December 7, 2019

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Determined to dominate

Ball-hungry Blue secondary would like a repeat in Regina after embarrassing Stamps offence last week

On the surface, it seems like mission impossible.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are going on the road to a place they haven't won all season and are playing against a quarterback who's a finalist for the league's Most Outstanding Player award.

Only 10 teams in CFL history have gone into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and made it to the Grey Cup.

And yet, the folks in Bomberland should feel pretty good about Sunday's West Division final against the top-seeded Saskatchewan Roughriders.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>"In order for us to continue to play in November, we have to play well defensively regardless of who's at quarterback. If we play well, then we've got a chance. If we don't play well, then we'll be packing our bags," said Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"In order for us to continue to play in November, we have to play well defensively regardless of who's at quarterback. If we play well, then we've got a chance. If we don't play well, then we'll be packing our bags," said Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall.

Yes, Bombers are 1-2 against the Riders this year, losing both games at Regina's Mosaic Stadium. But for the most part, the Blue and Gold defence hasn't made life easy for the Riders. In their three meetings, the Riders have averaged just under 17 points per game against Winnipeg. So what have the Bombers been doing so well to slow down the Roughriders?

"I guess matching up. Just playing well. For whatever reason over the last number of years, they've been kind of defensive games," Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall told the media Thursday.

"Going back and forth, and our guys just play well against them. We're going to need that kind of effort defensively and as a football team to continue to play. It doesn't matter what we've done in the past. It's what we're going to do on Sunday that's important. We have to play solid football and make plays."

Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo might be the West Division nominee for MOP, but his numbers against the Bombers don't jump off the page.

Fajardo has completed 63 per cent of his passes for a total of 796 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has, however, given the Bombers fits with his legs, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts to give him a six-yards-per-carry average.

But will the Bombers see Fajardo at his best Sunday? The quarterback is recovering from an oblique injury that kept him out of the team's regular-season finale. This week in practice, he's has been taking first-team reps, but his throwing has been limited. The Riders had a closed practice Thursday, but head coach Craig Dickenson told reporters afterwards that "all signs point that he will be good to go" for Sunday's matchup.

"People mention it, it doesn't matter to me," Hall said, referring to Fajardo's uncertain status.

"The thing that I always say is I can never tell you what my roster is tomorrow, I can only tell you what it is today. And this is the roster we have going in, and it gives us the best opportunity to go to the Grey Cup." — Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall

"The bottom line is, whoever is at the quarterback position, it doesn't change what we have to do. You've got to know what the personnel is regardless of if he's in or not in. In order for us to continue to play in November, we have to play well defensively regardless of who's at quarterback. If we play well, then we've got a chance. If we don't play well, then we'll be packing our bags."

Regardless of what version of Fajardo shows up Sunday, the Bombers have already proven they can go on the road during playoff time and cause problems for an elite quarterback. Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell had, arguably, the worst game of his career in last week's 35-14 West Division semifinal loss to the Bombers.

Mitchell completed 12 of 28 passes for 112 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. And he had zero completions in the third quarter. It's a nice feather in the cap for the Bombers, but defensive back Brandon Alexander said it's in the past and doesn't matter right now.

"Well, at the end of the day, if you look at what happened last year and what happened this year, to be honest, we're still at the same point we were in last year," said Alexander, referring to the Bombers beating Saskatchewan in last year's division semifinal before losing to Calgary in the West final.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>"People may think Calgary was a big win and everything like that, well, we're right back at the Western Division finals just like we were last year. At the end of the day, that win won't mean nothing if we don't surpass this next test and that is Saskatchewan," said Bomber defensive back Brandon Alexander.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"People may think Calgary was a big win and everything like that, well, we're right back at the Western Division finals just like we were last year. At the end of the day, that win won't mean nothing if we don't surpass this next test and that is Saskatchewan," said Bomber defensive back Brandon Alexander.

"People may think Calgary was a big win and everything like that, well, we're right back at the Western Division finals just like we were last year. At the end of the day, that win won't mean nothing if we don't surpass this next test and that is Saskatchewan."

To surpass this week's test, the Bombers will, obviously, need another strong defensive performance against the Riders. But this time around, the Bombers will look a little different compared to their last trip to Regina, as they're now relying heavily on three players who haven't been in the lineup long: Mike Jones, a rookie who didn't get any game action until the last game of the regular season; Mercy Maston, who signed with the club Aug. 4; and Nick Taylor, who signed two weeks later.

The trio has quickly come together to become a formidable defensive-back unit. Maston played only three games in the regular season while Taylor suited up four times before the post-season. Maston and Taylor played together in Edmonton last year.

All three players intercepted Mitchell last week.

Bombers defensive backs coach Jordan Younger said he couldn't have asked for a better performance from his charges than the one he got in Calgary.

"Not surprised, 'cause they're definitely capable. Surprised maybe that they were able to perform at that level so quickly. And excited about it," Younger said.

The Bombers secondary has gone through changes all year because of injuries and new faces being brought into the fold. It's been a challenge at times, but Hall is confident they have found a successful formula and he looks forward to seeing them try to pull off a repeat performance this weekend.

"The thing that I always say is I can never tell you what my roster is tomorrow, I can only tell you what it is today," Hall said. "And this is the roster we have going in, and it gives us the best opportunity to go to the Grey Cup."

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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