With 2/3rds of the 2018 CFL season done, we have officially entered that time of year where every game counts. With the exception of the Calgary Stampeders, every team is in a battle for their playoff lives and nothing is guaranteed.
Remarkably, the Montreal Alouettes and their 3-9 record are still a part of the playoff discussion. But it’s safe to say that another loss will not only ensure a losing record for the fourth consecutive year, but will likely eliminate Montreal from true playoff contention.
But one game at a time. This Friday, the Alouettes travel to the prairies to face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team that is also in dire need of a W. Losers of four straight and with their star quarterback in a tailspin, the Bombers are hoping that their opponents will suck just a little bit more than they do.
After losing at home to the BC Lions in spectacular fashion, the coaching staff has hit the panic button and will be benching the guy who brought Montreal two of their three wins. Instead of Antonio Pipkin behind centre for the Alouettes, it will be the return to action of Johnny Manziel, former Heisman trophy winner and complainer to anyone in the media willing to stick a microphone in his face.
As Pipkin faltered last week and the cries of “WE WANT JOHNNY!!” grew louder and louder, the Alouettes coaching staff will try to get Manziel back to where they hope he can be; winning football games. While Alouettes head coach Mike Sherman stated that the decision to start Manziel was not based on the sounding off to the media, it’s hard to ignore the optics this team has set in front of you.
Pipkin has one bad game and you decide to go back to the guy that supposedly everyone wants to see? I can say with most certainty that if Johnny Manziel goes out and lays an egg against the Blue Bombers, he won’t be given the hook nearly as quickly. This is where the Johnny Football apologists will say that he needs “more time” and “a chance to play HIS style of football”
But I’ve said my piece already on L’Affaire Manziel so I will leave it at that. Let’s focus on this game itself.
When this season got underway, I was convinced that the Blue Bombers had the right pieces in play to not only make the playoffs, but even end their almost 30 year Grey Cup drought. That still remains a possibility, but they have had a tough go as of late.
The biggest surprise to me in the drop-off in ability of Winnipeg QB Matt Nichols, who has not looked like the quarterback he has been since arriving in Manitoba. His TD to INT ratio is 15-13, with 7 interceptions thrown in his last 3 games. Combine that with a defense that has been hot and cold all season long and it’s no wonder fans in the ‘Peg are growing restless.
So much so that like Manziel fans in Montreal, many Winnipeggers are clamouring for rookie QB Chris Streveler, who actually started the season for the Bombers while Nichols was on the injured list. The youngster also has experience in playing these Alouettes, having handed them a massive loss at Percival Molson Stadium. Should Nichols be unable to find his form against a very decent Alouettes defense, don’t be surprised to see Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea yank his starter for the young upstart.
The true key for the Alouettes defense will be keeping Andrew Harris in check. Always a consistent player day in and day out, Harris will be looking to add to his legend on Friday night. He needs a mere 16 yards on the ground to reach the 1000 yard rushing plateau for the 4th time in his eight year career. Averaging six yards a carry this season, the National veteran reaching this milestone seems like just a formality.
For me, the biggest question on offense will be just how much the ground game will be utilized. In Montreal’s two wins, there was a lot of touches for William Stanback, who has done a phenomenal job in replacing the injured Tyrell Sutton. Both he and Ryder Stone can be a major help for Johnny Manziel, who is also one to get his feet moving to extend plays.
The Alouettes quarterback, regardless who it has been this season, has had one major problem: Not connecting with his receivers. For all of his talk about being brought to Montreal as the saviour, Manziel can’t do it alone. He will have to connect with his receivers and in a hurry. This Winnipeg front seven has some dangerous players that will be looking to make Johnny’s night a long one
Most notable is Adam Bighill, who is having another stellar season and is someone who can still turn a game on its ear. A student of the game, he has no doubt watched a lot of film on Manziel and will be prepared to bring a lot of pressure to force a lot of bad throws.
Last year, Montreal came extremely close to leaving Winnipeg with a win, but managed to choke it away by giving Matt Nichols a chance to come back and stun Montreal with 1:40 left in the game.
It was a terrific game overall by the Alouettes and at the same time, a complete meltdown. Only time will tell if the game on Friday night will be anywhere as thrilling or interesting. But you have two teams that are desperate for the W and let me tell you, that alone will make this battle of basement dwellers must watch TV.
Enjoy the game, regardless of where you watch it.