Bombers’ Secondary Quietly Impresses in Debut of Randle, Adams

Despite receiving great, turnover-forcing football from a young, patch-work secondary throughout their seven-game winning streak, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven’t played a single game in 2016 where both cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Chris Randle are active.

Finally, in their 46-29 win over Dan LeFevour’s Toronto Argonauts, Mike O’Shea’s defensive coaching staff finally witnessed their defensive backfield with both of their star corners in the lineup. Despite the Argonauts scoring four touchdowns in the air and 26 first half points, the early returns of this now-healthy secondary were promising.

The Bombers held another quarterback to under 300 yards passing – LeFevour completed 22 of 34 passes for 276 yards – and recorded another two interceptions, courtesy of Randle and Maurice Leggett. While 445 total yards of offense is too much, it’d be wrong to point the blame at the secondary for those gaudy statistical numbers. A specific group of six starters – Randle, Adams, Kevin Fogg, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler and Bruce Johnson – that the Bombers have been anticipating to see when everyone healed up, this unit, who some were quick to argue struggled in their first game together, played better than it would seem at first-watch or after looking at the final stats.

While it’s fair to say that Randle and Adams didn’t quite live up to all the hype in their first game on the field together, they both showed flashes of why they’re each regarded as elite cornerbacks in the league. Bombers’ fans have debated plentifully which of the two would be moved to field corner upon their return to health, and seeing as they’re each too good to be wasted out wide, the Bombers’ solution was quite intriguing. Rather than having one always align in the short-side and one always align to the wide-side, Randle played 100% of his snaps at left cornerback, and Adams played 100% of his snaps at right cornerback.

This strategy is not seen in today’s Canadian Football League. The standard procedure for teams is to put their best cornerback in the boundary and their worst cover-man at wide-side corner, where he’ll be targeted far less as the throws are tougher to make. The Bombers, however, have two stud cornerbacks, so why not have them each play both positions pending on what side of the field the ball is scrimmaged from?

Coincidentally, both Randle and Adams each played 28 snaps at field-corner and 28 snaps at boundary-corner. Meanwhile, nothing changed for the halfbacks – Fogg (boundary) and Johnson (field) each played all 56 snaps at their regular positions.

Working with a different halfback depending on if they were playing short-side corner or wide-side corner would seem to have been a challenge for Randle and Adams, but there weren’t any visible communication errors. Although it’s unknown if the Bombers will continue to deploy their stud cornerbacks in this fashion going forward, it was a much better first game for this now-healthy unit than some might think.

As expected for this much-anticipated group, the Bombers received solid play across the board from their defensive backs. The outlier, to some degree, was Randle, who the Argos visibly attempted to pick on during his snaps at short-side cornerback, but it wasn’t all bad for the fifth-year veteran. While it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride with Randle, it’s fair to say clear that all six Bomber defensive backs contributed significantly to keeping another passing offense below 300 yard.

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Often isolated in the boundary in man-coverage, Randle had plenty of tough assignments over the course of the game. While he did grade out as the Bombers’ worst defensive back, he wasn’t worse by very much despite allowing more passing yards than the five others combined. Randle was left out to dry on numerous occasions as a result of a bad mixture of missed sacks and poor gap discipline that often allowed LeFevour to escape the pocket and extend plays.

That was the case on Randle’s first touchdown allowed, a 49-yard completion to Kenny Shaw. Randle was isolated to the field-side against Shaw, who, along with having all of the wide-side of the field to work with, also had the advantage of a pre-snap waggle. Randle was forced to cover for an unmanageable amount of time on the play – Jamaal Westerman missed the tackle for a sack on LeFevour, who escaped to the outside – and had no chance. Although Shaw had separation on his original move due to Randle panicking and not staying square in his back-pedal, the damage was caused by a missed tackle on the quarterback.

Randle was also beat for an 11-yard touchdown on a dig-route from Tori Gurley. The Bombers were in press-man in the red-zone, and the 6-foot-4, 230-pound wide-receiver used his big-bodied frame perfectly to box-out Randle and prevent him from making a play on the ball. Randle prevented Gurley from getting separation, but the sophomore receiver simply had the size advantage in the match-up.

While Randle’s not-that-bad-at-all grade (-1.5) might not seem nearly harsh enough considering he allowed 96 yards, he still recorded an interception, two break-ups and a run-stop. In reality, only 50% of his targets were completions, and he was also tasked with fulfilling a lot of tough assignments that Johnny Adams wasn’t simply because of the Argos’ play-calling. We’ve seen much, much better from Randle, who was looking like the league’s best cornerback before injuring himself in the July 21 loss to Calgary, but his return to the lineup wasn’t as horrendous as some of the numbers say.

Adams’ fourth game back from injury was far more quiet, meanwhile. The 2015 All-Star didn’t allow a completion of more than nine yards, and that play should have been a pick-six had he not badly misplayed the ball in the air. After playing 14 of the first 15 snaps at boundary cornerback – which was completely coincidental – Adams spent much of the remaining game at field corner.

It won’t be easy finding a position for newly-acquired defensive back TJ Heath if the Bombers keep playing like this. Bruce Johnson was sound at field halfback, and while he’s been quite inconsistent this season, he played one of his best games of the season on Saturday.

The Bombers’ secondary as a whole played a solid game on Saturday, and it would have seemed much more respectable had the front-seven done a better job keeping LeFevour in the pocket and stopping the Argos’ rushing-attack on the ground.

Randle will bounce back, and although we don’t know if he’ll continue to take all of his snaps at left cornerback while Adams takes all the snaps at right cornerback, it’s all but guaranteed that this now-healthy secondary should continue to build on their quietly solid first game together.

With the soaring Calgary Stampeders next on the schedule, the Blue & Gold secondary needs to live up to the hype against a dynamic aerial attack.

PHOTO CREDIT TO JOHN WOODS OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
PHOTO CREDIT TO JOHN WOODS OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Bombers Discover Team Identity Amidst Winning Streak

Whether or not the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ six-game winning streak is necessarily indicative of the team’s contending chances or not, these weeks of winning have allowed Mike O’Shea’s team to discover itself as the wins piled up.

All winning teams have an identity. It might root from a coaching philosophy or a collective attitude, but the players and coaches buy in and have confidence in the process. There’s a direct correlation between the last time the Bombers had an evident team identity and the last time this city saw a winning football team before 2016 – the Swaggerville era of 2011.

The Bombers have sorely lacked any sort of an identity in O’Shea’s first two seasons, with inconsistencies on both side of the ball and plenty of player turnover. A different unit would be at fault in every loss, and the recipe for success was just not clear with that group of players and coaches. Whether Kyle Walters assembled the right group of players, or simply the veteran players and coaches gelled in year three, the Bombers know exactly who they are. And, unsurprisingly, this internal-discovery began when Matt Nichols took over the starting quarterback duties from Drew Willy.

With O’Shea holding onto his job by a thread with a 1-4 record in week six, Nichols helped the Bombers put 30 points on the board for the first time in over a calendar year as the Bombers handily took down the defending Grey Cup Champions in Commonwealth Stadium. And then something happened during the bye week. Or maybe it was sparked by the dominant win over the Tiger-Cats in the next game. Perhaps it clicked when defensive coordinator Richie Hall was forced to make considerable changes to his system following the Calgary game to accommodate for his injury-plagued, inexperienced secondary that really began to click despite rookies everywhere rather immediately.

Regardless, the Bombers found their identity somewhere during that time; an old-school football mentality with a turnover-hungry defense and run-first, ground-and-pound offense. Nichols is merely managing ball games – he’s thrown just one interception to seven touchdowns – as the defense and special-teams units consistently put the offense in healthy positions. Despite terrible red-zone production, the Bombers are still fifth in total points scored.

Field position has been generous for Nichols and the offense, as in his first full year as the Blue & Gold’s special-teams coordinator, O’Shea’s punt return team boasts the third-best return average in the league. Kevin Fogg, who’s had three touchdowns called back, has been electric as a punt returner, while free agent addition Justin Medlock has earned all of his hefty salary having booted a franchise-record of 22 consecutive field goals through the uprights. Equally as effective, meanwhile, has been O’Shea’s cover units. Their lone blemish was a late punt-return touchdown from Kendial Lawrence in the Labour Day Classic on a play where Medlock seemed to out-kick his coverage.

Running back Andrew Harris is currently the league’s second leading rusher with 677 yards, and has 17 more carries on the season than the next leading ‘back. The Bombers’ offensive line has dominated in both run-blocking and pass-blocking ever since Nichols became the starter, having allowed just 8 sacks in his 6 games. The difference could very well be rookie starter Travis Bond, who’s been the first player to solidify the left guard position since Chris Greaves was traded early last season. Bond was promoted onto the active roster after Canadian book-end Pat Neufeld was placed on the 6-game injured list following the Bombers’ home loss to Calgary in Willy’s final start. That pushed Jermarcus Hardrick out to right tackle, providing Nichols with three American blockers up front and the best starting offensive line possible given the Bombers’ personnel from training camp.

In a year of prolific passing offenses, the Bombers boast the league’s third-best record despite a middling offense thanks to the aerial attack. It’s been the defense, which has merely allowed just two more points than Calgary’s no. 1 ranked unit, that has shouldered the weight – an anomaly in 2016. Richie Hall’s defensive backfield has seriously clicked this season, having recorded 9 more interceptions than the next best team despite a slew of injuries. With rookie starters at boundary halfback (Kevin Fogg), both cornerback positions (CJ Roberts and Terrance Frederick) and safety (Canadian Taylor Loffler), the Bombers clearly boast an exceptional amount of young depth – and it’s contributing now.

A sore-spot in past seasons, the defensive line is finally taking pressure off the secondary, as Kyle Walters went out in free agency and acquired help for premiere pass-rusher Jamaal Westerman. Former Argo Euclid Cummings has been fantastic at the 3-tech position, while after each starting their respective seasons terribly, both defensive ends Shayon Green and Justin Cole have come around. This collapsing defensive line has played a huge role in the Bombers forcing a league-leading 39 turnovers – at least 10 more than the next best team. And while recording around six turnovers per game won’t be sustainable against the league’s elite teams, the Bombers defense has shown capabilities of dominating opponents without the turnovers. For reference, Hall’s unit forced just one defensive turnover – a strip by Kevin Fogg on rookie receiver Caleb Holley – while limiting Darian Durant’s offense to 288 net yards and 10 points in the Banjo Bowl. This swarming defense has excelled with and without its top corners, Johnny Adams and Chris Randle. Envisioning this defense together at full-health is scary for opponent offenses.

After taking care of lesser competition, the Bombers face a big test after one more should-be win against the Argonauts sans Ricky Ray. They’ll then face West Division opponents for four consecutive games with matches versus Calgary, Edmonton, and a home-and-home with the Lions.

It’ll be on this stretch where the Bomber faithful finds out if this team is true contenders with the current state of their odd winning ways in comparison to the league’s other dominant teams.

There may not be smoke-n-mirrors surrounding this team – the Bombers are beating the teams they’re supposed to beat – but whether or not they can hold their own against the best teams in the West remains to be seen.

Photo credit to CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)
Photo credit to CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)

Stock Market Report: Bombers vs. Argonauts

It’s official: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are streaking, and it shouldn’t end soon.

Having somewhat survived the gruesome opening third of the season, their schedule gets much easier for awhile. In their next three games, the Blue & Gold will play in Montreal and the home-and-home with Saskatchewan. That’s three games that the Bombers are expected to win.

Yes, that makes it six consecutive games the Winnipeg Football Club is expected to win.

The club’s 34-17 win in Toronto, which featured five interceptions from the defense, a 100-yard rushing game and zero sacks-surrendered, has certainly got the ball rolling for the next part of their schedule. This game was another huge confidence booster and, for once, I don’t have this feeling deep down that the team will let the fans down in the next three contests, losing two or more.

BLUE CHIP STOCKS

1. Jamaal Westerman, DE: The Bombers’ Most Outstanding Player nominee in 2015 didn’t even crack the stat-sheet, but he was the best player on the field on Friday. Westerman recorded two quarterback pressures – one of which featured a QB hit – and was consistently grading positively on his pass-rushes on Argos’ LT Chris Van Zeyl. He showed above-average awareness compared to fellow defensive ends when dropping into coverage, and as long as the 31-year-old continues his outstanding work against the run, he’ll continue to earn blue-chip stocks (and be labeled as the best, all-around defensive end in the league).

2. Travis Bond, LG: This was only the rookie’s third ever start, and while he has graded positively in all three starts, the 6-foot-7, 256-pounder is still ironing out the wrinkles in his game. When he makes a good play, it’s always an outstanding play. But, despite these promising blocks, he’s still making plenty of minor errors or leaving some plays on the field. Evidently, Bond has sky-high potential, and since he’s already showing well, it’s hard to imagine just how good he’ll be once he has more experience under his belt. Bond was the Bombers’ best pass-blocker all night, and while he started to catch blocks in the run-game as the contest wore on, his raw strength was enough to open up lanes for running back Andrew Harris.

3. Ian Wild, LB: The fourth-year Bomber has had some good/great games as well as some poor games in 2016. The Argos’ game was undisputedly his best performance all season. Wild played a near flawless game, showing his tremendous range and quickness against the pass, while the Richie Hall’s signature 4-3, 50-front finally worked, opening up lanes for Wild, his MIKE linebacker. Back in week one, the Alouettes attacked Wild in the air, flooding his zone to take advantage of the single high inside linebacker look. But since that game, and as the season has progressed, he’s been absolutely outstanding against the pass. He covered acres of the field, and his nearly decapitating hit on receiver Kenny Shaw during Kevin Fogg’s interception is one of several examples from this game. Wild dropped high and to the right to fulfill a deep, middle-hook zone – almost as an inside robber keeping his eyes on the quarterback while trusting his peripherals (something that Taylor Loffler needs to work at). He then immediately flips to the left faster than most linebackers as Kilgore winds up to throw, and somehow makes it to the receiver to deliver the knockout blow, covering a ton of ground in the process. There aren’t many linebackers in the league that are expected to make that play, with Wild and Adam Bighill being the exceptions.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

1. Andrew Harris, RB: Although Harris had a spectacular second half on route to a 123-yard rushing game, his rough start, which included a handful of runs with straight tunnel-vision (he made a lot of lackluster reads and missed cut-back lanes), brought down his grade just enough. It wasn’t perfect, but from there on Harris consistently scraped for every yard despite merely OK run-blocking. He put on a clinic on breaking tackles and keeping feet moving while running through contact, as none of his runs came easy. Harris, at times, needed to create for himself or make up for missed assignments from the offensive line. The Winnipeg native is now first in the CFL in rushing with 503 yards.

2. Euclid Cummings, DT: While nose tackle Keith Shologan’s success was primarily against two young, inexperienced linemen in RG Corey Watman and rookie C Sean McEwen, Cummings managed to dominate All-Star LG Tyler Holmes. The former Argo continues to be a gem as a pass-rusher, notching two pressures on Logan Kilgore. Playing second fiddle to Westerman, the 6-foot-3, 298-lb three-tech was a threat on the edge when Bombers used stunts between the defensive end and defensive tackle, which few of his size can. Cummings also breached the blocking for two tackle-for-losses in one his best, all-around games of the year.

3. Maurice Leggett, SAM: Likely the face of the defense to Bombers’ fans, Leggett was on cue for his weekly programming of entertainment. The third-year defensive back snagged a pair of interceptions – one of them being returned 98-yards for a touchdown  – and was effective against the run. Although his first interception earned a neutral grade, his second, which only came about a minute later, was much more of an impressive play. As Leggett dropped deep and to the sidelines as a deep-zone defender in cover-3, he picked up receiver Wallace Miles’ corner route. He then climbed the ladder to make a beautiful catch over Miles while keeping his feet in bounds. It was his nicest interception of the season – he leads the CFL with four – in a game where he didn’t surrender a single catch allowed.

(Just missed: Keith Shologan, Stanley Bryant)

JUNK BONDS

1. Manase Foketi, RT: Based on his preseason, Foketi’s regular season debut went as expected: it wasn’t good. Although his run-blocking was the biggest issue, he struggled blocking across his face, being fooled badly by the out-n-in moves of Shawn Lemon – a premiere pass-rusher – from over-committing. In terms of run-blocking, which is typically an extremely easy job for offensive tackles in the CFL, Foketi struggled with both down-blocking and going up to the second-level. Considering how good Jermarcus Hardrick was playing at right tackle, I’d be counting down the days until his return.

2. Chris Normand, FB: In typical rookie fashion, the 1st-year starter – but sophomore Canadian – followed up a great two-game stretch with a poor one. Normand wasn’t quite as involved in the offense like usual, but he hurt the team more than he helped when on the field.

3. Matt Nichols, QB: Sure, Nichols’ grade would have been better if he needed to do more, but the ground-attack was looking unstoppable, and the defense kept forcing turnovers. In the 28 drop-backs he took, he happened to make a lot of mistakes and miss some throws. Nichols’ first interception came on a throw to rookie receiver Kris Adams, who rounded behind the DB in zone coverage to run his in-route, which was a risky throw based on the following: both FS Thomas Gordon and LB Cory Greenwood saw Nichols staring at Adams, while the halfback seemingly noticed the receiver cutting behind him. It would’ve been a great play if Nichols completed the pass in the small window, but instead he sailed the ball high and to the right. Nichols should have also thrown a second interception, except Greenwood chose to tip the ball up rather than making the easy interception. The veteran signal-caller was looking for Jace Davis on a dig-route across the middle, but Greenwood was sitting right in the passing lane – a rookie mistake for Nichols. He also badly under-threw Adams wide open down the sidelines on a go-route in the third quarter, and other than that, he simply missed some open receivers in the direction he was looking and attempted passes to others that were well covered.

(Just missed: CB CJ Roberts, RG Sukh Chungh)

BUY/SELL

BUY: Kevin Fogg is legit. Two interceptions, a sack, a fumble recovery and an outrageously good return average; Kevin Fogg played the best game any rookie has played this season (at least in the box score). With Chris Randle, Johnny Adams and Julian Posey soon returning from injury, Fogg will not be the one losing his spot. I’d expect these six starters in the secondary: Adams (B-CB), Fogg (B-HB), Loffler (FS), Leggett (SAM/SS), Johnson (F-HB), Randle (F-CB). Both CJ Roberts and and Terrance Frederick will be kept around – possibly on the 1-game injured list.

SELL: Clarence Denmark has returned better than ever: Look, I’m cheering for Denmark as much as anyone, but all three of his touchdowns have been the result blown coverages. His touchdown in Hamilton was on a fake screen pass, and his 79-yard major in Toronto was off play-action that made the Argos’ entire defensive backfield bite. His other touchdown in Toronto was also blown coverage on his corner-route – HB Devin Smith, who had a deep-third in cover-3, ran with Thomas Mayo’s post-route by mistake. He also had a 35-yard catch in the third quarter that was also as a result of deadly play-action pass.


NEXT GAME: Friday, August 26 in Montreal.

rory
ALL CREDIT TO THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.