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.