MONTREAL -- The Montreal Alouettes continue their pursuit of a home playoff game this season, as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers visit Percival Molson Stadium for a Thanksgiving Monday clash.
Sitting one game back of the second-place Hamilton Tiger-Cats and three games back of the Toronto Argonauts, the Alouettes are playing their best football of the season and appear poised to make a surge atop the division standings.
That’s a far cry from just a month into the season, when the issues surrounding the team included the dismissal of rookie head coach Dan Hawkins, as well as injuries to key members of the team such as Anthony Calvillo and Jamel Richardson.
Fast forward to mid-October and all of a sudden, with the defence playing like one of the best in the league, the young quarterbacks carrying the offence, and a possible Calvillo return on the horizon, the Alouettes are making their presence felt as a serious contender.
|Related: Bombers vs. Als|
» Video: Calvillio, 'I feel a whole lot better'
» A lot has changed for Als and Bombers
» Irving: Walters 'acting' in charge
» Moffat: No doubt, Als are Calvillo's team
» Bombers move Hall with future in mind
» Bruce: 'We can't stop here'
» Last week for the Bombers
» Last week for the Alouettes
» CFL.ca Game Notes: Week 16
» Buy: Bombers vs. Alouettes tickets
Head Coach and General Manager Jim Popp said there was never any doubt what this group is capable of and only, a few minor things needed cleaning up.
“I don’t think any of us felt like we didn’t have a great chance of being in the playoffs, it was just a matter of cleaning up some of our bad habits and giving ourselves a better chance to win in games,” said Popp, who made the call to replace Hawkins with himself after the team started 2-3.
The sudden move came after a win no less, but Popp said the team needed to get back to ëthe Alouette way’, something that, to his credit, appears to have happened.
“We were continuing to turn the ball over like we had and had the amount of penalties that we were, so that’s cleaned up quite a bit,” he told MontrealAlouettes.com.
Playing a key role in the turnaround has been a new generation of future stars that have continued to emerge in the face of injuries.
We’ve been so used to names like Calvillo, Brandon Whitaker, and Jamel Richardson dominating the headlines over the past decade, yet in last week’s dominant 47-24 road win over the Eskimos, the likes of Tyrell Sutton, Duron Carter, and Josh Neiswander carried the offence.
After being pulled after the first quarter in his first career start and being relegated to backup, Neiswander has taken the biggest step forward of all, taking advantage of an injury to Tanner Marsh and leading the team to back-to-back wins.
The 26-year-old has thrown for 515 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception in those wins, and he's gaining confidence with each coming play.
“As an offence the number one thing you want to do is you want to keep from turning the ball over, and we’ve done that,” said Neiswander when asked about why everything seems to be just falling into place on offence.
“I think the next thing you look for as an offence is consistency, you want to be productive and efficient with moving the sticks, keeping the ball moving down the field, and scoring points,” he continued.
“I think overall as an offence we’ve become more consistent with not beating ourselves as far as penalties or mental mistakes, and I think over the last few weeks we’ve gotten better and better with fixing those things.”
The biggest contributing factor, though, may just be the offensive line, which was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons after struggling through the first half of the season.
“You certainly can’t forget about the offensive line because it all starts up front,” said Neiswander. “Those guys have been doing an amazing job with the protections, which allows me to drop back and make my reads, which allows me to get the ball to our playmakers like [S.J. Green] and [Arland Bruce] and the rest of our guys.”
Offensive tackle Jeff Perrett, now in his seventh season in the league, said the success up front has to do with the chemistry and familiarity with one another, both of which continue to grow.
“I think the more we play together, we’ve got a new coach and the more we’re with him we’re just finding our flow here,” Perrett told the team’s official website. “I think we’re at a good spot, nobody really talks about us which is good and I think we want to keep it that way.”
|What are the writers saying?|
» Walters 'acting' like he's already in charge
» Without a doubt, Als are Calvillo's team
Continuing that success and even building on it will be the key to staying in the East Division race, and especially making a run in the playoffs against the likes of Hamilton and Toronto.
“We like to think that we set the tone for the games and I think the last half of the season here, last couple of games we’ve been playing well and giving the quarterback a chance to make plays and getting it in the playmakers’ hands,” he continued. “If we can do that we’ll put up some points and win some games.”
The Bombers endured a similar start to the season as Montreal with a sputtering offence and some hard luck in close games, but unlike their division rival just couldn’t get it turned around.
Now they find themselves on the brink of elimination, but Head Coach Tim Burke said he isn’t playing the us against the world’ card for his team in terms of a crazy comeback scenario this season. Instead he’s focused on making sure his young players continue to improve throughout the final four games of the season.
“Everything we’re doing from here on out, we’re building for the future,” Burke told BlueBombers.com. “The guys who are playing here are playing to get better.”
“I just looked at who we played this last week against Calgary and we actively played seven rookies, six second-year guys, and nine third-year guys,” he continued. “So we’re really young, we’re gonna use these last four weeks to just get better as a team and gain experience in the CFL and that way we’re making ourselves better for next year.”
A difficult year for Bombers worsened in the last week. After a 38-11 loss to the Calgary Stampeders made it four straight, the team moved arguably its top player in Alex Hall to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in exchange for offensive line help and draft picks.
|The last time they met|
Thursday, July 04, 2013
Winnipeg 19, Montreal 11
The Bombers defence sacked Anthony Calvillo seven times, limiting the QB to just 121 yards as they fought to a 19-11 win over the Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium.
» Read more.
Hall is the CFL’s sack leader with 15 this year, but with speculation that he could soon depart to the NFL, the move was made with the future in mind.
“I hate to see Alex go because not only was he a really good player but he’s a really good person too,” Burke said in a press conference during the week. “I think that probably initially it bothered quite a few guys on the team, specifically in his position group, but now that we’ve had some time they’ll get over it and we’ll move on.”
“But I think for the long-term outlook of the team it’s a good trade.”
Even though this season may not be salvaged, there is plenty to look forward to in Winnipeg. Running back Will Ford is one example of a player the team could lean on both now and for the long haul, as he’s proven to be a catalyst both in the return game and in the offence.
He’s only 26 and now in just his second season in the league, but since replacing Chad Simpson due to injury five games ago, he’s rushed for 338 yards on 58 carries. His single-game high came in last weekend’s loss, when he busted off a 70-yard run on his very first attempt, leading to a 156-yard evening.
In addition to his big day on the ground, he returned four kickoffs for 148 yards and his second return touchdown of the season, giving him 309 all-purpose yards and making him the first player this season to have a 300-plus yard game.
With breakout performances like that and the fact that players are looking to prove they should be back next season, Popp and the Alouettes are wary of a young but talented Bomber squad.
“They’ve had a sound defence most of the season as we have, and it’s one of those things where their offence hasn’t played as well, similar to how we’ve been,” said Popp. “They haven’t won as many games as we have but they’re still capable of beating anyone in the league and you can’t take them lightly, guys’ jobs are on the line and you just don’t know how they’re going to come out.”
“We’ve got to look at it as they’re the best team in the league and we’ve got to play that way against them and take care of our business, so we have another chance next week to continue staying in the race to get a home playoff game.”
Kickoff is at 1:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live via Game Tracker on CFL.ca and CFL Mobile.
- With files from BlueBombers.com/MontrealAlouettes.com