As the 2022 season approaches, CFL.ca is getting you up to speed on where each team stands after a hectic off-season that saw players crisscross the country. Five Things To Know will catch you up on where your team left off in 2021, the moves it made and what it might accomplish in 2022.
WINNIPEG — For the second season in a row the Winnipeg Blue Bombers enter as the defending Grey Cup champions.
The Blue Bombers were arguably the most dominant team in the league on both sides of the ball just a season ago. Led by 2021 Coach of the Year, Mike O’Shea, opposing teams struggled to move the ball against the star studded Winnipeg defence. The Bombers equally as impressive offence was able to sustain long drives and grind down defences with their ground game.
Bombers fans were treated to some truly innovative play calling in 2021 and it should come as no surprise that the expectations for this season’s team are at an all time high. However, as training camps kick off across the country, those fans may notice a few differences to their roster.
Offensive stars Andrew Harris and Kenny Lawler won’t be at IG Field for training camp. In fact, they won’t be wearing Blue and Gold at all. Harris and Lawler have moved on from the Bombers, Harris signing with the Toronto Argonauts, while Lawler will be donning the Double E of the Edmonton Elks in the new season.
As Winnipeg looks to capture their third consecutive Grey Cup, here are five things to know about the 2022 Blue Bombers.
Winnipeg’s thrilling overtime victory against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in last year’s Grey Cup marked the first time a team had won back-to-back Grey Cups since the Montreal Alouettes did so in 2009 and 2010. The repeat win for Big Blue marked the third time in franchise history that the team captured back-to-back titles. As the saying goes, “history repeats.” All three of Winnipeg’s back-to-back victories were earned by defeating Hamilton.
Now, the Blue and Gold set out to claim their third consecutive Grey Cup victory, a feat that only two teams in the history of the CFL accomplished. Toronto did so from 1945-1947, while Edmonton is the only team to have done so twice. The first was in 1954-1956 and who could ever forget the historic five year run of the Green and Gold from 1978-1982 led by Warren Moon.
As the 2022 season gets underway the Bombers look to become just the third team to win three consecutive Grey Cups.
Defence wins championships
Headlined by Adam Bighill, 2021’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Winnipeg boasts one of the toughest defensive units in the league. The Bombers allowed 216.4 passing yards per game to opponents, the lowest in the league, while giving up just 86.6 yards on the ground and allowed just 15 touchdowns to opposing offences.
The Bombers were historic in the fourth quarter last season. In crunch time, it was nearly impossible to score on Winnipeg, who allowed an average of less than one point in the fourth quarter of games last season.
While the Bombers are facing some roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive unit from 2021 will remain mostly in tact. Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson each signed extensions to remain in the Blue and Gold. The pair combined for 16 of Winnipeg’s 39 sacks in 2021 and created pressure situations for opposing quarterbacks all season long.
The loss of Lawler and Harris will certainly sting, but Bomber fans can take solace in the fact that their championship caliber defence will be back for the 2022 season.
Back to Zach
Zach Collaros will be returning to the Blue and Gold for a third season and after an impressive sophomore year with Winnipeg, the expectations are mounting.
After his season was cut short in 2019, Collaros came back with a vengeance in 2021 and had one of the most impressive seasons of his career. He was named the League’s Most Outstanding Player for the first time in his career, was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Grey Cup and led the league in touchdown passes.
The question on everyone’s mind is: Can he do it again? Analytically, the numbers lean towards a resounding yes.
Including this past season, Collaros has thrown for 3,000 or more yards three times already in his career and was a yard short of a fourth 3,000-yard season in 2018.
In 2021 Collaros was the league’s most efficient quarterback, throwing just six interceptions on 346 passing attempts. Historically, the Bombers pivot has only thrown 10 or more interceptions once and has five seasons where he’s thrown at least 15 touchdown passes.
Collaros repeating the magic of 2021 is a question that will have to wait to be answered, but having him back under centre for the Blue Bombers this season surely provides an aspect of comfort and optimism for Winnipeg.
New receiver in town
The Bombers lost some key pieces to their passing attack over the CFL free agency period, however they were able to re-sign the likes of Rasheed Bailey and Drew Wolitarsky, who combined for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns last season. The Blue and Gold were also able to secure Greg Ellingson in a splash free agent signing.
Ellingson brings yet another set of steady hands to the already talented Winnipeg receiver room. Prior to the 2021 season, Ellingson accumulated 6,036 yards and five straight season with 1,000 or more receiving yards from 2015-2019. Ellingson has the physical tools to be an isolation deep threat or play complimentary roles in order to free up space for other receivers on the field.
Ellingson did see a drop in target share and yardage in 2021. Ellingson’s 687 yards and 69 targets last season were the lowest he’s seen since 2014. Edmonton’s offence saw seven players with 35 or more targets, while spreading the ball out to 15 different receivers over the course of the season.
Playing in Winnipeg should provide Ellingson with an opportunity to see more target share of the football, especially with the departures of Darvin Adams and Lawler who combined for 143 of Collaros’ 346 attempts last season.
A Harris-sized hole
Perhaps the most notable loss for the Bombers offence this season is the loss of Harris in the offensive backfield. Since joining the Bombers in 2016, Harris was the league rushing leader for three straight seasons from 2017-2019, rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of those seasons.
In 2021 Harris played in just seven games for the Bombers, but still managed to total 623 rush yards, enough for fifth most in the league. The impact of Harris on the Winnipeg offence and the freedom he allowed the Bombers play with is undeniable. Without the luxury of No. 33 in the backfield the Bombers will need to adjust their ground game moving forward.
Oliveira burst onto the scene with an impressive Week 1 performance. The Winnipeg native rushed for 126 yards on 22 carries in his season debut and finished his season with 429 yards and two touchdown on 94 carries. Oliveira provides the Bombers with a similar style of aggressive downhill running that Harris demonstrated time and time again.
However, one solid running back is often not enough anymore, which is why Augustine may now see an increase in his roll with the departure of Harris. Augustine put the league on notice with an impressive 148-yard game against the Calgary Stampeders in Week 16 of last season. Augustine’s skill set lends him to a quick one-cut style of play that is nicely complimented by his ability to make defenders miss tackles when in open space.
The loss of Harris is noticeable, but the prospect of having two very talented starting running backs in Winnipeg is something to be excited about.