BLUE REVIEW: Bombers played well enough to win but were far from perfect against Stampeders

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While Sunday’s 18-16 win was exciting for the players and fans, the fact that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers easily could have lost Sunday night against the Calgary Stampeders can’t be ignored.

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The Stamps, playing without quarterback Bo-Levi Mitchell, who is arguably the league’s best player, came very close to winning, with rookie Jake Maier at the controls for just the second time in his pro career.

Maier was very good, throwing for 307 yards and he even got the Stamps in position for a game-winning field goal. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the Bombers, kicker Rene Paredes came up short from 52 yards out with the game on the line.

The Bombers did play well enough to win, in all phases. The offence put up modest but efficient numbers, the defence made big stops when it counted most and rookie kicker Marc Liegghio booted four field goals, including the game-winner in the final minute.

But it was far from perfect, and with the next two games coming against the currently unbeaten Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Bombers are going to need to be much more consistent in all areas.

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Let’s take a look back at Sunday’s win, which improved the Bombers record to 3-1 on the season, leaving them in second place in the West Division.

THE POSITIVES

— It finally seems that the Bombers have a kicking game. Liegghio took over for the injured and ineffective Tyler Crapigna on Sunday and after badly missing on his first convert attempt, he nailed four field goals, from 50, 42, 37 and 45 yards out. The 45-yarder was a game-winner. Liegghio, 24, has shown he can handle the punting duties — he had a 44.3-yard average on seven kicks Sunday and his placement was excellent — and now it looks like he’s feeling comfortable kicking field goals as well. That’s a good thing, because Crapigna never looked comfortable and his only two successful kicks of the season came from inside 22 yards.

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— Andrew Harris returned to the lineup and racked up 81 rushing yards and a touchdown in his 2021 debut. The star running back, who led the CFL in rushing in 2017, 2018 and 2019, missed almost all of training camp, and the first three games of the season, with a calf injury. “He’s just a leader,” Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros said. “He has this kind of aura about him where you know he’s just a confident guy and other guys feed off that. I think it’s big for the offence, it’s big for the team and I think it’s big for our fans to have him out here. He’s gonna go down as one of the best to ever play this game and any time you can have him on the field, it’s big.”

— The Bombers allowed only three points in the second half and continue to stifle opponents in the fourth quarter. A Paredes field goal Sunday made up the only points the Bombers have allowed in the fourth quarter this season. Three points, in the equivalent of an entire game.

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— Receiver Rasheed Bailey had his best game as a pro. He caught four passes for 108 yards, including a 50-yarder (with 49 yards coming after the catch) that set up a Harris touchdown. Bailey’s clutch catches on second down on the winning drive were also big. “Huge catches by Rasheed,” Collaros said. “He played a great game, I thought, all night.”

— Middle linebacker Adam Bighill had eight tackles and a fumble recovery and he continues to make a big impact defensively, at age 32. Bighill now has 701 defensive tackles in his career, which is 10th best in the history of the CFL. In 2018, Bighill had 105 tackles in 18 games but in 2019 he had only 61 in 15 games. This year, he’s on pace for 91 tackles in 14 games. Here’s his explanation for why he’s putting up the numbers: “We’re seeing more run this year, right now. People are trying to run the ball on us a little bit more so there’s definitely a little bit more action going on, which I’m not mad about.”

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THE NEGATIVES

— Two dropped balls on plays that would have been first downs by receiver Kenny Lawler and another by Drew Wolitarsky. A week ago in Toronto, Lawler also had two drops and Bailey had another. The Bombers offence would have had several more opportunities to score if easy catches had been made. Head coach Mike O’Shea said he thought the receivers made the catches when it was most important and Lawler still finished with six grabs for 94 yards. “Early in the game we ended some drives ourselves but there were also some really tough catches in traffic near the end,” O’Shea said. “That’s important too, especially when you might want a few plays back, to come back and give our team opportunities.”

— The defence allowed 393 yards, including 307 through the air. Maier completed all 16 of the passes he threw in the first half. Those are the kind of numbers that are normally going to beat a team. The Bombers aren’t happy with their overall defensive performance, even though they’ve done a great job of limiting points for the opposition: “I think we can play a little more stout up front, a little more physical in the box, a little more aggressive on the outsides,” Bighill said. “We’ve got to get offences off the field more frequently. We can’t let them extend drives. We’ve got to tighten it up and win first down better, more, be more efficient.”

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— Darvin Adams caught only one pass for 14 yards in his second game of the season after suffering a shoulder injury in training camp. Truth be told, Collaros only targeted Adams three times, largely because he was up against all-star cornerback DeShaun Amos much of the night. But the Bombers need Adams to get open so they can stretch the field more than they were able to do Sunday night.

— The Bombers did not record a single quarterback sack on the night, which explains why Maier was able to find success. They did get in his face a lot more in the second half, but it was a strangely quiet night from defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat. Given how much havoc they normally create, this is pretty much nit-picking. They’ll get their sacks as the season goes on.

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— The Bombers scored only 18 points. In their three wins this season they’ve outscored their opponents 19-6, 20-7 and 18-16. Great defence wins championships but sometimes the offence needs to put up bigger numbers to make things happen. The Bombers recorded only one touchdown and they need to start putting more balls in the end zone if they want to win against the likes of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

THE CONCLUSIONS

As Collaros said Sunday night, 3-1 looks a whole lot better than 2-2 and wins against West Division teams are of huge value this year with divisional play more prevalent than normal.

Over the next six weeks, the Bombers play Saskatchewan twice, Edmonton three times and the B.C. Lions twice. Each of those games will have similar importance to Sunday’s game.

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The Bombers are going to have to be consistently cleaner all around in the coming weeks if they want to contend for first place. A couple of poor performances and losses could put them in a battle just to make the playoffs.

Overall, things look good for these Bombers. They have the talent and the guts to make things happen, just as they did in 2019, when they won the Grey Cup.

But it’s fair to say they could have lost to the Stamps and they’re going to have to be better than that against the Roughriders in the Labour Day Classic and Banjo Bowl.

The return of Harris is a big boon and the newfound comfort in the kicking game should help.

It will be interesting to see what this team can do when it really hits its stride.

Twyman@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Ted_Wyman

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