With just two games remaining before the playoffs, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are nearing the end of what’s been a roller-coaster season.
A 5-0 start has been muddied by months of inconsistent play, leaving the Bombers with a 10-6 record and just a home-and-home series against the Calgary Stampeders remaining on the regular-season schedule.
But if there has been any stability with this team, it’s Winnipeg’s ability to run the ball.
The Bombers have put up the best rushing numbers in the Canadian Football League. Now 16 games in, the Blue and Gold remain atop the CFL with an average of 149 rushing yards per week. That’s more than 26 yards ahead of the second-place Montreal Alouettes (122.5).
"It’s a pride thing for us and it’s something we’ve been building on for a couple of years now," Bombers right guard Patrick Neufeld said after Thursday’s closed practice. "We enjoy that aspect of the game. We feel we can go out and be physical, we can go out and set the identity of the game by moving the line of scrimmage."
There are plenty of examples to point to this season where the Bombers have succeeded on offence in large part because of their ground attack. But perhaps none provide a better blueprint for success than last week’s 35-24 win over the Alouettes at IG Field.
The Bombers ran the ball 34 times against Montreal — more than half of their 59 plays on offence — and chewed up a whopping 240 rushing yards. Much of that came from running back Andrew Harris, who collected 166 yards on 24 carries (both season highs) to bring his league-best total to 1,261.
It was the first time since Chris Streveler took over for injured No. 1 quarterback Matt Nichols that Harris had more than 13 carries in a game. Streveler, another one of the team’s running threats, also added 64 yards on nine runs, while fullback Mike Miller scampered for 10 yards on one rush.
This season, Streveler and Harris have combined for an average of 6.1 yards per run and Winnipeg has earned a first down from a run play a league-high 144 times.
"That’s kind of the identity we’ve always wanted as an offence and we take pride as an offensive line and running backs that it starts with us," Neufeld said. "We’re going to try and carry that on against Calgary."
That will be much easier said than done. While Montreal is ranked second in executing the run game, they aren’t nearly as good at stopping it. The opposite can be said about the Stampeders, a team that is middle of the pack when it comes to carrying the ball but is second only to Winnipeg when it comes to preventing big gains on the ground. The Stampeders actually edge the Bombers in average yards allowed per run (4.6 to 4.7).
The Bombers know they’ll need to be creative in their play calling — much like they were against the Alouettes, using misdirection and fakes — but there’s also an added importance to working as a unit. For those on the offence, they insist it’s a 12-man effort.
"We watch film on past players and teams and they have had opportunities to get good yardage against them and then there’s a missed block, missed assignment, missed cut. That’s Calgary: you’ve got to be next to perfect as far as your execution," Harris said. "For us, it’s attention to detail by every single one of the guys on the field and when that all happens and we’re playing with a certain physicality, we’re going to be successful."
While much of the praise is often directed at Harris and the O-line when the running game is productive, it’s often the work of the receivers, through a block up field, or the quarterback selling a misdirection that leads to a big gain.
Correct leverage, good vision and perimeter blocking are also very important, Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "One of the things that’s been excellent for us this year is the commitment level by the receivers to block on the perimeter. They’re getting after it pretty good."
Ask any receiver and the most fun they get in a game is making a big play, which usually means a touchdown or big catch downfield. After all, each player wants to be the difference whenever they touch the ball. With that belief, comes an expectation to help out teammates when they get their shot.
"We all want to make plays, so whenever it’s our chance, we just expect everybody to block for each other, too," Bombers receiver Nic Demski said. "We play for each other, so we got to be good about that, we have to be more physical to open up holes."
Winnipeg has a tendency to either commit to or abandon the run depending on its success in the early stages of a game.
When the running game is working with ease, the Bombers continue to pound the rock. If they aren’t gaining traction in the first few drives, leading to second-and-long situations, offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice tends to lean toward the passing game.
"It’s all about the game plan and what LaPo is kind of feeling to get things going," Harris said. "But, absolutely, the first couple, you want to have success because it just gives everyone on the offence and on the team more confidence we can do it."
When the run attack is rolling, it can also demoralize the opposing defence, leading them to adjust their scheme. To prevent success in the run game, teams will often load the box, bringing more players closer to the line of scrimmage to plug any holes in the middle or on the edge. That can leave a defence vulnerable in other areas, and can force an offence to pass the ball against preferred man-on-man coverage.
"When a team is running the ball well, it forces you to come into coverages and situations that may be a lot more predictable. It creates lots of space on the outside," Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill said.
"So, any time you want to create nice matchups off play-action and you’ve been running the ball well, you know you’re going to get some sort of man-like scheme and that’s where you open up opportunities in the pass game.
"When teams run the ball well, they force your hand to say ‘now you can’t run the ball’ and good teams are able to play that ebb and flow off of the chess match of what you’re doing."
It can also be extremely frustrating.
"You’re losing one-on-one’s and you’re getting pushed around. That’s never a good thing," Bighill said.
"When you’re in a defence that’s supposed to stop the run and it doesn’t stop the run, it gets frustrating real quick."
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 Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 11:06 PM CDT: Adds photo