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.

 

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.

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.

Bombers Defensive Backs Struggle to Defend Run Against Alouettes

If it weren’t for a miraculous comeback from Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, who scored 13 points in the final 75 seconds to lead the blue and gold to a 41-40 win over the Montreal Alouettes, the talk in town would be centered around the Alouettes pummeling the Bombers on the ground to the tune of 183 rushing yards.

The Bombers entered the game with one of the best run defenses in the CFL, but Montreal could do no wrong while handing the ball off to three different running backs. With under four minutes to play, and the Birds of Prey nursing a 5-point lead, everyone in the stadium knew Montreal was running the ball, and yet they drove 90 yards on six run plays for the seemingly game-sealing touchdown, a 31-yard scamper for Stefan Logan.

This wasn’t a fluke, though. Jacques Chapdelaine and Anthony Calvillo assembled a well-calculated game-plan to maintain the balance that their offense has established throughout the first five weeks of the season.

And how were the Alouettes able to exploit the no. 1 defense in yards-per-carry against, you may ask? By bringing in heavy personnel, inviting Winnipeg defenders into the box, and running towards the worst tacklers on any football team: the defensive backs.

Unlike the BC Lions, who deploy the same vanilla 3×2 formation without motion on most downs, the Alouettes utilized a ton of receiver motion, six offensive linemen sets, and 11 personnel (four receivers, one running back, one H-Back), which kept rookie SAM linebacker Brandon Alexander, who was starting in place of the injured Maurice Leggett, and often times the defensive halfbacks, in the box.

The above chart – which excludes plays from the goal-line – emphasizes just how heavy the Alouettes went to run the ball. For reference, though I don’t have the numbers tracked, the Bombers run with out of 10 personnel (5 receivers, 1 running back) with five blockers on probably 90% of their run plays. With game film on Brandon Alexander’s first career start at strong-side linebacker last week, it’s possible the Alouettes planned to exploit the Central Florida product by keeping him in the box as a true SAM.

On the above play, the Alouettes have a sixth offensive lineman in the game as Philippe Gagnon comes in as a tight end on the right side of the formation. Fullback JC Bealieu is also in the game as an H-Back, drawing Alexander to the short-side of the field. The mesh-point of QB Darian Durant and Brandon Rutley suggests an inside split zone play-call, with slot-back Eugene Lewis (#87) entering the box as the 8th blocker to come across the formation and make the wham-block on the backside DE. Although I don’t like LB Kyle Knox getting sealed inside by Gagnon, Alexander is late coming up-field in an obvious run-situation and misses the open-field tackle on Rutley.

Three plays earlier, out of 10 personnel this time, the Alouettes picked up 22 yards on a toss play to Alexander’s side after a holding call negated the rest of the run. The 23-year-old was late to read Z-WR George Johnson (#84) motioning down the line of scrimmage to crack DE Jackson Jeffcoat (#94) and was late to the supposed point of attack.

As a result of the Alouettes inviting defensive backs closer to the box with their receiver motions, six offensive linemen formations and personnel groupings with Beaulieu, Alexander wasn’t the only Bomber DB to struggle against the run.

TJ Heath gave up a huge 17-yard run on the Alouettes’ final drive of the game. With Gagnon back in the game as a tight end on the short-side of the field, Heath responsible for the big man in coverage – otherwise, he’s playing contain against the run. Beaulieu is aligned as an H-Back on the left side of the formation, so Alexander remained aligned to the wide-side. With three-tech Jake Thomas slanting inside to the A-Gap, Knox was responsible for the play-side B-Gap. Defensive coordinator Richie Hall often likes to align his linebackers out of gap to have them loop around and give the offensive line no chance to work their double-teams up to the second level. It worked to perfection here, too, as Knox entered the B-Gap in a one-on-one situation against Logan. The left guard had no chance to cut him off, and the right tackle is not aware of Knox looping around. But with Heath out of position – look at his head pop into the right side of the screen on the GIF below – Logan can explode out of the hole and around the corner.

Earlier in the game, Randle found himself making a similar mistake in a very similar situation, resulting in an 18-yard rush for Montreal. Randle was responsible for the sixth offensive lineman on the left side of the formation. Although DE Trent Corney (#44) was sealed far too easily by the LT alone, and although he may have been held, Alexander was slow to react, Randle took a bad initial angle and the run was bounced outside.

With defensive backs creeped up that close to the box, Montreal shouldn’t have been able to cut so many inside zone and inside split zone runs outside. While it seemed as though Montreal called a plethora of outside runs and could not be stopped – which isn’t false – the reality is that as a result of poor containment from defensive ends as well as defensive backs to playing the run as aggressively as needed, Rutley, Logan and even Bealieu were able to cut inside zone runs off-tackle on numerous occasions.

Fortunately, these are all correctable mental errors from a secondary that was missing Maurice Leggett, an excellent run defender at the strong-side linebacker position. At this point, Bomber fans should not worry about the run defense. With the exception of Sam Hurl being completely fooled by the ghost jet sweep motion on JC Beaulieu’s 41-yard romp, and Cory Johnson losing his gap on Logan’s 31-yard TD, the front-seven wasn’t too bad against the run.

The Bombers will turn on the film and correct some very basic mental errors made in the heat that hurt them in a big way against Montreal. With a trip to Ottawa next week, the Bombers’ run defense has a chance to get back on track against an inconsistent rushing attack.

2017 CFL West Division Preview: Bombers, Esks Close Gap to Stamps

No CFL team has won back-to-back Grey Cups since the Montreal Alouettes in 2009-2010.

But when was the last time someone correctly predicted the CFL standings correctly from top to bottom for two consecutive seasons? In the 2017 CFL season, I’m going for the repeat after nailing my predictions last season. While the East Division seems fairly predictable, the West is completely up in the air. And that’s where we start.

1. Calgary Stampeders
2016 record: 15-2-1
2017 projected record: 13-5

Despite once again losing several key players in the off-season, with reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell at the helm, the Stampeders are destined to once again overcome their losses. The Stamps have the best group of Canadian content in the league, and with players such as international receivers DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and Marquay McDaniel, the Grey Cup runner ups have no shortage of offensive weapons.

The most concerning area on Calgary’s roster is the depth behind Mitchell at QB. Rooting interest aside, it’s hard to imagine the Stamps’ offense not falling off with Andrew Buckley or Ricky Stanzi at quarterback, as it often did with veteran Drew Tate at the controls. The Stamps have avoided long-term injury to Mitchell in his three years as their starter, but that can – and hopefully does not – change in one play. With All-Star LT Derek Dennis now in Saskatchewan, Calgary’s potentially All-Canadian offensive line needs to keep Mitchell off the turf as much as possible.

Versatile swing-man Spencer Wilson will likely fill Dennis’ void at left tackle, pushing fourth-year veteran Brad Erdos into the starting lineup at right guard. Even after losing 2015 first-round pick Karl Lavoie to off-season retirement, Calgary still boasts solid offensive line depth. Look for Cam Thorn to start the season as the sixth-man, while Canadians Wilson, Erdos, Shane Bergman, Pierre Lavertu and Dan Federkeil make up the starting five. That’s a good group of Canadians.

Defensively, Calgary’s entire secondary is returning. After having all off-season drug charges dropped, sophomore Tommie Campbell will resume his post at boundary corner and maintain one of the league’s top CB duo with Ciante Evans, who had a breakout 2016 season. Veterans Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, meanwhile, are still two of the league’s top halfbacks, while FS Josh Bell and SAM LB Joe Burnett are among the league’s best at their respective positions. Supplying the pass-rush for this secondary, look for DE Ja’Gared Davis to have a monster sophomore year with Cordarro Law done for the season with a broken ankle.

Bottom Line: Calgary has the elite quarterback, Canadian content and defense to get back to the Grey Cup, but they’ll be in trouble if Mitchell goes down. The West Division continues to get better, which would drop the Stamps’ win total down from 15 to 13, but they’re still the top-dogs of the CFL.

2. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2016 record: 10-8
2017 projected record: 12-6

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Matt Nichols started his first and only playoff game in 2016, going 26/40 for 390 yards, two TDs and 0 interceptions. Clearly, the Bombers have something good in the 30-year-old quarterback. If Nichols proves to be the field-general he looked to be in the 2016 West Semi-Final, it’s going to be a great year for the Bombers.

The Bombers enter the season will tremendous continuity on their roster. Offensively, receiver Ryan Lankord, who beat out veteran Kenny Stafford in training camp, is the lone new face in the starting lineup. DE Tristan Okpalaugo, DT Drake Nevis and CB Brian Alexander, meanwhile, are the lone newcomers in the defensive lineup. Alexander, a 23-year-old CB out of a great college program in UCF, is the only rookie starter on the entire roster when everyone is healthy.

Nichols has all the pieces in place to shatter what is left of the game-manager label on his forehead. Darvin Adams is ready to explode if he stays healthy – the Auburn product had 690 yards and 6 touchdowns in only 8 games last season – while RB Andrew Harris looks to be extending the prime of his career into his 30s. Offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice should still be expected to operate a run-heavy offense despite an aerial attack that oozes with potential. Along with All-Star rookie Travis Bond at left guard, the Bombers have two of the best young and physical interior Canadian offensive linemen in Mathias Goossen and Sukh Chungh to run behind. Andrew Harris will be a happy ball-carrier in his 8th season.

Defensively, while Winnipeg’s second preseason had fans stressing over their pass defense, there’s reason for Bomber fans to have faith in the secondary. With an improved pass-rush thanks to the additions of Drake Nevis and Tristan Okpalaugo, Winnipeg’s ever-talented secondary might not need to rely on the turnover to cover up egregious amounts of passing yards surrendered. Chris Randle, who I believe was the Bombers’ top defender in 2016, TJ Heath, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler, Bruce Johnson and Kevin Fogg – that’s a good group of veterans.

Bottom Line: The Bombers are an experienced team that underwent very little turnover. They have a decent schedule – the Bombers’ play BC and Saskatchewan three times each, so it could be a lot worse – and a quarterback who wants to prove the rest of the league wrong in his first full season as a starter, but some questions remain: can they stop the run with Canadians Jake Thomas and Sam Hurl getting a second lease on starter life in the CFL? Can Taylor Loffler avoid a sophomore slump after a nearly too-good-to-be-true rookie campaign? Can the defense succeed without forcing ridiculous turnover numbers?

3. Edmonton Eskimos
2016 record: 10-8
2017 projected record: 11-7

Edmonton’s slow start to the 2016 season was completely inevitable – they lost their entire coaching staff and half a dozen of their best players, such as HB Aaron Grymes, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil. In year two of the post-Chris Jones regime, however, the Edmonton Eskimos should continue the momentum they built near the end of the season and start 2017 on the right foot.

Edmonton has the best quarterback room in the CFL. Despite losing Derel Walker to the NFL, Mike Reilly should be in the MOP race all year, while James Franklin is clearly ready to lead a team on his own to success.

The Eskimos picked up a couple former Redblacks this off-season that could be difference-makers in the City of Champions. RT Colin Kelly, who spent the 2016 season in the NFL after starting all 18 games for Ottawa in 2015, solidifies Edmonton’s pass-protection, replacing D’Anthony Batiste in the starting lineup. Forrest Hightower, meanwhile, emerged as one of the CFL’s top halfbacks in 2016 and will form a terrific duo with his former teammate, Brandyn Thompson. And if boundary CB Johnny Adams can return to his old-self, Edmonton’s secondary will be something to reckon.

The Eskimos should have the West Divisions’ best pass-rush in 2017. After cutting national Eddie Steele and replacing him with Euclid Cummings, the Eskimos are going all-american along the defensive line. Cummings, who had 8 sacks in 2015 playing alongside Cleyon Laing in Toronto, should have a bounce-back season playing beside another elite nose tackle in Almondo Sewell.

Bottom Line: Jason Maas is no longer a rookie head coach. The Eskimos have already driven over the speed bumps associated with flipping an entire organisation upside-down over one off-season. Along with Adarius Bowman, Mike Reilly has some intriguing young play-makers in D’haquille Williams and Bryant Mitchell, not to mention newcomer Vidal Hazelton and sophomore pass-catcher Brandon Zylstra. It could take some time to gell, but Edmonton’s secondary is promising and their defensive line should be dominant. Having to play Calgary and BC three times each will slightly drop their record. Eskimos finish third in the West.

4. BC Lions
2016 record: 12-6
2017 projected record: 9-9

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (I do not own this photo)

Last year, my bold prediction in the West was the Lions flipping a disappointing one-year stint under Jeff Tedford into a top-2 finish in the West with Wally Buono back on the sidelines and Jonathon Jennings in his second season. This year, although Buono is still head coach and Jennings should only continue to build on each passing season, I see the Lions slightly regressing due to the losses suffered on defense and their lack of Canadian talent.

The Lions could have one of the worst defensive lines in the league. After losing Alex Bazzie to the NFL in the off-season, the Lions are without a dynamic edge-rusher. Canadian David Menard will likely be thrusted into the starting lineup as the Lions scrounge to find seven Canadian starters. Mic’hael Brooks is a dominant force at nose tackle, but Bryant Turner Jr.’s prime is long in the past, and Craig Roh likely has a ceiling of 7-10 annual sacks. As for the rest of front seven, the loss of Adam Bighill cannot be understanding. Free agent signing Tony Burnett, who’ll start the season as Bighill’s successor, brings similar athleticism to the Lions’ linebacker crops, but too often does he get lost as a run defender. Keep mind, Burnett played corner and safety in college for the USC Trojans.

The Lions’ offense is going to be prolific. Although I have my doubts with Hunter Steward moving back outside to play tackle with Jovon Olafioye now in Montreal, Jonathon Jennings is going to flourish with Emmanuel Arceneaux, Chris Williams and Bryan Burnhan running downfield. For ratio implications, the Lions will likely have start two Canadians at receiver many times in the season, but the aforementioned trio of weapons will overwhelm many defenses in 2017.

Bottom Line: Loucheiz Purifoy is one of the best young players in the league, while Soloman Elimimian is a two-time defensive player of the year and one-time Most Outstanding Player. BC has a solid secondary and an electric receiving corps, but their defensive line and Canadian content is quite concerning. Adam Bighill is irreplaceable, too. The Lions have talent on paper, but in a gut feeling, I think the Eskimos surpass the Eskimos in 2017.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders
2016 record: 5-13
2017 projected record: 6-12

Plain and simple, the Riders don’t have a quarterback. Kevin Glenn – bless his soul – can only get you so far. Brandon Bridge is promising, but he’s not there yet. The Riders, although they’ve made some tremendous improvements on their roster during this rebuild, still boast the fifth-best QB stable in a 5-team division.

Naaman Roosevelt, Duron Carter, Caleb Holley, Ricky Collins Jr., Bakari Grant and Chad Owens – the Riders have a tremendously talented receiving corps. It was a no-brainer to add the league’s top left tackle, Derek Dennis, in free agency. Willie Jefferson is one of the CFL’s best pass-rushers, while Eddie Steele, who the Riders scooped up after Edmonton cut ties with the veteran Canadian, is a serviceable three-technique. The Riders have talent at some key positions.

But where the Riders lack talent, they are serious question marks. I like Kacy Rodgers at cornerback, and Ed Gainey really broke out at boundary HB in 2016, but there are serious questions at the wide-side of the defensive backfield, including at the strong-side linebacker position. Zach Minter, meanwhile, doesn’t inspire at ton of confidence at nose tackle, and along with Peter Dyakowski at right guard and Mike Edem at free safety, can be considered below-average at his respective position. The Riders have yet to prove they have a legitimate edge-rush threat opposite Willie Jefferson, while Cam Marshall seems to a mediocre option at running back after his sample size from Winnipeg.

Bottom Line: The Riders have some nice pieces in place such as Roosevelt, Carter, Dennis, Jefferson, Muamba and Gainey, but there are too many question marks and a severe lack of depth across their roster. And they still don’t have an elite quarterback at the moment, which is required to knock off the Bo Levi Mitchell’s and Mike Reilly’s of the division. They’re on the rise, and should be competitive this season, but still lack that quarterback. 2017 will show us if Brandon Bridge is the guy.

Bombers Riskily Betting on Thomas Following Abrupt Release of Shologan

On the second day of free agency, the Montreal Alouettes inked Canadian defensive tackle Jabar Westerman to a three-year deal, spelling the end of any hopes of the Winnipeg Football Club landing the younger brother of Bombers’ pass-rushing specialist, Jamaal Westerman.

The Bombers recently released veteran Canadian nose tackle Keith Shologan before free agency, likely due his remarkably expensive salary of $175,000 annually. Having made this transaction without a set replacement in place, the Bombers seriously needed to land Westerman in free agency, as the former BC Lion was the only proven Canadian interior defensive lineman on the market that the Bombers had a chance to afford. Due to other teams raising Westerman’s value, the cap-pressed Bombers were out-bid early in negotiations, and on Wednesday morning, the 27-year-old was an Alouette.

The Bombers face quite the conundrum now that neither Shologan, who was also picked up by Montreal, or Westerman are options. They’re without a seventh Canadian starter, and while the club’s Canadian content is mostly quite strong, the roster is really only structured to start a seventh national at defensive tackle or as a third offensive lineman, where Patrick Neufeld, who proved in 2015 that he’s a serviceable option at right tackle or guard, would disassemble an excellent offensive line in 2016 thanks to three international starters.

Considering the risk the Bombers took in releasing Shologan at the time they did, as well as the fact that they backed out of negotiations with Westerman, it’s clear the club is confident in the abilities of Jake Thomas, a five-year veteran, to possibly step up as the team’s seventh Canadian starter. Although the Bombers will likely take an interior defensive lineman early in the draft – I believe they’ll use the first overall pick to select UCLA NT Eli Ankou – there’s an increasingly solid chance that Thomas will be thrusted into a starting role in 2017.

Walters and O’Shea are playing with fire here. While free agent signee Drake Nevis will start at Shologan’s now-vacated nose tackle position, the team’s quality of play from Canadian interior defensive linemen will likely steeply decline with Thomas at defensive tackle.

While quite over-paid at $175k, Shologan was fairly solid in 2016. As a run-stopper, Shologan was a consistently gap-sound player that flashed a lot of veteran-savvy in his attempt to maintain position in defending his gap. He could anchor against double-teams and, as a defensive lineman in a one-gap system, took advantage of his freedom, if you will, to shoots gaps. He did leave some plays in the backfield due to tackling issues, but it did not appear as though age affected his run-stopping capabilities.

Thomas, meanwhile, struggles in this area. He’d be much better suited as a second-down pass-rusher in a 4-man rotation, but seeing as the Bombers only dressed three interior defensive linemen per game in 2016, Thomas needed to be an every down player.

Thomas lacks a lot of fundamentals in playing the run. Most notably, he struggles with getting his head up and locating the ball-carrier, and lacks some of the fundamental strength to withstand both down-blocks and double-teams. (In a three-man rotation, Thomas also had to play a some nose tackle, which naturally draws more double teams). He’s slow off the line, and is not able to routinely get in a position to stack blockers, locate the ball-carrier, shed the block and make the play. The below GIF is one of many examples of Thomas giving up ground as a run-defender. While it’s LB Khalil Bass who did not fill his gap responsibility – he got stuck on the outside shoulder of the left tackle – the result of Thomas, who’s responsible for the A-gap here, giving up ground widens the B-gap far too much, creating a monster hole for Ottawa RB Mossis Madu to run through for the easy score.

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As a pass-rusher, Thomas has one move only: a funny looking, but extremely effective bull-rush. Walking the guard five steps into the backfield, Thomas is routinely able to create interior pressure on the quarterback. While it’s undeniably effective, the process of the making of this bull-rush if, well, unorthodox, to say the least.

Thomas seems to use his slow get-off to his advantage, creating a large distance between he and the guard, almost as a running start. He then closes quickly with short, quick steps. Thomas wins with excellent hand placement and uses tremendous leverage, keeping his feet moving through contact and the strength he does possess to power through. Because he gets out of stance, lowers his head and powers into the offensive lineman on rushes in passing-situations, Thomas doesn’t really see what’s happening in the backfield, which takes away clean-up sack opportunities. Having really only one pass-rush move is, of course, a huge disadvantage, but while the process is odd, Thomas’ bull-rush is, as mentioned, undeniably effective.

While a below-average pass-rushing nose tackle league-wide, Shologan is still better in this regard than Thomas, even if not by much. He can do a couple different things, but typically uses basic power moves to shed blocks in attempt to penetrate. Shologan pushes the pocket decently well, too.

His sack numbers, however, drastically dipped from seven in 2015 to merely two in 2016. This can likely be attributed to Shologan being moved along the line a lot more in Ottawa, whereas in Winnipeg, he only aligned as a three-tech approximately once every 9 snaps. Playing almost exclusively at nose tackle means Shologan rarely drew one-on-one match-ups, either being quickly chipped first or double-teamed altogether.

It’s clear the Bombers wanted less of a robot at nose tackle and more of a play-maker. O’Shea and defensive coordinator Richie Hall are probably willing to sacrifice some technique in the middle for an athlete with a larger pass-rushing repertoire, who’s able to pull off moves like Lions’ Mic’hael Brooks’ club move with some consistency.

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The Bombers got their guy in Nevis. Unfortunately, though, while they improved at nose tackle, the quality of Canadian interior defensive line play, which the Bombers have – and likely will continue to – rely on has steeply declined.

In losing Shologan and missing out on Westerman, the Bombers are now forced to choose between to rather unfavorable scenarios in deciding how they’ll meet the required amount of Canadian starters.

O’Shea and Walters have clearly placed a lot of eggs in Jake Thomas’ basket – I’d probably consider it a blind leap of faith – and will need surprising results to avoid criticism for a mid-February move of releasing Keith Shologan.