Despite having three games in the loss column, the 5-3 Winnipeg Blue Bombers seem to be the consensus number two team in the Canadian Football League, only behind, of course, the Calgary Stampeders.
Although the Bombers will have to go 8-2 in their remaining 10 games to best their 12-6 record of last season, the numbers show that this team is a better, more well-rounded team than it was one year ago.
The biggest reason? Improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
Although it has now ascended into the no. 1 scoring offence in the league, the Bombers’ offence was already an elite unit last season under offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. As has been the case for the last couple seasons, it has been a swiss-cheese defence that has held the Bombers back from reaching greater heights. This year, however, the defence has become the second-best points-against defence in the league after being the second-worst team last year, while also now leading the league in sacks and turnovers. Although a much larger sample-size is required before one can call Richie Hall’s defence a strength of this football club, the improvement cannot be ignored.
While there are many variables that have contributed to the Bombers’ overall improvement, such as the massive free agent addition of linebacker Adam Bighill, I don’t think that one addition alone is enough to catapult this football club into bonafide contender status without improvement from the Bombers’ second-year international players.
Indeed, sophomore defenders Jovan Santos-Knox, Jackson Jeffcoat, Cory Johnson, and Brandon Alexander have all taken steps forward in 2018, and the mid-season returns for the club are quite promising.
A big reason for the Bombers’ improvement against the pass is its pass-rush. Although he had a slow start to the season, the 27-year-old Jeffcoat is beginning to flourish in year two, with five sacks in his last five contests. Johnson, meanwhile, is establishing himself as a premiere pass-rusher in the CFL from the three-technique position, leading the league in QB pressures for his position group, according to TSN stats guru Derek Taylor. Although the sacks are yet to come for the Kentucky University alum, Johnson has arguably played the biggest role in the Bombers now leading the league in sacks after 9 weeks.
Santos-Knox, who started the last eight regular season games of last season, has really flourished at the weak-side linebacker position beside the aforementioned Bighill. Last season, Santos-Knox shone bright as a middle-hook defender against the pass in zone-coverage, but since moving over to the weak-side position, has shown massive improvement against the run. His 40 defensive tackles are nine short of Bighill’s league-leading 49, while his four sacks in eight games is already double his total from last season. A player who plays a very similar game to Hamilton’s Simoni Lawrence, I think Santos-Knox still has a good amount of untapped potential.
One player who has flown completely under the radar for his massive improvement in his second CFL season is defensive halfback Brandon Alexander. One of three rookie defensive backs to start on the field-side of Winnipeg’s defence, Alexandre was a liability for the Bombers last season despite being the most consistent of a group that also included Brian Walker and Roc Carmichael. This year, however, Alexander is clearly comfortable in Richie Hall’s pattern-matching defence, and is playing with a level of confidence that was not there last season.
Despite only having 12 tackles to his name, Alexandre has been, far and away, the Bombers’ best defensive back against screens and runs this season. Both flying across the field and beating blockers to the point-of-attack with a dog-like mentality, Alexander has proved to be an excellent tackler with an aggressive mindset (which the Bombers’ clearly had noted last season considering he started two games at SAM linebacker). The 24-year-old has also been far more sound in pass-coverage this season, and seems to have found a home as the Bombers’ field-side halfback after bouncing around numerous positions in the secondary over his time in the Manitoba capital.
Together, improvements from these four second-year defenders has really made a noticeable difference for the Bombers as a defence and as an overall football team. Coupled with the addition of one of the best linebackers in the league in Adam Bighill, as well as National receiver Nic Demski, the Bombers are gathering National attention as a true contender for the 106th Grey Cup.
Should the defence continue to improve, and QB Matt Nichols starts playing to the level he’s proven to be capable of, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers should have the perfect storm to compete with a nearly-perfect Calgary Stampeders team.