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On a night that couldn’t have been more improbable — two lightning delays, the second-longest game in CFL history and a rookie quarterback throwing for three TDs — in the end it was the same old tired story that undid the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: a porous defence that gave up big plays, almost 500 yards in net offence and came apart in the final two minutes to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Let the record show that on a night you needed a paddle more than cleats to negotiate the playing surface at Investors Group Field, Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly torched the Bombers defence for 408 yards through the air, 43 yards on the ground, threw for one TD, ran for two others and authored a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a game-winning field goal in the final 96 seconds to give the Eskimos a 33-30 victory in the CFL season opener.

Derel Walker struts past Kevin Fogg Thursday night. Edmonton QB Mike Reilly hooked up with Walker for a 101-yard TD strike before the game was four minutes old. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Derel Walker struts past Kevin Fogg Thursday night. Edmonton QB Mike Reilly hooked up with Walker for a 101-yard TD strike before the game was four minutes old. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

On a marathon night of wild weather and almost three hours of lightning delays, it took a plain-speaking Texan to call it what it was.

"Mother Nature," TSN sportscaster Matt Dunigan offered, "is pissed off."

All of which would work quite nicely as a new slogan for the city: ‘Welcome to Winnipeg. Mother Nature is pissed off.’

It was a limp and soggy end to what was otherwise a memorable night for the 25,458 Bombers fans who were there for opening kickoff — and the couple thousand drenched die-hards who were still there when the game ended almost six hours later at 1:17 a.m.

And so with that, a Bombers team that went into Thursday night with a big question mark at quarterback emerged at the soggy end with that question answered — Chris Streveler (15-28, 178 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) is a serviceable replacement until injured Matt Nichols gets back — but with a whole new/old question now hovering over this team.

How can a defence this good on paper still be that lousy on the field?

The answer, of course, is that for all the changes made to the defence in the off-season — an upgraded secondary, defensive line and the addition of maybe the best middle linebacker in the game, Adam Bighill — the guys at the top remain the same, head coach Mike O’Shea and defensive coordinator Richie Hall.

And so while the players are better this season, what emerged Thursday night is the defensive scheme is still the same failed strategy that proved the Bombers' undoing in each of the last two seasons, giving up far too many yards in pursuit of the big play and collapsing in the face of adversity.

The net offence at the end of the night told the story at least as much as the scoreboard — 481 yards for Edmonton, 300 yards for Winnipeg.

You won’t win many football games when you are spotting your opponent the better part of two football fields worth of real estate and the fact the Bombers were winning this one late into the fourth quarter was a testament to brutal conditions that levelled a playing field that tilted Edmonton’s way from the moment Reilly hooked up with Derel Walker for a 101-yard TD strike before the game was four minutes old.

Bad playing conditions are always the great equalizer in sport and, trailing 19-7, the Bombers offence under Streveler — with a big assist to Kevin Fogg’s 110-yard missed field goal return for a TD — took full advantage, going on a 20-0 run over the course of two lightning delays, two-plus quarters and about four-and-a-half hours of elapsed time.

But just when it seemed like the Bombers would author an unlikeliest of victories over an Edmonton team that was the consensus preseason favourite to win a Grey Cup on their own home turf this November, the Bombers defence came apart with the game on the line.

With the Bombers leading by eight, time running out and the turf at IGF reduced to a series of small lakes, Reilly marched the Eskimos 90 yards over 14 plays to put the ball in the Bombers end zone with just 1:36 to play.

And then he did it again just one play later, finding Nathaniel Behar — who’d never caught a pass in his professional career prior to this night — at the back of the Bombers' end zone for the game-tying two-point conversion.

After holding the Bombers to a quick two-and-out, Edmonton got the ball back with just 49 seconds to play and Reilly quickly moved them into field-goal position, setting up a 44-yard game-winner by Edmonton place-kicker Sean Whyte with under 10 seconds to play.

Do you know what kind of defence collapses like that, with the game on the line and the clock past 1 a.m. in the morning, a time most quarterbacks are in bed? Poorly led ones.

Since taking over as Bombers defensive coordinator in 2015, Hall’s defences have become known for two trademarks: forcing turnovers and giving up too many yards.

The first one is good. Very good. As a general principle, if you win the turnover battle you generally win the game and Hall’s defence wins that battle for the Bombers most nights.

But those turnovers don’t do you much good if your defence also consistently gives up 400 yards of offence or more a night.

The Bombers gave up an average of 397 yards of offence last season. That was second to last in the entire CFL, ahead of only Montreal, who, not coincidentally, won just three games all year.

Calgary, with the stingiest offence in 2017 giving up an average of just 315 yards, which is to say the lion’s share of a football field less than the Bombers, every game all season long.

In a sport that’s all about field position, that kind of disparity is going to be your undoing more often than not. And yet Hall and O’Shea seem to regard it as a feature of their defence, rather than the flaw it is.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a defence that bends, but doesn’t break. It’s the oldest saying in football for a reason — it works.

But the problem with this Hall defence is it bends like a yoga instructor and then seems to inevitably break at the most inopportune times.

There were expectations throughout the league at the end of last season that O’Shea was going to finally tie a can to Hall after the Bombers lost the West semifinal for the second year in a row.

But O’Shea is nothing if not stubborn and so Hall’s back for his fourth season as the man in charge of the Bombers defence, only this time with even more talent and depth at his disposal.

And the result? Well, it was more of the same in Week 1, anyway.

Reilly put up 481 yards of offence into the teeth of a driving monsoon. Can you imagine what he would have put up on a warm and sunny evening?

At some point, someone in authority down at Investors Group Field is going to have to figure out that the problem with this Bombers defence isn’t the players, it’s the scheme.

It's a long season and there is still plenty of time for redemption. But at some point, if Hall cannot figure out a way to make a defence this good on paper play a lot better than that on the field, he has to go.

And if O’Shea cannot figure that out, then he should be the one to go.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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