MONTREAL – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers officially begin their path of self-preservation as they inch closer to hosting the West Division final on Dec. 5.
The Bombers, 11-1 and weeks removed from hosting the West final, are erring on the side of caution when they travel to Montreal to take on the 6-6 Alouettes Saturday afternoon. Winnipeg has opted to give several starters the day off, keeping them back home to make room for players deeper on the depth chart.
Montreal still has a lot to play for, and their lineup reflects as much, with a similar roster that battled the Bombers last week at IG Field in a 31-21 loss. The Alouettes wrap up their regular season on home turf next week with a game against the Ottawa Redblacks.
Winnipeg caps off the year as road warriors. After Montreal, the Bombers travel to Calgary next week to face the Stampeders in what will be a final tuneup before the journey to repeat as Grey Cup champions begins in earnest.
Before we look too far ahead, here are five storylines to keep an eye on in Saturday's game against the Alouettes.
A NEW-LOOK LINEUP
The question whether Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea would sit some of his key players in the final games of the regular season were answered Friday morning following the release of the team's depth chart for Montreal.
While we already knew No. 2 quarterback Sean McGuire would make his first CFL start, it remained unclear through Thursday what other moves might be made. Now we know that, according to the official roster, Winnipeg is resting nine regular starters.
Joining Collaros on the sidelines are defensive backs Deatrick Nichols, Nick Taylor and Brandon Alexander; defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat; defensive lineman Steven Richardson; offensive linemen Stanley Bryant and Patrick Neufeld; and returner Janarion Grant. It's likely most, if not all, these players mentioned are dealing with some sort of health issue, as no one is 100 per cent at this point in the season.
It's the smart move for the Bombers, as sometimes the best ability is availability and the Blue and Gold are going to want to ensure they're as healthy as possible for when the games really count.
MCGUIRE TO START
There's still much to learn about McGuire and what he's capable of in the CFL.
What we do know about the 25-year-old is he's well respected by his teammates, specifically for his calm demeanour and fiery competitiveness. He also has a high football IQ, and it’s his smarts that have the Bombers brass believing he can be more than a serviceable backup.
Speaking with reporters this week, McGuire talked about his close relationship with Collaros and how his mentorship has made him feel better prepared for Saturday. He's also had a chance to work with the first-team offence all week, which should help him build chemistry with the rest of the offence, particularly the receivers.
McGuire has attempted just 10 passes in his CFL career, completing four of them for a grand total of 72 yards. He won't have the best protection in front of him, with Neufeld and Bryant ruled out, though Jermarcus Hardrick returns to right tackle after missing the last three games due to injury. He also won't have Andrew Harris to help block in the backfield, as the Bombers star running back will miss a third straight game with a knee injury.
Either way, it's as big an opportunity as McGuire has had since joining the Bombers in 2019, and a real chance to make a case for being more than simply a short-yardage specialist.
PLENTY TO PLAY FOR
Unlike the Bombers, the Alouettes are still jockeying for position in the standings. At least for now.
At 6-6, Montreal sits in third place in the East Division, behind the Toronto Argonauts (8-4) and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (7-5). The Argos and Ticats play Friday night in a battle for first place, with a victory by Hamilton securing them a home playoff game, either for the East semi-final or final.
There's the chance for a three-way tie for first in the East, with each club boasting an 8-6 record. That would require Toronto losing its final two games and Montreal winning its final two games, while Hamilton would have to defeat Toronto and then lose to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in their regular-season finale.
If Toronto beats Hamilton, Montreal will need to beat Winnipeg and the Ottawa Redblacks, and the Ticats would also have to lose to Saskatchewan. That would result in Toronto finishing first, Montreal second and Hamilton third.
Just in case you were curious of the importance in this weekend's slate of games.
HARRIS GETS SECOND START
Last week's loss to the Bombers was the first start for quarterback Trevor Harris since being acquired by the Alouettes in a trade with the Edmonton Elks last month. He'll get another shot this week, and having played once against Winnipeg while with Edmonton, Saturday will mark the third time this year Harris has faced the Bombers.
It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for Harris this season. Despite the reputation of being one of the most prolific throwers in the CFL, so far in 2021 he's been mostly underwhelming.
This week, however, just might be his welcome-to-Montreal moment, given the depleted Bombers defence. That's especially true for a secondary that will be without its leader in Alexander at safety, Nick Taylor at field halfback and Nichols, who has flourished playing the boundary halfback position.
Nick Hallett will take over for Alexander, while Mike Jones returns to the lineup in place of Nichols and Demerio Houston in for Taylor. Winston Rose will play his second straight game since signing with the Bombers, lining up again at boundary corner. DeAundre Alford will look to increase his comfort level at field corner since making room for Rose on the other side of the field.
It will be interesting to see how this group will respond after giving up two passing touchdowns to Harris last week, in a season where they gave up only three through the first 11 games.
A POWERFUL FORCE
We all witnessed last week just how powerful a force Alouettes running back William Stanback can be.
Stanback leads the CFL with 1,066 rushing yards, including 29 rushes that have gone 10-plus yards. He's only played 10 games this season, meaning he's averaging more than 100 yards on the ground per game.
Last week, Stanback rushed 16 times for 106 yards against the Bombers, with his longest run travelling 39 yards. All things considered, Stanback was held mostly in check as the game progressed. After the Alouettes opened the second half with a touchdown drive, a series that saw Stanback rush twice for 20 yards, he had just five rushes for 12 yards.
With Jeffcoat and Richardson sidelined, the push at the line of scrimmage might take a hit. But perhaps that's not giving enough credit to the likes Willie Jefferson, Jake Thomas and Jonathan Kongbo, all of whom will be present to stop the run.
Expect Stanback to get a heavy workload early on, and if he has success running between the tackles, I don't see Montreal pulling back at all.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.