For the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes, the time has arrived to turn words into action.
The Bombers expect to win a lot of football games. The Alouettes expect to score a lot of points.
Both teams have high hopes heading into their cross-division matchup on Friday night at Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field, but after busy off-seasons for two teams that failed to make the playoffs in 2015, only one will start off 1-0.
The Bombers feel like they need it badly.
“This year is a little bit more exciting,” said Jamaal Westerman in an interview with BlueBombers.com. “You’ve got the new jerseys, the fans are rocking – the first game is always something special. You always want to set the tone for your season in the first game.”
After a 5-13 season marred by injury to Drew Willy and inconsistent play on both sides of the ball, the Bombers needed a facelift and they got it; in more ways than one. Not only will they appear different as they come out of the tunnel in royal blue, but Andrew Harris, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith will be among those wearing the new threads.
General Manager Kyle Walters spent his off-season adding a plethora of proven talent to his roster, the next phase in a Bombers building project that’s reached its most advanced stage.
Walters gave Willy a new offensive coordinator in Paul LaPolice and some explosive weapons to get the ball to. He fortified his D-line by surrounding Westerman with big men Euclid Cummings and Keith Shologan in the middle. Even the special teams got a boost with the addition of the CFL’s most accurate kicker of all time in Justin Medlock.
Against another team looking to turn over a new leaf in 2016, now is the time for the Bombers to justify all the hype.
“That’s the plan, to go out there and win,” said Head Coach Mike O’Shea. “For the fans. For the city. These are all important things that I know on the business side we all think about, and the players themselves, they recognize the importance of our fan base and they respect that.
“Winning’s always good for everybody. “
For the Bombers that starts on the offensive side of the ball, an area of deficiency last season in Winnipeg. They didn’t set a franchise record for sacks like in 2014 but still ranked second-last in the department last season, while the offence ranked dead last in the CFL with 291 yards per game.
Winnipeg native Harris will make his Bombers debut after being listed as questionable following a mid-week injury, while Willy will get to test out his new-look offence from LaPolice and throw to his speedy new receivers in Dressler and Smith for the first time.
Yet while the Bombers will look to improve substantially on the offensive side of the ball, the key to their success may come on defence. Richie Hall returns as his second season as the defensive coordinator and has a veteran group to work with this season after coaching the league’s second-worst ranked defence in 2015.Getting the ball out quick against an Alouettes defensive front that includes last year’s sack leader John Bowman will be key for that unit, which wants to prove it can be far more productive than a season ago.
Hall and Westerman, both in their second season as Bombers, expect marked improvement with another year in the system.
“Instead of starting off at ground zero, we’re starting off halfway up,” said Hall. “It’s shown in our preparation and how they’ve carried themselves in film sessions.”
Added Westerman: “A lot of guys are in our second year in the defence which should allow us to communicate better, play a little faster and just have a better understanding of our strengths and our weaknesses.”
Westerman said the Alouettes are a well-rounded team with talent and depth in all three phases, but he and Hall face an unenviable task in Week 1 of trying to shut down veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn and his star-powered receiving corps.
Not everyone is giving the Alouettes a chance to win the East but they’ve got a deep roster and one difference between the Als this year and in every season since Anthony Calvillo retired is they’ve got a veteran starter.
Glenn enters his 16th season and has now had a full off-season under his belt with the team while learning Offensive Coordinator Calvillo’s brand new offence.
“Whenever you have an experienced quarterback it makes things a lot smoother and you’re able to pick up things a lot faster,” said Calvillo in an interview with MontrealAlouettes.com, who will work closely with another offensive guru in Jacques Chapdelaine.
“I’m excited that he’s here and he’s going to be able to help us go out there and win.”
The Alouettes have gone through changes on both sides of the ball after their worst season since returning to the league. They missed the playoffs for the first time and possessed the CFL’s third-worst offence.
The defence wasn’t a lot better (fifth in the league with 340.6 yards per game) and also made changes. Jovon Johnson was an all-star in 2015 with the REDBLACKS and signed with the Als to play defensive halfback. Vaughn Martin joined the Alouettes from the NFL to play defensive tackle. And just this past week, the Aouettes released two veteran defensive backs in Mitchell White and Dominique Ellis.
The heart of that defence will be the big men up front.
“Alan-Michael Cash could be the most underrated player in the league,” said Bowman. “Gabriel Knapton, who has been very consistent for the past two years and Aaron Lavarias, who is an excellent replacement at defensive end.”
In the end, for the Als it all comes down to their offence. No team in the CFL can boast a trio of receivers like S.J. Green, Kenny Stafford and Duron Carter, and if Glenn can get them the ball consistently the Alouettes will be difficult to stop. Meanwhile, Tyrell Sutton was last season’s CFL rushing king.
You know Noel Thorpe will put out a competitive defence, but can the Alouettes score enough points this season? If they can, and Green believes they will, the Alouettes could sneak up on a lot of teams this season.
“I believe we will score a lot of points this season,” predicted Green. “We have players who can split opposing defenses and our quarterbacks are excellent at throwing the ball.
“It will be a very good season – we have high expectations.”
So does every other team that’s undefeated. On Saturday, one of these teams will get the season started off right. Somewhere there will be a sigh of relief.