BOMBSHELLS: Revamped offensive line came through with big performance for Bombers in season opener
VANCOUVER — Perhaps the biggest area of concern for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers heading into the CFL season was the interior of their revamped offensive line.
Three new faces were taking on starting roles for the first time as the Bombers played the B.C. Lions in their season opener Saturday night and many eyes were on centre Michael Couture and guards Geoff Gray and Cody Speller.
It didn’t take long for the trio to quiet the doubters, at least for now.
The Bombers O-line was outstanding in a 33-23 win over the Lions, opening huge holes for running back Andrew Harris, who racked up 148 yards, and giving quarterback Matt Nichols good time to throw the football.
Nichols was sacked just twice and threw for 184 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“Incredible,” Nichols said. “To have three fresh guys in there … I think those guys in the middle showed that they belong. They were hungry and just wanted an opportunity and they proved they can play some football. I look forward to seeing that group grow and continue to get better.”
The Bombers have a bye in Week 2 and could have starting guard Pat Neufeld back by the time they play their home opener against Edmonton on June 27, but it looks like they have some solid depth in Speller and/or Gray.
Couture, taking over for the retired Matthias Goossen, has done a nice job of becoming the leader of the line at centre and tackles Jermarcus Hardrick and Stanley Bryant are among the best in the business.
That all bodes well for a Bombers team that will be very tough to beat when Harris runs for over 100 yards and Nichols stays upright.
NICHOLS’ MOBILITY KEY FACTOR
Nichols made an off-season commitment to becoming a more mobile quarterback and it paid off in his first performance of year.
“I think you can already see it paying off,” Nichols said.
On at least three occasions, Nichols escaped the pocket to buy time and threw impressive completions, including touchdown tosses to Darvin Adams and Drew Wolitarsky.
That scrambling ability helped the offensive line and made the Bombers deadly in the red zone.
“Obviously they weren’t big take-off runs or anything but that’s not necessarily what I’m going for. It’s just those types of plays where initial reads aren’t there. Extend the play and get a couple of touchdowns that maybe last year we wouldn’t have gotten.”
REVERSE CONVERT GAME-CHANGER
In a game full of momentum swings, perhaps the most definitive one came on a B.C. convert attempt, of all things.
The Bombers had just given up a touchdown on a surgical drive by Lions quarterback Mike Reilly to fall behind 23-21. Sergio Castillo lined up for the 32-yard convert to give the Lions a three-point lead, but instead the kick was blocked by Bombers defensive back Marcus Sayles, recovered by DB Brandon Alexander, who lateralled to DB Chandler Fenner, who took the ball 80 yards for a two-point score.
It’s a rare, CFL-unique scoring play, but it was a difference-maker for the Bombers, who tied the game at 23-23 and went on to score all the remaining points and win by 10.
“Three-point swing … it’s a good play,” Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said. “They’re smart guys and they know there’s no consequence really to pitching it. They’ve got to keep that ball alive. It was well-executed.”
SPECIAL NIGHT ON SPECIAL TEAMS
One of the unheralded performances in Saturday’s win came from rookie Canadian defensive back Kerfalla Exume.
Drafted in the eighth round, 70th overall, by the Bombers this year, the Montreal product played his first CFL game in B.C., and had an epic performance on special teams.
Exume, 25, had five special teams tackles, an astounding number given that Fenner led the Bombers with 24 last season and the league leader — Calgary’s Wynton McManis — had 25 all of last season.
DEFENCE NEEDS WORK
Reilly was able to throw for 324 yards and a touchdown in his first game back in B.C., after signing a huge free-agent deal in the off-season.
At times he had plenty of time to throw and was able to find some wide-open receivers, especially Bryan Burnham, who wound up with five catches for 153 yards.
The Lions barely even tried to run the football, making only four rush attempts for four yards and showed they are going to let Reilly earn his money with his arm.
While it wasn’t the best defensive performance by the Bombers, they were strong at the right times — in the red zone and late in the game.
“We don’t care about yards, we care about points,” said Bombers safety Jeff Hecht, who had two interceptions.
“He can throw for 5,000 yards in a game, it doesn’t really matter to us. It’s good for their individual statistics and it looks good on (defensive co-ordinator) Richie (Hall) if we keep the number low. But we’re here to win football games. That’s our goal.”
The Bombers fearsome defensive line, which includes free-agent signee Willie Jefferson, managed only one sack — that by defensive tackle Drake Nevis — while Fenner got picked on at the corner and had a rough night.
“The yards are an indication that we aren’t playing clean football yet,” Hecht said. “There was a couple of missed assignments that they capitalized on.
“It gives us a lot to work on going into the bye week, which is good, kinda humbling, keep our feet grounded.”
WHAT THE HECHT?
Hecht, a 33-year-old journeyman who has been in the league since 2011 but is starting for the first time, had one of the biggest plays of the game.
He picked off Reilly on B.C.’s first possession of the second half and returned the ball 50 yards to the Lions seven-yard line.
Nichols hit Wolitarsky for his second touchdown of the game moments later.
Hecht had just two interceptions in his career before the game and has now doubled it.
“The interception by Jeff Hecht coming out of halftime kind of sparked the whole thing,” Nichols said. “Momentum is a dangerous thing and I think we did a great job of capitalizing on that momentum and answering back when a couple of negative things were happening for us.”
RED ZONE EFFICIENCY
The Bombers went 4-for-4 in the red zone on Saturday, with Nichols throwing touchdown passes to Darvin Adams and Wolitarsky (two) and backup Chris Streveler running in a major from the one-yard line.
“It looked like we were very good,” O’Shea said. “Four-for-four, that’s obviously excellent. Perfect. It was a nice job. We got the ball down deep and took advantage of it, scored points.
“I thought (Nichols) executed the game plan extremely well and was very calm, patient, moved around a little bit when he had to. It was very nicely played.”
The Bombers lost linebacker Kyrie Wilson to what looked like a head injury. He took a shoulder to the head while on a pass rush play and had great difficulty getting off the field … Wolitarsky, who had a huge game, scored two touchdowns and came within inches of getting a third, also left the game with what looked like a hand injury … Playing his first CFL game, former NFLer Lucky Whitehead had just one catch for three yards and had a key drop in the fourth quarter … Another newcomer, Kenny Lawler, had two catches for 19 yards in his Bombers debut.
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