Big Blue should only get better

Lots of areas to improve on despite posting two wins to open CFL season

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OTTAWA – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers remain perfect on the season, now 2-0 after a 19-12 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks on a rainy, windy Friday night at TD Place.

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OTTAWA – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers remain perfect on the season, now 2-0 after a 19-12 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks on a rainy, windy Friday night at TD Place.

But the CFL squad has certainly shown some warts in back-to-back wins over the Redblacks (0-2).

Winnipeg got off to another slow start, a sub-par first half barely salvaged by a touchdown drive in the dying seconds before the break. The visitors offered a much better effort in the final two quarters, although the score was tight the rest of the way before the Redblacks sealed their fate with a roughing-the-kicker penalty.

Clearly, the Bombers understand they need to improve on the last two weeks. But they’re encouraged by the fact that despite playing below their standards, victories are still being generated.

Take into consideration that every team is still trying to knock off the rust from the offseason and build chemistry with new players, and the reality is the Bombers should only get better. They’ll have to if they want to keep pace in a competitive West Division, and if they hope to beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a Week 3 matchup at IG Field on Friday night.

But before we look too far ahead, let’s reflect on the Bombers win in Ottawa in the latest edition of 5 takeaways.

 

Ottawa Redblacks running back Devonte Williams runs with the ball during CFL action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa on Friday. (Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press files)

1) It wasn’t a stellar evening for the offence, but it was an improvement from Week 1, even if just slightly. The start was ugly, with four punts and an interception through their first five drives, which combined for a measly 68 yards of net offence.

Momentum changed when Zach Collaros, who finished 15-of-22 passing for 228 yards, with two touchdowns and one pick, found Greg Ellingson for a 13-yard touchdown with seconds remaining before the break. The offence would collect points on three of their first four drives in the second half, including a clutch 27-yard TD to rookie Dalton Schoen with 5:14 remaining, before running out the clock on their final series of the night.

There’s no doubt that the offence needs to be better, and that they can’t keep relying on the defence to bail them out. But when you consider the weather conditions, that the game was in enemy territory and with centre Michael Couture exiting the game owing to an injury late in the second half, coming up big when it matters against a good Redblacks defence is a good sign of things to come.

 

Bombers QB Zach Collaros (below) readies to whip a throw. (Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press files)

2) While it was another solid game from the likes of newcomers Ellingson (four catches, 71 yards, TD) and Schoen (two, 58, TD), the Bombers need more from their three other starting receivers.

Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Drew Wolitarsky – all of whom have been in the system for years – combined for just 72 yards through the air. In Week 1, the trio had a collective 67 yards.

There have been flashes. Demski had two big runs totalling 21 yards, including a gutsy effort for a nine-yard gain that helped set up Schoen’s TD. Bailey chipped in a 24-yard reception that led to Ellingson’s score and drew an unnecessary roughness penalty that pushed the Bombers into field-goal range, giving them their first lead of the night. And Wolitarsky caught two of three targets and accounted for the team’s longest gain through the air, at 32 yards.

That 32 yards was the longest completion might just be the biggest issue here. This isn’t an offence led by Matt Nichols anymore; Collaros has a gun of an arm and has the courage and accuracy to stretch the field.

Ellingson and Schoen aren’t the long-distance threats that the other three are. Having that dynamic playmaker is supposed to help open up the field, but we just haven’t seen it. Collaros had more time to throw the ball in Week 2, only for the same uninspiring results.

Given how talented and experienced these men are, the expectations should be much higher. Especially for Demski, who has become the team’s poster boy after the departure of Andrew Harris.

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Dalton Schoen scores a touchdown behind the Ottawa Redblacks defensive back Patrick Levels during second half Friday. (Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press files)

3) The Bombers running game also quietly improved, jumping from a combined 50 yards in Week 1 to 115 on Friday. Along with Demski’s contributions, Brady Oliveira finished with 14 carries for 48 yards (along with three catches for 27 more) and Johnny Augustine managed 43 yards on seven runs – an average of 6.1 yards per attempt.

But it wasn’t just the jump in production that was promising. It was also how offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce called the game, sticking with the run-game throughout and calling on the right pieces at the right time.

Oliveira collected a majority of his rushing yards (41) in the first half before his production dropped off early into the second. Understanding Oliveira is still working on his stamina as a lead back, Pierce opted to put Augustine in down the stretch, with the 28-year-old ripping off 19 yards in the fourth quarter, all of which were crucial, including helping set up the game-winning TD and icing the clock to secure the win.

Recognizing what works at what time will be crucial with two relatively inexperienced backs. Get used to a more collective effort in the backfield.

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Nic Demski, and teammates Dalton Schoen and Greg Ellingson celebrates Schoen’s touchdown during second half. (Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press files)

4) Count me as someone who isn’t all that concerned about the Bombers defence giving up 825 net offensive yards, including an eye-popping 711 yards through the air, in just two games. A more important stat to focus on is that they’ve allowed just one touchdown through eight quarters against a QB in Jeremiah Masoli, who is the early frontrunner for the CFL’s most outstanding player, backed by a solid O-line and talented receivers, along with being coached by an offensive guru in Paul LaPolice.

The Redblacks got within striking distance on seven different occasions, only to settle for 12 points on four Lewis Ward field goals. Ward missed on another field-goal attempt, while the defence forced a turnover on downs twice with Ottawa pressing near the end zone.

They were particularly stingy in the second half, allowing just 129 total yards and surrendering only three points, including none in the fourth quarter.

The return of defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat helped the D-line get to Masoli quicker and more often, and the linebacking group of Adam Bighill and Kyrie Wilson, along with dime back Donald Rutledge, Jr., combined for 14 tackles. Defensive back Deatrick Nichols is primed for another all-star calibre season and Winston Rose and Tyqwan Glass showed notable improvements from the season-opener.

If the offence can find a way to be more consistent in moving the chains, I don’t see why this defence can’t cut down on the yardage and return to the dominant force they were in 2021.

 

5) It was another so-so game for kicker Marc Liegghio, consisting of both positive and concerning moments.

Liegghio got the job done on both his field-goal attempts, connecting from 30 and 22 yards out, making him a perfect 4-for-4 in that department so far this season. He also deserves credit for drawing the game-sealing unnecessary roughness penalty.

But there have been some mistakes that haven’t yet cost the Bombers, but nonetheless can’t be made in a league where on most nights the margin for error is incredibly thin. For a second straight week, Liegghio missed a one-point convert that left his team in a vulnerable position.

In Week 1, the miss kept the Bombers with a two-point lead instead of three with just minutes remaining in the game. On Friday, it kept the Redblacks within seven points of tying rather than eight at quite literally the same juncture of the fourth quarter.

Liegghio also inexcusably booted a kickoff out of bounds with little time remaining before half that set up the Redblacks at their own 50-yard line. Had it not been for some bad mismanaging of the clock by Ottawa, the Redblacks should have easily recorded three points before the break.

The Bombers have to be hoping that Liegghio is growing from these bouts of adversity and not succumbing to the immense pressure of being a pro kicker. Bad nights are part of the deal – look no further than Montreal’s David Côté missing a 21-yarder in the final seconds to give Toronto the win on Thursday – but there also needs to be a certain level of trust, and it’s just not there yet.

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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Updated on Monday, June 20, 2022 6:14 PM CDT: Typo fixed

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