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.
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.