July 10, 2014

Preview: Als, Bombers seeking further momentum on FNF

CFL.ca Staff

MONTREAL — The Montreal Alouettes and Winnipeg Blue Bombers look to maintain their momentum, as they clash on Friday Night Football at Percival-Molson Stadium.

A suffocating defence helped the Als put a frustrating start to their season behind them last weekend, as they allowed just three points through the first three quarters on the way to a 24-9 win over the BC Lions in their home-opener.

That performance had Alouettes fans breathing a sigh of relief, as veteran head coach Tom Higgins earned his first win as Montreal’s head man.

“It was nice to get our first win,” Higgins told MontrealAlouettes.com after the game. “It was indicative that our defence scored our first touchdown of the game, and it was nice that our offence then followed suit.”

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“We’d like to have scored a couple more touchdowns, but we got to a point where we were very comfortable with the lead that we had and we didn’t want to make any mistakes and turn the football back over.”

It was a well-known fact entering 2014 that if the Alouettes were going to contend for the Grey Cup, their defence would have to pack a pretty strong punch for the second straight year. In 2013 they were arguably the fiercest defensive team in football and would need more of the same this year as a young offence finds its bearings.

After mixed results through two weeks, the Alouettes are prepared for an intriguing challenge in Drew Willy and the Bombers – the league’s highest-ranked, highest-scoring offensive team through two weeks.

“They’re exciting to watch,” said defensive back Kyries Hebert. “If you’re a fan of the CFL, that’s the team to watch right now.”

The Bombers have scored a league-best 81 points through two games and boast a point differential of plus-32. They lead the league in time of possession, first downs, and rushing attempts, while sitting second in net yards only to the Argos.

Leading the way is the young quarterback as Willy enters Friday’s contest as the league’s second-leading passer with 615 passing yards and a quarterback rating of 108.7. The Argos barely touched him in the season opener, while the REDBLACKS were able to get in his face – although not enough to throw him off his game.

“There’s nothing that’s proven he can be rattled, we just have to do what it is that we do – put pressure on him, get to him and try to make a difference, make sure he doesn’t get comfortable in the pocket,” Hebert said.

Outside of Willy the Als are also forced to contend with Winnipeg’s shiny new weapon at running back, Nic Grigsby. The 25-year-old rookie scored three touchdowns in the win over Ottawa last weekend, which now gives him the league lead in rushing scores.

The Alouettes know just what Grigsby is capable of, and will have to be ready on defence if they want to avoid another three-score effort.

What are the writers saying?

Bob Irving» Bombers think they have found their quarterback
Bob Irving
CFL.ca Columnist

Rick Moffat» Timing and patience paying off for Paxson
Rick Moffat
CFL.ca Columnist

“When you’re in the league for a long time, you all of a sudden see some players that are special,” Higgins said of the young back. “If he can continue that pace then we’re gonna be talking about him in elite company with some of the better players that have played in the CFL.”

“He has speed but he’s also a little bit elusive, and our challenge is to not let him start running and try to contain him the best that we can,” he continued. “I think that’s a very good football player that we’re playing against, but there were 11 other players that helped him last week.”

The bigger questions loom on the other side of the ball however, where Troy Smith is the only starting quarterback in the league still in search of his first touchdown pass of the season. The former Heisman Trophy winner has ahd trouble finding consistency out of the gate this year, and the team’s offence has had problems as a result, ranking third-last in yards per game.

“Not a concern but definitely something I’m looking forward to,” Smith said of possibly throwing his first touchdown pass of the season this weekend. “As an offence we pride ourselves on scoring points and as a quarterback I definitely pride myself on leading my team to victory.”

“So I’m definitely looking forward to that first touchdown throw of the season.”

While last Friday’s win was a step in the right direction for Smith and the Als, the Bombers spent last Thursday putting an exclamation mark on their excellent start under first-year head coach Mike O’Shea with a 36-28 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS.

Now the Bombers find themselves looking to start a season with three wins for just the second time since 1987, after earning home wins over Toronto and Ottawa to start the season.

Both came in impressive fashion, as Willy strong-armed the Bombers to a blowout win over Ray and the Argos in the opener, before Grigsby’s three-touchdown effort helped Winnipeg overcome a 21-7 first quarter deficit to top Ottawa.

The last time they met

Last Meeting:
Monday, October, 14 2013

Winnipeg 34, Montreal 27

Will Ford and Max Hall would help lead the Bombers to a Thanksgiving win over the Alouttes and win the 2013 season series.

» Read more.

With plenty to work on and arguably the greatest challenge of the season waiting, O’Shea isn’t worried about how his players will deal with the extra attention.

“Not with these guys,” he told BlueBombers.com. “They know it’s back to work time.”

Willy completed 21 of his 33 passing attempts for 307 yards in the win against Ottawa, while Grigsby enjoyed the game of his life. An even greater challenge potentially looms against an elite Montreal defence.

“Obviously defensively they’ve got some talented athletes and they like to bring pressure, they’re relentless,” said O’Shea. “They make plays on defence, Chip Cox is Defensive Player of the Year but they’ve got a lot of players on the defensive side that are good players.”

“Noel Thorpe has that defence running like a well-oiled machine, starting from last year right through, it’s carrying forward. That poses a challenge.”

The biggest task, he continued, will be solving Montreal’s pass-rush. Willy was sacked five times against Ottawa, while Montreal last season ranked second in the CFL with 59 sacks.

“They have a pretty potent stunt game, so does it pose challenges – yeah, you’d have to work on it during the week and you have to have your offensive line on the same page and your centre making the right calls,” O’Shea continued.

“As a group they’ve got to work all week to not have that tunnel vision and focus on that guy right in front of them.”

“They’ve gotta open their ears and broaden their perspectives so they can listen to the calls and pick up the visual cues that would give their twist situation away.”

The Bombers along with the Eskimos have turned the West Division upside down to start 2014, as last year’s two worst teams are a combined 4-0 this season after combining for just seven wins a year ago.

Game Notes:

  • After dropping their season-opener 29-8 at Calgary, the Alouettes enjoyed a week-to-week turnaround of plus-36 points following a 24-9 win over BC.
  • The Als allowed just 70 net yards in the first half against BC, and just 153 in the first three quarters, giving them a 20-3 edge heading into the fourth. They allowed Calgary 425 yards in Week 1.
  • Chip Cox passed Orlondo Steinauer on the all-time defensive tackles list, with 607 over the span of nine seasons. He’s only two tackles short of Kelly Wiltshire’s 609.
  • Brandon Whitaker is back and healthy, sitting third in the league in rushing with 135 yards through two weeks.
  • The last time the Blue Bombers started 3-0 was 2003; before that, the last time was 1987. The last time they opened their season with two home wins was 2006.
  • The Bombers’ turnover ratio currently sits at even. Last season it was minus-six after two games, and the team didn’t win the turnover battle until its 10th game of the season.
  • Nic Grigsby is averaging 92 yards per game, putting him on page for 1,656 yards (a mark exceeded only twice in club history).
  • The Bombers lead the league in big plays, with three runs of 20-plus yards; five completions for 30-plus yards; and two long kick returns. The next closest team has five big plays.
  • The Bombers lead the CFL with an average time of possession of 33:00 and 51 first downs (including 16 on the ground).

Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen live on TSN.

– With files from MontrealAlouettes.com/BlueBombers.com