September 3, 2015

Record: 3–6–0

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Blue Bomber Report

Heat warning in effect

Halfway to nobody knows

At the midway point (roughly) of the CFL season, it's hard to say where the Bombers will wind up... but here's what's working and what's not

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Drew Willy is one of the things that has gone right so far in the 2014 CFL season. He has led three late comeback victories.


Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Drew Willy is one of the things that has gone right so far in the 2014 CFL season. He has led three late comeback victories.

With a 5-3 record, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have one more game to go -- Friday at home against the Montreal Alouettes -- before they officially reach the halfway point of the 2014 CFL season.

But with the Bombers players on a three-day mini-vacation this week and the team mired in its first losing streak of the season after back-to-back losses to Saskatchewan and Toronto, there's no time like the present to reflect on some broader trends and figure out what's working on this team and what -- and who -- need to get better:

Blue Bombers kicker Lirim Hajrullahu has been shockingly good.


Blue Bombers kicker Lirim Hajrullahu has been shockingly good.


What's working well?


The Bombers starting quarterback hasn't been perfect, especially as the club has struggled through its most recent 2-3 stretch.

But even against that backdrop, Willy has already so vastly exceeded all reasonable expectations for a player who had started just four games in his professional career prior to this season it's easy to overlook whatever shortcomings have been on display in recent weeks and still call the Willy experiment an unmitigated success.

The Bombers were second in the league in team passing coming into this week and Willy had the fourth best QB rating in the league. His touchdown to interception ratio is marginal -- 10:7 (you want it to be at least 2:1) -- but that's been more than made up for by his ability to lead late-game comebacks that account for three of Winnipeg's five wins so far.



The Bombers placekicker/punter has been nothing short of spectacular in his rookie campaign.

His field goal percentage is the second highest in the league -- he's missed just once in 17 attempts -- and he's tied for the longest field goal in the CFL this season at 51 yards.

On top of that, he is averaging the longest kickoffs in the league coming into this week -- something that had been a big problem for the Bombers in recent years.

His punting has been serviceable, but decidedly less spectacular -- his 43.5 yard average coming into this week was seventh in the league. But that's still better than his predecessor, Mike Renaud, however. Renaud was averaging 42.7 yards per punt when he took a seat earlier this season.



Tuesday's loss to the Toronto Argonauts at Rogers Centre was the first road loss for the Bombers this season after opening 3-0 on the road thanks to impressive come-from-behind wins in Montreal and Hamilton and an equally impressive manhandling of the B.C. Lions in Week 5.

What's been so-so


Winnipeg has been better on the road -- 3-1-- than at home, where they're 2-2 and riding a two-game losing streak.

That's the continuation of a trend at Investors Group Field, where the Bombers were 1-8 in their inaugural season in 2013 in their new building, but 2-7 on the road.

The team certainly cannot blame fan support this year. After spotty attendance in their first two home games -- which the Bombers won, curiously enough -- the crowd was big for Winnipeg's game against Edmonton last month and sold out entirely for the Bombers tilt against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Aug. 7. Winnipeg went 0-2 in that stretch.



The Bombers are 4-1 against the East Division this season, but just 1-2 against the West.

The good news is Winnipeg's one win over a West Division opponent this season -- 23-6 over the Lions at BC Place last month -- snapped a nasty 12-game losing streak for the Bombers in West Division stadiums dating back to 2011.

But it's going to take more than that if Winnipeg is going to make the playoffs now they're once again in the West Division. Seven of Winnipeg's final 10 regular-season opponents this season are in the West.



The Bombers slotback was the biggest and priciest free agent the club signed in the off-season and the question coming into this season was whether he would duplicate a career high season in 2013 that saw him finish third in the league with 1,105 receiving yards.

The early returns suggest he won't even come close unless he has a very big second half of the season. Moore was eighth in the league in receiving yards coming into this week with 22 catches for 320 yards.

The problem is he's been stuck at that mark for a month, having missed Winnipeg's last three games with a lingering foot injury sustained in Winnipeg's win in B.C. late last month. And Moore is also still looking for his first TD catch of the season, after hauling down six of them last year.

In contrast, Clarence Denmark has played every game this season and is having a career year. Denmark was second in the league in receiving yards coming into this week and his 33 catches for 514 yards and one TD through eight games have him on his way to what could be his first 1,000-yard season.

What needs work


With the Bombers running game last in average yards per game coming into this week and the club also third worst in quarterback sacks surrendered, there's been a lot of finger-pointing at the offensive line of late.

Tackle Glenn January made the case this week the pass protection and rushing problems are more complex and widespread than just the offensive line, which is probably true. And it's also true the O-line has been battered by injuries.

But at the end of the day, an offensive line has two basic responsibilities -- protect the quarterback on passing downs and open holes on running downs. The buck has to stop somewhere.



The defence? Yes, what was the very best part of this Bombers team during the first month of the season has become a bit of a liability in recent weeks as offensive co-ordinators around the league are beginning to figure out the unconventional defence being schemed by Bombers defensive co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry.

They've given up an average of 180 rushing yards the last two weeks. And it's not like it's just the run defence that has struggled either, as evidenced by the four TD passes Argos QB Ricky Ray threw against the Bombers secondary on Tuesday.

And on top of all that, the tackling has been horrendous.

If defence is going to win this team a championship this season, it's going to have to be better than it has been.



It's a credit to the resilience of this Bombers team they're 5-3 despite a turnover ratio of minus-7 that is the league-worst.

The good news is the Bombers have been winning despite the fact they've given up 19 turnovers in just eight games, while forcing just 12 themselves.

The bad news is their luck is going to inevitably run out if they keep pushing that issue in a league where the turnover battle is historically one of the most reliable predictors of victories and losses.

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 C1

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