Expect bounce back from Big Blue
Ellingson, Jeffcoat on sidelines as Bombers face Elks
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EDMONTON — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers continue their run through the West Division with a matchup against the Edmonton Elks at Commonwealth Stadium Friday night.
Both clubs are looking to build off narrow victories last week, with the Elks (2-4) rebounding from a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit on the road to stun the Montreal Alouettes 32-31. The Bombers outlasted the Calgary Stampeders at home, scoring late and then shutting down a dangerous looking final drive by the Stamps to secure a 26-19 victory and remain a perfect 6-0.
It’s the first of two regular-season clashes between the Bombers and Elks this year, with the second match set for Week 18 in Winnipeg. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on in Friday’s game.
1) The Bombers have once again been bit by the injury bug and will be without two more key players this week. After being limited in practice, receiver Greg Ellingson and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat have been ruled out of action, each dealing with a hip issue.
The Bombers are already fairly beaten up, with players such as receiver Nic Demski, centre Michael Couture, safety Brandon Alexander, linebacker Kyrie Wilson, among a few others, currently occupying a spot on the six-game injured list. If there is a silver lining, it’s that Jeffcoat and Ellingson are expected to miss just one game.
If you’re starting to feel sorry for the Blue and Gold, don’t. The Elks are in an even worse position, with 13 players — all of whom have started a game this season or were projected starters out of training camp — on the six-game, with standout receiver Derel Walker also added to the one-game for Friday.
Every team likes to talk about the importance of having a next-man-up mentality. But that’s really going to be put to the test in this game.
2) With Jeffcoat off the active roster, Cedric Wilcots II is expected to fill in, with L.B. Mack also activated to offer additional support for the defensive line. Those sure are big shoes to fill, especially when you consider how dominant the one-two punch is between Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson.
Jefferson, who was wearing his old No. 99 Edmonton jersey at the Bombers media availability, noted that when Jeffcoat is out of the lineup, teams tend to shift further his way. That should open up lanes for the other men on the D-line, though I expect Jefferson to also rise to the occasion to help make up for the loss of his fellow all-star D-end.
Getting pressure on the quarterback is always of high priority, but I’m betting it will be of particular focus against the Elks as they’re starting fourth-string quarterback Taylor Cornelius for a second straight week. Cornelius, who wasn’t even dressing for games until called into action last week after an injury to starter Tre Ford and the trade of Nick Arbuckle, is just 2-7 in nine starts over his career.
What’s more, the Elks haven’t exactly been dominant on home turf, with their 10 consecutive losses at Commonwealth setting a new franchise record. The CFL record for longest losing streak at home is 13 games, set first by the B.C. Lions between the 1957 and 1958 seasons.
3) Mike O’Shea has all the confidence in the world in his players, but even the Bombers head coach knows it will be difficult to replace the loss of Ellingson. Ellingson has been as sure-handed as any receiver this season, and while he won’t play against Edmonton, he hobbles into Week 7 as the CFL’s leading receiver with 518 yards.
With Demski also out, that puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the club’s pass-catchers. It’s a good thing the Bombers have seen this position group flourish in recent weeks, with rookie Dalton Schoen proving to be a more-than-reliable target and Carlton Agudosi coming off a CFL debut that included six catches for 70 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Returner Janarion Grant has been promoted to a starting role on offence with Ellingson out, so it should be interesting to see what his quickness brings to the attack. I’m also curious how Rasheed Bailey reacts to what surely has to be a more prominent role.
Bailey is a gifted player, but for someone who was expected to carry a bigger load this year, 18 catches for 166 total yards and zero touchdowns doesn’t exactly make his case for starting when the Bombers have a roster at full health. I’d expect him to find his place this week, reminding everyone of what he’s capable of.
4) It looked as though the Bombers run game had turned a corner when the club combined for 141 rushing yards in a dominant 43-22 win over the B.C. Lions in Week 5. But the ground attack regressed last week against Calgary, including just 48 yards on a combined 19 carries between four players.
Through six games this season, the Bombers are averaging just 83 rushing yards a game. That’s significantly down from the 121-yard average from a season ago, a mark that ranked second, behind only Montreal (145).
It’s been tough-sledding for Brady Oliveira, who is averaging just 3.16 yards per carry in what’s his first season as a starter. There continues to be a healthy debate over whether Johnny Augustine should take over the lion’s share of carries, but it appears the Bombers are comfortable with him playing more of a support role for now.
Perhaps that could change this week, and the Elks might just be what the doctor order to give the ground attack some much-needed life. Edmonton has been the worst team in the CFL against the run, allowing an average of nearly 140 rushing yards against per game.
While the run game hasn’t been dominant, the Bombers also haven’t abandoned it. Maybe this is the week their patience will pay off.
5) After a couple weeks of strong showings, the Bombers special-teams are back in the spotlight following a tough outing last week.
While Marc Liegghio continues to punt well, his role as place-kicker remains a steady work-in-progress. It’s not as though Liegghio is missing a ton of kicks — he’s 15-for-17 on field goals this year — but when he does miss it always seems to put his team in an uncomfortable position. Against Calgary, Liegghio missed a one-point convert — his fourth this year — late in the game to keep the Stamps within seven points instead of eight.
He also shanked a 36-yard field goal attempt that was called back after Calgary was called for a roughing-the-kicker penalty. I still have faith in the 25-year-old, but this early into his career, his response to a bad game matters just as much as when he has a good one.
Then there’s the play of the cover team, which is usually rock solid but struggled against the Stamps. Loose protection at the line led to Liegghio being forced to run on a punt attempt that led to a turnover on downs. And had it not been for a holding call, Calgary’s Peyton Logan would have been credited for a 63-yard punt return touchdown.
This is a proud group that has been among the best in the CFL. They deserve the benefit of the doubt on last week’s performance, and the expectation is it will be a bounce-back game Friday.
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.