BLUE REVIEW: Quarterback depth is a concern, but not much has changed for Bombers in pursuit of Grey Cup

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MONTREAL — So, about that performance by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Percival Molson Stadium on Saturday.

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It wasn’t good, particularly on offence, and it certainly brings into question just how deep this team really is.

What we now know is that when the Bombers are healthy, at full complement on offence, and have their No. 1 quarterback available, they are the best team in the CFL.

If anything goes awry with that — and really, what we mean here is, if Zach Collaros isn’t available for some reason — the Bombers’ offence looks like all the other teams in the CFL. That is to say, average at best, and downright ineffective at worst.

So what we’re saying here is there shouldn’t be much of anything to worry about, as long as Collaros is healthy and ready to play in the playoffs.

Period.

Montreal Alouettes’ Reggie White Jr., (84) is upended by Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Nick Hallett during second half CFL football action in Montreal, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.
Montreal Alouettes’ Reggie White Jr., (84) is upended by Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Nick Hallett during second half CFL football action in Montreal, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Photo by Graham Hughes /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Yes, the Bombers lost 28-14 to the Montreal Alouettes on a rainy Saturday afternoon on the campus of McGill University.

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It’s true they weren’t able to get much of anything going offensively, and their backup-laden defence couldn’t hold the fort this time around.

It’s also true that expectations were not high for this game and the result was predictable.

Quarterback Sean McGuire, making his first CFL start, made poor decisions and poor throws and was intercepted four times. He engineered one good drive, albeit only two plays, and threw his first career touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

But otherwise it was a game to forget for McGuire and it created some serious worry for Bombers fans, who see the team’s stellar season going down to the sewer if something happens to Collaros between now and the West Final on Dec. 5, against either Saskatchewan or Calgary, at IG Field.

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To be fair, this all might have been different, had the Bombers dressed or regularly played all of their best defensive players. Winnipeg’s defence is the best in the league, bar none, and it has the potential to win games on its own.

Montreal Alouettes quarterback Shea Patterson (14) is tackled by Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Demerio Houston during first half CFL football action against the in Montreal, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.
Montreal Alouettes quarterback Shea Patterson (14) is tackled by Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Demerio Houston during first half CFL football action against the in Montreal, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Photo by Graham Hughes /THE CANADIAN PRESS

However, very few defences can overcome five turnovers — four picks and one fumble on special teams — and consistently deal with great field position for the opposition.

There may be more of this in the future for Bombers fans. Winnipeg plays at Calgary next Saturday and more players could be rested in order to have the team fully healthy for the West Final.

After seeing McGuire’s performance, most fans want Collaros enveloped in bubble wrap, if he plays at all in Calgary.

If you were the Stampeders, who will finish third in the West and play the West semifinal at Saskatchewan on Nov. 28, would you not want to improve your chances by doing everything you possibly can to ensure Collaros doesn’t play in the West Final. We’re not saying they’d want to intentionally hurt anyone, but they would surely want to punish him as much as possible.

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We’ll have to see what kind of line-up Bombers coach Mike O’Shea puts together for Saturday’s game, which will be meaningless for both teams in terms of the standings.

As for now, let’s look back at the positives, the negatives and the conclusions we can draw from Saturday’s loss at Montreal.

THE POSITIVES

— The biggest positive is that this game didn’t matter one lick to the Bombers. They’ve already wrapped up first place in the West Division and will host the West Final and they put a less-than-optimal roster on the field for that very reason. No one will ever even think about this game again if the Bombers go on to win the West Final and the Grey Cup. There are some who worry this will sap some of their momentum — it did end a nine-game winning streak — but there’s no reason to believe the Bombers won’t be back to their normal selves when all their top performers are in the line-up.

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— Kenny Lawler stood out, making three catches of 58 yards, keeping him in strong contention to be the league’s receiving leader this season. One catch, which went for 42 yards on a 50-50 throw, was a thing of beauty. With 973 yards, Lawler is first in the CFL, though he’s only nine yards ahead of Montreal’s Eugene Lewis, who had a big day on Saturday. Lawler is a sure-fire all-star player this season and has a good chance to go over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career if the Bombers choose to play him in Calgary.

— Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, who saw increased playing time with Jackson Jeffcoat sitting out and Willie Jefferson on the field less than usual, recorded two quarterback sacks and put a lot of heat on Alouettes QB Trevor Harris. The Bombers are stacked at defensive end and don’t seem to have any depth concerns in that area.

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— It’s hard to say that this was a real positive, as McGuire didn’t get a ton of time to make decisions on Saturday, but the Bombers offensive line seemed to hold its own despite looking nothing like the normal group that is the best in the CFL. With veterans Stanley Bryant and Pat Neufeld not dressed, Jermarcus Hardrick playing only one half and newcomer Drew Richmond getting injured early on, the Bombers wound up using an all-Canadian O-line that featured Geoff Grey and Tui Eli at the tackles, Drew Desjarlais and Chris Kolankowski as the guards and Michael Couture as the centre. It looks like the Bombers’ depth is just fine at O-line and Bryant and Hardrick and Neufeld, all potential all-stars, should be good and fresh when the playoffs roll around.

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THE NEGATIVES

— It was a very rough debut for quarterback Sean McGuire as a CFL starter. He looked lost for the most part, making poor decisions and some very bad throws. The results were just 11 completions, 149 passing yards and four interceptions. The Bombers and their fans hoped to see a much more promising performance from McGuire, who could be called upon to perform in the playoffs if anything should happen to Collaros. He has vowed to learn from his experience and one can only hope he does because there’s nowhere to go but up.

— Running back Shaq Cooper, signed to the practice roster after he was cut by the B.C. Lions earlier this season, had a horrendous game. He was asked to fill in for Janarion Grant as kick returner and it did not go well. He was ineffective in terms of finding holes and then fumbled not once, not twice, but three times, while trying to field kicks. The Bombers only lost one of the fumbles, but it’s unlikely Cooper will see the field again this season.

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— The jury is still out on whether the Bombers have solved their problems with place-kicking. After souring on Tyler Crapigna, Marc Liegghio and Ali Mourtada, the Bombers signed former CFL all-star and NFL kicker Sergio Castillo for the stretch drive, but he hasn’t exactly been lighting things up. Castillo didn’t even attempt a field goal on Saturday and had only two convert attempts, one of which he missed. Castillo missed a 38-yard field goal try in his first game, on Nov. 6, against Montreal and has now missed a 32-yard convert. Observers will want to see something a little more confidence-building out of Castillo next week, before the playoffs get underway.

THE CONCLUSIONS

You really can’t draw many conclusions from that game.

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Yes, there’s concern about quarterback depth and yes, it’s clear that without their top stars, the Bombers are a beatable team.

But no team has been able to come close to them when they’re at their best.

Although the defence finally allowed some fourth-quarter points (10 points, all off turnovers), Winnipeg is still outscoring its opposition 123-16 in the final quarter this season.

The Bombers defence features at least seven players who could be all-stars this season — Adam Bighill, Jefferson, Jeffcoat, Steve Richardson, DeAundre Alford, Deatrick Nichols and Brandon Alexander — and four of those players sat out on Saturday.

And still, the Bombers did not allow an exorbitant amount of yards. Montreal had just 273 yards of total offence despite having almost double the time of possession (39:14 to 20:46).

The bottom line is, no matter what happens on Saturday in Calgary, whether the Bombers finish at 12-2 or 11-3, they will be overwhelming favourites to return to the Grey Cup for the second straight season.

In other words, nothing has changed.

Twyman@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Ted_Wyman

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