EDMONTON – It was as unorthodox a win as it was predictable.
With starting quarterback Matt Nichols on the shelf for at least six games with a shoulder injury, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers played to the strengths of backup Chris Streveler, while also getting a strong performance from their defence in a 34-28 win over the Edmonton Eskimos at Commonwealth Stadium Friday night.
The Bombers, who were 6.5-point underdogs despite possessing a better record than their opponent, created some major breathing room atop the West Division with the victory. Winnipeg, 8-2, also completed the two-game series sweep over the Eskimos, which could pay dividends come season’s end. Edmonton dropped to 6-4 and snapped a seven-game winning streak at home with the loss.
Next up for the Bombers is the first of back-to-back games against their Prairie rival Saskatchewan Roughriders, beginning with next weekend’s Labour Day Classic in Regina. But before we look too far ahead, here are five takeaways from the win over the Eskimos.
1) The Bombers were never expecting for Streveler to throw lights out – that’s just not his game. Anyone who has watched him play knows his skill set centres more on his legs than his arm.
That was evident in the final numbers Friday, as Streveler finished with more yards on the ground than he did through the air. The 24-year-old attempted only 17 passes – he had just three in the third quarter – completing seven for 89 yards. In the run game, Streveler paced the Bombers with 14 carries for 95 yards, more than Andrew Harris, the league’s leading rusher, who finished with 13 runs for 89.
There were two Streveler carries Streveler that stood out: a 30-yard run midway through the second quarter that set up a two-yard touchdown by Harris, and a six-yard dash for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that came while the Bombers were clinging to a 23-18 lead.
All in all, it was a noteworthy 2019 debut for the second-year pivot, and a promising start for what will likely be a long stretch with No. 17 behind centre. It remains up for debate as to whether the Bombers can sustain that type of run-and-gun offence, and whether Streveler can continue to take the number of punishing hits he did. Either way, it should be interesting to see how this thing play out, because if Streveler is anything, he's fun to watch.
2) Streveler was the main story heading into the game, but it was Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson who stole the show.
Jefferson has been Winnipeg’s best defensive player this season, and had been playing his best football in recent weeks. But he took it to a whole other level against the Eskimos, finishing the night with this incredible stat line: four defensive tackles; three quarterback sacks; two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. When the Eskimos needed to recover an onside kick, it was the native of Beaumont, Texas, that got a hand on it, pushing it out of bounds to give Winnipeg possession.
He also added a 35-yard punt single (he kicked a Edmonton fumble into the Esks' end zone), a play Jefferson said after the game was his favourite of the night. Which is interesting because it also gave the Eskimos another chance at a late-game comeback, but we’ll give him a pass on that.
Perhaps what was most impressive is Jefferson predicted he’d have a monster game. He told me earlier in the week that he was traditionally a slow starter, and it was at this point in the season, near the midway mark, that he starts to separate from the pack. It was perfect timing, too, as the Bombers needed their defence to have another standout game and it should surprise no one that Jefferson led the way.
Simply put, Jefferson was a wrecking ball all night, and what he did Friday will go down as one of the most dominating performances by a Bombers defensive player in team history.
3) Still, as good as Jefferson was, I can’t help but see the irony in a defensive player being the night’s most valuable player in a game the Eskimos offence generated 489 net yards.
But that, too, isn’t all that surprising when you consider the kind of season quarterback Trevor Harris is having. Harris added to his ungodly passing numbers Friday by putting up an eye-popping 430 yards through the air. The Eskimos pivot is now at 3,481 passing yards through 10 games, on pace to eclipse 6,000 this year – a feat only five players in CFL history have achieved.
Harris seemed to take exception to my suggestion before the game that he was a pure pocket passer, something echoed by members of the Bombers defence and was shared as a compliment more than anything else. Not that the two are related, but he did show off his rarely seen run game, adding four rushes for 40 yards to boost his season total from 81 yards through the first nine games to now 121.
He wasn’t mistake-free, however; Harris had back-to-back drives in the first quarter where he committed costly turnovers, including an interception by Marcus Rios that was returned 46 yards for a touchdown. It was just Harris’s third pick of the year after having just two interceptions in his previous 361 attempts – a rate of 0.55 per cent.
Harris may have lost the game, but he remains a major front-runner for the league’s most outstanding player award and, as long as he’s healthy, the Eskimos should remain competitive in a heated race in the West.
4) If you were to have scrolled through the stats package following the game without seeing the final score, it’s likely you would have predicted an Eskimos win.
Besides the high yardage put up on offence, the Eskimos also limited the Bombers to just 251 net offensive yards; had more first downs, 22 to 17; and, despite giving up 189 rushing yards, still had a three-minute edge in time of possession.
But much like the first time these two teams played – a 28-21 win for the Bombers in Week 3 – what it came down to was a lack of finish. In the first game, Edmonton kicker Sean Whyte accounted for all his team’s scoring, booting seven fields goals. On Friday, he would be called upon for much the same workload, kicking another seven field goals thanks to an offence that could get down the field with relative ease, only to miss out on finding the end zone.
Had it not been for a 75-yard touchdown to Tevaun Smith with just over a minute remaining, Whyte would have been responsible for every point the Eskimos have scored against the Bombers in eight quarters. In the most recent affair, Edmonton went 0-for-3 in the red zone, with two other drives stalling on the 21- and 22-yard line. It’s easy to look at the yards and feel concerned. But as the Bombers say each week, it’s the two points they care about most.
5) It wasn’t long ago many were suggesting the Bombers strong record was a bit misleading. The overwhelming theory I heard from most people – which I tended to agree with, at least in part – was that the Bombers hadn’t played enough talented teams to justify their standing as the league’s top club.
After all, the Bombers had a five-game stretch where they played only East teams, a division that is considerably less dangerous. But with the win over Edmonton, along with a victory over the Calgary Stampeders in recent weeks, Winnipeg is 5-0 against teams in the West. There’s no denying that’s impressive, even if two of those games are against the lowly 1-8 B.C. Lions.
It made me wonder about all the hype Edmonton seemed to be receiving leading up to kick-off, including from myself. The stats were undeniable; Edmonton ranked among the top clubs on offence and defence in nearly every statistical category that mattered. But take a closer look, and the same critics questioning the Bombers before could apply the same logic for Edmonton now.
Of the Eskimos’ six victories this season, four have come against the Lions and the Toronto Argonauts, each of which have just one win this year. Another was against the Montreal Alouettes in Week 1, before quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. salvaged the team with his strong play, and the other against an Ottawa Redblacks team in Week 9 that had finally started to fizzle out after a good start.
The Roughriders could be considered an even stiffer test, with wins over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Alouettes the last two games. The Bombers play Saskatchewan three times over the next five weeks, in what should be crucial games with the potential to considerably alter the West standings.
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.