Saturday’s match against the Montreal Alouettes will mark the final regular-season home game for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and one of three games before the playoffs begin that will ultimately mean nothing as far as their position in the CFL standings.
The Bombers have already wrapped up the West Division, clinching top spot with a 45-0 drubbing of the B.C. Lions in Week 12. They return from a bye this week with a 10-1 record, including a streak of eight straight victories, to face an Alouettes club that is 6-5 and still jockeying for position in the East.
If you think the Bombers are planning to take their foot off the gas down the final stretch, think again. Especially when you consider the response to some of the noise that’s come out of the Alouettes locker room this week, including Alouettes linebacker Patrick Levels dismissing Winnipeg’s dominance and proclaiming the Alouettes as the league’s flagship team.
“We’re not taking them for granted or lightly. We got to come out here and play our best to win. That’s the facts,” Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said. “Our record says a lot about who we are as a team. It speaks to consistency. And we got to go out there and continue to prove it.”
With that, here are five storylines heading into Saturday’s game.
COLLAROS CONTINUES MOP BID
Zach Collaros doesn’t expect to find himself holding a clipboard anytime soon. The Bombers starting quarterback is prepared to play every minute in these next three games and is planning as though he’ll be asked to do so.
It’s hard to gauge what head coach Mike O’Shea might do with the team’s most important player. No. 2 pivot Sean McGuire received some reps with the first-team offence during Friday’s walkthrough, suggesting he might see some time against the Alouettes.
Collaros, fresh off being named the CFL’s top performer for October, leads the league in passing yards, with 2,832, as well as touchdowns (18), compared to six interceptions, and quarterback efficiency rating (111.7). The chance to earn performance bonuses certainly wouldn’t be considered in deciding on whether Collaros will play, or for how long.
It should also be noted Montreal leads the CFL in sacks, with 44, so there is a legitimate concern over his health, even if the Bombers have given up a league-low 14. While there’s no way of knowing what will unfold over the next three weeks, what is clear is the keeping Collaros healthy will be paramount in the Bombers bid for back-to-back titles.
HARRIS TO START FOR ALS
For a season shortened by COVID-19, it still must feel like a long year for quarterback Trevor Harris.
Harris opened the 2021 campaign in Edmonton, in what’s turned out to be a tumultuous season for the Elks, plagued with a coronavirus breakout as well as questions around Harris’ vaccination status. The nine-year CFL veteran was eventually benched for his on-field play, before being traded to Montreal midway through October, around the same time he became fully vaccinated.
Harris made his Alouettes debut last week, entering the game at the start of the fourth quarter down 13-3 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He showed quick chemistry with the offence, finishing the night 12-for-15 passing for 123 yards and one touchdown in what ended as a 19-14 loss.
The Bombers will face Harris in what will be his first official start for the Alouettes. With a much better offensive line compared to what he had in Edmonton, and a number weapons on the ground and in the air, it should be interesting to see what he can do against a formidable Bombers defence that is averaging fewer than 12 points against per game.
HANDS FULL WITH STANBACK
The Alouettes can certainly hurt you through the air with a group that includes Eugene Lewis, who paces the CFL with 869 receiving yards, and Jake Wieneke, who has a league-best eight touchdowns. But Montreal’s attack starts on the ground with running back William Stanback.
Stanback leads the CFL with 960 rushing yards in nine games — an average of nearly 107 yards per week. His 6.3 yards per carry is also tops among running backs, as well as his six rushes of at least 20 yards. Montreal averages the most rushing yards per game, with 152.3, with Winnipeg in second at 117.8.
Simply put, the Bombers defence will have their hands full. But that’s not to say they aren’t up to the task.
Winnipeg has faced the fewest run attempts this year, with 180, though given how little they’ve trailed in games and how often they play with big leads, that’s not all that surprising. The Bombers have allowed the third fewest rushing yards against (86.8) in 2021 and are middle of the pack when it comes to rushing touchdowns, surrendering six.
The Bombers joined the free agent party in October, inking CFL all-star defensive back Winston Rose to a deal for the remainder of the season.
Rose was a key piece of the Bombers 2019 Grey Cup-winning team, leading the CFL in interceptions, with nine, while playing the boundary corner. He signed with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals in 2020 and was there again this season until he was released from the practice roster in September.
He’s only practised one week but he’ll be back in his usual spot against the Alouettes. That’s created a shift in the Bombers secondary.
To make room for Rose, DeAundre Alford has been moved from boundary to field corner, meaning Mike Jones becomes the odd man out. Rose is in great shape physically, but he hasn’t played in a football game for close to a year.
The Bombers want him in the mix immediately and are comfortable that he’s adjusted to his old playbook. For a group that has already been dangerous, allowing just three passing touchdowns against this season, it should be fascinating to see what the addition to Rose will offer.
GETTING HIS KICKS
Winnipeg believes they finally have the solution to its kicking problem this season in Sergio Castillo. Castillo was also a late addition to the roster, signing a contract just two days before the addition of Rose.
Castillo joins the Bombers after a string of inconsistent options, beginning with Marc Liegghio, before Tyler Crapigna and Ali Mourtada were given a chance to snag the job. Like Rose, the 31-year-old Castillo has toiled in the NFL, latching on for a brief stint with the New York Jets.
While playing with the B.C. Lions in 2019, a season he was named a CFL all-star, Castillo made good on 91.1 per cent of his field goals, connecting on 41-of-45 attempts. If the Bombers can get anything like that down the stretch, there really is no weak spot on this team.
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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