The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have mastered the art of delivering clichés. Though not exactly a unique tactic in professional sports, the Bombers have committed 110 per cent over time to a number of familiar mantras, including a commitment to finishing each week 1-0.
So here’s another popular platitude in the CFL, one that seems especially fitting as the Bombers welcome the hapless B.C. Lions to town in a divisional matchup Thursday night at IG Field: football games are won, or lost, in the trenches.
Success in the trenches, otherwise known as the battle area along the line of scrimmage, has been tough to find for the Lions this year. It’s been particularly tough sledding for an offensive line that has been anything but consistent. That should bode well for the Bombers, who see their defensive line as a major strength, even if they haven’t loaded up on sacks.
Simply put, there’s a real opportunity ahead for Winnipeg. And if they don’t drop the ball, there’s no reason they shouldn’t leave 1-0 — or, more accurately, 7-2 — by night’s end.
"I’d be lying if I said we haven’t seen their track record so far, and I think you look at certain teams and say, ‘yeah, there’s opportunity here,’" defensive end Craig Roh said shortly after the Bombers’ closed practice Tuesday.
"But one thing I’ve always found is you don’t want to underestimate your opponent, at any point. They could come out and play a great freaking game against us, but we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that we get an insane amount of sacks during the game."
The Lions, who are 1-7, have already allowed an "insane" amount of sacks this year, with 29 through their first eight games. In a season where the average number of sacks per game between both teams is four, the Lions are nearly averaging that number alone.
Much of that inability to hold off pass rushers is the lack of continuity on the O-line. The Lions have been ravaged by injuries, forcing them to shuffle the front five nearly every week. Through eight games, B.C. has dressed seven different groups. With the number of different players either sidelined or required to play a different position, it’s been near-impossible to build the proper chemistry to succeed. Needless to say, the Bombers have noticed.
"We’ve been watching film on their offensive line over the last couple weeks and we’ve seen the interchanging parts. We see that they’re having trouble with the snap count. There’s a new centre pretty much every other week," Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said. "It’s just about trying to make it hard for them while they’re moving around up front, switching our positions, everybody not just lining up at the same spot."
When the Lions inked their new franchise quarterback, Mike Reilly, signing the former league MVP to a four-year deal worth nearly $3 million, the belief was that they had the men to protect him. Back for another year was all-star left tackle Joel Figueroa, and so were Canadians David Foucault, at left guard, and centre Hunter Steward.
B.C. general manager Ed Hervey even decided to break the bank by adding Canadian right guard, and former Bomber, Sukh Chungh. Chungh was signed to a three-year pact that promises him $250,000 per season, making him among the highest-paid offensive linemen in the league. Chungh returned last week after missing two games with a triceps injury.
The Lions’ plan was to play the season with four Canadians on the O-line. On Thursday, they’ll likely have just two. Expected to occupy the two tackle positions for a second straight week are Americans Figueroa and Justin Renfrow, who was acquired in a trade with the Calgary Stampeders late last month, while rookie Phillip Norman is again slated at centre. Norman is the fourth centre to start for the Lions.
"No doubt, it’s disappointing," Lions offensive-line coach Bryan Chiu told the Vancouver Province early last week. "It’s been sleepless nights trying to figure this out. You go through your checklist. What are we doing? What am I doing? We just haven’t found the right pieces to the puzzle."
Not exactly a glowing endorsement from the man currently at the controls. But the good news for B.C. is the group appears to be getting better. While the Lions still allowed four sacks last week, the offence performed well against a Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence that is the main reason they’re atop the East Division.
Reilly managed to throw for 306 yards on 75 per cent passing (21 for 28), finding the end zone twice with his arm and once more on the ground.
It was far from perfect, however. Reilly was intercepted twice, including late in the fourth quarter to seal an improbable comeback by Hamilton, who had trailed by 15 points to start the frame only to win 35-34. Still, it was the closest the Lions have looked to possessing a balanced attack, which included a season-high 151 rushing yards.
"They believed they were going to win that game. I think they have confidence and they certainly are producing. They’re going to be a tough team," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "Our assumption is their O-line is going to play really well and their offence is going to function at a high level and we’re going to have to work extremely hard to get pressure. We’d never assume that it’s going to come easy."
The Bombers boast arguably the best defensive end in the league in Jefferson, with Roh playing well in relief of starter Jackson Jeffcoat, who will miss a third straight game with an upper-body injury.
Winnipeg also has an underrated toughness up the middle, with starting defensive tackles Drake Nevis and Steven Richardson as good as any against the run.
The Bombers have limited their opponents to an average of 66 rushing yards per week, which is 15 yards fewer than the Edmonton Eskimos in second spot.
"They get off the ball really well. They’re very strong. They can overpower you. They got club moves, spin moves — they kind of do it all," Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said of Nevis and Richardson. "When there’s more attention with those guys up front, it allows the other guys around them to be able to play a little bit cleaner. It helps our ends, it helps us as linebackers. Being strong at the front of your defence is definitely key."
With the number of weapons on the D-line, many predicted the Bombers would have more than 15 sacks through eight games. Part of the reason, halfback Marcus Sayles said, for the perceived lack of sacks is because the Bombers defence is not overly aggressive when it comes to blitzing. Whether that might change Thursday, Sayles wouldn’t budge.
"Our defence is just naturally a zone-type defence, so we kind of just wrinkle it in here and there," he said. "But usually when we do, we have success getting there."
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.
Updated on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 at 9:06 PM CDT: Adds photo
10:01 PM: Adds photo