Hall (re)Discovers Winning Formula for Bombers’ Defence

It’s now time to burn the evidence from the Bombers’ week three loss in Hamilton.

With four sacks, three interceptions, and just 105 yards passing from BC Lions’ QB Jonathon Jennings in a 41-19 win on Investors Group Field, its clear that defensive coordinator Richie Hall and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers scrapped their previous defensive approach from the start of the 2018 season, which had resulted in a 1-2 record entering week four.

All season, the Bombers have been running more soft match-coverage (man within a zone-defence) than they ever have under Coach Hall. (You can read more about match-coverage and Hall’s 2018 defensive scheme here). It felt as though Mike O’Shea opted to keep Hall aboard for a third season as long as he still had new ideas to improve the defence, and match-coverage seemed to be it. Mike Reilly’s 408 yards passing, however, sliced this soft coverage in week one, while Jeremiah Masoli and Ti-Cats’ head coach June Jones not only had similar success in week three, but also exposed Hall’s inability to adjust mid-game.

After coaching the Bombers’ defence into the ground against the Tiger-Cats, Hall and his unit bounced back in a major way in week four. Both schematically and in the box score, the Bombers’ defence looked nothing close to the one that was chewed up in Hamilton.

The Bombers’ defence got a fresh start to 2018 by re-visiting the old.

Simply put, Coach Hall went back to what he’s had the most success with in the past in Winnipeg. The Bombers’ defence resembled itself from 2016, but with the addition of a game-changing middle linebacker this time around.

The Bombers almost entirely ditched their match-coverage schemes against BC, instead re-introducing themselves to their spot-drop zone looks that made them the no. 1 ball-hawking defence in the league two seasons ago. There was a great variation and disguise in the combinations of boundary and field coverages within their patented cover-4 looks, giving Jennings more confusion at the line of scrimmage prior to the snap.

Most notably, after Masoli and the Ti-Cats completed pass after pass in the wide-side flat last week, the Bombers finally deployed coverages with field corner Tyneil Cooper in the flat to take these easy quick completions away — a simple change that should have been made at half-time against Hamilton.

Rather than blitzing his inside linebackers from depth all game like Hall has a tendency to do, the Bombers barely blitzed Jennings at all this week. Instead, Adam Bighill and Jovan Santos-Knox spent the game in pass-coverage, offering inside help for the Bombers’ flat defenders.

The early returns for having Bighill roam the middle of the field were quite good: two interceptions (one for a touchdown) for the 29-year-old, as well as the opportunity for the Bombers’ defensive backs to play closer to the line of scrimmage and far more aggressively.

Having both inside linebackers in pass-coverage paid extra dividends against the Lions’ 3-step pass offence. For reference, look at the effect of having both inside linebackers in coverage against a quick-throw concept on the play below. (Watch Bighill, no. 4, on the top-half of the screen).

The Lions wasted a large portion of their night trying to expose the Bombers’ soft-zone looks with their quick-pass offence, thinking they were going to get the same looks from the defence that they saw on tape in the Hamilton game. But those looks never came, and when they weren’t there, Jennings panicked and took terrible sacks that should never be surrendered.

Although its important to consider the anemia of the Lions’ offence, the Bombers’ defence looked especially good on Saturday night. The defensive line got pressure with only four pass-rushers, the defensive backs challenged passes, and the entire unit contributed to four interceptions. Most importantly, though, was that Coach Hall overrode his scheme from last week, taking a completely different approach into the BC game, while also mixing up his in-game play-calling to yield successful results.

This unit still has plenty of room for improvement under Richie Hall, but week four was certainly a step in the right direction.

As shown in the past two years, Hall’s schemes are quite flawed, but there should be enough talent on this defence to delay a coaching change until the end of the season, which may be the best-case scenario.

But, at least for one more week, there are still signs of life for this defence under the direction of Richie Hall.

Bombers’ Defensive Coaching Hits Rock-Bottom in Steel-Town

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers do not lack talent on the defensive side of the football.

This is a team that added several highly-coveted free agents this off-season such as Adam Bighill and Chandler Fenner to an already promising core featuring Chris Randle, Maurice Leggett, and Taylor Loffler.

But after watching Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli pick them apart to the tune of 369 passing yards at a 76-percent clip — just two weeks after Edmonton QB Mike Reilly went for 408 yards in week one — it’s undeniable that there is, however, a glaring issue that is holding back this group of talent.

A coaching issue.

Defensive coordinator Richie Hall has long been notorious for his soft-zone, bend-but-don’t-break defence. He doesn’t don’t want touchdown drives to come easy. The philosophy revolves around offences having to play disciplined and patient, convert 2nd-downs, and have to put together 9-plus play drives.

The problem is that is has been easy for opposing offences. And they are putting together 9-play touchdown drives.

At ease.

Week three’s 31-17 loss to the Tiger-Cats should be remembered as the lowest moment yet for Coach Hall’s tenure with the blue and gold. And this is the same coordinator who has given up a combined 995 offensive yards in the Bombers’ last two West Semi-Final appearances.

This defensive performance was especially bad because the Ti-cats continuously did the exact same thing over and over again. The fans knew what was coming, the players knew what was coming, and Hall, too, knew what was coming.

But there were no adjustments, even though they would have been so simple and minor. There was a stubbornness in the play-calling that cannot be overlooked.

Ti-Cats head coach and offensive coordinator June Jones, who’s untraditional 7-man protection scheme has been garnering attention around the league, didn’t do anything groundbreaking. He didn’t reinvent the wheel. Six-offensive linemen sets have never been the base of any offence for a reason. Regarding Jones’ play-calling during Friday’s contest, it never broke, so he never had to fix it.

With, obviously, a few exceptions, the Ti-Cats really only gave the Bombers three different looks to defend. A six-receiver, empty-backfield protection (which was used to call the same two pass concepts multiple times), a 3×1 formation with 6 offensive linemen and WR Brandon Banks to the backside, and a 4×0 (Quads) formation with, again, 6 offensive linemen.

And they ran the same plays out all three of these formations. Most commonly, however, was their 228 concept. To the wide-side, slot-backs Luke Tasker and Jalen Saunders both run speed-outs, while WR Terrance Toliver runs a fade-route to clear out. The Ti-Cats would tag different routes for Banks to run on the backside.

Here’s the play out of 3×1 and 7-man protection:

Here it is out of empty 3×3:

And here it is out of quads to the field with 7-man protection. In quads (four receivers to one side of the field), the play is slightly different as slot-back Jalen Saunders runs a deeper out, but the concept and Masoli’s reads are pretty much the same.

This is not the only three times the Ti-Cats ran this concept against the Bombers. Not even close. The amount of times Jones called this play, with zero variation (except for maybe the back-side route tagged on for Banks), is upwards of double-digit figures.

Just for fun, here’s another example of the Ti-Cats running this route-combination.

June Jones really just ran a basic a college football run-and-shoot offence in this game. You could hear it in the simple play-calling (thanks to TSN’s live mics) and see it on the field. They have a handful of base concepts and they run them out of three different formations. Aside from this play, the Cats would mix in double hitch-screens to their WRs in their empty set, one bubble screen off an RPO (run-pass-option), and a couple other pass concepts to branch off of their base plays. That, in a nutshell, was their passing offence. It’s all it had to be against Hall’s defence.

It is inexcusable for a professional defensive coordinator to not only draw up the wrong game-plan, but to also not make the needed adjustments when they are so obvious.

How the Bombers Defended

This year, the Bombers are deploying more match-coverage than they ever have.

Match is one of two types of zone-coverage, with the other being spot-drop zone. In spot-drop coverage, which is the old, traditional, reactive type of zone, defenders simply drop to areas of the field, maintaining a healthy balance of reading the quarterback’s eyes and reacting to the receivers. Match-coverage is an aggressive zone defence, where defenders are never covering an empty space. The defenders will drop and then quickly match with the receiver in their zone. They are man-on-man with the receiver until he leaves their zone and the defender can “pass him off” to a teammate. It is, essentially, man-coverage within a zone defence.

Chris Jones’ Saskatchewan Roughriders deploy the most aggressive pass defence in the league with their match-coverage. From a fans’ perspective, it almost always looks like they’re in man-coverage, but that’s only half of the time. Cover-3 match and cover-1 man look very similar, but there’s a difference.

Here’s Saskatchewan running cover-1 man-coverage:

And here’s Saskatchewan running cover-4 match-coverage.

Due to the width of the field making it harder to “pass off” receivers without their being massive holes in between zones, spot-drop zone has long ruled the Canadian game. Match-coverage only really become popular in the CFL once the league implemented drastic changes to the illegal contact rule in 2015, causing dramatic increases in completion-percentages and passing yards. It’s harder than ever to cover receivers in man-on-man, while a zone-defence will get picked apart if quarterbacks and offensive coordinators know its coming. Match-coverage is a healthy balance of the two. Chris Jones and Noel Thorpe were the first two to successfully overhaul their defences into aggressive match-coverage schemes, but there are still many defensive coordinators in the league who’ve yet to go there.

The Bombers have always ran match-coverage in the past with Richie Hall, but it looks to be their base pass-defence in 2018. The problem, however, is that while the Riders are almost always either in press-coverage or close to it when running match-coverage, the Bombers’ defensive backs are coached to give a cushion.

A massive cushion, at that.

Whereas the Riders look like they’re in press-man when the play match-coverage, the Bombers look like they’re in a soft, spot-drop zone.

Hall’s philosophy has always seemed to want to make offence’s have to execute 10-play drives to reach the end-zone, but that doesn’t seem to work when it comes to match-coverage. Or at least it didn’t against Masoli and the Tiger-Cats.

Lack of Adjustments

In all of the above plays in this article, the Bombers are running some variation of cover-4 match. (Against Hamilton’s 3×1 formation, however, they’d double team Banks with Fogg and Randle operating a spot-drop zone to the boundary against one player). As mentioned, the Ti-Cats ran the 228 concept upwards of 10 times — completing it every time — and the Bombers were in the same variation of cover-4 match every…single…time.

June Jones called the same plays over and over again because the Bombers did not adjust.

The Riders’ match-zones are so successful because Chris Jones protects his defensive backs. With four linebackers often on the field, Rider defensive backs are able to play a linear game due to having help deep, inside and underneath. It’s a very aggressive pass-coverage that allows the defensive backs to take risks, align in press-coverage and not have to over-think.

Hall has always been a blitz-happy defensive coordinator with his inside linebackers. The Bombers’ defensive backs do not have the same luxury as the Riders’ due to so often not having as much inside help from linebackers. This is why they’re always giving a large cushion.

With Hamilton often operating with 7-man pass-protection, Hall had the opportunity to take a glorious numerical advantage in the secondary, with potentially 8 defenders on 4 receivers. Instead, Hall continuously blitzed Adam Bighill and Jovan Santos-Knox in attempt to get pressure with 6 pass-rushers against 7 blockers in pass-protection.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. And with the Bombers playing a soft match-coverage, Masoli had quick completions in the flats all game long.

I am by no means a professional defensive coordinator, but I would have liked to see the Bombers take the numbers advantage in the secondary more often rather than continuously playing into the hands of the Ti-Cats. To me, 8 pass-defenders on 4 receivers sound more advantageous than 6 pass-defenders on 4 receivers with 6 pass-rushers on 7 pass-blockers (especially considering the Bombers weren’t getting pressure either way).

It’s simple math.

The most inexcusable aspect of Hall’s play-calling against the Ti-Cats was him choosing to not adjust his coverages to take away the flats on the wide-side. Hamilton continuously flooded the flats with two receivers, putting field-HB Maurice Leggett in a lose-lose situation.

Field-CB Marcus Sayles spent the entire game in a deep quarter-zone. Never once did the Bombers deploy the rookie in the flats with Leggett deep to counter the Ti-Cats passing concepts. Because of this stubbornness in the play-calling, Masoli and Jalen Saunders had a field-day in the wide-side flat.

It was like this simple adjustment was too obvious to make. And the stubbornness to not make the simple change is inexcusable.

The Bombers have had worse defensive performances in the past three years, and while it was only a week three loss, this is probably rock-bottom for the Richie Hall era in Winnipeg. The stat-sheet might not say so in comparison to other losses, but this was simply the worst defensive game-planning, play-calling and in-game adjusting that I’ve witnessed in a long time.

With that being said, the defence will rebound. Even if it’s always slightly being held back, it could still become a top unit in the league. There is simply too much talent for it not to.

And the Bombers’ defensive coaching staff will make schematic changes. They’ve had success giving offences other looks in the past, and won’t be solely glued to cover-4 match in the future.

But this loss to the Tiger-Cats will always be hard to overlook.

 

LaPolice, Bombers Let Streveler Run Loose in Second Career Start

Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterback Chris Streveler is enjoying one of the more impressive debuts that the Canadian Football League has seen in quite some time from a pivot fresh out of college.

In two games, the 23-year-old has completed 37 of 56 passing attempts for 424 yards and 6 TDs, while rushing for 128 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. He came within 3 points of defeating the Edmonton Eskimos in his first career start, and then led the offence to nine scoring drives in a 56-10 win over the Montreal Alouettes in week two.

Based on his college production and success, his combine testing numbers, and what he’s shown thus far with the Blue Bombers, Streveler is clearly an extremely gifted quarterback — and one with a very high ceiling, too. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that he’s operating in a dream scenario for a rookie quarterback, with an offensive coordinator that does an excellent job catering his offence to the strengths of its skill-players (not to mention one of the league’s best rushing offences, as well as a receiving corps that does not lack play-makers).

In week one, Coach Paul LaPolice dialled up a very rookie-friendly game-plan for Streveler, which featured plenty of screens and quick RPOs. The University of South Dakota product executed the game-plan formidably, no doubt, although he really only completed four or five passes downfield, including touchdown strikes to Weston Dressler (16 yards) and Darvin Adams (23 yards). His touchdown throw to former college roommate Drew Wolitarsky, for example, is excluded from that number as it was the result of a fake-bubble screen to Dressler, causing Edmonton field-corner Jordan Hoover to come downhill, leaving Wolitarsky open in the end-zone. Two plays earlier, the Bombers gave Hoover and the Eskimos defence the same look out of the same formation, except they actually threw the bubble screen to Dressler, which went for 14 yards. The Eskimos’ secondary did not want to give up another chunk of yards on a bubble screen, causing them to bite on Streveler’s pump-fake two plays later. These are the kind of simple but effective ways that LaPolice has eased Streveler into professional football.

In his second start, LaPolice opened the flood-gates for Streveler on the ground. The Bombers schemed up a plethora of designed quarterback runs, which bodes well for the signal-caller that rushed for 1,543 yards in two seasons at USD and clocked a 4.45s 40-yard dash at his pro-day.

The returns were quite positive for Streveler, Lapolice, and the Bombers’ offence, as the Illinois-native rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown en route to being named a Shaw CFL Top Performer of the Week.

The counter-trey has always been a big part of Lapolice’s offence during his current tenure in the Manitoba capital. Streveler’s size and athleticism, however, allow them to run counter-trey with the quarterback.

Here the Bombers run QB counter-trey off of jet-sweep action from Weston Dressler. Teams will often leave the play-side DE unblocked — making it an option play – but the Bombers have him shield-blocked by F-SB Nic Demski. Alouettes middle linebacker Henoc Muamba flies to the left in pursuit of Dressler’s ghost motion, giving Streveler a nice running lane and 8 yards on 1st-down. With a physical, big-bodied runner such as Streveler, I’d expect Coach LaPo to continue to run many variations of QB Power in the near future.

The Bombers’ offence also had success on their QB Draws.

The above play is one of the more creative ways that I’ve seen the QB Draw run. The Bombers’ half-roll protection is a big part of their offence, but Coach LaPolice has never had the personnel to run this play out of that package. Streveler sets up to pass behind the tackle, and then pulls the ball down and follows his lead blocker, running back Andrew Harris, back up the middle for a sizeable gain on 2nd-&-9.

And then there’s the classic no-huddle, empty-backfield QB Draw that can be known as the “Labour Day Special” (See Joseph, Kerry [2009], and Willy, Drew [2014]). The Bombers went no-huddle and LaPolice dialled it up for Streveler on 2nd-&-7. The first-year pivot showed impressive elusiveness and moved the chains.

A less drastic addition to the offence was the inside-zone read-option, which is run by every offence in the league with athletic quarterbacks (i.e. Edmonton, B.C., Hamilton., Saskatchewan). The other teams, including the Bombers, would run the zone-read as an RPO (run-pass option). Rather than running with the ball if the defensive end crashes down to stop the running back, the QB would pull it, boot outside the pocket, and have a passing concept downfield to throw to. With Streveler, the Bombers can do both.

Here they are running their inside-zone-read as an RPO:

And here they are running it more traditionally, without a passing concept:

Most inside-split-zone runs are not option plays. The split/wham-man (above is #82 Drew Wolitarsky) blocks the back-side defensive end and the ball is given to the running back every time. But it seems as though the Bombers are coaching their slot-backs to bypass the defensive end if he crashes down to stop the running back, and instead block the next most dangerous man, essentially giving Streveler a lead-blocker if he keeps the ball. This play, which the Bombers ran a variation of at least 3 times against Montreal, will likely be a staple play for the offence as long as Streveler is the man behind centre.

The great test still awaits for Coach LaPolice and his young, promising quarterback. The Bombers’ week three opponent, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, now have two regular-season games worth of film on Streveler, and should have a good grasp on his tendencies.

It will be up to LaPolice to give Ticats’ defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville new looks he hasn’t seen before, while ensuring that the man operating the offence, 23-year-old rookie quarterback Chris Streveler, is comfortable executing.

History Shows LaPolice to Unleash Demski in Blue Offence

FEATURED PHOTO BY DAVID LIPNOWSKI/BISON SPORTS

Kyle Walters, Paul LaPolice and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knew exactly what they were getting when scooped up hometown product Nic Demski on day one of free agency in 2018.

This is the same player who dominated the Canada West with the Manitoba Bisons, playing the prime years of his university football career on Investors Group Field. This is a player whose greatest CFL success has also come right in front of the blue & gold, as Demski’s first career offensive touch — a jet-sweep — went 40 yards around the edge of Winnipeg’s 2015 defence. His first career punt return touchdown, too, came in his rookie season against the Bombers, and his finest game as a pass-catcher — a seven-catch, 82-yard, one touchdown outing in week two of last season — once again came at the cost of Kyle Walters’ club.

After three seasons of showing flashes in Saskatchewan, Demski has come home to finally realize his potential and develop into the offensive weapon that he was drafted sixth-overall to become. And according to Demski, who hinted on himself getting a lot of touches in this offence in a lot of different ways, that is what his decision to join the Bombers was all about.

“It wasn’t about coming home for me to come here. It was about being in an offence that is well suited for me and my versatility and what I can bring to the table. LaPo does a wonderful job of doing that with players in the past. He told me, straight up, he wants to use my versatility to every strength that he can.”

Demski had to have been certainly enticed to join this offence after seeing how LaPolice has been able to maximize the talents of Andrew Harris and Timothy Flanders last season. After a roster opening allowed Flanders to get on the game-day roster in week seven, LaPolice unleashed a series of plays out of 20 personnel (two running backs, 0 fullbacks/tight ends) for Harris and Flanders. As Harris and Flanders began to have more and more success together on the field, LaPolice’s 20 personnel grew week after week until it essentially became their base personnel grouping. Flanders’ role became larger and larger as it evolved, and before the end of the season, the team began to carry one less receiver, instead listing Flanders as a slot-back on their depth chart.

Fullback Christophe Normand and receiver/returner Ryan Lankford are other examples of LaPolice designing an offence to the strengths of its weapons. Normand ran a couple of inside-zone runs with Harris split out in the slot, and was the recipient of a handful of delayed slip-screens to put his athleticism to use. Lankford ran a series of end-arounds in the run game, while his blistering speed was used to stretch coverages on double-moves (see week seven opening-play 79-yard touchdown reception in Ottawa, Ontario).

And not to mention Matt Nichols, who under the tutelage of LaPolice and his quick-throw, fast-paced offence, transformed his career as a back-up and fringe starter into a legitimately elite, franchise quarterback.

Now, enter Demski. LaPolice’s newest versatile weapon spent his first couple seasons of university football as a running back, and has already made big plays in this league in a number of different ways. Demski’s arrival is especially important for LaPolice and the offence due to the fact that it may not have access to Timothy Flanders every week.

There are several different ways for the Bombers to structure their roster, but with Kevin Fogg, Justin Medlock, Ian Wild and Craig Roh/Tristan Okpalaugo, the Bombers already have four designated imports. The Bombers could make room fairly easily for Flanders by removing Wild or Roh, but the addition of NAT RB Kienan LaFrance signals that they might not exactly be pressed to do that.

With Demski now in the fold, the Bombers also have less of a need to activate Flanders and remove an ever-valuable rotational international pass-rusher or linebacker. The club has already said previously that the 25-year-old could see work as a running back, and while I think he could get one or two carries per game as a running back just for another look/wrinkle in the offence, it is more likely that he’ll be asked to do a lot of the stuff Flanders did as a slot-back late last season.

Having other versatile players on the field that can create openings for Andrew Harris and can carry some of his workload bodes very well for the 31-year-old. With a player like Nic Demski and a creative mind such as a Paul LaPolice, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Bombers Deploy No-Huddle Offense to Rout Eskimos

To say the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense is feeling really good following a season-high 560 yards from scrimmage against the no. 1 defense in the CFL would be an extreme understatement.

With the entire offence leaping into the end-zone stands after major scores and QB Matt Nichols getting down with little touchdown dances of his own, it’s evident the Bombers are more confident than ever after knocking off the 7-0 Edmonton Eskimos with a 33-26 win on home turf. Andrew Harris, who racked up a ridiculous 225 yards from scrimmage on the night, had a very telling quote to reporters following the game, perfectly summing up how the offense was able to be so successful while simultaneously expressing a form of confidence the Bombers have earned the right to carry.

“We’re the best team in the league at the no-huddle. We put teams in the position where they have too many guys or the wrong personnel. We’re going to continue to expand that. It’s good to mix in throughout the game.”

Harris hit the nail on the head with that statement and explanation. The Bombers displayed one of the quickest, most efficient no-huddle offenses against Edmonton, consistently getting the ball snapped merely moments after the play is whistled in by the officials. As a result of this efficiency, the Bombers were able to consistently catch Edmonton before they were ready.

When watching this game, it’s clear Bombers’ offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice wanted to take advantage of Edmonton’s excessive defensive personnel substitutions by going no-huddle. Eskimos defensive coordinator Mike Benevides changes personnel groupings in-game more than any defensive coordinator in the league. In Thursday’s game against the Bombers, the Eskimos were constantly flipping between their base and nickel personnel (DB #42 Cauchy Muamba subs in at WILL linebacker) packages throughout the game, attempting to put faster, more natural cover players in space in passing situations.

Leading up to this huge week nine showdown, Lapolice and the Bombers’ staff clearly believed they could catch the Eskimos with either the wrong personnel on the field or without enough time to communicate everyone’s assignments after making personnel changes – and they were right. The Bombers had tremendous success with their no-huddle offence in this game.

It might sound hard to believe, but only 12 of the Bombers’ 73 offensive plays against Edmonton were actually ran from the no-huddle. It was the Bombers’ effectiveness on those 12 plays and the stress they put on the Eskimos, however, that made them seem to be more frequent.

The Bombers achieved a first down on a whopping 9 of those 12 no-huddle plays. They averaged 12.6 yards/attempt when passing the football with the no-huddle, which comes out to 15.8 yards-per-completion. The most mind-boggling statistic from this week nine game, however, is that the Eskimos took four illegal substitution penalties for having too many men on the field – all of which happened when the Bombers were in no-huddle.

The Bombers especially exploited Edmonton’s personnel groupings and substitutions by going no-huddle after explosion plays or big second-and-long conversions. On a 2nd-and-10 with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, the Eskimos bring out their dime personnel to stop the pass, substituting linebackers Christophe Mulumba and Alex Hoffman-Ellis for defensive backs Cauchy Muamba and Chris Edwards. After gaining 14 yards on a slip screen to slot-back TJ Thorpe, however, the Bombers are able to gain a fresh set of downs and, knowing Edmonton is stuck with 8 defensive backs on the field on 1st-&-10, Lapolice is licking his chops up in the coach’s booth. The Bombers go no-huddle, giving Edmonton no time to substitute their linebackers back in the game, and pound the ball with Harris, gaining seven yards on the play. Benevides actually tried to rush his linebackers onto the field while Nichols aligned his offence, but it was too late. In fact, Edmonton was called for illegal substitution (too many men) to add salt to the wound, as Hoffman-Ellis couldn’t get back off the field in time after trying to sub back into the game.

Edmonton scrambling to make personnel changes while the Bombers go no-huddle after converting second-downs was a massive reason for Winnipeg’s success on first-and-10. After allowing Andrew Harris to be wide open down the seam for 20 yards on 2nd-&-10 in the second quarter, the Eskimos attempt to substitute out of their base defense and into their 43 nickel personnel package, while also substituting Canadian pass-rusher Kwaku Boateng into the game for international DE Mike Moore. Once again, the Bombers’ are too quick getting to the ball for Edmonton, and the Eskimos take an illegal substitution penalty for too many men while also giving up 17 yards in the air to Clarence Denmark. In the below GIF, you can see Moore still walking off the field as the Bombers get the snap off with :17 seconds left on the play-clock.

With Matt Nichols quickly communicating the play and getting the ball snapped 2-4 seconds after play is whistled in, Edmonton defenders were routinely late getting to their spots and rarely had time to observe what the Bombers were doing pre-snap, struggling just to get their own play-call communicated and called out.

On this second-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Lapolice puts his offence in no-huddle mode after a modest three-yard pickup on first down. With neither team making personnel changes, Edmonton should be able to get their play called and everyone properly aligned, but Nichols and Co. are simply too fast. The Bombers catch Edmonton off guard with a rare empty set in the backfield, and the Eskimos simply do not have time to adjust accordingly with the ball being snapped with :16 seconds still on the play-clock. Edmonton is late getting lined up and TJ Thorpe is left with a free first-down worth of real estate ahead of him.

The Bombers’ tempo offence is also a big reason for their success in short-yardage situations. Nichols scored on a QB Dive from 1 yard out in the third quarter to make the score 23-10 after the Bombers went no-huddle and gave the Eskimos no time to bring out their goal-line personnel. The Bombers gained 10 yards and an automatic first down again in the fourth quarter by hurrying to the ball in a short-yardage situation, creating all types of confusion and disorganization for the Eskimos.

Despite the officials taking the time to bring out the sticks and measure, Winnipeg is in no-huddle mode. Seeing as the game was stopped for the measurement, Edmonton is not expecting the Bombers to rush to the ball as soon as the play is whistled in. Rather, they’re expecting the Bombers to call a play in the huddle after finding out they didn’t have the first down, or to substitute in their short-yardage personnel. But the Bombers do neither, instead using no-huddle verbiage in almost a “pretend” huddle to catch the Eskimos in mediation, waiting for the Bombers to declare whether they’re bringing out their short-yardage team or not. Edmonton is stunned to see the Bombers rush to the ball, and are stuck between having their base personnel and short-yardage personnel on the field. The Eskimos not only align offside, but are flagged for their fourth illegal substitution penalty for too many men on the night.

On what will be seen as a catastrophic night for Mike Benevides and his unit whom, on top of taking four illegal substitution penalties, missed countless tackles as well, Lapolice and the Bombers’ offence deserve full remarks for their game-plan and execution. Nichols routinely had the offence ready to snap the ball before even the officials – let alone the opposing defense – was ready.

Coming off their best offensive performance of the season, look for the Bombers to expand their no-huddle offense, as Harris suggests. Considering the success the Bombers’ no-huddle offense had on such limited snaps against the no. 1 defense in the CFL, upcoming defensive coordinators should be having nightmares about having to face this up-tempo Lapolice attack.

Lapolice’s Creative Mind Shines With Inclusion of Flanders to Offense

Since Paul Lapolice took over as offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense has become one of league’s most creative, innovative and efficient offenses in the league.

Having averaged 33.8 points-per-game over the first five games of the season, the Bombers’ offense had already been building on the success it had in its inaugural season in Lapolice’s system. Heading into week seven in Ottawa, however, Lapolice was able expand his weekly install with a new package out of his playbook, as third-year running back Timothy Flanders made his 2017 debut. Flanders took the Bombers’ fourth designated import roster spot from receiver/returner Ryan Lankford, who entered the starting lineup with Weston Dressler being place on the six-game injured list.

Knowing the talent and skill-set Flanders offers the Bombers when he’s able to get on the game-day roster, Lapolice has delved into 20 personnel groupings in the last two weeks to get Flanders and Andrew Harris on the field at the same time. This new personnel package certainly hasn’t slowed down the Bombers’ offense since making its debut; following a 33-30 win in Ottawa and a 39-12 thumping of Hamilton, the Bombers now boast the number one scoring offense in the league.

With Harris and Flanders combining for 83 yards rushing in week six and 127 yards rushing in week seven, the Bombers have had their best two rushing performances of the season since they added a second tail-back to the active roster. Lapolice’s 20 personnel package – i.e. two running backs and 4 receivers in the formation – has given the Bombers’ offense yet another way to be multiple and unpredictable.

At the core of Lapolice’s 20 personnel package is the inside split zone run out of the Gun Split formation. With Flanders and Harris on either side of Nichols, one running back will come across and “wham” block the backside defensive end, while the other takes the hand-off and runs A-Gap to A-Gap.

The Bombers ran this play with great success against both Ottawa and Hamilton. To keep defenses unable to predetermine which way the run was coming, Lapolice has called this play with Harris delivering the wham block and Flanders taking the hand-off, as well as vice versa. Success on the inside zone split opened up even more things for Lapolice out of the same look to keep defenses off balance even more.

In the below GIF, the Bombers give the Redblacks’ defense the same look as before – showing inside zone split with Flanders running inside zone right and Harris delivering the “wham” block – only instead of blocking the back-side defensive end, Harris has a “whiff” call, meaning he interferes with the ‘end and then leaks into the flat for an easy completion.

A third look the Bombers showed out of the Gun Split formation is a RPO (run-pass option) on the strong-side linebacker. On this play, the Bombers are running inside zone with one tail-back (Harris), while the other (Flanders) runs a swing route to the field-side. This play, however, did not seem to be executed properly the lone time Winnipeg ran it, as I question if Flanders was supposed to leave one or two counts before the snap to make it a pre-snap RPO on the strong-side linebacker. (If SAM chases the RB’s motion, give the inside zone; if he stays in the box, throw the swing – we have them outnumbered). Seeing as #6 Antoine Pruneau is aligned so far to the left, Nichols throws the swing pass regardless as the Bombers should, in theory, be able to out-flank the SAM ‘backer.

Of course, the Bombers can’t only just call run plays and play-actions/RPOs off the same looks every time Flanders checked into the game for 20 personnel. To keep the personnel package as multiple and unpredictable as passing, Flanders and Harris were heavily involved in the drop-back passing game. Flanders could be found aligning at tight tend, field wide receiver or motioning into the slot with Harris on any given passing play.

Lapolice could also be found motioning both running backs out of Gun Split in the backfield and into the slot, creating easy pre-snap coverage reads for Nichols while spacing out linebackers for easy completions over the middle.

In total, Lapolice has used 20 personnel, a package that was not even apart of the team’s gameplan for the first six weeks of the season, on exactly 20% (25/125) of offensive snaps over the past two weeks. Often reserved for 1st-&-10 scenarios, Lapolice has found a way to enhance his rushing attack while prolonging the effectiveness of 30-year-old Andrew Harris with the inclusion of 20 personnel.

Whether this package continues to be apart of the Lapolice’s weekly gameplan when Weston Dressler returns from injury remains to be seen. While the numbers clearly show an improvement to the team’s run game, using two running backs in the formation on drop-back passing plays has somewhat hindered their effectiveness – neither Harris or Flanders are much of route-runners.

Regardless, it’s a welcomed new wrinkle in the Bombers’ attack that has helped carry the offence while one of its top receivers nurses an injury on the six-game injured list. And, if nothing else, it has once again proven how a creative mind like that of coach Paul Lapolice can scheme a system to the strengths of his players.

Harris’ Yards-After-Catch Ability Saves Offense Against Alouettes

It was no secret entering week five that Andrew Harris was the heartbeat of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, but in a match-up against a well-respected defense where the Bombers needed him most, Harris rose to the occasion and reminded the league of his value to the blue and gold.

Harris finished Thursday night’s contest as the Bombers’ leading receiver with nine catches for 93 yards, increasing his season receiving totals out of the backfield to 37 receptions for 298 yards (59.6 yards/game), with a whopping 249 of those yards coming after the catch.

Harris’ eye-popping receiving totals aren’t the result of anything extraordinary from offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. He hasn’t been lining up as a slot-back in two tail-back personnel sets like he did in 2013 with the BC Lions in his younger, shiftier days. Rather, with the way defenses are defending Matt Nichols, Harris is being fed the ball on simple check-down throws. And with the consistency of which Harris is converting these check-downs into first downs, Nichols owes a lot of thanks to the 30-year-old local product.

Without Harris’ clutch yards-after-the-catch, the Bombers lose to Montreal and fall to 2-3 on the season. The Alouettes and defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe prepared the perfect game-plan for Nichols, and with the exception of a couple nice plays in the final minute such as his 15-yard scramble to set up the game-winning score, Nichols struggled mightily to solve Montreal’s vaunted defense.

Thorpe, who heavily reinvented his defensive system this off-season – which I believe is the reason behind Bear Woods’ release – played to Nichols’ achilles heal: his lack of decisiveness against deep-dropping linebackers as well as 8 and 9-man coverages. With four linebackers and three defensive linemen as their personnel grouping of choice, the Alouettes tempted Nichols into checking the ball down. With Harris slipping out of pocket, however, the Bombers had a fantastic option to lean on when their quarterback could not solve the coverage.

All night Nichols looked uncomfortable in the pocket, hesitating before releasing the football knowing the threshold for error against so many defenders in coverage and tight windows is very small. Excluding all hitch screens, RPO bubble screens and broken plays (2 resulted in sacks), Nichols’ passing numbers sans Harris – who’s numbers are separate on the right of the chart – and garbage time emphasize how anemic the Bombers’ passing offense would have been without the Winnipeg product generating excellent YAC on check-down throws.

Evidently, with Montreal sending zone-blitzes to create five-men pressure with three defensive linemen, dropping the remaining two or three linebackers (depending on if a defensive back was one of two blitzers) deep, Nichols struggled to find his targets downfield. With cornerbacks playing loose-lock press-bail with LB help underneath and help over the top from the halfback, the windows in between defenders were very small. The Alouettes did a great job disguising which linebackers were coming and which were dropping into coverage, too, making Nichols very anxious in the pocket, resulting in several errant throws on short passes.

Fortunately Nichols could rely on Harris to keep the offense on the field when he struggled to solve the defense. Late in the second half, Montreal’s linebackers no longer wanted to take on Harris in the open-field, engaging on the powerful ‘back with arm tackles.

In the end, Harris finished as the Bombers’ leading receiver on top of scoring the game-winning rushing touchdown with no time on the clock. With how productive Harris has been on converting check-down throws in first downs, it won’t be long until teams defenses start keying on Harris coming out of the backfield, opening up the coverage downfield for Nichols.

Evidently, his effect on the Blue Bombers’ offense is tremendous.

 

Bombers Defensive Backs Struggle to Defend Run Against Alouettes

If it weren’t for a miraculous comeback from Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, who scored 13 points in the final 75 seconds to lead the blue and gold to a 41-40 win over the Montreal Alouettes, the talk in town would be centered around the Alouettes pummeling the Bombers on the ground to the tune of 183 rushing yards.

The Bombers entered the game with one of the best run defenses in the CFL, but Montreal could do no wrong while handing the ball off to three different running backs. With under four minutes to play, and the Birds of Prey nursing a 5-point lead, everyone in the stadium knew Montreal was running the ball, and yet they drove 90 yards on six run plays for the seemingly game-sealing touchdown, a 31-yard scamper for Stefan Logan.

This wasn’t a fluke, though. Jacques Chapdelaine and Anthony Calvillo assembled a well-calculated game-plan to maintain the balance that their offense has established throughout the first five weeks of the season.

And how were the Alouettes able to exploit the no. 1 defense in yards-per-carry against, you may ask? By bringing in heavy personnel, inviting Winnipeg defenders into the box, and running towards the worst tacklers on any football team: the defensive backs.

Unlike the BC Lions, who deploy the same vanilla 3×2 formation without motion on most downs, the Alouettes utilized a ton of receiver motion, six offensive linemen sets, and 11 personnel (four receivers, one running back, one H-Back), which kept rookie SAM linebacker Brandon Alexander, who was starting in place of the injured Maurice Leggett, and often times the defensive halfbacks, in the box.

The above chart – which excludes plays from the goal-line – emphasizes just how heavy the Alouettes went to run the ball. For reference, though I don’t have the numbers tracked, the Bombers run with out of 10 personnel (5 receivers, 1 running back) with five blockers on probably 90% of their run plays. With game film on Brandon Alexander’s first career start at strong-side linebacker last week, it’s possible the Alouettes planned to exploit the Central Florida product by keeping him in the box as a true SAM.

On the above play, the Alouettes have a sixth offensive lineman in the game as Philippe Gagnon comes in as a tight end on the right side of the formation. Fullback JC Bealieu is also in the game as an H-Back, drawing Alexander to the short-side of the field. The mesh-point of QB Darian Durant and Brandon Rutley suggests an inside split zone play-call, with slot-back Eugene Lewis (#87) entering the box as the 8th blocker to come across the formation and make the wham-block on the backside DE. Although I don’t like LB Kyle Knox getting sealed inside by Gagnon, Alexander is late coming up-field in an obvious run-situation and misses the open-field tackle on Rutley.

Three plays earlier, out of 10 personnel this time, the Alouettes picked up 22 yards on a toss play to Alexander’s side after a holding call negated the rest of the run. The 23-year-old was late to read Z-WR George Johnson (#84) motioning down the line of scrimmage to crack DE Jackson Jeffcoat (#94) and was late to the supposed point of attack.

As a result of the Alouettes inviting defensive backs closer to the box with their receiver motions, six offensive linemen formations and personnel groupings with Beaulieu, Alexander wasn’t the only Bomber DB to struggle against the run.

TJ Heath gave up a huge 17-yard run on the Alouettes’ final drive of the game. With Gagnon back in the game as a tight end on the short-side of the field, Heath responsible for the big man in coverage – otherwise, he’s playing contain against the run. Beaulieu is aligned as an H-Back on the left side of the formation, so Alexander remained aligned to the wide-side. With three-tech Jake Thomas slanting inside to the A-Gap, Knox was responsible for the play-side B-Gap. Defensive coordinator Richie Hall often likes to align his linebackers out of gap to have them loop around and give the offensive line no chance to work their double-teams up to the second level. It worked to perfection here, too, as Knox entered the B-Gap in a one-on-one situation against Logan. The left guard had no chance to cut him off, and the right tackle is not aware of Knox looping around. But with Heath out of position – look at his head pop into the right side of the screen on the GIF below – Logan can explode out of the hole and around the corner.

Earlier in the game, Randle found himself making a similar mistake in a very similar situation, resulting in an 18-yard rush for Montreal. Randle was responsible for the sixth offensive lineman on the left side of the formation. Although DE Trent Corney (#44) was sealed far too easily by the LT alone, and although he may have been held, Alexander was slow to react, Randle took a bad initial angle and the run was bounced outside.

With defensive backs creeped up that close to the box, Montreal shouldn’t have been able to cut so many inside zone and inside split zone runs outside. While it seemed as though Montreal called a plethora of outside runs and could not be stopped – which isn’t false – the reality is that as a result of poor containment from defensive ends as well as defensive backs to playing the run as aggressively as needed, Rutley, Logan and even Bealieu were able to cut inside zone runs off-tackle on numerous occasions.

Fortunately, these are all correctable mental errors from a secondary that was missing Maurice Leggett, an excellent run defender at the strong-side linebacker position. At this point, Bomber fans should not worry about the run defense. With the exception of Sam Hurl being completely fooled by the ghost jet sweep motion on JC Beaulieu’s 41-yard romp, and Cory Johnson losing his gap on Logan’s 31-yard TD, the front-seven wasn’t too bad against the run.

The Bombers will turn on the film and correct some very basic mental errors made in the heat that hurt them in a big way against Montreal. With a trip to Ottawa next week, the Bombers’ run defense has a chance to get back on track against an inconsistent rushing attack.

How Lulay, BC Lions’ Offense Attacked Bombers’ Field-Side Secondary

After back-to-back 400-yard passing games in relief of starter Jonathon Jennings, it’s clear veteran QB Travis Lulay understands where his best match-ups lay on the football field.

One week after picking apart a young and inexperienced Hamilton Tiger-Cats secondary, Lulay again took it to a plethora of rookie defensive backs in week five on route to a 404-yard passing performance against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Friday’s game was unlike anything witnessed in awhile in the CFL, as an offense completely avoided a star-studded boundary and instead assaulted the opposite side of the field. It became quickly evident that Lulay and offensive coordinator Khari Jones had come prepared with a gameplan to take advantage of rookie field-side defensive backs Brandon Alexander, Roc Carmichael and Brian Walker.

And it worked.

Stud boundary defenders Chris Randle and TJ Heath were targeted merely a combined four times, which is a season-low for both the 2016 and 2017 seasons, by a team that attacks the short-side of the field more frequently than most offenses. Instead, Lulay and the offense took their shots at field-side halfback Roc Carmichael and field-side cornerback Brian Walker, who each had 7 a whopping seven targets, while strong-side linebacker Brandon Alexander was tested three times himself.

Despite defensive coordinator Richie Hall’s efforts to protect his first-year defenders, without Maurice Leggett’s veteran presence on the field to communicate and align his side of the secondary, the Bomber secondary’s inexperience was exploited. The Lions made big play after big play – they had five 20-plus-yard passing plays – and in the end it amounted to 45 points on the scoreboard. While Carmichael seems to be the consensus scapegoat for Bomber fans, it was actually Walker who made more crucial errors that Lulay was able to exploit.

Although he played the flats more often in the second-half as a halftime adjustment from Richie Hall to prohibit Lulay from throwing it out wide underneath the coverage for an easy 6-8 yards, as the field-cornerback Walker was often tasked with retreating into a deep-zone as part of a base cover-4 coverage. The Lions were able to flood Walker’s quarter-zone and exploit his inexperience for a number of big plays in the first half.

Brian Burnham’s second monster catch of the game came as a result of an error from the Central Florida product. Lulay caught Walker (#22) cheating too far inside towards a clear-out route and spotted the ball to Burnham’s corner-route.

On a second-&-8 from their own side of the field, BC had four receivers to the wide-side (quads formation) and the Bombers were in a cover-4 coverage with the boundary corner, boundary halfback, free safety and field corner dropping deep, while all three linebackers as well as the field halfback played underneath coverage. BC’s play-call wanted to expose the zone between Carmichael’s curl-to-flat and Walker’s deep-fourth.

Walker’s no. 1 job is to protect against the corner-route here, but because he failed to realize that with coverage rolling over, Loffler (#16) would have picked up F’s seam and Heath (#23) had Z’s post, he became too weary of F’s seam and was a half-second late to Burnham (Y) coming underneath.

Walked found himself making a similar error late in the second quarter when Lulay had a verticles concept to the wide-side and found Z-WR Danny Vandervoort alone by the sidelines for a 25-yard completion and the first catch of the McMaster product’s career.

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Again, Walker failed to realize he had inside help with Loffler and Heath. He came too far inside following F’s seam-route, allowing Vandervoort to simply sit down near the sidelines – far enough downfield so that he was over top Carmichael’s curl-to-flat zone – and haul in the rifle from Lulay.

In retrospect, Walker should have passed the F-SB to Loffler (#16) while Alexander (#21), who’s playing wall-off technique – i.e. picking up whichever receiver from the trips formation comes across the middle – takes the Y-SB’s route with help from Heath (#23). This coverage was executed nicely with the exception of Walker – and Lulay recognized this.

Walker isn’t solely to blame, however. Carmichael, who allowed three receptions for 63 yards – which could have been more if not for two key drops – struggled mightily in man-coverage, getting beat for a 10-yard TD from Emmanuel Arceneaux as well as a 45-yard gain down the seam from Burnham.

A lot of blame has been put on the shoulders of Richie Hall, but I saw Hall’s coverages evolve and adjust as the game flowed on. Hall sent pressures from different areas of the field, dabbled in man-coverage and played all types of zone defenses. Unfortunately, the Bombers’ rookie defensive backs made too many mental errors, while the Lions’ receivers also made several terrific receptions. Considering how dominant Randle and Heath have been in the boundary, though, the Bombers’ secondary should find its groove when Leggett returns to health at SAM linebacker and Bruce Johnson returns from the 6-game injured list at field halfback.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Friday’s game film for the Bombers’ rookies in the field-side. They have an opportunity next week against a mediocre offense in the Montreal Alouettes to put forth what they learned in an aerial assault from Travis Lulay and the BC Lions, and a bounce-back game will be needed.

2017 CFL West Division Preview: Bombers, Esks Close Gap to Stamps

No CFL team has won back-to-back Grey Cups since the Montreal Alouettes in 2009-2010.

But when was the last time someone correctly predicted the CFL standings correctly from top to bottom for two consecutive seasons? In the 2017 CFL season, I’m going for the repeat after nailing my predictions last season. While the East Division seems fairly predictable, the West is completely up in the air. And that’s where we start.

1. Calgary Stampeders
2016 record: 15-2-1
2017 projected record: 13-5

Despite once again losing several key players in the off-season, with reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell at the helm, the Stampeders are destined to once again overcome their losses. The Stamps have the best group of Canadian content in the league, and with players such as international receivers DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and Marquay McDaniel, the Grey Cup runner ups have no shortage of offensive weapons.

The most concerning area on Calgary’s roster is the depth behind Mitchell at QB. Rooting interest aside, it’s hard to imagine the Stamps’ offense not falling off with Andrew Buckley or Ricky Stanzi at quarterback, as it often did with veteran Drew Tate at the controls. The Stamps have avoided long-term injury to Mitchell in his three years as their starter, but that can – and hopefully does not – change in one play. With All-Star LT Derek Dennis now in Saskatchewan, Calgary’s potentially All-Canadian offensive line needs to keep Mitchell off the turf as much as possible.

Versatile swing-man Spencer Wilson will likely fill Dennis’ void at left tackle, pushing fourth-year veteran Brad Erdos into the starting lineup at right guard. Even after losing 2015 first-round pick Karl Lavoie to off-season retirement, Calgary still boasts solid offensive line depth. Look for Cam Thorn to start the season as the sixth-man, while Canadians Wilson, Erdos, Shane Bergman, Pierre Lavertu and Dan Federkeil make up the starting five. That’s a good group of Canadians.

Defensively, Calgary’s entire secondary is returning. After having all off-season drug charges dropped, sophomore Tommie Campbell will resume his post at boundary corner and maintain one of the league’s top CB duo with Ciante Evans, who had a breakout 2016 season. Veterans Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, meanwhile, are still two of the league’s top halfbacks, while FS Josh Bell and SAM LB Joe Burnett are among the league’s best at their respective positions. Supplying the pass-rush for this secondary, look for DE Ja’Gared Davis to have a monster sophomore year with Cordarro Law done for the season with a broken ankle.

Bottom Line: Calgary has the elite quarterback, Canadian content and defense to get back to the Grey Cup, but they’ll be in trouble if Mitchell goes down. The West Division continues to get better, which would drop the Stamps’ win total down from 15 to 13, but they’re still the top-dogs of the CFL.

2. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2016 record: 10-8
2017 projected record: 12-6

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Matt Nichols started his first and only playoff game in 2016, going 26/40 for 390 yards, two TDs and 0 interceptions. Clearly, the Bombers have something good in the 30-year-old quarterback. If Nichols proves to be the field-general he looked to be in the 2016 West Semi-Final, it’s going to be a great year for the Bombers.

The Bombers enter the season will tremendous continuity on their roster. Offensively, receiver Ryan Lankord, who beat out veteran Kenny Stafford in training camp, is the lone new face in the starting lineup. DE Tristan Okpalaugo, DT Drake Nevis and CB Brian Alexander, meanwhile, are the lone newcomers in the defensive lineup. Alexander, a 23-year-old CB out of a great college program in UCF, is the only rookie starter on the entire roster when everyone is healthy.

Nichols has all the pieces in place to shatter what is left of the game-manager label on his forehead. Darvin Adams is ready to explode if he stays healthy – the Auburn product had 690 yards and 6 touchdowns in only 8 games last season – while RB Andrew Harris looks to be extending the prime of his career into his 30s. Offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice should still be expected to operate a run-heavy offense despite an aerial attack that oozes with potential. Along with All-Star rookie Travis Bond at left guard, the Bombers have two of the best young and physical interior Canadian offensive linemen in Mathias Goossen and Sukh Chungh to run behind. Andrew Harris will be a happy ball-carrier in his 8th season.

Defensively, while Winnipeg’s second preseason had fans stressing over their pass defense, there’s reason for Bomber fans to have faith in the secondary. With an improved pass-rush thanks to the additions of Drake Nevis and Tristan Okpalaugo, Winnipeg’s ever-talented secondary might not need to rely on the turnover to cover up egregious amounts of passing yards surrendered. Chris Randle, who I believe was the Bombers’ top defender in 2016, TJ Heath, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler, Bruce Johnson and Kevin Fogg – that’s a good group of veterans.

Bottom Line: The Bombers are an experienced team that underwent very little turnover. They have a decent schedule – the Bombers’ play BC and Saskatchewan three times each, so it could be a lot worse – and a quarterback who wants to prove the rest of the league wrong in his first full season as a starter, but some questions remain: can they stop the run with Canadians Jake Thomas and Sam Hurl getting a second lease on starter life in the CFL? Can Taylor Loffler avoid a sophomore slump after a nearly too-good-to-be-true rookie campaign? Can the defense succeed without forcing ridiculous turnover numbers?

3. Edmonton Eskimos
2016 record: 10-8
2017 projected record: 11-7

Edmonton’s slow start to the 2016 season was completely inevitable – they lost their entire coaching staff and half a dozen of their best players, such as HB Aaron Grymes, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil. In year two of the post-Chris Jones regime, however, the Edmonton Eskimos should continue the momentum they built near the end of the season and start 2017 on the right foot.

Edmonton has the best quarterback room in the CFL. Despite losing Derel Walker to the NFL, Mike Reilly should be in the MOP race all year, while James Franklin is clearly ready to lead a team on his own to success.

The Eskimos picked up a couple former Redblacks this off-season that could be difference-makers in the City of Champions. RT Colin Kelly, who spent the 2016 season in the NFL after starting all 18 games for Ottawa in 2015, solidifies Edmonton’s pass-protection, replacing D’Anthony Batiste in the starting lineup. Forrest Hightower, meanwhile, emerged as one of the CFL’s top halfbacks in 2016 and will form a terrific duo with his former teammate, Brandyn Thompson. And if boundary CB Johnny Adams can return to his old-self, Edmonton’s secondary will be something to reckon.

The Eskimos should have the West Divisions’ best pass-rush in 2017. After cutting national Eddie Steele and replacing him with Euclid Cummings, the Eskimos are going all-american along the defensive line. Cummings, who had 8 sacks in 2015 playing alongside Cleyon Laing in Toronto, should have a bounce-back season playing beside another elite nose tackle in Almondo Sewell.

Bottom Line: Jason Maas is no longer a rookie head coach. The Eskimos have already driven over the speed bumps associated with flipping an entire organisation upside-down over one off-season. Along with Adarius Bowman, Mike Reilly has some intriguing young play-makers in D’haquille Williams and Bryant Mitchell, not to mention newcomer Vidal Hazelton and sophomore pass-catcher Brandon Zylstra. It could take some time to gell, but Edmonton’s secondary is promising and their defensive line should be dominant. Having to play Calgary and BC three times each will slightly drop their record. Eskimos finish third in the West.

4. BC Lions
2016 record: 12-6
2017 projected record: 9-9

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (I do not own this photo)

Last year, my bold prediction in the West was the Lions flipping a disappointing one-year stint under Jeff Tedford into a top-2 finish in the West with Wally Buono back on the sidelines and Jonathon Jennings in his second season. This year, although Buono is still head coach and Jennings should only continue to build on each passing season, I see the Lions slightly regressing due to the losses suffered on defense and their lack of Canadian talent.

The Lions could have one of the worst defensive lines in the league. After losing Alex Bazzie to the NFL in the off-season, the Lions are without a dynamic edge-rusher. Canadian David Menard will likely be thrusted into the starting lineup as the Lions scrounge to find seven Canadian starters. Mic’hael Brooks is a dominant force at nose tackle, but Bryant Turner Jr.’s prime is long in the past, and Craig Roh likely has a ceiling of 7-10 annual sacks. As for the rest of front seven, the loss of Adam Bighill cannot be understanding. Free agent signing Tony Burnett, who’ll start the season as Bighill’s successor, brings similar athleticism to the Lions’ linebacker crops, but too often does he get lost as a run defender. Keep mind, Burnett played corner and safety in college for the USC Trojans.

The Lions’ offense is going to be prolific. Although I have my doubts with Hunter Steward moving back outside to play tackle with Jovon Olafioye now in Montreal, Jonathon Jennings is going to flourish with Emmanuel Arceneaux, Chris Williams and Bryan Burnhan running downfield. For ratio implications, the Lions will likely have start two Canadians at receiver many times in the season, but the aforementioned trio of weapons will overwhelm many defenses in 2017.

Bottom Line: Loucheiz Purifoy is one of the best young players in the league, while Soloman Elimimian is a two-time defensive player of the year and one-time Most Outstanding Player. BC has a solid secondary and an electric receiving corps, but their defensive line and Canadian content is quite concerning. Adam Bighill is irreplaceable, too. The Lions have talent on paper, but in a gut feeling, I think the Eskimos surpass the Eskimos in 2017.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders
2016 record: 5-13
2017 projected record: 6-12

Plain and simple, the Riders don’t have a quarterback. Kevin Glenn – bless his soul – can only get you so far. Brandon Bridge is promising, but he’s not there yet. The Riders, although they’ve made some tremendous improvements on their roster during this rebuild, still boast the fifth-best QB stable in a 5-team division.

Naaman Roosevelt, Duron Carter, Caleb Holley, Ricky Collins Jr., Bakari Grant and Chad Owens – the Riders have a tremendously talented receiving corps. It was a no-brainer to add the league’s top left tackle, Derek Dennis, in free agency. Willie Jefferson is one of the CFL’s best pass-rushers, while Eddie Steele, who the Riders scooped up after Edmonton cut ties with the veteran Canadian, is a serviceable three-technique. The Riders have talent at some key positions.

But where the Riders lack talent, they are serious question marks. I like Kacy Rodgers at cornerback, and Ed Gainey really broke out at boundary HB in 2016, but there are serious questions at the wide-side of the defensive backfield, including at the strong-side linebacker position. Zach Minter, meanwhile, doesn’t inspire at ton of confidence at nose tackle, and along with Peter Dyakowski at right guard and Mike Edem at free safety, can be considered below-average at his respective position. The Riders have yet to prove they have a legitimate edge-rush threat opposite Willie Jefferson, while Cam Marshall seems to a mediocre option at running back after his sample size from Winnipeg.

Bottom Line: The Riders have some nice pieces in place such as Roosevelt, Carter, Dennis, Jefferson, Muamba and Gainey, but there are too many question marks and a severe lack of depth across their roster. And they still don’t have an elite quarterback at the moment, which is required to knock off the Bo Levi Mitchell’s and Mike Reilly’s of the division. They’re on the rise, and should be competitive this season, but still lack that quarterback. 2017 will show us if Brandon Bridge is the guy.