Bombers have room to grow


A pair of undefeated teams will meet in Week 2 of the CFL schedule Friday night at IG Field.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are coming off an impressive 19-6 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats squad in the league’s season-opener last Thursday while the Toronto Argonauts marched in to Calgary a couple of nights later and walked away with a 23-20 win thanks to some late-game heroics.

The Bombers looked like the more polished club in Week 1, but with it being so early in the season, especially with a 20-month layoff owing to COVID-19, it would be silly to draw any definitive conclusions. Winnipeg understands it will be in tough against a Toronto team that should only improve from week to week.

Blue Bombers QB Zach Collaros threw two first-half touchdowns to Kenny Lawler in the club's season-opening victory. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Blue Bombers QB Zach Collaros threw two first-half touchdowns to Kenny Lawler in the club’s season-opening victory. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

“The expectation is that every team we play is going to bring their best and put their best out there on the field,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. “And no matter what type of year it is, we believe that when an opponent shows up, or we show up to play somebody, they’re going to bring their absolute best.”

One thing for sure, though, is that, barring a rare tie, one team will leave Friday night 2-0, remaining atop its respective division. And with a shortened regular season in 2021 — down from 18 games to 14 — every single point in the standings means that much more.

With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on:


Room to grow

There was a lot to like from the Bombers offence in Week 1. Running back Brady Oliveira filled in admirably for Andrew Harris, scampering for 126 rushing yards in his first professional start. Zach Callaros benefitted greatly from the stellar play of the offensive line, registering at least one pass to all five starting receivers, while also extending plays with his feet.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Andrew Harris (33) at practice in Winnipeg. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Andrew Harris (33) at practice in Winnipeg. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

But there’s still plenty of room to grow for this group led by first-year offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce. Winnipeg was able to find the end zone twice in the first half, with both touchdowns courtesy of Collaros throws to Kenny Lawler, but was limited to just three points through the final two quarters. They opened the second half with five straight two-and-outs.

Harris, as well as No. 1 receiver Darvin Adams, will miss a second straight week. And with receiver Charles Nelson taking over return duties for an injured Janarion Grant, newcomer Kelvin McKnight draws into the lineup. It’s McKnight’s first CFL game, but he looked really good in camp and has a chemistry with Collaros that has the potential for a standout debut.


Rocking the boat

With the emergence of one-year contracts in the CFL the last few years, a degree of roster turnover is inevitable for all nine teams. But Toronto takes it to a new level in 2021.

Look no further than the Argos defence. Of the 12 starters that dressed in the final game of a disappointing 4-14 regular season in 2019, only one player, defensive back Shaquille Richardson, will start for Toronto Friday night against the Bombers.

Indeed, a number of new and experienced faces — including the likes of 2019 sack-leader Charleston Hughes and line backers Cameron Judge and Henoc Muamba — make up a vastly improved defence that last week limited Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders offence to just one touchdown and 20 points.

And they did so despite some sloppy and undisciplined play, including seven penalties for 61 yards. Expect a more disciplined effort this week.


Black and blue

The Bombers defence had a slow start against the Ticats, surrendering a touchdown on Hamilton’s opening drive, only to dust themselves off and shut Hamilton out the rest of the way. What made it all the more impressive was Winnipeg had two rookies starting in the secondary, and were without starters Mercy Maston (Achilles) and Kyrie Wilson (hip).

The Bombers won’t get anyone back this week, and instead have added more bodies to the injured list. Josh Johnson (head) has been added to the six-game injured list, meaning he’s likely to miss notable time, and Jontrell Rocquemore, who had a game-clinching interception while playing in relief of Wilson, is dealing with a hip injury that has him being monitored week to week.

That’s a lot of missing pieces for one group, but with the Bombers stressing a next-man-up philosophy, the team’s high expectations remain the same. Jesse Briggs will take over for Rocquemore at weak-side linebacker, while Mike Jones will move to Johnson’s role as the coverage linebacker. That opens up a spot at field corner which will go to rookie Josh Miller, another CFL rookie.


MBT the man… for now

McLeod Bethel-Thompson is making the quarterback battle in Toronto an interesting one. Bethel-Thompson, who was in for a banged up Nick Arbuckle, arguably outdid all his colleagues in Week 1, completing 70 per cent of his passes (26-for-37) for 354 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.

The Argos paid big bucks to sign Arbuckle and he’s no doubt the future. But he’s dealing with a hamstring issue that needs time and the play of Bethel-Thompson is affording him that opportunity to recover.

It’s also opening the door for a longer audition for Bethel-Thompson and it will be up to him to continue to make an argument for more playing time. If there was one knock on Toronto’s offence last week it was a difficulty in establishing a run game, with just 10 rushing attempts by a running back, totalling 32 yards.

In two career games against Winnipeg, Bethel-Thompson is 1-1. He’s completed 59 of 88 passes (67 per cent) for 731 yards — each game he eclipsed 300 passing yards — and six touchdowns compared to two interceptions.


Best foot forward

Since the departure of kicker Justin Medlock over the prolonged offseason, what was once among the CFL’s top kicking games has morphed into one of Winnipeg’s biggest question marks.

O’Shea opted three times Thursday to punt instead of having Tyler Crapigna kick a field goal — declining attempts from 52, 45 and 48 yards. The decisions were based on the play of the defence, the potential danger of kicking it to Hamilton returner Brandon Banks and the overall flow of the game. It likely also had to do with the fact Crapigna wasn’t making these distances in warm-up.

Crapigna said this week he’s confident in his game and was ready to go last week if called upon (he was good on both 32-yard converts and had one field goal from 15 yards out), adding under “perfect” conditions his range is anywhere within 55 yards. He hasn’t been able to do that consistently in practice, but a solid game could go far in establishing a confidence with O’Shea.

Either way, the Bombers can’t afford to leave nine points off the board every week. And against a defence that forced Calgary to attempt four field goals in Week 1, Crapigna may just get his opportunity against the Argos to prove he can be the kicker the Bombers need.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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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