June 23, 2017

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Blue Bombers have some work to do

Winnipeg becomes only team to post back-to-back ties since pre-season shrunk to two games

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Darvin Adams had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Darvin Adams had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers battled to a second straight no-decision in their pre-season finale Thursday, finishing the exhibition schedule with a 38-38 tie against the Edmonton Eskimos at Investors Group Field. The game came less than a week after the Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders ended their tilt in Regina with a 25-25 draw. Winnipeg is the only team since 1986, when the CFL reduced the pre-season from four games to two, to finish with back-to-back ties.

Each game provided a healthy dose of good and bad, with the focus for the Bombers now shifting to the regular season, when Winnipeg opens their schedule on the road against the Riders July 1. But before we do the same, here are five takeaways from Thursday’s game against the Eskimos.

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols throws under pressure from Edmonton Eskimos' Rykeem Yates during the first half  on Thursday.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols throws under pressure from Edmonton Eskimos' Rykeem Yates during the first half on Thursday.

Ties are for Father’s Day

After an uninspiring performance last week against Saskatchewan, Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols rebounded at home against the Eskimos in a big way.

Nichols, who was limited to just five completions for 32 yards in just more than a quarter of play against the Riders, was given a full half — and a full first-team lineup — against the Eskimos to find his groove. He completed passes to five different receivers, finishing the night with an impressive stat line: 19 for 24 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Nichols’ two scores — a seven-yard strike to Clarence Denmark and another to Darvin Adams that travelled 43 yards to the end zone — came on his final drives before halftime, tying the game 17-17 through two quarters.

It should be noted the Eskimos were without six starters on defence, including their three best defenders in defensive end Odell Willis, defensive tackle Almondo Sewell and linebacker J.C. Sherritt. But a lack of quality competition aside, Nichols hoped to use this game to sustain drives and build confidence in the offence — and he was able to do just that.

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols hands off to Andrew Harris during the first half against the Edmonton Eskimos, Thursday.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols hands off to Andrew Harris during the first half against the Edmonton Eskimos, Thursday.

Harris has some left in the tank

Andrew Harris proved against the Eskimos he still has plenty left to give to the game of football. Harris, who turned 30 in April and is entering his eighth season in the CFL, brought his usual high energy to the offence in his 2017 debut. His impact was immediate, with Harris rushing for 15 yards on the Bombers’ second play of the game.

Four plays later, he reeled in a 33-yard catch for another first down, showing off his versatility and helping set up a field goal on the Bombers’ opening drive. Harris finished the game with five carries for 41 yards, and caught four passes for another 49 through the air.

Harris will once again play a big role under offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice’s offence — as long as he can remain healthy. If Harris does suffer an injury, the Bombers look to be in good hands with Timothy Flanders as the backup.

When Harris was sidelined for three games in 2016, Flanders played well in relief, proving, like Harris, an ability to contribute on the ground and through the air. Under some pressure with the emergence of rookie Kendall Roberson, Flanders has used the pre-season to solidify his standing as the No. 2 back. In two pre-season games, Flanders has rushed for a combined 95 yards — including a 46-yard TD against Edmonton – and added 56 yards on six catches.

 

Edmonton Eskimos' Bryant Mitchell is brought down by Winnipeg Blue Bombers' (left to right) Tristan Okpalaugo, Sam Hurl and Ian Wild Thursday evening at Investors Group Field.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Edmonton Eskimos' Bryant Mitchell is brought down by Winnipeg Blue Bombers' (left to right) Tristan Okpalaugo, Sam Hurl and Ian Wild Thursday evening at Investors Group Field.

Defence struggles

The most troubling part of Thursday’s outing was the play of the first-team defence. Playing against an Eskimos offence that was missing 10 of its 12 projected starters — including quarterback Mike Reilly, receiver Adarius Bowman and running back John White, as well as many on the offensive line — the Bombers looked nothing like the ball hawks they proved to be in 2016, when they led the league with a +29 turnover ratio.

Instead, their effort reminded fans of what ailed the defence last season. The Bombers averaged the most yards against of any defence in the CFL a year ago, and the signs that it could be an issue again this season were on full display. Led by backup QB James Franklin, the Eskimos put up 237 yards of net offence in the first half. The new-look defensive line was unable to pressure Franklin, who, with time in the pocket, was able to pick apart the secondary for a number of deep throws, including three that eclipsed 20 yards.

Along with the D-line, the linebackers also struggled, both in coverage and at stopping the run. Sam Hurl did little to solidify his bid to start at middle linebacker, but neither did any of his competition. Hurl, who has earned a majority of the first-team reps in training camp, is in a battle with Kyle Knox. But with a combined three tackles between the two, it’s hard to know who’s the front-runner at this point.

Thursday was (literally) Flag Day

The Bombers continue to shoot themselves in the foot with the number of penalties they’re taking. Against the Riders, the Bombers were flagged 12 times for a total of 117 yards — with many of those penalties either extending drives for their opponent or, as was the case late in the second quarter, wiping out a 70-yard punt return touchdown by Ryan Lankford.

On Thursday, the Bombers were even worse. In total, Winnipeg was called for 16 penalties for 205 yards (the Eskimos were flagged 18 times for 193 yards). Winnipeg took four penalties in the first series of the game, including a too-many-men call on third-and-10 that gave the Eskimos a new set of downs, followed by an offside flag on another third down deep in Bombers’ territory that helped set up a touchdown for Edmonton on the next play.

The Bombers have placed a strong emphasis throughout training camp on limiting the number of penalties taken. Some of the calls can be attributed to an influx of newcomers and their inevitable adjustment to the rules of the CFL. But those excuses won’t matter when the games start to count for real.

Alexander excels

There were two players that generated a lot of buzz heading into Thursday’s game: receiver T.J. Thorpe and defensive back Brandon Alexander.

Thorpe and Alexander earning most of the first-team reps all week prompted the extra attention. Thorpe lined up in the spot that had been designated for Clarence Denmark, while Alexander filled in at field corner following the release of Terence Frederick.

The Bombers were impressed with what Thorpe was able to do in April’s mini-camp and throughout rookie camp. But an injury early into main camp limited him to just a few workouts before taking the field against the Eskimos. He wouldn’t last long, with the 24-year-old pulling up lame in the Bombers’ first series (he caught one pass for 15 yards). Thorpe was also expected to compete for a spot in the return game, but how quickly he’ll be able to return to the field will likely determine whether or not he sticks around.

As for Alexander, he was able to take full advantage of the opportunity. The 23-year-old showed off his tight defence after being tested a number of times early in the game. He finished with one knockdown and zero tackles, which is a good sign for someone in the secondary.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Read more by Jeff Hamilton.

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