doesn't lend some urgency to the problem-fixing this Bombers team needs right now, nothing will.

But the good news is some of Winnipeg's problems do seem quickly fixable -- stop taking dumb penalties and start hanging on to the ball, for starters.

And you have to figure on a team where the CEO, GM and head coach are all proud former special teams players, that area of the Bombers game is going to get better soon, if only by osmosis.

And the O-line? Well, injured left guard Chris Greaves -- and his non-import status -- should be back in the lineup sooner than later and that will be an instant upgrade on his replacement the last two weeks, import Cordaro Howard.

But the Bombers pass protection problems run deeper than Greaves's absence -- or even just the offensive line. On one play Thursday night, Winnipeg used a double tight-end formation -- and an Eskimos' pass rusher still got loose and laid a hellacious hit on Willy.

That's a big and complicated and incredibly difficult problem to be fixing mid-season, in other words. The stakes couldn't be higher -- and they were on clear display Thursday when Willy showed up for his post-game news conference with an ice pack wrapped around his left ankle.

Willy downplayed the injury, saying the ankle got "rolled on" during the game and it wouldn't be an issue in the coming week. But next time -- and there will be a next time if a man who's already been sacked 15 times continues to have to run for his life -- the ice pack on Willy's ankle might be exchanged for a cast.

If that happens to a Bombers team whose two backup QBs have precisely zero games of CFL experience, all these other problems will suddenly be the least of Winnipeg's problems.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 C1

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