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.