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.