Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First test tough: West Coast showdown will tell a lot about Blue

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Ready or not, here they come.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers open their 2012 CFL regular season this Friday night in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions -- which also happens to be the same place they finished the 2011 season.

The Lions and Bombers met at BC Place in the 99th Grey Cup last November and what emerged from a 34-23 Lions victory that night was that while the Bombers could take consolation in being the second-best team in the league in 2011, they were a clear second-best to the Lions.

B.C. was head and shoulders above the other seven teams in the CFL, including Winnipeg, in the latter half of the 2011 season, and what was crystal-clear on Grey Cup night was Winnipeg would have to get better this season if they're going to end a Grey Cup drought now old enough to legally drink in every jurisdiction in North America.

Well, did they? Is this fledgling 2012 Bombers team better than the 2011 edition that took their fans on a roller-coaster ride through a season that saw the club open at 7-1, go 3-7 down the stretch, then win the East final to advance to the Grey Cup for the first time since 2007?

We'll see. What is clear is that with key injuries to starting offensive tackle Andre Douglas, starting slotback Cory Watson, starting weak-side linebacker Marcellus Bowman and, oh yeah, a season-ending injury this week to starting tailback Chris Garrett, this is not the team head coach Paul LaPolice intended to head into battle with when training camp opened June 3.

But it's the team LaPolice has and, for better or worse, they're going to get potentially their toughest test right out of the gate against a Lions team many believe has actually somehow improved over last year's late-season juggernaut.

Here's how things break down heading into Friday night:

 

OFFENCE

 

STARTERS OUT: OL Brendon LaBatte (signed by Saskatchewan); WR Greg Carr (signed by Edmonton); C Obby Khan (retired); OL Andre Douglas (injured); SB Cory Watson (injured); RB Chris Garrett (injured, out for season)

 

STARTERS IN: OL Chris Greaves; WR Chris Matthews; C Chris Kowalczuk; OL Jordan Taormina; SB Rory Kohlert; RB Bloi-Dei Dorzon

 

THE SKINNY: There were all kinds of question marks about the offensive line coming into training camp, given the off-season departures of LaBatte and Khan. Those questions have only grown with the injury to Douglas (as well as a nagging injury to tackle Glenn January that kept him out of the second half of practice Wednesday).

Members of the Bombers' coaching staff think the new young hogs can play and will be able replacements. But if finding replacements on the offensive line is that simple, how come Saskatchewan is paying LaBatte the better part of $200,000 a season to play for them this year?

Offensively, the Bombers can only improve with a new scheme under a new blue-chip offensive co-ordinator in Gary Crowton. A healthy Kito Poblah this season would be a huge new weapon for starting QB Buck Pierce, while WR Chris Matthews has the potential to have everyone forgetting all about Carr.

The loss of Garrett so close to the start of the regular season hurts, but undersized import running backs aren't exactly hard to find. For the moment, the replacement is Bloi-Dei Dorzon. Behind him waits a bona fide former NFLer in Chad Simpson. And behind them, if the need is still there, the list is almost endless.

There's nothing quick about installing a whole new offensive scheme. But the potential seems to be there.

 

PROGNOSIS: Good things are usually worth waiting for.

 

DEFENCE

 

STARTERS OUT: DT Doug Brown (retired); DE Odell Willis (traded to Saskatchewan); LB Clint Kent (released); LB Marcellus Bowman (injured)

 

STARTERS IN: DT Brandon Collier; DE Alex Hall; LB Brandon Stewart; LB Dustin Doe

 

THE SKINNY: The Winnipeg secondary that gave CFL quarterbacks nightmares in 2011 -- led by the first defensive back ever to win the league outstanding defensive player award, Jovon Johnson -- is back for another go-round. They're more or less intact, with the only notable change the shift by Stewart from halfback to SAM, replacing Kent. Johnny Sears, who looked great when he wasn't injured in 2011, takes over Stewart's spot at half, with Demond Washington -- who LaPolice on Wednesday called the most pleasant surprise of this year's training camp -- waiting in the wings.

The front seven is a bit like the offensive line -- a big question mark coming into camp and an even bigger one thanks to the injury to Bowman, the release of Kent and the addition of two CFL novices to the front four in Hall and Collier. With Brown now retired, the club has committed to the non-import tandem of Pierre-Luc Labbe and Henoc Muamba at middle linebacker, giving it the flexibility to play an all-import defensive line. That's going to mean the club is going to be counting on a big push from those front-four imports -- and for someone to make up the 13 sacks that Willis recorded last year.

 

Prognosis: It's all about the rush.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

 

PUNT RETURNER: Chad Simpson (once he gets healthy); by committee at the moment

 

THE SKINNY: With Simpson still ailing (leg), the Bombers used a combination of Sears, Washington and slotback Clarence Denmark to run back kicks and punts on Wednesday during their final full practice before facing the Lions Friday. Whoever they decide to ultimately use as the returner -- and it's almost always a combination of people -- the days of Johnson being the club's go-to returner appear to be done.

The kicking game will once again be handled by placekicker Justin Palardy and punter Mike Renaud. The pair got a pretty good scare put into them during training camp by Eric Wilbur, but at the end of the day, their play and Canadian passports were good enough to earn both of them a chance to show they were better than last year and something more akin to the form they showed in 2010.

 

PROGNOSIS: Moving up.

 

ONE BIG QUESTION

 

WHAT effect will opening the regular season with four straight games on the road have on the club?

The conventional wisdom is this could be a nightmare scenario for a team that is banged up right now and also still very much a work in progress. How's this for another take: If it's going to take a couple weeks to get healthy and work out the kinks anyway, you might as well be doing it on the road against a couple of very good clubs in B.C. this week and Montreal next week. Even if the Bombers get killed in both games, it's not like they would have counted visits to those two stadiums as gimme victories anyway, even if they were in mid-season form.

With those games under their belt, two more clearly winnable road games for Winnipeg loom after that in Edmonton and Toronto, who are the picks of many right now to be the two teams who don't make the playoffs this season. Put it all together and a 1-3 or even 2-2 record to open the season -- particularly with four straight home games after that -- is very doable and would be very manageable, particularly in a season where a lot of parity in the East might mean 10-8 gets first place again, just like last year.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2012 C3

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