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Defence to thank for keeping Bombers unbeaten

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JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Jake Thomas records one of the five Bomber sacks of Elks QB Taylor Cornelius.

I’ve witnessed plenty of weird over my years covering the CFL and Friday’s game between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Elks is certainly up there in the list of bizarre moments.

The result was familiar. The Bombers won again, 24-10, improving to a perfect 7-0, their best start to a season since opening the 1960 campaign with 10 straight victories. They’re also a perfect 4-0 on the road in 2022.

It was also nothing new to see the Bombers defence dictate a game, as they did again at Commonwealth Stadium, limiting the Elks to just three field goals and a conceded point. The offence, led by quarterback Zach Collaros, is where it got interesting, a performance unlike anything we’ve seen from the Bombers attack this season, even if it was still good enough to win.

The Bombers were dominated for stretches of the game, outgunned in several statistical categories. But with an offensive attack that proved more opportunistic than consistent, coupled with a defence that extinguished any real threat they faced, the Bombers continue to make waves atop a heavily competitive West Division.

Winnipeg is in Calgary this week for a rematch of Week 6, when the Bombers escaped with a narrow win, 26-19, over the Stampeders at IG Field. But before we look too far ahead, let’s take a closer look at Friday’s win over the Elks in the latest edition of 5 takeaways.

 

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros only completed seven passes against the Elks.

1) Collaros made just seven completions the entire game, connecting with only three different targets, and tossed two touchdowns to go with a pair of interceptions. Though not exactly what we’ve come to expect from the reigning most outstanding player, his evening wasn’t without some notable moments.

The Bombers made good on a Deatrick Nichols interception on the Elks opening series, with Collaros needing just one play — a 26-yard touchdown to Rasheed Bailey — to give the visitors an early lead. Then, despite the Elks dominating the time of possession battle in the first half, 20:40 to 9:20, Collaros dialed up a deep pass late in the second quarter to Dalton Schoen, who scampered 81 yards — 41 of which came after the catch — for his fourth touchdown of the season.

(Note: the last time the Bombers won a game after completing just seven passes was Aug. 23, 2019, in a 34-28 victory over Edmonton, with Chris Streveler finishing 7-for-17.)

But it was in the late stages of the game, with the Bombers defence in desperate need of a break, that the offence made its biggest impact. Up 17-10 and at its own 25-yard line, Winnipeg put together a 15-play drive that drained 9:26 from the clock and ended with a two-yard score from backup quarterback Dru Brown.

The series required a bit of help, including a roughing-the-kicker penalty that extended the drive at midfield, but it came at the perfect time, eliminating any chance of an Elks comeback.

 

2) The Bombers were without two of their biggest targets in Greg Ellingson (hip) and Nic Demski (ankle), as well as Brendan O’Leary-Orange, with all three nursing an injury. With a significant amount of the receiving corps missing, the Bombers needed someone to step up to fill the sizable void left behind.

Schoen did exactly that, with the Bombers rookie leading all receivers in the game with four catches for 146 yards and a touchdown. Bailey, who was under some pressure to perform, having yet to score a touchdown through six weeks, also provided the offence a boost.

It’s unclear whether the Bombers will get anyone back this week — Ellingson was on the one-game, so the assumption is he’ll be available — but they will be without the services of Carlton Agudosi for the foreseeable future. Agudosi was injured early in the fourth quarter and was unable to put full pressure on his left leg as he was helped off the turf.

Agudosi was playing in just his second game, following his CFL debut in which he registered six catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns. He took to Twitter after the game, where he insinuated, he’d be out for some time; in talking with the team, Agudosi is expected to be out for weeks.

 

3) The biggest difference between this game and the one Streveler led three years ago is the production in the run attack.

In 2019, Streveler ran for 95 yards against the Elks, with the Bombers combining for 189 rushing yards by game’s end. On Friday, Winnipeg had just 86 rushing yards, including a team-high 62 yards on 13 carries from Brady Oliveira.

The absence of a dominant run game has been there all season, save for a dominant victory over the B.C. Lions in Week 5, and it has yet to cost the Bombers. But you have to wonder how long that’s going to last, and what can be done to fix it.

One of the reasons the Bombers have been able to escape unscathed with a seemingly one-dimensional offence is Collaros’ ability to escape pressure and extend plays. But now a third into the season, something has to got to give, and with a banged-up receivers group, there’s going to be even more emphasis on establishing the run.

 

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Dalton Schoen, seen celebrating with Geoff Gray, was the recipient of one of Zach Collaros' passes that resulted in a touchdown for the team.

4) The reality is without the stellar play from the Bombers defence there’s little chance Winnipeg is leaving this one with two points.

Even without all-star defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the defence made it a difficult night for Elks quarterback Taylor Cornelius, who was making the start for an injured Tre Ford. Cornelius was sacked five times and was under pressure the entire night. It also helps that both times Collaros was intercepted the defence answered back by forcing an Elks punt.

With Jeffcoat, Kyrie Wilson and Brandon Alexander all sidelined, the Bombers need their leaders to step up.

Willie Jefferson had three pass knockdowns, making him the first player in CFL to have 50 or more sacks and pass knockdowns in their career. Linebacker Adam Bighill continued his impressive season, placing the Bombers with six defensive tackles, including a sack. Nichols was also a cover machine and set the tone with the early interception.

It’s coaching and the play and guidance of the Bombers leadership group that allows for a seamless transition for newcomers to shine when their number is called. Defensive tackles Casey Sayles and Cameron Lawson, as well as defensive end L.B. Mack III and linebacker Les Maruo all came up with sacks at key moments in the game.

 

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Adam Bighill sacks Edmonton Elks quarterback Taylor Cornelius. It was their 11th straight loss at home, which is a new franchise record.

5) Finally, as close as the Elks were able to keep the game, it still ended in disappointment. It was also their 11th straight loss at home, which is a new franchise record and just three off the CFL’s worst home losing streak, set by the Ottawa Rough Riders between the 1987 and 1988 seasons.

At 2-5, Edmonton still has time to turn things around, but if they hope to make the playoffs that’s going to have to happen sooner than later. The Elks head off on a bye this week, only to have to travel to play the B.C. Lions (4-1) at BC Place, where they were already embarrassed 59-15 in Week 1.

As for the Bombers, they continue onto the second of three straight road games, with Calgary this week followed by a date with the Montreal Alouettes. That sets the stage for a second half that had Winnipeg getting three byes in the final 12 weeks and only three games away from IG Field.

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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