2012 CFL Eastern Preview - Winnipeg Blue Bombers
From The Sports Network
By Lucas Gulotta, CFL Associate Editor
Winnipeg, MB (Sports Network) - Last season, Winnipeg was just one win away from their first Grey Cup victory since 1990. Winnipeg's run for the CFL's title in 2011 was powered by a drastically improved team which erased a three- year losing streak.
The 2011 Blue Bombers finished atop the East Division with a 10-8 overall record and a 7-3 mark versus divisional rivals. Although Winnipeg won the division and reached the Grey Cup Final, it went 3-7 over its last 10 games after an energetic 7-1 start.
This year, head coach Paul LaPolice will attempt to take the next step in the franchise's exceptional turnaround. LaPolice's team finished with a 4-14 record and missed the playoffs in 2010 during his first year as a head coach, but 10 of those losses were by a touchdown or less. LaPolice piloting Winnipeg within one win of the Grey Cup last season has created high expectations for his team heading into this season.
Guiding the offense in 2012 is Buck Pierce, the quarterback now entering his eighth season out of New Mexico State University. Pierce's 2011 statistics of 14 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions are not going to impress anyone, but his gutsy play and undeniable will to win has made him an excellent fit in Winnipeg.
Despite the team's overall success, the Blue Bombers' offensive numbers were in the bottom fifty percent of the league rankings in 2011. Winnipeg made sure to bring back Joey Elliott and Alex Brink to provide depth at the quarterback position.
Experienced slotback Terrence Edwards had his contract extended two more years this offseason. The Bluebombers relied heavily on Edwards the past two seasons, in which he accumulated 154 catches for 2,698 yards and 21 touchdowns. The three-time all star provides veteran leadership and has yet to show any signs of slowing down.
At running back, Chris Garrett is going to be the primary option due to his tremendous finish to 2011. The former Ohio Bobcat became a starter by default after the teams top two running backs, Fred Reid and Carl Volny, went down with injuries. Garrett made the most of his opportunity by rushing for 6.3 yards per carry and dashing for 190 yards in the CFL East final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. However, there is some skepticism as to whether the former third stringer can continue to play at such a high level for an entire season.
General manager Joe Mack signed running back Chad Simpson to add much needed depth behind Garrett. Simpson set the single-season rushing record at Morgan State his senior year before spending the past three seasons in the NFL. Anthony Woodson will also be a component of the team's ground attack.
Winnipeg's success in 2011 was due in large part to its ruthless defense. The Blue Bombers led the CFL in yards allowed, sacks, and takeaways. Defensive coordinator Tim Burke will not have to tweak much, but he will need to maintain the core principles which rely on youth, speed, and aggression.
Last season's CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player Jovon Johnson received a new contract during the offseason and is expected to come back on a mission to repeat his tremendous performance as the leader of the league's best secondary. Jonathan Hefney, who finished 2011 with a team-high 76 tackles and a second- best six interceptions, is also expected to continue to serve as a game- changer.
The Blue Bombers' defensive end trio of Odell Willis, Kenny Mainor, and Jason Vega provided a persistent pass rush which made the team go. Mack was impressed with Mainor and Vega enough to trade Willis to Saskatchewan for a package of draft picks. The Mainor/Vega duo combined for 15 sacks as rookies last season and noticeably developed as the season progressed.
Winnipeg is going to rely on its defense for much of the season as the offense is still far from intimidating. The playmaking ability on defense will need to make up for the lack of production on the other side of the ball. New offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has a chance to make the Blue Bombers a Grey Cup contender in consecutive seasons if he can get his offense to operate more efficiently.
FACTS & FIGURES: Division - East. 2011 record - 10-8. Playoff result: Lost 34-23 to BC in Grey Cup Finals. Stadium - Investors Group Field. Capacity - 33,422. Colors - Blue and Gold.
06/25 10:07:15 ET