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This article was published 7/6/2019 (473 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
REGINA – While there are no trophies awarded in the CFL pre-season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers certainly don’t feel as though they’re leaving empty-handed after sweeping the exhibition schedule with a pair of victories.
The Bombers defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 35-29, Thursday night at Mosaic Stadium, marking an end to a pre-season that opened the week earlier with a win at home over the Edmonton Eskimos. It was the first time Winnipeg has posted a perfect record in the pre-season since 1995.
"To win our two pre-season games, as much as a lot of people don’t put any stock into that or whatever, it is nice to have that winning feeling going into the regular season," Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said.
After boasting three consecutive winning seasons, the Bombers are once again expected to be in the fight for top spot in a competitive West division, with many pundits around the league predicting 2019 to be the year they finally snap a lengthy Grey Cup drought. Winnipeg will begin its pursuit for a title on the road, when they open the regular season in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions June 15.
Before we look too far ahead, here are five takeaways from Thursday’s game.
The Bombers have until 9 p.m. Saturday to trim down to a 46-man roster (not including injuries), with an additional 10 spots available for the practice team. There was word after Thursday’s game that a few moves would be made by Friday, with the other, more difficult decisions coming closer to the deadline.
By Friday afternoon, the Bombers had released six players, including five Americans – receiver Tim Wilson; defensive backs Elijah Battle and Malik Boynton; and offensive linemen Delroy Baker and Israel Helms – and Canadian DB Jacob Firlotte.
The only real surprise from the group of cuts was Boynton. The 22-year-old was seemingly a fan-favourite, performing well against in his CFL debut against the Eskimos. But he wasn’t as good in Regina, and with only a couple of spots up for grabs in the secondary, and plenty of experienced players to choose from, the Bombers had to make a tough decision. Don’t be surprised to see Boynton pop up on another CFL roster.
There is one other thing is worth noting. Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea dissects the film of every practice and game, and before any player is released, they receive a detailed breakdown of their body of work. Asking around to former players and league personnel, not only is this coaching not required, it’s also not all that common.
If releasing Boynton seemed like a tough decision, the moves leading up to Saturday are expected to be even more challenging. Simple math shows that the Bombers still require major surgery, including to a number of areas seemingly flush with talent.
There has been lots of talk about the hits to the offensive line over the off-season, and for good reason. But while the departures of centre Matthias Goossen and right guard Sukh Chungh have created holes to fill, the Bombers will still likely have to part ways with at least one quality Canadian. Or, at the very least, placing one on the practice roster, where they’ll be left vulnerable for other teams to pick up.
Canadians Patrick Neufeld and Michael Couture are locks to start, at left and centre, respectively. If the Bombers opt to go with a Canadian at right guard, it will be between Cody Speller, Geoff Gray and Drew Desjarlais. Speller seems to be the front-runner at the moment, meaning either Gray or Desjarlais, two first-round picks by the Bombers, will be assigned to the PR, while the other will be first sub-in come game day.
A final decision doesn’t necessarily have to come this weekend. Neufeld has been sidelined all training camp, and it seems unlikely he’ll be ready to go for Week 1. If he can’t play, the Bombers can assign him to the injury list, making room for Speller, Gray and Desjarlais on the 46-man roster.
But that’s merely putting a Band-Aid over the problem, with a decision needed once Neufeld returns to action.
Where the Bombers face the hardest decisions is picking from a crop of talented American receivers. This is by far the most gifted group of pass catchers the Bombers have seen in recent years, and it certainly doesn’t make it any easier that a number of them that have put up a strong cases to stick around.
Against Edmonton, it was Kenny Lawler that was most impressive, reeling in a team-high four catches for 52 yards. Against the Roughriders, it was Lucky Whitehead and Kenny Walker, both whom registered 86-yard touchdowns. Rasheed Bailey was also effective, snagging a team-best three catches for a total of 36 yards, while Matt Hazel had two for 42 yards. All are worthy of longer looks, but given the Bombers have just one open spot, it should be interesting to see who gets the nod.
What’s clear is Whitehead has made the team, either at receiver or as a punt-returner – or both. The Bombers were always planning to use a designated import for a return-man, and Whitehead certainly fits the bill. But given how fast he is – 75 yards on his TD came after the catch, and included leaving a number of would-be tacklers in his dust – his speed is exactly what the Bombers need/want in their starting rotation.
Playing in his first game since falling to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final last November, Nichols certainly took a bit of time to shake off some of the off-season rust.
It didn’t help that he had to battle a strong wind early on, resulting in two overthrows in the first quarter that certainly took points off the scoreboard. But as time went on, Nichols was able to find his groove, leading the offence down the field for a couple notable drives before being pulled at halftime.
His final numbers were modest – 7-for-14 passing for 163 yards and the touchdown to Whitehead – but was most impressive was his mobility in the pocket. Nichols’ greatest strength as a quarterback is the speed in which he can get through his reads. But far too often over his career, when he’s unable to find an open receiver, he’s lacked the mobility to extend plays.
On Thursday, facing a Roughriders defence that dressed most of its starters, Nichols looked mostly calm and collected down the stretch, and, when faced with heavy pressure on a number of occasions, was able to escape the pocket long enough to complete a pass.
Nichols put a strong focus on becoming a better runner this year, something he’ll likely need to do more of to help aid an O-line still trying to find its chemistry. Thursday was only a small sample size, but the early signs look good.
It was curious to see Chris Streveler go without a single snap under centre against Saskatchewan. As the clear No. 2 behind Nichols, the pre-season is usually meant to give the first backup valuable game reps. After all, if Nichols goes down to injury, it’s Streveler who will be called upon to fill in, meaning the more time he spends with the offence, the more likely he is to succeed.
Perhaps the Bombers have seen enough from the 24-year-old; Streveler did start the game against Edmonton, earning a full quarter of action. He also is familiar with Paul LaPolice’s playbook, having played a key role with the offence last season.
Either way, with Streveler sidelined, it was another chance to see Bryan Bennett and Sean McGuire fight it out for No. 3 on the QB depth chart.
At this point, the edge has to belong to Bennett. Not only is he the more experienced player, now in his fifth year in the CFL, but his play this pre-season has also earned him the role.
Bennett followed up a notable performance against the Eskimos with another strong outing in Regina. He only attempted seven passes, but completed five of those for 120 yards, including the 86-yard bomb into the wind to Walker. It also helps that he’s able to chip in on special teams and is the holder for kicker Justin Medlock.
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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