By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
Head coach Mike O’Shea hasn’t spoken to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers about the dangerous of complacency this week because his players didn’t give him any reason to.
O’Shea said it’s been business as usual as Winnipeg (league-best 10-1 record) prepares to host the Montreal Alouettes (6-5) on Saturday night. The Bombers have already clinched top spot in the West Division — and home-field advantage for the conference final Dec. 5 — with three regular-season games still remaining.
The Bombers entered the 2021 season as the defending Grey Cup champion and have certainly lived up to that billing. Winnipeg is 8-0 within the West Division, 6-0 at home and 2-1 versus East Division competition.
The only blemish on their ’21 record was a 30-23 road loss to the Toronto Argonauts on Aug. 21. But a danger to having been so dominant to this point is Winnipeg must now find a way to maintain its edge without the benefit of facing dire must-win situations.
That scenario is still weeks away. It’s often dangerous for teams to believe they can merely flip a switch and immediately return to their dominant form.
“Right now I don’t know that I need to (say, do anything) with this veteran group,” O’Shea said. “These guys seem pretty motivated with the way they’re practising so there are no signs I need to interject.
“They like the feeling they get when they end up on the right side of the scoreboard. They’ve got a process they’re very familiar with that they stick to and they haven’t given me any signs they’re letting up on their process, either, which is probably more important than anything. Because they’re such a veteran group, you don’t really have to say a lot. You just observe and let the leaders know if you think there’s anything they need to talk about.”
Winnipeg has dominated on both sides of the football so far this season.
The Bombers lead the CFL in offensive points scored (24.1 per game) and offensive touchdowns (30) and are second overall in net yards (366.7 per game) and rushing (117.8). Quarterback Zach Collaros is tops in passing yards (2,832) and TDs (18) while Kenny Lawler is second overall in receiving (50 catches 804 yards, six TDs).
The Bombers’ stellar offensive line has allowed a league-low 14 sacks.
Winnipeg’s defence has been the CFL’s stingiest, leading the league in fewest offensive points allowed (11.3 per game), offensive TDs (nine) and net yards (289.8). It has also forced a league-high 33 turnovers, which the Bombers have converted into a league-best 81 points.
About the only question with Winnipeg has been the state of its kicking game. But the Bombers appear to have resolved that with the acquisition of Sergio Castillo from the B.C. Lions.
Castillo, who began his CFL career in Winnipeg in 2015, made 41-of-45 field goals with B.C. in 2019. He spent time in 2020 with the NFL’s New York Jets.
Having already sewn up a playoff berth affords O’Shea of the luxury of tinkering with his roster to help keep key veterans healthy and fresh. That could afford the likes of backup quarterback Sean McGuire and all-star cornerback Winston Rose — a key cog of the ’19 championship team who recently returned to Winnipeg after a stint with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals — more playing time down the stretch.
Regardless of what players are on the field over the next three games, the goal will remain the same.
“It’s important we stick to our process and what we’ve been doing,” said offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce. “We’re going to go out and win a football game.
“The guys we have in the building, we believe all those guys are deserving of playing time. But everybody will be ready to go, as in every week. With the guys we’ve had in the building and the organization for a couple of years, those guys are chomping at the bit as well.”
And despite Winnipeg’s dominance this season, defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“We’ve got to get better” he said matter of factly. “When you look at the big picture, we haven’t accomplished anything . . . we have a long ways to get to where we need to be.
“Where we stand right now, to me that’s irrelevant and it’s irrelevant to the players. It’s how can we be better because there’s a lot of room for improvement within our play. It’s keeping things in perspective, it’s keeping the guys focused on the moment. The moment is how can we get better and if we can continue to get better, then we stay in the path we want to be on and it gives us a better chance to get where we want to be at the end of the year.
“But we can’t get to the end of the year unless we take care of this week and that’s improving, staying healthy, playing together and doing those little things to be successful.”