June 13, 2018

Embracing Adversity: Bombers relying on veterans to overcome QB challenge

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

“One thing I’ve learned, I’ve been in the CFL going on my eleventh year, is adversity comes. But it hits you at different times. I guess you could say our challenge came a little earlier, maybe, than others. But it definitely doesn’t change anything.”

– Bombers receiver Adarius Bowman

o here you have it, right off the top.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, respected but not yet feared, looking to emerge as the power that all others should kneel before in 2018, face a challenge they could certainly have lived without.

With their number one quarterback out of the picture and with inexperience behind him, the Bombers will open the CFL regular season hoping that their depth at other positions on offence and a defence with a new identity, can be enough to ensure the path to the goal remains navigable.

With starter Matt Nichols on the shelf with a leg injury and missing maybe as many as six weeks, the Bombers will be relying on two veteran newcomers to help survive that bad news; Receiver Adarius Bowman and linebacker Adam Bighill.

For Bowman, the former Edmonton Eskimo who was released after a mediocre year that saw him catch 45 passes for just 534 yards, this was supposed to be the beginning of his pronouncement that his CFL career ain’t dead yet. In signing with Winnipeg this past winter, he was expecting to have a meaty part, with the established Nichols helping to re-ignite the talent that saw Bowman catch passes for a gobsmacking 1,761 yards just two seasons ago.

Do that again? Not likely. However, if Bowman could be counted on for a grand or 1,100 on a team that also has Darvin Adams, Weston Dressler and emerging talent Nic Demski in the receiving corps, that would be tons.

“Last year wasn’t up to my standards,” said Bowman, referring his injury-shortened 2017.

He confirms that he is driven to succeed, but that that’s just a natural state of being for him. Redemption? A chance to prove those who counted him out wrong? Nah. Just Adarius being Adarius, the 32-year-old native of Chattanooga, Tennessee insisted.

“I look at this season like I do every year. Different place, same guy. I’m going in to be the best this season.”

Adarius Bowman is hoping to bounce back from his 2017 season with a new team in Winnipeg (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Bowman, of course, was the terror of the CFL for three years running, piling up seasons of 1,456 and then 1,304 yards in 2014 and 2015, before his tour de force year in 2016. That season, he ran for 534 yards after the catch, a statistic that underlines the danger CFL defences were facing; not only could Bowman get open, but he could make tacklers miss, and he’d pull away.

That’s precisely the guy the Bombers want and need in 2018, and that is particularly crucial, you’d assume, with Nichols on the shelf and 23-year-old rookie Chris Streveler about to make his first CFL start on Thursday night against the Edmonton Eskimos.

Who knows? Maybe Streveler steps in and wows everyone from the get-go.

Every now and then a 23-year old rookie leaves their job as a delivery truck driver and throws four touchdowns in their first ever start (actually, Ricky Ray was still 22 when that scenario played out back in 2002). More likely, though, is that the Bombers will need their veterans on both sides of the ball to really step up in order to keep things upright while Nichols gets healthy.

On that front there is good news because Winnipeg’s offence, coordinated by the accomplished Paul LaPolice, has one of the league’s top impact players in the backfield, with Andrew Harris on a mission to become the first player in league history to ever end a season with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. He came close last year, on the way to being named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

With a hungry Bowman in the line-up and with the oh so smooth Adams streaking down the field along with Dressler, Winnipeg has a trio of proven targets for Streveler – and later on Nichols – to toss to.

“I can say I love playing with veterans – nothing against the younger guys – but veterans always have this savvy of overcoming the adversity,” said Bowman, undaunted by the disappointment of seeing Nichols go down with an injury during camp. “We’ve been in some of these situations before.”

“One thing I’ve learned, I’ve been in the CFL going on my eleventh year, is adversity comes. But it hits you at different times. I guess you could say our challenge came a little earlier, maybe, than others. But it definitely doesn’t change anything.”

If there is extra pressure on the Winnipeg defence to lock down the opposition, simply because of the uncertainty there is surrounding their young, starting quarterback, you won’t find it getting to linebacker Adam Bighill.

Bighill, one of the most important signings by any team during the off-season simply because of the dominant nature of his middle linebacker play in the past, doesn’t see any correlation whatsoever between the starting of a rookie quarterback on offence and the pressure of expectation placed on he and his teammates on defence. That’s because the Bombers’ D, maligned for bending and breaking at the most inopportune times last year, already had set high standards to meet in 2018.

“There’s no point in letting outside things try to motivate you more, influence you more, Bighill said. “From the get go, we need to have an understanding of our level of expectations of our play and what we want to achieve as a defence and nothing else should sway that.”

Meaning that as far as the former BC Lions star (named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2015) is concerned, the Blue Bombers’ defence should already have been assuming that they were to be playing at an optimum level at all times, no matter the situation.

“I’ve always operated like that and I think the defence should operate like that as well,” he said.

“If we put all the pressure on ourselves in the beginning, there’s nothing else that’s gonna affect us,” the four-time CFL all-star continued. “Whether it’s quarterback going down, running back going down, five receivers going down, we should have the pressure on ourselves already.”

Adam Bighill adds experience and leadership to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers new-look defence (The Canadian Press)

This is precisely the bit of extra leadership and intensity that Bighill is expected to bring to a defence that, while filled with talent, has been prone to giving up lots of yardage and big plays over the last couple of seasons. As the man at the physical middle of the defence, Bighill will be expected to be prominent, physically, as he has been throughout his career.

Beyond that, his determination and knowledge will serve as key ingredients in the psychological stew that can bring a defence to the upper levels.

“I’m at a point now where I think I can help guide the players and some of the thought processes going into the plays and how we execute them,” said Bighill, who is scheduled to play in his 100th career CFL game on Thursday night.

The Blue Bombers defence gave up 50 offensive touchdowns in 2017, just one better than the two teams tied for last, Hamilton and Montreal. They tied for last in passing TDs given up, with 33. They were second-worst in yardage given up, at nearly 400 per game.

Among the changes made in order to turn those numbers upside down, Bighill’s signing is the most exciting one. However, signing the man who’s slated to patrol the strong side linebacker spot beside Bighill, Chandler Fenner, is a rather big add as well.

The former BC Lion was converted from DB to linebacker in Vancouver, and he responded with 72 tackles, a sack and a pick in 2017. His signing means that veteran spark plug Mo Leggett – in the final stages of prepping for a return after an Achilles injury – can fall back to the secondary where he can patrol with the likes of shutdown corner Chris Randle. Or, the other way around, as Fenner is comfortable in the back five as well.

Not content to stop there, the Bombers nabbed a couple more ex-Lions in free agency; they hope Anthony Gaitor can help in the secondary and that Craig Roh will beef up the pass rush and run-stop game along the defensive line.

That was the biggest part of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ off-season plan. To pull the defence up to the levels that the offence had already reached. Do that, and you go from being merely respected, to being feared.

Now, with a big ol’ injury wrench being thrown into the works, the Bombers begin the season in what some see as crisis mode, but what guys like Adam Bighill and Adarius Bowman see as just another day of doing things the way they ought to be done anyway.

“I’m just gonna make sure I’m in the right place at the right time so we can execute our offence,” said Bowman.