The moment that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have waited a year for is finally upon them.
While the team often says that it has flushed last year’s Grey Cup heartbreak and disrupted bid for a three-peat championship run in the rearview, the opportunity to get back on top of the CFL mountain is once again in front of them.
The 110th Grey Cup marks the Bombers’ fourth consecutive trip to this game. While narratives of redemption and talk of a dynasty will float round them this week, they’ll stay focused on the task at hand and will try to simplify a busy week all the way down to the singular task of winning one more football game this year.
As they go about that work this week, here are five Blue Bombers players to watch ahead of Sunday’s kickoff against the Montreal Alouettes.
We’ll start this list with the most obvious choice and throw in the advice every defensive coach in the league has told their players this year: if you’re not watching No. 20, you’re not doing it right.
Oliveira has been electric this year and is the catalyst of the Bombers’ offence. His 1,534 rushing yards led the league and his 482 receiving yards put him at 2,016 yards from scrimmage this season. His performance against the BC Lions in the Western Final is a perfect example of his importance to his team. The Bombers handed off to him nine times on their 10-play opening offensive drive, then worked in unison to push him into the end zone to establish a lead that they didn’t give up the rest of the day.
The West Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Player and for Most Outstanding Canadian, a West Division and CFL All-Star, Oliveira has earned every bit of recognition that he’s picked up in 2023.
In his fourth season with the Bombers, Collaros heads into his fourth Grey Cup, where he’ll make history as the first quarterback to get four consecutive starts on that stage.
The 35-year-old’s 4,263 passing yards (292-423 passing) were second in the league, while his 33 touchdowns were tops in the CFL and his 112.8 QB efficiency is the best among starters. Collaros’ fit in Winnipeg has been a perfect one since his 2019 arrival. His 2021 and 2022 MOP seasons are proof that he can carry the team at an elite level, but the Bombers’ greatest strength is that Collaros doesn’t have to go out and put up 300-plus yards every single game. If he hands off to Oliveira 21 times like he did in the Western Final, he’s fine with that. The defence can go off for a nine-sack, three-interception showing like it did against BC this past week, and/or there can be special teams contributions from Janarion Grant or the likes of Nick Hallet, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against the Lions.
Collaros has the ability to dominate the game, but he doesn’t have to. That may make him more dangerous than any other quarterback in the league.
Houston made his presence felt in the Western Final the same way that he has all season, with a key interception. With the Lions down five and looking to find a way to get back in front of the Bombers in the fourth quarter, Houston snagged a Vernon Adams Jr. pass and got Collaros and the offence back on the field at BC’s 54-yard line. Seven plays later, Sergio Castillo kicked an 11-yard field goal that pushed Winnipeg’s lead to eight.
Houston has set the standard in thievery this season, pulling in a league-leading seven interceptions. That got him CFL All-Star recognition this year and will make him a vital part of Winnipeg’s defensive effort. This week, the 27-year-old will have to contend with Als’ receiver Austin Mack, who led the team with 1,154 yards.
For four seasons now in Winnipeg, Jefferson has been the long arms of the law in the Bombers’ defence. His 11 sacks are one large contribution on his part, but the six-foot-seven, 245-pound defensive lineman is one of the league’s most intimidating presences in the league. His 13 pass knockdowns led the league and his three forced fumbles tied him for second. Jefferson is a long, athletic disruptor who isn’t limited to working in the trenches and trying to take the quarterback down. Look back at Jefferson’s performance last week against the Lions (two sacks, two knockdowns and two tackles) and you’ll see someone who tormented Adams all day long. For an Alouettes team that allowed 61 sacks this year (eighth in the league), Jefferson figures to pose problems all day on Sunday, too.
His roll was slowed by an ankle injury this year that cost him 10 games, but don’t sleep on the impact that Grant can have on a game. The third-year returner/receiver had one of the highlights of the season back in Week 2 against Saskatchewan, when he had an incredible 90-yard kick return touchdown.
That was his only trip to the end zone this year, but remember how often we saw him zigzagging all over fields in the 2022 playoffs. His 102-yard punt return touchdown was a record-setter in the 109th Grey Cup a year ago. Grant was also a difference maker in the receiving game this year when called upon. His Week 18 touchdown catch against the BC Lions played a key part in their overtime win, which helped lock up the team’s third consecutive West Division crown.
While Grant is our choice of a player to watch here, we can’t talk about special teams contributions and not shoutout Nick Hallett. Last week, Hallett blocked a Lions’ punt, recovered it and forced his way into the end zone, providing an intangible push toward getting his team back to its fourth consecutive Grey Cup appearance. It wasn’t Hallet’s first time making a big play on a big stage. Last year, he blocked a Toronto Argonauts’ field goal attempt in the late stages of the 109th Grey Cup.