Plenty was learned in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ gut-wrenching loss to the Calgary Stampeders in week 13, particularly in regards to the legitimacy of both West Division franchises as the CFL season enters its final stretch.
In a game that saw Calgary’s hurt kicker, Rene Parades, boot a game-winning, 52-yard field goal for a final score of 36-34, there were still a few questions left unanswered, particularly of this sort: what in the world was going on with the Blue Bombers’ defense in the first half, and why did Calgary’s receivers also seem to have a five-yard halo around them?
The Stamps’ offense bullied the league’s second-best ranked defense to the tune of 280 first half net yards and 27 points on the scoreboard. With Mitchell having all day in the pocket to throw to consistently wide-open receivers, those numbers don’t even seem to do the Stamps justice for their absolute domination early on.
Things changed after halftime. Of course, the Bombers’ offense and special-teams began to show life, and the Stamps’ offensive play-calling became more conservative given their initial lead, but there were also obvious defensive improvements in the second half, no doubt.
Defensive coordinator Richie Hall made obvious halftime adjustments, while his players cut down on simple mental errors and actually showed up to play. As a result, the Bombers came within 15 seconds of completing a 24-point comeback in the home stadium of the league’s bench-mark franchise.
The Bombers will want to burn the tape, but that first half performance was far too awful to simply dismiss. These two teams could very well meet for a fourth-time this season in the playoffs, and considering the Stamps have scored over 30 points in all three of their meetings against the Bombers this season, Hall needs to re-evaluate his game-planning for Bo Levi Mitchell and Co.
It was certainly fascinating to see the game-planning of both Calgary’s Dave Dickenson and Winnipeg’s Hall come to fruition, particularly in tracking the success/failure of some of the more obvious adjustments they made to their systems to prepare for one of the most anticipated games of the season.
The Stamps had a plan, and most noticeable was how they seemed to intentionally attack the Bombers’ trips adjustments. Dickenson certainly planned to test the Bombers’ communication and recognition-skills in the assignment switches that are heavily involved in running Richie Hall’s man-coverage-heavy defense – and it payed off.
It’s why the Stamps seemed to find a lot of room for their receivers in the middle of the field, particularly early on. With one linebacker often responsible for spying the running back while the other blitzes, there’s naturally always going to be a weakness in the middle of the Bombers’ defense when the Bombers are in a variation of a man-coverage. For whatever reason, when he’s calls man-coverage, Hall loves blitzing his MIKE linebacker and aligning him near the line-of-scrimmage, while coaching his WILL to cautiously blitz from depth if the running back stays in the backfield to protect. Already the Bomber defensive backs are lacking that inside help from linebackers when covering receivers one-on-one.
Early on, the Stamps tested rookie free safety Taylor Loffler’s awareness, knowing the Bombers would shift him over towards the boundary if the Stamps had three receivers to the short-side. Though they’ll sometimes bring the nickel linebacker over and play straight man-to-man with a cheating safety giving help over the top as well (which, consequently, leaves the wide-side in cover-0, unless an extra safety – TJ Heath – is subbed in for a defensive lineman or inside linebacker – then cover-2), the Bombers will typically pattern-match 3-on-3 against trips in the boundary when the original play-call is either cover-1 or even cover-2. In the most common pattern-matching variations the Bombers utilize, the cornerback is responsible for the outside-breaking route, the halfback switches onto any vertical route and the free safety, though dropping deep, must switch onto any inside-breaking route at the intermediate level. Loffler was late recognizing the inside-breaking receiver a few times, and the Stamps made him pay early. Loffler was late reacting twice on these plays, getting beat across his face for gains of 30 and 19 yards to veteran receiver Marquay McDaniel.
Perhaps the most noticeable downfall of the Bombers’ defense was a completely ineffective pass-rush on Mitchell. The Bombers did not record a sack on Mitchell and, frankly, they hardly pressured the fifth-year passer, if ever. Although Mitchell plays the quarterback position with great anticipation and a quick release – and his offensive line is absolutely second-to-none – the Bombers’ pass-rush was inexplicably poor in Saturday’s showdown.
While, sure, the Bombers’ defensive backs truly did play one of their worst games of the season, they received absolutely no help from the front-seven. Mitchell took full advantage of his never-ending time in the pocket, playing pitch-and-catch against man-coverage – and, in the process, taking advantage of some rather outrageous routes called that no defensive back should have to cover. Maurice Leggett stood no chance using trail-technique in man-coverage on Marquay McDaniel’s 15-yard juke-route, while Chris Randle’s first catch allowed – which didn’t come until the fourth quarter – occurred on a 20-yard corner-turned-out-route to the wide-side of the field. The defensive backs weren’t to blame in either of those situations – Mitchell cannot be afforded the time to throw those ridiculous routes.
Randle, meanwhile, was one of the lone bright-spots on the Bombers’ defense, however much of his success was simply based on scheme. The Stamps didn’t test Randle in coverage, as the boundary wide receiver spot – which was mostly occupied by Anthony Parker, though it didn’t really change with who was playing the spot – primarily ran different clear-out routes to assure Mitchell good spacing as he attacked the Bombers’ halfbacks and switches in man-coverage. In other words, the Bombers played far more man-coverage than zone, and Randle’s match-up was rarely used as anything more than a clear-out, decoy or check-down route to help diagnose the coverage, such as a short speed-out to keep the corner low while Mitchell threw to dig-routes over top.
The Bombers continued with the strategy they introduced last week against Toronto, playing Randle exclusively at left cornerback and Johnny Adams exclusively at right cornerback as the two star defenders’ roles sort themselves out. Coincidentally, Randle and Adams each played an equal 28 snaps at boundary cornerback and 28 snaps at field cornerback against the Argonauts. As expected, that balance was not replicated against Calgary, however. Randle played 69.6-percent of the defensive snaps at boundary cornerback, though by virtue of the Stamps’ offensive game-plan, was not under siege very often.
The Bombers challenged the Stamps with basic cover-1 and cover-2 man-to-man all game long, calling significantly less cover-3 and cover-4 than they typically do. Of course, the Bombers have a few different variations of even basic cover-2. The two-deep zone players are occasionally Loffler and weak-side linebacker Tony Burnett, while other times it could be Loffler and Leggett – their nickel linebacker. The Bombers sometimes even bring in a second safety (TJ Heath) and play two-deep over standard man-coverage. Regardless, the Stamps’ won virtually all these man-to-man match-ups on Saturday – and quite handily, at that.
Boundary halfback Kevin Fogg struggled in his match-ups, as all of his catches/yards allowed came in standard cover-1 or cover-2 man-to-man with the exception of a 14-yard catch in the second quarter, which saw his flat-zone flooded with two curls at nearly identical depth, leaving the rookie halfback to choose one to cover in a lose-lose situation.
Field halfback Bruce Johnson was no better in coverage – too often did the three-year veteran allow receivers to dictate their release – while Leggett was, once again, heavily targeted and victimized. Leggett, who’s most commonly used as an underneath “rover” when aligned to the field-side – for reference, see his pick-sixes on Jeremiah Masoli and Kevin Glenn – or as a strong-safety in two-high deep alignments, had increased coverage duties with the Stamps intentionally drawing him to the boundary with their trips formation when the Bombers were in man. The aforementioned Marquay McDaniel, who’s had success against Leggett in the past, had another two receptions against the 29-year-old, taking advantage of no. 31’s trail-technique with crafty moves at the stem of his route.
The touchdown that Leggett allowed was largely just poor communication, but it’s worth noting that he did seem to allow Mitchell to freeze him with his eyes. Randle and Fogg both retreated into deep-zones – indicating cover-4 in the boundary – although that was likely a coverage adjustment they made pre-snap with Leggett following the receiver in motion to the short-side.
The original play-call certainly didn’t have both Randle and Fogg retreating into deep-quarters, but they likely made an adjustment with Leggett coming over to account for the third receiver. The Bombers seemed to make the exact same adjustment twice later in the game, and on both of those plays, Leggett correctly dropped low and underneath any potential 4-route from the no. 2 receiver. If he’d done that on the above play, Lemar Durant wouldn’t have had the easiest touchdown of his young career.
The Bombers continued to show trust in their defensive backs despite a brutal first half, continuing to call a lot of man-coverage in the third and fourth quarter. They found a way to compensate for the Stamps attacking the middle of the field, however, subbing a second safety in more frequently, and also having Loffler and Leggett – when he aligned as a strong safety – occasionally play the “robber” role.
Though I’d point to the sustained drives on offense – as well as the Stamps’ own mistakes and conservative play-calling on offense – in the second half before crediting the Bombers’ defense, they did show some life in coverage at times. While the pass-rush remained invisible, the secondary seemed to communicate better, taking away the Stamps’ attempts to create confusion with the trips formation to the short side.
That led to the Stamps attacking the backside more often, with the Bombers sometimes sacrificing safety help over the top to bring Leggett or Loffler (or both!) over to the boundary against trips. Bruce Johnson and Johnny Adams mostly struggled, but with the Stamps failing to capitalize on some plays – as well as the Bombers’ run-defense stepping up – the Blue & Gold managed to hold the Stamps’ offense to merely nine second-half points.
Aside from not completely packing it in at halftime, there’s still not much for the Bombers’ defense, who’d been outstanding over the summer, to be proud of from this game. While they were undeniably out-schemed, even worse was the way they were out-played on the field. Sure, Richie Hall called an incredibly heavy dose of man-coverage and, at times, put his players in positions to fail, but the Bombers’ defensive backs have proven to be capable of holding their own in these match-ups at least somewhat. The defensive line, meanwhile, has no excuse for their performance. The Stamps’ offensive line simply outclassed them. Fortunately that doesn’t mean this otherwise rather stingy front-four can’t bounce back.
With tough upcoming in-division games, the Bombers’ defense needs to have a rather huge bounce back, in fact. The playoffs are near, and this unit cannot have peaked at the wrong time – summertime. It starts with defensive game-planning, but the players on the field must play better, too.
If the last seven games meant anything, Bombers’ fans should feel confident in this unit playing strong down the stretch despite the debacle that was their loss to the Stampeders and their prolific offense last week.