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CFL Preview - Toronto (0-0) at Winnipeg (0-0)



From The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, CFL Editor

DATE & TIME: Thursday, June 26, 8:30 p.m. (ET).

GAME NOTES: The 2013 season was an absolute disaster for Winnipeg, but the Blue Bombers are expecting bigger and better things as they kick off the 2014 campaign against the Toronto Argonauts at Investors Group Field on Thursday night.

Over the course of 18 regular season games a year ago, the Bombers managed to celebrate a total of just three times. The team took down a Montreal squad in transition a couple of times, and then somehow found a way to displace the eventual Grey Cup Champion Saskatchewan Roughriders (25-13) in early September. Because of the brutal display, head coach Tim Burke was not retained and instead Mike O'Shea was named the 30th head coach in franchise history in early December.

O'Shea brings with him two decades of CFL experience as a player and coach and was most recently an assistant with Toronto, which gives this particular contest even more meaning.

The Bombers did raise a few eyebrows over the weekend when their final cuts included Max Hall, a quarterback capable of carrying this team, which means Drew Willy appears to be the one in the driver's seat. Willy, who spent his first two years in the league with Saskatchewan, has just four starts in 36 total appearances, yet that is still more than enough to put him in control of the offense, given that fellow signal-callers Brian Brohm and Robert Marve have never taken a single snap in the CFL.

Whomever is under center for the Bombers, a key outlet for sure will be slot back Nick Moore who came over from British Columbia after posting 110 catches for 1,554 yards and nine touchdowns in three seasons.

Clarence Denmark is the top returning receiver for Winnipeg, placing 12th in the league with 900 yards on 64 grabs, but he made it into the spacious end zone only four times in 2013.

Will Ford will be expected to carry much of the load coming out of the backfield after putting up 594 yards on 113 carries last year, but like Denmark, his scoring runs weren't plentiful (two).

While Winnipeg was bombing last season, the Argos managed to squeeze out the East Division title with a record of 11-7, despite dropping three of the last five games on the schedule. The solid overall performance earned Toronto a bye through the first round of the playoffs, giving the team additional time to rest and prepare for Hamilton in the division finals, but it didn't make a difference as the squad stumbled to a 36-24 loss and missed out on a chance to defend their Grey Cup title from the year prior.

Again this season the Argos are stacked on offense, an embarrassment of riches one might say. The squad is led by quarterback Ricky Ray, an East Division All-Star who has an array of stars in his offensive arsenal as he enters his third season at the helm. Ray dealt with knee and shoulder injuries last season, but still finished with an incredible 126.4 efficiency rating after tossing 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 303 pass attempts.

After several record-setting seasons, becoming one of the most productive offensive players the game has ever seen, receiver/returner Chad Owens was a heavily-marked man last year and the pressure took its toll. For anyone else, 979 yards receiving and another 1,142 return yards would be a major accomplishment, but for Owens it was a huge drop-off from previous efforts. He will again have a target on his back, but still expect some exciting play from the Hawaii product.

On the defensive side, the Argonauts will have some big shoes to fill after the departures of Patrick Watkins, Robert McCune and Khalif Mitchell, each of whom was an all-star. Watkins, now with the Edmonton Eskimos, was tied for third in the league with five interceptions and McCune, currently a free agent, was third in total tackles with 99.

Winnipeg was the lowest-scoring team last season with just 20.1 ppg, yet led the CFL with 19 rushing touchdowns, which tells you quite a bit about where the team's passing attack ranked. In terms of playing defense, no team was more accommodating, as the Blue Bombers surrendered a whopping 32.5 ppg. Clearly, improvement on both sides of the ball is paramount if this squad hopes to get beyond last year's debacle.

These two teams actually challenged each other in the very first preseason game of 2014, and while little should be taken from that June 9 result, a 24-22 victory by Toronto, it is still worth noting.

Last season, Winnipeg came up empty in all three meetings versus the Argos, losing at home in July by a score of 35-19, in its own building three months later (26-20), and then bowing at Toronto a mere five days after that (36-21).

Dating back to 1961 and only taking into consideration regular season matchups, Toronto is clinging to a 56-51-2 series advantage over the Bombers, winning seven of the last eight meetings, and 10 of the last 13 overall.

The road to success for the Blue Bombers will be long and hard this season and to expect them to come out of the gate strong, against a Toronto team that has one of the top offenses in the league, might be asking a bit too much.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Toronto 31, Winnipeg 17

06/25 10:52:09 ET

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