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.
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.
The Bombers’ 18-14 loss at the hands of the Ottawa Redblacks undoubtedly revealed some causes for concern, but it’s an entirely new environment in the regular season.
I believe the preseason matters. It matters a lot. Sure, the score isn’t important, but the level of play absolutely is, and the Bombers first-team really did play quite poorly. But there are several things that must be taken into consideration before coming to any conclusions and ultimately coming down hard on both sides of the football.
The game, win or lose, most certainly offered some clarity regarding some position battles as well as with some veteran players, which is, of course, significantly important in the preseason. With cuts first-cuts here, let the Stock Market Report investigate the great, good and awful of the Bombers’ first loss of 2016.
Chris Randle: It almost seemed as if Randle had fallen out of the coaching staff’s favor when Mike O’Shea announced that Maurice Leggett will enter the season at SAM linebacker, and Randle would compete at field corner. But in reality, the club understood that Randle is a completely different player when he can work his technique at corner, and it’s been rather evident that the right decision was made. The third-year Bomber was exceptional while playing boundary corner in place of the injured Johnny Adams against Ottawa, allowing zero completions on three first-quarter targets, including two pass breakups. His bump-n-run technique was fantastic, and he even showed his abilities to change directions in off-coverage, breaking on Chris Williams’ 5-yard slant route and registering a knockdown. On the lone completion he allowed – a 10-yard-out from Ernest Jackson in the second quarter – Randle was even in perfect coverage. He even jumped the route, simply missing the swat. With two straight stand-out performances at boundary corner against two elite receivers, Randle has locked down a starting spot in the secondary.
Ian Wild: The term “side-line to side-line” has become an overused, devalued description of linebackers. While possessing good range does not necessarily make a great linebacker, very few can truly go side-line to side-line like Adam Bighill and Winnipeg’s Ian Wild, who showcased this trait in Monday night’s tilt. He covered a lot of ground in pass coverage and effectively filled gaps, drawing a holding call early in the second quarter after exploding through the gap to meet Van in the backfield before being mauled down to the turf. With Sam Hurl having sat out both preseason games with an injury, Wild has likely secured the starting MIKE linebacker role. And let’s be honest, even if Hurl had been healthy and it was a fair competition, Wild was expected to emerge victorious.
Quincy McDuffie: The open job at returner has now undoubtedly been filled, as McDuffie put on a show against the Redblacks just five days after having a solid outing in the preseason opener against Montreal. He had a spectacular 56-yard kickoff return in the first half, breaking at least four tackles on the way, and registered a trio of receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown, which came from five yards out on a sit-route. McDuffie has easily been the Bombers’ most effective returner in the preseason, as Carlos Anderson didn’t generate anything against Ottawa, while Veltung didn’t play. He’s been effective on offense, too, and will no doubt be a member of the roster when week one arrives.
Gerrard Shephard: Shephard followed up a poor performance against Montreal with a 3 catch, 45-yard outing against Ottawa. Similarly to in the preseason opener, Shephard didn’t manage to get a lot of separation with his route-running, but he conversely managed to make plays on the ball. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound pass-catcher used his size advantage to haul in a difficult, back-shoulder catch for 45 yards in the third quarter despite having the defensive back all over him. He also used his large frame to shield away the defensive back from making a play on the ball while reeling in catch on a third-quarter curl-route, which was thrown late from Matt Nichols. With Wednesday’s outing, Shephard has put himself in the same conversation as Thomas Mayo, as they look to surpass Jace Davis in the competition for the final available spot in the Bombers’ receiving corps.
Tony Burnett: Burnett made a real statement with his play in the preseason. Although his spot as one of Winnipeg’s designated imports is secure, the Bombers could be inclined to move some pieces around on the defense to make room for Burnett in the starting lineup. Even with his six-tackle performance against Ottawa, having strictly played the weak-side and middle linebacker positions, it’s unlikely he enters the season as a starter, though. But as the season progresses, it is possible that Burnett sees time at SAM linebacker, as it would allow Maurice Leggett to move back to safety and Macho Harris to the free agent list.
Kevin Fogg: The promising 25-year-old, who’s impressed in practice but seemed to struggle against Montreal, was much more sound in coverage in his second career game. Fogg showed some flashes of potential, displaying a solid hip-turn to remain in Chris Williams’ pocket on a post-route at the 13:26 mark of the second quarter. I think Fogg will win the competition at boundary halfback, but there’ll be some growing pains in the first few weeks of the season. He has some learning to do – the Liberty product, who had flat responsibilities, looked lost after passing off the deep receiver to Randle at 2:41, leaving Jackson all alone underneath on a quick slant. But with intriguing athletic abilities, Fogg has potential and the Bombers will allow him to grow into the large role.
Tim Flanders: Albeit with a smaller workload, Flanders was once again effective and should have locked up the backup role to Andrew Harris. Carrying six times for 29 yards, it was satisfying to see the diminutive speedster hit the hole hard despite having smaller openings to work with. Flanders looked great pressing inside zone runs towards the C-gap, allowing his offensive lineman to work with the displacement of the defenders, before cutting back inside, as the play is designed. Flanders has been the best American running back in camp in pass-blocking and, to a lesser degree, on the ground. With Carlos Anderson having lost out to McDuffie for the returner duties, Flanders has the advantage.
Trent Corney: Working largely against SirVincent Rogers, Corney wasn’t quite as effective as a pass-rusher this week, but he managed to hold his own against the run. I thought the ninth-overall pick did a solid job keeping his helmet on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle while also maintaining a solid base to prohibit being pushed back, keeping Van from getting the edge. Corney’s stock is rising with every week that passes – he was the Bombers’ best pass-rusher last week aside from Jamaal Westerman, of course – as it was in run defense where import DE Shayon Green really struggled.
Frank Renaud: While he’ll likely head back to school to fulfill his eligibility, Renaud proved in the preseason that he’s better than an 8th-round draft pick. After showing well on special-teams in the Montreal game, Renaud made his impact on defense against Ottawa. The Windsor product really flies to the ball and finishes plays. Recording four tackles, Renaud instilled a lot of energy on the Bomber defense in the late, fourth-quarter push.
Drew Willy: I disregarded his performance against Montreal due to his receivers failing to get separation against a lot of one-on-one match-ups. I stand by that. But it’s hard to defend Willy’s play against Ottawa – he simply played like garbage. Willy locked onto the receivers – often those in the boundary – and after taking a couple shots, seemed to pre-determine his check-downs to Andrew Harris, while also lacking aggressiveness. He failed to see Darvin Adams on a “hot” down the seam late in first half, as well as Jace Davis on a 15-yard-in during the second drive of the game. The Bombers didn’t get their second first-down with Willy at the helm until the end of the second quarter, and much of that is due to Willy’s inability to throw with pressure around, something I mentioned in this piece on Marcel Bellefeuille’s offense. It’s nothing to panic about, but it’s certainly disappointing to see that, in his third season as a starter, Willy hasn’t developed whatever it takes to remain calm in the pocket when the protection is less than stellar.
Kevin Cone: I must commend Kevin Cone’s willingness to block – Lapolice brought him in as an extra pass-blocker a couple times against Montreal – but two terrible drops against Ottawa will ultimately be too much to overlook. It’s clear that the competition for the remaining spot in the receiving corps is a three-man race between Davis, Mayo and Shephard, with Davis in the lead.
Jace Daniels: This was a big game for Daniels. Travis Bond, who was excellent against Montreal, did not play due to an undisclosed injury – a great opportunity for Daniels to cement a roster spot. But, instead, he struggled picking up stunts, giving Moton Hopkins a clear shot at Willy on the Bombers’ second drive. With Daniels also struggling in the run game at left guard, I’m hoping that it’s Bond who enters the regular season as the starter. However, seeing as he’s received very few in-game reps with the first-team, that’s unlikely.
Macho Harris: It’s the second week in a row that Harris has landed in this category, and if the Bombers seriously enter week one with the former Rider at safety, which they will, the secondary is in trouble. Although the pass was dropped, Harris let Chris Williams free down the seam in the second quarter, and was late reacting to Williams coming underneath him on a post route on a 2nd and 20 play also in the second quarter, which was called back via penalty. He was also late breaking on Ellingson’s 15-yard-hook in the first, while his missed tackle on Travon Van led to what should’ve been a touchdown. At this point, anyone’s an upgrade over Harris, and I’d prefer to see Teague Sherman on the back-end, instead.
Julian Posey: The second-year halfback was continuously victimized during his time against Ottawa’s first-team offense. Greg Ellingson burnt him on a post-route for 31-yards, and on the next play, he didn’t get enough depth on his underneath zone duties, allowing Trevor Harris to complete a pass over his head to Williams on an out-pattern. He maintained great coverage on Jackson’s corner-route on Ottawa’s opening drive of the game, but that’s essentially where the positives end, as Winnipeg’s once-heated competition for the boundary halfback position has been anything but.
Nate Collins: Collins’ play against Ottawa could be enough to convince the Bombers to only carry a backup import 3-tech (Emmanuel Dieke) instead of a nose guard, with both Collins and Padric Scott struggling mightily. Collins was eaten up in the run game by Ottawa’s 1st team offensive line that was working without Nolan Macmillan. It’s as simple as that.
Shayon Green: The battle between Adrian Hubbard and Shayon Green has been underwhelming – and borderline sad – to say the very least. Green, who’s considerably more athletic, but less of a technician than Hubbard, really struggled in the run-game against Ottawa, while also looking just as one-dimensional as a pass-rusher as he did versus Montreal. Green struggled to set the edge, allowing the ultra-shifty Travon Van to get the edge on inside/outside zone plays, breaking the cardinal rule – and only responsibility – for defensive ends playing against zone run plays. As a result of the import talent at defensive end, Green will likely survive first cuts, but that’s as far as the University of Miami product will get.
BUY: Richie Hall’s poor defensive scheme. Richie Hall’s philosophy does not seem to have changed over the off-season, and it’ll hold back the secondary. Hall is a conservative play-caller with soft zone coverage, usually asking his halfbacks and corners to also give a cushion, too. Sure, his schemes were absolutely vanilla in the preseason, but it’s clear that the philosophy has remained the same, so don’t expect to see the Bombers bring much pressure, give many exotic looks or align aggressively.
SELL: It’s to panic about Drew Wily and the offense. It’s not. Drew Willy can still be a really good quarterback despite his achilles heal – remaining poised in the pocket while it collapses. It hurts, and it’s an obstacle that must be worked around, but it’s not the end of the world. Inserting Travis Bond or Jamarcus Hardrick at left guard will help, as will opening up the play-book in the regular season. Seriously, that’ll make a huge difference, as defenses are always ahead of offenses in the preseason, and Ottawa had much more preparation. The offense won’t be the best in the league, but it’ll be night and day from last season.
BUY: Jace Davis and Trent Corney are legit. While not registering a reception, Davis also wasn’t targeted, and I don’t believe that was due to him not being open. Davis is so smooth in and out of his breaks, and Willy failed to locate him on open on a 15-yard-in in the first quarter, and on a seam-route in the second quarter. Corney, meanwhile, has been the most effective defensive end in the competition for the spot opposite Westerman. His burst off the line is special, and his repertoire as a pass-rusher, while still developing, is much better than expected, as is his play as a run-defender.
SELL: The Bombers have found a starting caliber import DE. Both Adrian Hubbard and Shayon Green have been extremely underwhelming despite impressive resumes. Although Corney has been the best – seriously, this guy was a steal at ninth overall – I expect the Bombers to bring him along slowly, starting Hubbard this season. I’ve been far from impressed with Hubbard, however, and see that defensive position as a dark spot early on.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: WR Gerrard Shephard DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: CB Chris Randle
The Bombers are back at action for their home-opener on June 24th against the Montreal Alouettes.