Players pumped to have Nichols back behind centre

Matt Nichols isn’t taking for granted his return to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers lineup Saturday against the visiting B.C. Lions.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/07/2018 (1676 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Matt Nichols isn’t taking for granted his return to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers lineup Saturday against the visiting B.C. Lions.

Missing the first three weeks of the CFL regular season after suffering a knee injury late in training camp had the starting quarterback going a bit stir crazy. While Nichols remained engaged with the team throughout his rehab, the hardest part he said was watching the Bombers do battle on the road, forced to stay at home and watch the game on TV.

“It was honestly really difficult. I’m yelling at the TV. My wife and kids did a watch party with the other wives, just so I could focus on the game,” Nichols said following Friday’s walk-through. “The first game I had both my daughters crawling all over me, and I was not even really looking at them, just staring at the TV. Basically being just an awful father for a couple of hours.

“I was so locked in on the game. And I had a pit in my stomach, like I was doing something wrong. Not a good feeling. Even if I wasn’t playing, I wanted to be there with the guys and help at halftime, help on the sidelines. More than anything, just being back and being with the guys and being able to compete with them on game day is everything to me.”

After it was announced earlier this week that Nichols was cleared to play, an instant boost seemed to come over the team. It’s nothing against Chris Streveler, the 23-year-old rookie pivot who played admirably in relief duty, but players say Nichols brings a whole other feel to the huddle.

“It’s definitely a different dynamic. Our game plan totally changes with him in there, which is getting back to how we used to play,” Bombers running back Andrew Harris said. “That’s not saying anything against Streveler but we had to change how we did things for a bit.”

With that, here are five storylines to keep in mind for Saturday’s game.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols.

NICHOLS GOOD TO GO

Though the Bombers were able to tread water with Streveler at quarterback, posting a 1-2 mark through three games and averaging the most points (31.7) as an offence in the CFL, having Nichols back under centre brings a calming familiarity to the group.

“Just makes my job easier. I know sometimes I get in my stance and there’s something new with the defence and I know me and Matt see it and I don’t have to turn around,” said Bombers right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick. “Sometimes I had to turn around and tell Chris (Streveler) something. We all have to. It’s nothing against him; he just hasn’t seen the look before. It just takes that split second away that I can do my job even easier.”

Hardrick, among others, admitted it was tough to watch his quarterback go down with a non-contact injury. But that hasn’t stopped the O-line him from preaching the importance of keeping Nichols upright on Saturday, which means protecting him at all costs against a sturdy Lions’ rush led by Odell Willis and Gabe Knapton.

“I don’t care if it’s not pretty, as long as he’s not getting hit. Sometimes you throw your ankle, throw your knee,” added Hardrick. “There’s rules out there, but there’s no rules keeping No. 15 up, I’ll tell you that. He plays the same way for us.”

Nichols will wear a brace on his right knee, making it the first time in his professional career he’s had to wear additional protective gear. He said it wouldn’t affect the way he plays, or restrict his mobility, adding he’s fully recovered from the injury.

“I fully expect to go out there and perform right away,” Nichols said. “I wouldn’t be going out there if I didn’t feel like I was going to be giving my team a great chance to win.”

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Blue Bombers Adarius Bowman is assured to get the ball when Matt Nichols returns to the lineup.

A PERFECT STORM FOR AIR ATTACK?

What Nichols should also bring is the chemistry he’s built with a receivers group that underwent a makeover in the off-season but has sputtered at times so far this year.

Adarius Bowman (eight catches for 70 yards, no touchdowns), Darvin Adams (six for 107 yards, one touchdown), and Weston Dressler (12 for 153 yards, one touchdown) have struggled to put up the kind of significant performances you’d expect from an experienced unit. In fact, Winnipeg doesn’t have a single receiver with a 100-yard game this season.

Nichols believes that is about to change.

“They’re all going to get their touches,” he said. “I expect one, if not a couple, of those guys to have some breakout games.”

The timing seems to be perfect for just that, as the Lions (1-1) enter the game with the worst passing defence in the league, surrendering an average of 303.5 yards per game.

It’s been particularly tough sledding when it comes to the long ball: B.C. has allowed four touchdowns and 115 yards per game on deep throws of 20-plus yards downfield. In a Week 2 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos, the Lions surrendered 504 yards of offence and five touchdown drives.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris is looking forward to the "opportunities" the B.C. Lions' defence present.

GROUND GAME IN FULL FORCE

Of those 504 yards B.C. allowed to Edmonton, 191 were on the ground. Harris, who has 43 carries for 201 yards and one rushing touchdown, is convinced this is another area the Lions’ defence can be exploited.

“There are opportunities to be made and I think some of those guys take plays off,” he said. “If we play a full 60 minutes and go hard and go all out on every play, there is definitely going to be opportunities there. It’s who shows up, who’s ready to go and who wants it.”

The Bombers and Lions rank first and second, respectively, in rushing yards produced this season. Harris is on pace to eclipse 1,200 yards on the ground in 2018, and is averaging more than 14 touches per game. The Lions are aware of the influence Harris has on Winnipeg’s offence, and on Friday B.C. middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian provided some simple advice on how to limit the damage done by No. 33.

“Hit him. We know what he can do with the ball in his hands,” he said. “With Andrew, it’s not a first-quarter thing or a second-quarter thing, it’s an all-game thing. He can go quiet for the first half and then, boom, big play, and he gets the crowd into it.”

The Bombers’ defence will also have its hands full stopping the Lions’ rushing attack. Not only is B.C. quarterback Jonathon Jennings a threat to run at any moment but they also have arguably the best one-two punch in tailbacks Jeremiah Johnson and Chris Rainey.

“If you get in the open field with any running back in the CFL it’s not easy to make a tackle,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “The trick is to make sure we’re pursuing hard and make sure we’re violent at the point of attack, so things don’t get started.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson. B.C. Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings is eager to test the Bombers' secondary.

DO OR DIE GAME FOR BOMBERS D

Nichols isn’t the only quarterback licking his lips about playing a leaky defence. Jennings, who has yet to throw for more than 200 yards this year, is also aware the Bombers have holes downfield.

“Any time you got a team that’s allowed yards, you got to take advantage of that,” Jennings said. “But also we got to make sure we’re getting the ball into the end zone as well, so when we have those long drives we got to make sure we finish, punch it into the end zone and get some points on the board.”

It can be argued Saturday is the biggest game of the year for Winnipeg’s D — a unit that despite a having a number of new and experienced faces in the lineup continues to put forth the same-old results. In two of Winnipeg’s three games this season, they’ve allowed at least 480 yards of offence. Another game like that will only louden the cries for defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall to be fired.

Hall, now in his fourth season with the Bombers, admitted Thursday his unit made some critical mistakes in last week’s 31-17 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, much like they did at home against Edmonton in Week 1. The good news, he added, was those issues are fixable.

“It’s one thing to talk about situations and it’s another to execute it and to be aware of them,” Hall said. “That’s where we weren’t aware and where the focus thing comes in. When you don’t have the focus, you’re always struggling and you’re always behind the eight-ball.”

FAMILIAR FACES FOR BOTH SIDES

The Lions have faced a lot of turnover over the past year. Of the 24 players who started in Week 2 in 2017, only 13 of them were in the lineup last week.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Blue Bombers Adam Bighill will be facing his former team for the first time while wearing blue and gold.

Three former Lions are now with the Bombers, including strong-side linebacker Chandler Fenner, defensive end Craig Roh and defensive back Anthony Gaitor, who is out for a second week after suffering a lower-body injury in a Week 2 win in Montreal. Another familiar face is middle linebacker Adam Bighill, who spent six seasons in B.C. before jetting to the NFL last year, only to sign with Winnipeg in May.

What exactly does that mean? Depends who you ask.

“It means Winnipeg can recognize talent and they got money,” said Lions head coach Wally Buono.

Bighill admitted there’s a bit of extra motivation from playing his old team.

“I’ve seen probably thousands of reps on the offence, with the different guys and what they do,” he said. “It’s interesting because you start to learn guys’ tendencies and their habits and how they play and their personalities, so it adds that extra layer of fun. It’s a little bit unique, that you’ve seen what they do on a large scale.”

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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