Growth from Bombers’ Sophomore Defenders a Key Ingredient to Club’s Improvement

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.

Bombers 101: Understanding Richie Hall’s Base Pass Coverages

“Soft-zone.”

“Prevent defence.”

These terms have long followed longtime CFL and current Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall.

Correctly or incorrectly, those are very circumstantial, oversimplified descriptions of the base concepts of Coach Hall’s pattern-matching defence. The reality, though, is that it can be soft as a 5-deep, 3-under zone at its most basic, but can also be a tight cover-0 at its most aggressive. It all depends on the routes of the receivers.

Pattern-matching is the modern, aggressive way of playing zone-coverage. Defensive backs take zone-drops while reading the receivers, and depending on the responsibility of the defender and the route(s) of the receiver(s) he’s reading, the defender’s coverage becomes either man-to-man or zone-coverage. On most plays, a portion of the defensive backs will be in man-coverage, while the others are in zone. It’s all dependent on what the offence does.

“M.O.D.” coverage: 

In short, Coach Hall’s base pass defence is a coverage concept called “man-only-deep”. In Canadian football, “M.O.D.” is a 5-deep zone defence with cover-4 rules that becomes man-coverage when opposing receivers run vertical routes. A “vertical” is described as any route that breaks past linebacker depth (5-9 yards). Each defender is reading 1-2 receivers that will dictate his coverage. If the receiver that he’s reading runs vertically past linebacker depth, the defender becomes responsible for playing him in man-coverage, whether he ends up running a go, post, corner, hook, dig, etc. Defenders will assume their zone responsibilties if their receiver declares a shallow route (i.e. drag, slant, arrow, etc.) before reaching linebacker depth of 5-9 yards. Defenders will “number” receivers on each side of the field from outside-in, making the widest receiver the no. 1, the middle receiver the no. 2, and the most inside receiver the no. 3.

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-The MIKE is the middle-hook defender with eyes on the quarterback. If he hears an “under” call, he’s responsible for “walling off” any shallow route coming across the middle from the side of which he received the call.

-The WILL is the hook-curl defender to the short-side of the field. If the running back is aligned to the short-side, he will take a more shallow zone-drop with eyes on the ‘back.

-Whether he’s the aligned to the short-side (boundary) or the wide-side (field), the free safety is always reading through the no. 3 receiver. If no. 3 goes vertical, he becomes the safety’s responsibility in man-coverage. Fortunately, though, the safety should have outside help on any routes that break outwards to the sidelines. If no. 3 runs a shallow route, the safety gets his eyes to the quarterback and is free to look downhill for any inside-breaking route to rob.

-A change Coach Hall has implemented in 2018 is that he always has the SAM follow the no. 3 receiver regardless of whether he aligns to the boundary or the field. If no. 3 runs any sort of quick out-route or hitch, the SAM is responsible for matching 3’s release (see Maurice Leggett in clip below). If no. 3 goes shallow-inside (i.e. drag, etc.), the SAM will pass him off to the inside linebackers before dropping to his hook-curl zone. The SAM cannot let no. 3 go vertical up the seam uncontested, and will respect no. 3’s vertical stem before passing him off to the free safety and dropping to his hook-curl landmark. If the MIKE linebacker is sent on a blitz, the SAM has the same initial read on the no. 3 but has to run with him if he runs an immediate shallow route across the middle.

-The cornerbacks must first get their eyes to the no. 1 receiver. If he stems vertically, the corner is man-to-man on him. He wants to maintain outside-leverage in order to funnel the receiver to his inside help from the halfback. If no. 1 runs a shallow route (slant, hitch, speed-out) the corner will get his eyes to the quarterback and will not break on no. 1’s route to make the tackle and limit yards-after-catch until the QB aims his front shoulder to the receiver. Meanwhile, he’ll continue to sink using soft-squat technique, providing underneath help to the side-lines for any corner-route going over his head from an inside receiver. (See CB Kevin Fogg on play below).

-The halfbacks are reading the no. 2 receiver to the no. 1 receiver. If no. 2 pushes vertically, he becomes the halfback’s responsibility in man-coverage. The half needs to maintain inside leverage as he’s not guaranteed to have safety help, therefore he must attempt to funnel the receiver to his outside help from the corner-back. If no. 2 goes shallow, the half assumes a deep 1/4 zone and must get his eyes to the no. 1 receiver, bracketing him with the corner and creating a double-team.

Strengths: This coverage has five deep defenders regardless of what the offence does, while the man-coverage on deep-routes allows for tighter coverage and prohibits defenders from being pulled out of their zones, creating “soft spots”. This coverage allows the free safety to be heavily involved in the run defence, as shown by Taylor Loffler’s team-leading 75 tackles in 2017, and if the no. 3 is shallow, the safety becomes a free-roamer over the middle to rob any in/over/dig-routes.

Weaknesses: Underneath coverage is very susceptible to being overloaded. Cornerbacks can be left on islands on deep-routes, and are the only defensive backs on the field with no underneath help (quick hitches to the no. 1 will always be open). Defensive backs are in disadvantageous positions to defend 8-to-12-yard hooks, often being caught in the transition from deep 1/4 zone to man-coverage.

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Trap” coverage: 

Every defence that runs cover-4 “M.O.D.” will also run trap-coverage. The 5-yard-out is the number one challenge for all defensive coordinators who run cover-4 concepts to find ways to cover, and trap-coverage (also called “Palms” or “Cathy” coverage) is the best way to fool offences into thinking the flat is wide open before a cornerback emerges and capitalizes on the throw.

In trap-coverage, the corner is reading the no. 2 receiver while using soft-squat technique (sometimes the Bombers will align their corner slightly deeper to give him more of a flat-food read). At the snap, he needs to start sinking deep to disguise the coverage as “M.O.D.”, which will hopefully convince the quarterback into thinking the flat will be open. If no. 2 runs a quick-out, which is a common “M.O.D.” killer (but the perfect route for trap-coverage), the corner will break forward and should be in good position for an interception.

If no. 2 runs a shallow inside-breaking route, the corner will then get his eyes to the no. 1 receiver, and is free to jump any route from him as well. If no. 2 goes vertical, he becomes the deep defenders’ responsibility, and the corner needs to immediately turn his eyes back in front of him to the no. 1.

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-The halfbacks are also reading the no. 2 receiver. If no. 2 goes vertical, the halfback will assume a deep 1/4 zone. He essentially becomes man-on-man on the no. 2 with outside-leverage, but has inside help from the safety, creating a bracket/double-team.  If no. 2 runs any sort of shallow route, the halfback must immediately get his eyes to the no. 1. If no. 1 runs a go-route, the halfback needs to be overtop of him.

-The safety will rotate over to the boundary at the snap. If no. 2 stems vertically, the safety keeps inside-leverage and double-team him with the halfback. The safety should be in good position to make a play on the ball on any hook or inside-breaking route (dig, post, etc). If no. 2 runs a shallow-route, the safety will drop into a deep 1/4 zone with his eyes on the quarterback, and needs to put himself in a position to get overtop of a possible seam- or post-route from the no. 3 to the field.

-The MIKE linebacker has a middle read zone. He needs to gain more depth than his typical middle-hook zone, and will open his hips to the field-side receivers. The MIKE is responsible for carrying any deep route deep-crosser over the middle from the no. 3, as the safety has been rotated over to the boundary.

-The WILL has his usual hook-curl zone if the no. 2 receiver runs any shallow-inside or vertical route, but is also responsible for matching any quick out-route from the no. 2. This is designed to trick the quarterback into thinking his receiver has outside-leverage, and can be thrown open to the sidelines. That’s where the corner comes in to snag the interception.

-Nothing changes for the SAM and field-side defensive backs. They are playing “M.O.D.” coverage and have the same reads and assignments. The only difference for the SAM is that he needs to carry any vertical route from the no. 3 a little bit longer in order for the MIKE to get enough depth to overtake the receiver.

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Strengths: Excellent counter for defences who are getting abused by speed-outs against “M.O.D.”, and relieves stress on the underneath linebacker zones while maintaining four deep defenders.

Weaknesses: Need to get pressure on the quarterback. Hi-Lo route concepts are easy trap-beaters. Linebackers can’t afford to bite on play-action. Backside defensive backs won’t necessarily have safety help against vertical routes.

Thoughts: 

Trap-coverage is only one of many variations Coach Hall has of his base cover-4 “man-only-deep” pass coverage. As does any defensive coordinator, Hall has a number of exotic wrinkles he can tag onto his base coverage to counter any adjustments the offence is making, and is obviously sure to mix in a number of separate coverages — cover-0, cover-1, 2-man under, quarters, etc. — and blitzes in order to keep offences off balance.

In my opinion, there are a number of reasons that Coach Hall takes a lot of fire from a play-calling perspective. For one, I think the Bombers run far too many zone-blitzes with their inside linebackers. The CFL is no longer a blitz-happy league, as defensive coordinators are noting how quick quarterbacks are releasing the football for short, consistent gains. The league’s best defences (Calgary, Saskatchewan, etc.) are consistently dropping 8+ defenders in pass-coverage.

When the Bombers do send pressure, I think there needs to be more variance in the blitzes and coverages being played in the secondary — quarterbacks seem to pick apart the underneath zones when the Bombers don’t pair their blitzes with man-coverage. Although Coach Hall’s blitz package becomes exponentially more exotic as the season progresses, I think there needs to be even more chaos (i.e. defensive ends dropping into pass-coverage while linebackers replace them in the pass-rush) in his blitz schemes. Trap-coverage is all about pressuring the quarterback with unique blitzes and forcing him to make a poor decision — this doesn’t happen when linebackers are blitzing from 6 yards deep.

Most importantly, I think Coach Hall needs to let his defensive backs play more aggressive. Seeing as “M.O.D.” can become a tight cover-0 against certain route combinations, there is really no room for error for defensive backs. Instead of playing cover-4 with a 10-yard-cushion on 2nd-&-10, get Adam Bighill and Taylor Loffler back deep as safeties and mix in some two-high pattern-matching coverages. Put your top-notch group of defensive backs in a position to take away throws in the flat while trusting their skills to prevent any deep-routes with the help of two safeties.

Especially considering its used by other defensive coordinators around the league, Coach Hall’s base cover-4 “M.O.D.” scheme is a good foundation for a CFL pass defence. It’s not “prevent defence”, and its an aggressive coverage as much as its a “soft-zone coverage”, but there are obvious flaws (which is the case in every coverage scheme). Fortunately, though, these flaws can be limited with the inclusion of good situational play-calling and adjustments.

That is where much room for improvement lies.

Five Unsuccessful Offensive Plays that Should Have Sealed Bombers’ Win in BC

You can blame Richie Hall for allowing another 300-yard passing game. You can blame the defence for taking countless 15-yard penalties. You can blame all the missed tackles.

You wouldn’t be wrong. All of these surely contributed to the Bombers’ full-blown collapse at BC Place, resulting in a 20-17 loss to the Lions after leading 17-0 at halftime.

Ultimately, though, this game is completely on Paul LaPolice’s offence.

Upon kicking a field goal with 8:56 left in the second quarter to make it 17-0, the Bombers had eight more possessions to put together one more scoring drive — just one which would have likely been the nail in the coffin for a BC-Lion team low on confidence. On seven of those drives, the Bombers either entered field-goal range or came within, at most, two first-downs of getting there.

Quarter Start Conclusion Result
2 W-27 BC-52 Punt
2 W-28 W-27 Punt
3 B-51 BC-1 Turnover on downs
3 W-48 W-48 Punt
3 W-27 W-53 Interception
4 W-35 BC-7 Turnover on downs
4 W-45 W-45 Punt
4 W-54 W-46 INT

Had even one of these drives turned into points, the Bombers probably would have won the game. It didn’t matter if it had been the first-drive on the above list or the second-last one.

But the Bombers got in their own way, enabling the Lions to mount what should have been an impossible comeback. Regarded as the best offensive coordinator in the league in many circles, Coach LaPolice called his worst game of his current tenure in blue and gold, failing to take advantage of eight different opportunities to win the game.

Here are five plays unsuccessful offensive plays in the game that would have sealed the win for the Bombers had they been properly executed:

1. Darvin Adams’ second-quarter drop

After Justin Medlock’s second-quarter field goal gave the Bombers a 17-0 lead, Travis Lulay and the Lions’ offence went two-and-out, giving the Bombers a golden opportunity to deflate the Lions with a third-consecutive scoring possession.

After advancing the football to the Lions’ 52, Lapolice called a head-scratching double reverse run to Rashaun Simonise — who, at 6’5″, is not the most nimble athlete on the team — on first-down, which was limited to a one-yard gain. Thankfully, though, Nichols delivered a strike on 2nd-&-9 down the seam to Darvin Adams to move the chains, putting the Bombers at the 37-yard-line with a fresh set of downs.

Except he didn’t. The ball went right through the hands of the typically sure-handed receiver, forcing Coach O’Shea to send out his punt team in opponent territory.

2. Turnover on downs from BC’s 2-yard-line

At this point in the game, the Lions’ offence had hit rock-bottom. Prior to halftime, horrible clock management resulted in the Lions coming away with zero points after driving the ball to the Bombers’ 5-yard-line, and then on their first possession of the second half, they turned the ball over on downs in their own territory.

The Bombers took over at the Lions 52, with yet another opportunity to ice the game. And they did everything right, driving the ball down to a 3rd-down play from the 2-yard-line.

This is where the game changed.

For starters, I have no problem with the Bombers’ decision to go for it. According to Coach O’Shea post-game, the Bombers were 25/26 in short-yardage last season, and had supreme success in short-yardage the week prior against BC.

There is, however, a problem with the play-call. Coach LaPolice gave backup QB Chris Streveler two designed shotgun runs from the inside the 3, denying Andrew Harris a golden opportunity to notch a hat-trick on the night.

The third-down call — a shotgun quarterback dive — was particularly surprising, as the Bombers ran the exact same play last week for a touchdown, and BC had all week to watch it on tape. LaPolice is so successful because he adds new tricks and looks every week; to run the exact same play in the same situation — against the same team exactly one week later — is not great play-calling.

3. Turnover-on-downs from BC’s 7-yard-line

This is the same story as the Bombers’ first turnover-on-downs of the night.

Once again, I have no issue with the decision to go for it on 3rd-&-1; the Lions had just made it 17-10, and the Bombers have the best short-yardage crew in the league. But, once, again, LaPolice went back to a play that worked for the Bombers last week against the Lions (Streveler went around the edge for a 26-yard romp on 3rd-&-1 in week four) and expected it to work again.

After last week, however, the Lions know first-hand that the Bombers have a tendency to run outside on short-yardage, and they were ready for it. Odell Willis penetrated into the backfield almost immediately, bringing down Streveler for a 3-yard loss and the Bombers’s second third-down turnover of the night.

4. Incompletion to Dressler in fourth-quarter

After a great hold from the defence to keep the game 17-10, Nichols and the offence took over at their own 45-yard-line with six minutes left. The Bombers needed to control the clock to give their defence a rest, but chose not to put the ball in Harris’ hands despite the 31-year-old’s 139 rushing yards on the night. Instead, Nichols dropped back to pass on first-down, and it became clear his confidence was shaken, having already thrown a pair of bad interceptions in the game.

Although there was a defender in the face, the Bombers needed Nichols to make this throw. The Bombers would have been in second-down Harris-territory, and it would have helped Nichols’ confidence. They would have been one more first-down away from a game-sealing field goal.

After this incompletion, it became clear that the Bombers were, officially, choking.

5. Late-game interception on throw to Demski 

The game is now 17-17. The Bombers have had seven possessions to get just one field-goal, and have been unsuccessful. But none of that matters now.

They get the ball back after a BC touchdown with 1:50 left to put together a game-winning drive. And not only is there more than enough time, but the drive starts from mid-field after a penalty on the kick-off. The Bombers are a first-down or two away from all their previous miscues and mistakes since 8:56 of the second quarter not mattering in the grand-scheme of things. It is truly an ideal, even dream-type scenario for an offence.

But Andrew Harris did not get the football. Instead, a mentally-shaken Matt Nichols is sacked on first-down, and a second-&-18 throw into traffic is knocked into the air and intercepted — to the surprise of no Bomber fan.

Should Nic Demski have made a better play on the football? Absolutely. But he shouldn’t have even been put in that position, as Andrew Harris and his 10.7 yard-per-carry average should have been putting the Bombers in second-and-manageable.

Ultimately, this poor play-call and execution was one of many offensive blunders in the game that cost the Bombers.

Hall (re)Discovers Winning Formula for Bombers’ Defence

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.

Bombers’ Defensive Coaching Hits Rock-Bottom in Steel-Town

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers do not lack talent on the defensive side of the football.

This is a team that added several highly-coveted free agents this off-season such as Adam Bighill and Chandler Fenner to an already promising core featuring Chris Randle, Maurice Leggett, and Taylor Loffler.

But after watching Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli pick them apart to the tune of 369 passing yards at a 76-percent clip — just two weeks after Edmonton QB Mike Reilly went for 408 yards in week one — it’s undeniable that there is, however, a glaring issue that is holding back this group of talent.

A coaching issue.

Defensive coordinator Richie Hall has long been notorious for his soft-zone, bend-but-don’t-break defence. He doesn’t don’t want touchdown drives to come easy. The philosophy revolves around offences having to play disciplined and patient, convert 2nd-downs, and have to put together 9-plus play drives.

The problem is that is has been easy for opposing offences. And they are putting together 9-play touchdown drives.

At ease.

Week three’s 31-17 loss to the Tiger-Cats should be remembered as the lowest moment yet for Coach Hall’s tenure with the blue and gold. And this is the same coordinator who has given up a combined 995 offensive yards in the Bombers’ last two West Semi-Final appearances.

This defensive performance was especially bad because the Ti-cats continuously did the exact same thing over and over again. The fans knew what was coming, the players knew what was coming, and Hall, too, knew what was coming.

But there were no adjustments, even though they would have been so simple and minor. There was a stubbornness in the play-calling that cannot be overlooked.

Ti-Cats head coach and offensive coordinator June Jones, who’s untraditional 7-man protection scheme has been garnering attention around the league, didn’t do anything groundbreaking. He didn’t reinvent the wheel. Six-offensive linemen sets have never been the base of any offence for a reason. Regarding Jones’ play-calling during Friday’s contest, it never broke, so he never had to fix it.

With, obviously, a few exceptions, the Ti-Cats really only gave the Bombers three different looks to defend. A six-receiver, empty-backfield protection (which was used to call the same two pass concepts multiple times), a 3×1 formation with 6 offensive linemen and WR Brandon Banks to the backside, and a 4×0 (Quads) formation with, again, 6 offensive linemen.

And they ran the same plays out all three of these formations. Most commonly, however, was their 228 concept. To the wide-side, slot-backs Luke Tasker and Jalen Saunders both run speed-outs, while WR Terrance Toliver runs a fade-route to clear out. The Ti-Cats would tag different routes for Banks to run on the backside.

Here’s the play out of 3×1 and 7-man protection:

Here it is out of empty 3×3:

And here it is out of quads to the field with 7-man protection. In quads (four receivers to one side of the field), the play is slightly different as slot-back Jalen Saunders runs a deeper out, but the concept and Masoli’s reads are pretty much the same.

This is not the only three times the Ti-Cats ran this concept against the Bombers. Not even close. The amount of times Jones called this play, with zero variation (except for maybe the back-side route tagged on for Banks), is upwards of double-digit figures.

Just for fun, here’s another example of the Ti-Cats running this route-combination.

June Jones really just ran a basic a college football run-and-shoot offence in this game. You could hear it in the simple play-calling (thanks to TSN’s live mics) and see it on the field. They have a handful of base concepts and they run them out of three different formations. Aside from this play, the Cats would mix in double hitch-screens to their WRs in their empty set, one bubble screen off an RPO (run-pass-option), and a couple other pass concepts to branch off of their base plays. That, in a nutshell, was their passing offence. It’s all it had to be against Hall’s defence.

It is inexcusable for a professional defensive coordinator to not only draw up the wrong game-plan, but to also not make the needed adjustments when they are so obvious.

How the Bombers Defended

This year, the Bombers are deploying more match-coverage than they ever have.

Match is one of two types of zone-coverage, with the other being spot-drop zone. In spot-drop coverage, which is the old, traditional, reactive type of zone, defenders simply drop to areas of the field, maintaining a healthy balance of reading the quarterback’s eyes and reacting to the receivers. Match-coverage is an aggressive zone defence, where defenders are never covering an empty space. The defenders will drop and then quickly match with the receiver in their zone. They are man-on-man with the receiver until he leaves their zone and the defender can “pass him off” to a teammate. It is, essentially, man-coverage within a zone defence.

Chris Jones’ Saskatchewan Roughriders deploy the most aggressive pass defence in the league with their match-coverage. From a fans’ perspective, it almost always looks like they’re in man-coverage, but that’s only half of the time. Cover-3 match and cover-1 man look very similar, but there’s a difference.

Here’s Saskatchewan running cover-1 man-coverage:

And here’s Saskatchewan running cover-4 match-coverage.

Due to the width of the field making it harder to “pass off” receivers without their being massive holes in between zones, spot-drop zone has long ruled the Canadian game. Match-coverage only really become popular in the CFL once the league implemented drastic changes to the illegal contact rule in 2015, causing dramatic increases in completion-percentages and passing yards. It’s harder than ever to cover receivers in man-on-man, while a zone-defence will get picked apart if quarterbacks and offensive coordinators know its coming. Match-coverage is a healthy balance of the two. Chris Jones and Noel Thorpe were the first two to successfully overhaul their defences into aggressive match-coverage schemes, but there are still many defensive coordinators in the league who’ve yet to go there.

The Bombers have always ran match-coverage in the past with Richie Hall, but it looks to be their base pass-defence in 2018. The problem, however, is that while the Riders are almost always either in press-coverage or close to it when running match-coverage, the Bombers’ defensive backs are coached to give a cushion.

A massive cushion, at that.

Whereas the Riders look like they’re in press-man when the play match-coverage, the Bombers look like they’re in a soft, spot-drop zone.

Hall’s philosophy has always seemed to want to make offence’s have to execute 10-play drives to reach the end-zone, but that doesn’t seem to work when it comes to match-coverage. Or at least it didn’t against Masoli and the Tiger-Cats.

Lack of Adjustments

In all of the above plays in this article, the Bombers are running some variation of cover-4 match. (Against Hamilton’s 3×1 formation, however, they’d double team Banks with Fogg and Randle operating a spot-drop zone to the boundary against one player). As mentioned, the Ti-Cats ran the 228 concept upwards of 10 times — completing it every time — and the Bombers were in the same variation of cover-4 match every…single…time.

June Jones called the same plays over and over again because the Bombers did not adjust.

The Riders’ match-zones are so successful because Chris Jones protects his defensive backs. With four linebackers often on the field, Rider defensive backs are able to play a linear game due to having help deep, inside and underneath. It’s a very aggressive pass-coverage that allows the defensive backs to take risks, align in press-coverage and not have to over-think.

Hall has always been a blitz-happy defensive coordinator with his inside linebackers. The Bombers’ defensive backs do not have the same luxury as the Riders’ due to so often not having as much inside help from linebackers. This is why they’re always giving a large cushion.

With Hamilton often operating with 7-man pass-protection, Hall had the opportunity to take a glorious numerical advantage in the secondary, with potentially 8 defenders on 4 receivers. Instead, Hall continuously blitzed Adam Bighill and Jovan Santos-Knox in attempt to get pressure with 6 pass-rushers against 7 blockers in pass-protection.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. And with the Bombers playing a soft match-coverage, Masoli had quick completions in the flats all game long.

I am by no means a professional defensive coordinator, but I would have liked to see the Bombers take the numbers advantage in the secondary more often rather than continuously playing into the hands of the Ti-Cats. To me, 8 pass-defenders on 4 receivers sound more advantageous than 6 pass-defenders on 4 receivers with 6 pass-rushers on 7 pass-blockers (especially considering the Bombers weren’t getting pressure either way).

It’s simple math.

The most inexcusable aspect of Hall’s play-calling against the Ti-Cats was him choosing to not adjust his coverages to take away the flats on the wide-side. Hamilton continuously flooded the flats with two receivers, putting field-HB Maurice Leggett in a lose-lose situation.

Field-CB Marcus Sayles spent the entire game in a deep quarter-zone. Never once did the Bombers deploy the rookie in the flats with Leggett deep to counter the Ti-Cats passing concepts. Because of this stubbornness in the play-calling, Masoli and Jalen Saunders had a field-day in the wide-side flat.

It was like this simple adjustment was too obvious to make. And the stubbornness to not make the simple change is inexcusable.

The Bombers have had worse defensive performances in the past three years, and while it was only a week three loss, this is probably rock-bottom for the Richie Hall era in Winnipeg. The stat-sheet might not say so in comparison to other losses, but this was simply the worst defensive game-planning, play-calling and in-game adjusting that I’ve witnessed in a long time.

With that being said, the defence will rebound. Even if it’s always slightly being held back, it could still become a top unit in the league. There is simply too much talent for it not to.

And the Bombers’ defensive coaching staff will make schematic changes. They’ve had success giving offences other looks in the past, and won’t be solely glued to cover-4 match in the future.

But this loss to the Tiger-Cats will always be hard to overlook.

 

LaPolice, Bombers Let Streveler Run Loose in Second Career Start

Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterback Chris Streveler is enjoying one of the more impressive debuts that the Canadian Football League has seen in quite some time from a pivot fresh out of college.

In two games, the 23-year-old has completed 37 of 56 passing attempts for 424 yards and 6 TDs, while rushing for 128 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. He came within 3 points of defeating the Edmonton Eskimos in his first career start, and then led the offence to nine scoring drives in a 56-10 win over the Montreal Alouettes in week two.

Based on his college production and success, his combine testing numbers, and what he’s shown thus far with the Blue Bombers, Streveler is clearly an extremely gifted quarterback — and one with a very high ceiling, too. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that he’s operating in a dream scenario for a rookie quarterback, with an offensive coordinator that does an excellent job catering his offence to the strengths of its skill-players (not to mention one of the league’s best rushing offences, as well as a receiving corps that does not lack play-makers).

In week one, Coach Paul LaPolice dialled up a very rookie-friendly game-plan for Streveler, which featured plenty of screens and quick RPOs. The University of South Dakota product executed the game-plan formidably, no doubt, although he really only completed four or five passes downfield, including touchdown strikes to Weston Dressler (16 yards) and Darvin Adams (23 yards). His touchdown throw to former college roommate Drew Wolitarsky, for example, is excluded from that number as it was the result of a fake-bubble screen to Dressler, causing Edmonton field-corner Jordan Hoover to come downhill, leaving Wolitarsky open in the end-zone. Two plays earlier, the Bombers gave Hoover and the Eskimos defence the same look out of the same formation, except they actually threw the bubble screen to Dressler, which went for 14 yards. The Eskimos’ secondary did not want to give up another chunk of yards on a bubble screen, causing them to bite on Streveler’s pump-fake two plays later. These are the kind of simple but effective ways that LaPolice has eased Streveler into professional football.

In his second start, LaPolice opened the flood-gates for Streveler on the ground. The Bombers schemed up a plethora of designed quarterback runs, which bodes well for the signal-caller that rushed for 1,543 yards in two seasons at USD and clocked a 4.45s 40-yard dash at his pro-day.

The returns were quite positive for Streveler, Lapolice, and the Bombers’ offence, as the Illinois-native rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown en route to being named a Shaw CFL Top Performer of the Week.

The counter-trey has always been a big part of Lapolice’s offence during his current tenure in the Manitoba capital. Streveler’s size and athleticism, however, allow them to run counter-trey with the quarterback.

Here the Bombers run QB counter-trey off of jet-sweep action from Weston Dressler. Teams will often leave the play-side DE unblocked — making it an option play – but the Bombers have him shield-blocked by F-SB Nic Demski. Alouettes middle linebacker Henoc Muamba flies to the left in pursuit of Dressler’s ghost motion, giving Streveler a nice running lane and 8 yards on 1st-down. With a physical, big-bodied runner such as Streveler, I’d expect Coach LaPo to continue to run many variations of QB Power in the near future.

The Bombers’ offence also had success on their QB Draws.

The above play is one of the more creative ways that I’ve seen the QB Draw run. The Bombers’ half-roll protection is a big part of their offence, but Coach LaPolice has never had the personnel to run this play out of that package. Streveler sets up to pass behind the tackle, and then pulls the ball down and follows his lead blocker, running back Andrew Harris, back up the middle for a sizeable gain on 2nd-&-9.

And then there’s the classic no-huddle, empty-backfield QB Draw that can be known as the “Labour Day Special” (See Joseph, Kerry [2009], and Willy, Drew [2014]). The Bombers went no-huddle and LaPolice dialled it up for Streveler on 2nd-&-7. The first-year pivot showed impressive elusiveness and moved the chains.

A less drastic addition to the offence was the inside-zone read-option, which is run by every offence in the league with athletic quarterbacks (i.e. Edmonton, B.C., Hamilton., Saskatchewan). The other teams, including the Bombers, would run the zone-read as an RPO (run-pass option). Rather than running with the ball if the defensive end crashes down to stop the running back, the QB would pull it, boot outside the pocket, and have a passing concept downfield to throw to. With Streveler, the Bombers can do both.

Here they are running their inside-zone-read as an RPO:

And here they are running it more traditionally, without a passing concept:

Most inside-split-zone runs are not option plays. The split/wham-man (above is #82 Drew Wolitarsky) blocks the back-side defensive end and the ball is given to the running back every time. But it seems as though the Bombers are coaching their slot-backs to bypass the defensive end if he crashes down to stop the running back, and instead block the next most dangerous man, essentially giving Streveler a lead-blocker if he keeps the ball. This play, which the Bombers ran a variation of at least 3 times against Montreal, will likely be a staple play for the offence as long as Streveler is the man behind centre.

The great test still awaits for Coach LaPolice and his young, promising quarterback. The Bombers’ week three opponent, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, now have two regular-season games worth of film on Streveler, and should have a good grasp on his tendencies.

It will be up to LaPolice to give Ticats’ defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville new looks he hasn’t seen before, while ensuring that the man operating the offence, 23-year-old rookie quarterback Chris Streveler, is comfortable executing.

History Shows LaPolice to Unleash Demski in Blue Offence

FEATURED PHOTO BY DAVID LIPNOWSKI/BISON SPORTS

Kyle Walters, Paul LaPolice and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knew exactly what they were getting when scooped up hometown product Nic Demski on day one of free agency in 2018.

This is the same player who dominated the Canada West with the Manitoba Bisons, playing the prime years of his university football career on Investors Group Field. This is a player whose greatest CFL success has also come right in front of the blue & gold, as Demski’s first career offensive touch — a jet-sweep — went 40 yards around the edge of Winnipeg’s 2015 defence. His first career punt return touchdown, too, came in his rookie season against the Bombers, and his finest game as a pass-catcher — a seven-catch, 82-yard, one touchdown outing in week two of last season — once again came at the cost of Kyle Walters’ club.

After three seasons of showing flashes in Saskatchewan, Demski has come home to finally realize his potential and develop into the offensive weapon that he was drafted sixth-overall to become. And according to Demski, who hinted on himself getting a lot of touches in this offence in a lot of different ways, that is what his decision to join the Bombers was all about.

“It wasn’t about coming home for me to come here. It was about being in an offence that is well suited for me and my versatility and what I can bring to the table. LaPo does a wonderful job of doing that with players in the past. He told me, straight up, he wants to use my versatility to every strength that he can.”

Demski had to have been certainly enticed to join this offence after seeing how LaPolice has been able to maximize the talents of Andrew Harris and Timothy Flanders last season. After a roster opening allowed Flanders to get on the game-day roster in week seven, LaPolice unleashed a series of plays out of 20 personnel (two running backs, 0 fullbacks/tight ends) for Harris and Flanders. As Harris and Flanders began to have more and more success together on the field, LaPolice’s 20 personnel grew week after week until it essentially became their base personnel grouping. Flanders’ role became larger and larger as it evolved, and before the end of the season, the team began to carry one less receiver, instead listing Flanders as a slot-back on their depth chart.

Fullback Christophe Normand and receiver/returner Ryan Lankford are other examples of LaPolice designing an offence to the strengths of its weapons. Normand ran a couple of inside-zone runs with Harris split out in the slot, and was the recipient of a handful of delayed slip-screens to put his athleticism to use. Lankford ran a series of end-arounds in the run game, while his blistering speed was used to stretch coverages on double-moves (see week seven opening-play 79-yard touchdown reception in Ottawa, Ontario).

And not to mention Matt Nichols, who under the tutelage of LaPolice and his quick-throw, fast-paced offence, transformed his career as a back-up and fringe starter into a legitimately elite, franchise quarterback.

Now, enter Demski. LaPolice’s newest versatile weapon spent his first couple seasons of university football as a running back, and has already made big plays in this league in a number of different ways. Demski’s arrival is especially important for LaPolice and the offence due to the fact that it may not have access to Timothy Flanders every week.

There are several different ways for the Bombers to structure their roster, but with Kevin Fogg, Justin Medlock, Ian Wild and Craig Roh/Tristan Okpalaugo, the Bombers already have four designated imports. The Bombers could make room fairly easily for Flanders by removing Wild or Roh, but the addition of NAT RB Kienan LaFrance signals that they might not exactly be pressed to do that.

With Demski now in the fold, the Bombers also have less of a need to activate Flanders and remove an ever-valuable rotational international pass-rusher or linebacker. The club has already said previously that the 25-year-old could see work as a running back, and while I think he could get one or two carries per game as a running back just for another look/wrinkle in the offence, it is more likely that he’ll be asked to do a lot of the stuff Flanders did as a slot-back late last season.

Having other versatile players on the field that can create openings for Andrew Harris and can carry some of his workload bodes very well for the 31-year-old. With a player like Nic Demski and a creative mind such as a Paul LaPolice, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Bombers Deploy No-Huddle Offense to Rout Eskimos

To say the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense is feeling really good following a season-high 560 yards from scrimmage against the no. 1 defense in the CFL would be an extreme understatement.

With the entire offence leaping into the end-zone stands after major scores and QB Matt Nichols getting down with little touchdown dances of his own, it’s evident the Bombers are more confident than ever after knocking off the 7-0 Edmonton Eskimos with a 33-26 win on home turf. Andrew Harris, who racked up a ridiculous 225 yards from scrimmage on the night, had a very telling quote to reporters following the game, perfectly summing up how the offense was able to be so successful while simultaneously expressing a form of confidence the Bombers have earned the right to carry.

“We’re the best team in the league at the no-huddle. We put teams in the position where they have too many guys or the wrong personnel. We’re going to continue to expand that. It’s good to mix in throughout the game.”

Harris hit the nail on the head with that statement and explanation. The Bombers displayed one of the quickest, most efficient no-huddle offenses against Edmonton, consistently getting the ball snapped merely moments after the play is whistled in by the officials. As a result of this efficiency, the Bombers were able to consistently catch Edmonton before they were ready.

When watching this game, it’s clear Bombers’ offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice wanted to take advantage of Edmonton’s excessive defensive personnel substitutions by going no-huddle. Eskimos defensive coordinator Mike Benevides changes personnel groupings in-game more than any defensive coordinator in the league. In Thursday’s game against the Bombers, the Eskimos were constantly flipping between their base and nickel personnel (DB #42 Cauchy Muamba subs in at WILL linebacker) packages throughout the game, attempting to put faster, more natural cover players in space in passing situations.

Leading up to this huge week nine showdown, Lapolice and the Bombers’ staff clearly believed they could catch the Eskimos with either the wrong personnel on the field or without enough time to communicate everyone’s assignments after making personnel changes – and they were right. The Bombers had tremendous success with their no-huddle offence in this game.

It might sound hard to believe, but only 12 of the Bombers’ 73 offensive plays against Edmonton were actually ran from the no-huddle. It was the Bombers’ effectiveness on those 12 plays and the stress they put on the Eskimos, however, that made them seem to be more frequent.

The Bombers achieved a first down on a whopping 9 of those 12 no-huddle plays. They averaged 12.6 yards/attempt when passing the football with the no-huddle, which comes out to 15.8 yards-per-completion. The most mind-boggling statistic from this week nine game, however, is that the Eskimos took four illegal substitution penalties for having too many men on the field – all of which happened when the Bombers were in no-huddle.

The Bombers especially exploited Edmonton’s personnel groupings and substitutions by going no-huddle after explosion plays or big second-and-long conversions. On a 2nd-and-10 with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, the Eskimos bring out their dime personnel to stop the pass, substituting linebackers Christophe Mulumba and Alex Hoffman-Ellis for defensive backs Cauchy Muamba and Chris Edwards. After gaining 14 yards on a slip screen to slot-back TJ Thorpe, however, the Bombers are able to gain a fresh set of downs and, knowing Edmonton is stuck with 8 defensive backs on the field on 1st-&-10, Lapolice is licking his chops up in the coach’s booth. The Bombers go no-huddle, giving Edmonton no time to substitute their linebackers back in the game, and pound the ball with Harris, gaining seven yards on the play. Benevides actually tried to rush his linebackers onto the field while Nichols aligned his offence, but it was too late. In fact, Edmonton was called for illegal substitution (too many men) to add salt to the wound, as Hoffman-Ellis couldn’t get back off the field in time after trying to sub back into the game.

Edmonton scrambling to make personnel changes while the Bombers go no-huddle after converting second-downs was a massive reason for Winnipeg’s success on first-and-10. After allowing Andrew Harris to be wide open down the seam for 20 yards on 2nd-&-10 in the second quarter, the Eskimos attempt to substitute out of their base defense and into their 43 nickel personnel package, while also substituting Canadian pass-rusher Kwaku Boateng into the game for international DE Mike Moore. Once again, the Bombers’ are too quick getting to the ball for Edmonton, and the Eskimos take an illegal substitution penalty for too many men while also giving up 17 yards in the air to Clarence Denmark. In the below GIF, you can see Moore still walking off the field as the Bombers get the snap off with :17 seconds left on the play-clock.

With Matt Nichols quickly communicating the play and getting the ball snapped 2-4 seconds after play is whistled in, Edmonton defenders were routinely late getting to their spots and rarely had time to observe what the Bombers were doing pre-snap, struggling just to get their own play-call communicated and called out.

On this second-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Lapolice puts his offence in no-huddle mode after a modest three-yard pickup on first down. With neither team making personnel changes, Edmonton should be able to get their play called and everyone properly aligned, but Nichols and Co. are simply too fast. The Bombers catch Edmonton off guard with a rare empty set in the backfield, and the Eskimos simply do not have time to adjust accordingly with the ball being snapped with :16 seconds still on the play-clock. Edmonton is late getting lined up and TJ Thorpe is left with a free first-down worth of real estate ahead of him.

The Bombers’ tempo offence is also a big reason for their success in short-yardage situations. Nichols scored on a QB Dive from 1 yard out in the third quarter to make the score 23-10 after the Bombers went no-huddle and gave the Eskimos no time to bring out their goal-line personnel. The Bombers gained 10 yards and an automatic first down again in the fourth quarter by hurrying to the ball in a short-yardage situation, creating all types of confusion and disorganization for the Eskimos.

Despite the officials taking the time to bring out the sticks and measure, Winnipeg is in no-huddle mode. Seeing as the game was stopped for the measurement, Edmonton is not expecting the Bombers to rush to the ball as soon as the play is whistled in. Rather, they’re expecting the Bombers to call a play in the huddle after finding out they didn’t have the first down, or to substitute in their short-yardage personnel. But the Bombers do neither, instead using no-huddle verbiage in almost a “pretend” huddle to catch the Eskimos in mediation, waiting for the Bombers to declare whether they’re bringing out their short-yardage team or not. Edmonton is stunned to see the Bombers rush to the ball, and are stuck between having their base personnel and short-yardage personnel on the field. The Eskimos not only align offside, but are flagged for their fourth illegal substitution penalty for too many men on the night.

On what will be seen as a catastrophic night for Mike Benevides and his unit whom, on top of taking four illegal substitution penalties, missed countless tackles as well, Lapolice and the Bombers’ offence deserve full remarks for their game-plan and execution. Nichols routinely had the offence ready to snap the ball before even the officials – let alone the opposing defense – was ready.

Coming off their best offensive performance of the season, look for the Bombers to expand their no-huddle offense, as Harris suggests. Considering the success the Bombers’ no-huddle offense had on such limited snaps against the no. 1 defense in the CFL, upcoming defensive coordinators should be having nightmares about having to face this up-tempo Lapolice attack.

Lapolice’s Creative Mind Shines With Inclusion of Flanders to Offense

Since Paul Lapolice took over as offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense has become one of league’s most creative, innovative and efficient offenses in the league.

Having averaged 33.8 points-per-game over the first five games of the season, the Bombers’ offense had already been building on the success it had in its inaugural season in Lapolice’s system. Heading into week seven in Ottawa, however, Lapolice was able expand his weekly install with a new package out of his playbook, as third-year running back Timothy Flanders made his 2017 debut. Flanders took the Bombers’ fourth designated import roster spot from receiver/returner Ryan Lankford, who entered the starting lineup with Weston Dressler being place on the six-game injured list.

Knowing the talent and skill-set Flanders offers the Bombers when he’s able to get on the game-day roster, Lapolice has delved into 20 personnel groupings in the last two weeks to get Flanders and Andrew Harris on the field at the same time. This new personnel package certainly hasn’t slowed down the Bombers’ offense since making its debut; following a 33-30 win in Ottawa and a 39-12 thumping of Hamilton, the Bombers now boast the number one scoring offense in the league.

With Harris and Flanders combining for 83 yards rushing in week six and 127 yards rushing in week seven, the Bombers have had their best two rushing performances of the season since they added a second tail-back to the active roster. Lapolice’s 20 personnel package – i.e. two running backs and 4 receivers in the formation – has given the Bombers’ offense yet another way to be multiple and unpredictable.

At the core of Lapolice’s 20 personnel package is the inside split zone run out of the Gun Split formation. With Flanders and Harris on either side of Nichols, one running back will come across and “wham” block the backside defensive end, while the other takes the hand-off and runs A-Gap to A-Gap.

The Bombers ran this play with great success against both Ottawa and Hamilton. To keep defenses unable to predetermine which way the run was coming, Lapolice has called this play with Harris delivering the wham block and Flanders taking the hand-off, as well as vice versa. Success on the inside zone split opened up even more things for Lapolice out of the same look to keep defenses off balance even more.

In the below GIF, the Bombers give the Redblacks’ defense the same look as before – showing inside zone split with Flanders running inside zone right and Harris delivering the “wham” block – only instead of blocking the back-side defensive end, Harris has a “whiff” call, meaning he interferes with the ‘end and then leaks into the flat for an easy completion.

A third look the Bombers showed out of the Gun Split formation is a RPO (run-pass option) on the strong-side linebacker. On this play, the Bombers are running inside zone with one tail-back (Harris), while the other (Flanders) runs a swing route to the field-side. This play, however, did not seem to be executed properly the lone time Winnipeg ran it, as I question if Flanders was supposed to leave one or two counts before the snap to make it a pre-snap RPO on the strong-side linebacker. (If SAM chases the RB’s motion, give the inside zone; if he stays in the box, throw the swing – we have them outnumbered). Seeing as #6 Antoine Pruneau is aligned so far to the left, Nichols throws the swing pass regardless as the Bombers should, in theory, be able to out-flank the SAM ‘backer.

Of course, the Bombers can’t only just call run plays and play-actions/RPOs off the same looks every time Flanders checked into the game for 20 personnel. To keep the personnel package as multiple and unpredictable as passing, Flanders and Harris were heavily involved in the drop-back passing game. Flanders could be found aligning at tight tend, field wide receiver or motioning into the slot with Harris on any given passing play.

Lapolice could also be found motioning both running backs out of Gun Split in the backfield and into the slot, creating easy pre-snap coverage reads for Nichols while spacing out linebackers for easy completions over the middle.

In total, Lapolice has used 20 personnel, a package that was not even apart of the team’s gameplan for the first six weeks of the season, on exactly 20% (25/125) of offensive snaps over the past two weeks. Often reserved for 1st-&-10 scenarios, Lapolice has found a way to enhance his rushing attack while prolonging the effectiveness of 30-year-old Andrew Harris with the inclusion of 20 personnel.

Whether this package continues to be apart of the Lapolice’s weekly gameplan when Weston Dressler returns from injury remains to be seen. While the numbers clearly show an improvement to the team’s run game, using two running backs in the formation on drop-back passing plays has somewhat hindered their effectiveness – neither Harris or Flanders are much of route-runners.

Regardless, it’s a welcomed new wrinkle in the Bombers’ attack that has helped carry the offence while one of its top receivers nurses an injury on the six-game injured list. And, if nothing else, it has once again proven how a creative mind like that of coach Paul Lapolice can scheme a system to the strengths of his players.

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.