Blue have date with Argos and old pal Harris

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TORONTO — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers continue their run through the East Division with a Week 4 matchup against the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field Monday night.

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TORONTO — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers continue their run through the East Division with a Week 4 matchup against the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field Monday night.

It’s a rare Monday affair — the CFL is trying to gain American viewers, so airing a game on ESPN+ during a U.S. holiday is certainly a good place to start — and it comes after a pair of victories against the Ottawa Redblacks and, most recently, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. It’s also the only time the Bombers and Argonauts will meet this season, after splitting the season series 1-1 in 2021.

After a Week 1 bye, the Argonauts currently sit atop the East despite a modest 1-1 record. With Hamilton (0-3) and Ottawa (0-3) still winless, and with the Montreal Alouettes (1-3) falling to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday, Toronto has a chance to take over sole possession of first place in the East Division.

With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on in today’s game.

 

1) The moment Andrew Harris signed with the Argonauts just hours into Day 1 of free agency, this game instantly became must-watch TV. The breakup with Harris was not an amicable one; Harris, who had grown to be the face of the franchise, hoped to stick around after five years in Winnipeg, a tenure that ended with back-to-back Grey Cup titles. But the Bombers weren’t willing to commit to the aging star running back.

Both sides walked away with hurt feelings, and Harris aired his displeasure publicly. The 34-year-old is as competitive as they come and you know that permanent chip on his shoulder has only grown and that he’ll want nothing more than to remind his hometown team of what they gave up.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that will happen, with Harris not exactly tearing up the turf through two games this year. He has 25 rushes for 114 total yards — for an average of 4.56 yards per run — and has caught five of six targets for an additional 42 yards through the air.

Harris has also been battling a tight hamstring in his left leg, which has limited him in practice the last two weeks. But if anyone can play through pain it’s No. 33, and it would probably take his leg being amputated for him to miss this one.

 

2) The Bombers secondary will have a new look for a third straight game, though, barring injury, it may just be the starting unit they stick with for the long haul (or until safety Brandon Alexander returns from off-season knee surgery).

It wasn’t a great first two games for the Bombers’ last line of defence, with Ottawa’s Jeremiah Masoli throwing for 711 yards, including 10 plays over 20 yards, with four of those plays eclipsing 40 yards (41,48,51,54). The secondary was much better against Hamilton, limiting Dane Evans to 237 passing yards, while forcing two interceptions.

The Bombers were so impressed with the work of second-year player Demerio Houston, who earned his first start, lining up at field-side corner against the Ticats, that they cut veteran defensive back Tyquwan Glass this week.

Houston will shift over to the boundary-side, with Winston Rose, who missed last week with an ankle injury, patrolling the field-side.

The rest of the band remains intact, with Malcolm Thompson at safety and Deatrick Nichols and Nick Taylor at halfback. The stars just might be aligned for another solid outing, as Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson has just one touchdown compared to two interceptions this season and is averaging just 223 passing yards a game while playing in front of a beat-up offensive line.

 

Demerio Houston (right) returns to the secondary after a strong game against Hamilton. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

3) The Bombers will be without one of their most versatile weapons on offence, with receiver Nic Demski added to the six-game injured list with a banged-up ankle he suffered against Hamilton. There’s no good timing for an injury, but Demski had just started to find his groove, registering a season-high 96 yards on six catches, the final of which had him grabbing for his ankle.

While Demski will be tough to replace – few players in the CFL, let alone on the Bombers, are asked to do what Demski does on a weekly basis, given his abilities to run and catch the ball – there is a decent backup plan in Canadian Brenden O’Leary-Orange. O’Leary-Orange subbed in for Demski after he went down and finished with three catches for 22 yards in nearly two quarters of play.

The Bombers will also look to American running back Greg McCrae, who will make his CFL debut, to bring some of that versatility lost from Demski. McCrae has been mixed into various offensive packages over the last week of practice, and is capable of lining up in the backfield or as a slotback.

 

4) The Bombers have been the better club so far this season, but they aren’t taking anything for granted against an Argonauts team that has won nine of their last 10 games at BMO Field. What’s more, Toronto has proven to be a resilient group following a loss; over their last 21 games, the Argonauts have won their next game after losing each time – a streak that covers their last eight losses dating back to Oct. 5, 2019.

Toronto was also the only “meaningful” game the Bombers lost last season, falling 30-23 in Week 3 at BMO Field, a score that actually flattered Winnipeg. Demski was missing in that game for the Bombers, as well as Harris, both out with injuries. Dating back to 1961, Toronto is 40-19-2 at home against Winnipeg.

As for the Bombers, a victory would improve them to 4-0 to start the season, which would be the second time in the last three years they’ve opened a campaign with four straight victories. It would also move Winnipeg into first place in a highly competitive West Division, ahead of two other unbeaten teams in the Calgary Stampeders and B.C. Lions, with each club boasting a 3-0 record through the first month of the season.

 

Receiver Nic Demski gets tackled last week vs. the Ticats. He won’t play tonight. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

5) It’s not often the Bombers O-line is outmatched, but the Argonauts might be the rare exception. If there’s a strong point for Toronto, it’s the talent of its D-line, a unit that consists of defensive ends Ja’Gared Davis and Shane Ray, with tackles Shawn Oakman and Dewayne Hendrix plugging the middle.

The results haven’t been there through two games, with the Argonauts logging just four total sacks and averaging 110 rushing yards against. But those numbers are skewed following a 44-3 beatdown by a very good B.C. team last week, as the Lions racked up 147 yards on the ground and quarterback Nathan Rourke continues to prove he’s among the smartest and evasive players in the league.

But while the talent is clearly there, the Bombers O-line is also banged up and not as strong as the unit has been the last few seasons. Centre Michael Couture remains sidelined with a broken arm, making way for Chris Kolankowski to make his second consecutive start. The challenge is only made more difficult with the loss of Harris, who is by far the best running back when it comes to block protection.

The Bombers have struggled to run the ball this season, averaging just 84 yards per game. The six sacks they’ve allowed is also middle of the pack. This will be Winnipeg’s greatest test in the trenches.

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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