Bombers in Risky Business Dropping Johnny Adams for Rookie Corner

With halfback TJ Heath coming over two weeks ago from the Toronto Argonauts in the blockbuster trade of quarterback Drew Willy, it was only a matter of time before the Winnipeg Football Club shipped out one of their many defensive backs.

The Bombers traded former All-Star cornerback Johnny Adams on Wednesday to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the negotiation rights to 6’4″ receiver Mekale McKay – a late casualty in Indianapolis Colts’ training camp this summer.

The trade comes one day after Adams was relegated to the second-team defense. Rookie cornerback Terrence Frederick, who’s been a healthy scratch over the last two weeks, was already set to make his fifth start of the season on Friday against the Edmonton Eskimos’ power-house offense before the trade was announced.

For a plethora of reasons – one of them being that Frederick had simply earned the opportunity – there was no issue to take in that.

For his rough outing against the Calgary Stampeders – but, more specifically, mostly for not diving on a loose ball after Calgary fumbled in Bombers’ territory – Adams had been a recent scapegoat amongst the Bomber faithful. While there’s no denying that Adams hasn’t always resembled his former self in his sophomore campaign, he certainly hasn’t been all bad this season since returning from an injury that kept him out for all of training camp and the first nine weeks of the season, and the decision to give up on the 27-year-old after a couple poor games seems to be a little rash.

It’s clear the Bombers have a lot of confidence in Frederick despite repeatedly choosing to go with fellow rookie CJ Roberts, who’s now on the 6-game injured list after suffering an injury in the Labour Day Classic, instead of Frederick in the past. Frederick has certainly shown promise in the four starts he’s made, and although I had no problem with the Bombers benching Adams for this week, if the Bombers were really intent on dropping their former All-Star corner after a couple of poor games, it’d have been perhaps more assuring if Kyle Walters waited one more week before pulling the trigger on any potential trade – Frederick needs to prove he can play in Richie Hall’s current defense.

Hall’s system truly has changed rather dramatically over the last month. Previously a fairly mainstream system that relied heavily on the standard cover-3 and cover-4 zone coverages that every CFL defense instills, the Bombers have become considerably more aggressive on defense, placing their trust in an ever-talented secondary. Since around the exact week Adams returned from injury, the Bombers have undoubtedly called more man-coverage out of cover-1 and cover-2 than any team in the league. Hall’s added an exotic element to his playbook, relying on his secondary to hold their own in one-on-one match-ups while the Bombers blitz more frequently from different places and drop defensive lineman into coverage to create confusion. This new-found faith in the secondary grew when Adams was inserted into the lineup – whether he’s been a disappointment to some or not, that was no coincidence.

Although Frederick was sound in his first three starts of his career, his role will be much different now despite being at the same position at field cornerback. Almost always dropping into a deep-third from his wide-side cornerback position in his starts against Toronto, Hamilton and Edmonton, Frederick will now be asked be to play a lot more man-coverage and, specifically, some press-man, too.

The Texas A&M product has played one game in this expanded defense – he started at field cornerback in the Banjo Bowl. In what was Adams’ best game of the season – he didn’t allow a single catch all game on one target and had a pass break-up – Frederick had a solid game overall but gave up some plays in coverage, surrendering three catches on three targets for 24 yards.

With Adams having played 3.5 games at boundary cornerback this season and Frederick having played his first 3 games under very different – and, frankly, easier – play-calling, its difficult to do any statistical comparison without the numbers (and even, but to a lesser grade, their grades) being skewed at least somewhat. Regardless, 215 passing yards allowed is a considerable amount in five games even for a short-side cornerback, and Adams needed to be more consistent week to week.

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It’s really still unknown if Frederick will be an upgrade over Adams at field-corner. Heck, it remains to be seen if the Bombers will even trust their secondary as much without having both Adams and Chris Randle together. Though it’s possible that the Bombers have been such a man-coverage-heavy defense because, frankly, it’s when their defensive backs are at their best – which would make them an anomaly in today’s CFL with the current illegal contact rules – it was still a testament to Hall’s trust in his star-studded secondary.

Frederick appears to play with the same confidence that made Adams so dynamic in his rookie year. He stays square and poised in his back-pedal at the stem of the receiver’s route, possesses quick feet and good closing speed. Best of all – and this is a well-refined skill of Adams’, too – is his open-field tacking abilities. Frederick really revealed all these strengths in his first career start against the Edmonton Eskimos, which was also his best game of the season. On his interception that came late in the fourth quarter, Frederick under-cut a late throw to Derel Walker’s rounded deep-out-route to the wide-side, displaying his all his traits and the needed confidence to make that play.

Frederick also did a perfect job staying square in his back-pedal on this incomplete pass to Adarius Bowman. The Eskimos tried to test the rookie corner by attacking him with one of the more common route concepts in the football for defeating single-high coverages like cover-1 and cover-3 – the Post-Deep Cross Hi-Lo. Chris Getzlaf runs the high crosser to pull FS Taylor Loffler out of the middle, while Bowman, who needs to maintain inside leverage on the corner, runs the deep post. Frederick doesn’t bite in the least bit on Bowman’s stem to the corner, and then has the athleticism to quickly open his hips and run step-for-step with an explosive play-maker.

Though he wasn’t credited for allowing a catch, Frederick wasn’t perfect in his debut. Mike Reilly missed a would-be touchdown pass to Adarius Bowman in the second quarter, as Frederick, who had a deep-third in cover-3, was caught staring at the no. 2 receiver’s 10-yard-out, not even acknowledging Bowman’s seam-route. With Loffler favoring the boundary since the Eskimos were in trips to the short-side, Frederick needed to realize that he didn’t have immediate deep-middle help.

That’s more of a rookie mistake that has likely already been corrected. It was, after all, his first career start. Furthermore, with how much man-coverage the Bombers have used recently, his duties will be even more simplified at field corner.

If Frederick can actually prove to be an upgrade over Adams in man-coverage remains the question. Adams hasn’t been consistent this season, but its not as if his terrific rookie season was an anomaly. Frederick could continue to prove to be a keeper, but it’s hard not to think that the trade may have been made a week or two earlier than ideal, and its equally valid to question if the trade was really necessary at all. Dealing away a proven commodity late in the season after a couple bad games can be a risky business, especially when his expected successor is a rookie. Perhaps it’d have been wise to see more of Frederick in action first. Plus, it’s not as if there was a can’t-ignore trade on the table for a player with an expiring contract. Having traded Adams for a player who may never sign a CFL contract, the Bombers essentially outright released him.

The Bombers had an excess of defensive backs, indeed. But is departing with a young player who’s one year removed from a fantastic rookie season – and who has, at times, replicated that success in 2016 – really necessary? The Bombers could need Adams down the stretch, and he could have a bounce-back game any week. While I have no problem – and have confidence – in Frederick starting in his spot this week, it’d be good to have Adams waiting on the 1-game injured list if Frederick does struggle.

The Bombers still have TJ Heath waiting in the wings, but as long as they can stash him on the 1-game, it certainly can’t hurt having a player like Adams waiting for a chance to redeem himself, even if his contract is set to expire.

There was no rush for the Bombers to part ways with their former All-Star cornerback, but it feels as if they may have moved him a week or two early – another games worth of film on Frederick would only provide more clarity and assurance for parting ways with Adams.

And that’s if Mike O’Shea and Co. still felt the need to trade him at all.

Johany Jutras / CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)
Johany Jutras / CFL.ca (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO)

Comprehensive Review of Stamps’ Aerial Assault of Blue Bombers’ Defense

Plenty was learned in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ gut-wrenching loss to the Calgary Stampeders in week 13, particularly in regards to the legitimacy of both West Division franchises as the CFL season enters its final stretch.

In a game that saw Calgary’s hurt kicker, Rene Parades, boot a game-winning, 52-yard field goal for a final score of 36-34, there were still a few questions left unanswered, particularly of this sort: what in the world was going on with the Blue Bombers’ defense in the first half, and why did Calgary’s receivers also seem to have a five-yard halo around them?

The Stamps’ offense bullied the league’s second-best ranked defense to the tune of 280 first half net yards and 27 points on the scoreboard. With Mitchell having all day in the pocket to throw to consistently wide-open receivers, those numbers don’t even seem to do the Stamps justice for their absolute domination early on.

Things changed after halftime. Of course, the Bombers’ offense and special-teams began to show life, and the Stamps’ offensive play-calling became more conservative given their initial lead, but there were also obvious defensive improvements in the second half, no doubt.

Defensive coordinator Richie Hall made obvious halftime adjustments, while his players cut down on simple mental errors and actually showed up to play. As a result, the Bombers came within 15 seconds of completing a 24-point comeback in the home stadium of the league’s bench-mark franchise.

The Bombers will want to burn the tape, but that first half performance was far too awful to simply dismiss. These two teams could very well meet for a fourth-time this season in the playoffs, and considering the Stamps have scored over 30 points in all three of their meetings against the Bombers this season, Hall needs to re-evaluate his game-planning for Bo Levi Mitchell and Co.

It was certainly fascinating to see the game-planning of both Calgary’s Dave Dickenson and Winnipeg’s Hall come to fruition, particularly in tracking the success/failure of some of the more obvious adjustments they made to their systems to prepare for one of the most anticipated games of the season.

The Stamps had a plan, and most noticeable was how they seemed to intentionally attack the Bombers’ trips adjustments. Dickenson certainly planned to test the Bombers’ communication and recognition-skills in the assignment switches that are heavily involved in running Richie Hall’s man-coverage-heavy defense – and it payed off.

It’s why the Stamps seemed to find a lot of room for their receivers in the middle of the field, particularly early on. With one linebacker often responsible for spying the running back while the other blitzes, there’s naturally always going to be a weakness in the middle of the Bombers’ defense when the Bombers are in a variation of a man-coverage. For whatever reason, when he’s calls man-coverage, Hall loves blitzing his MIKE linebacker and aligning him near the line-of-scrimmage, while coaching his WILL to cautiously blitz from depth if the running back stays in the backfield to protect. Already the Bomber defensive backs are lacking that inside help from linebackers when covering receivers one-on-one.

Early on, the Stamps tested rookie free safety Taylor Loffler’s awareness, knowing the Bombers would shift him over towards the boundary if the Stamps had three receivers to the short-side. Though they’ll sometimes bring the nickel linebacker over and play straight man-to-man with a cheating safety giving help over the top as well (which, consequently, leaves the wide-side in cover-0, unless an extra safety – TJ Heath – is subbed in for a defensive lineman or inside linebacker – then cover-2), the Bombers will typically pattern-match 3-on-3 against trips in the boundary when the original play-call is either cover-1 or even cover-2. In the most common pattern-matching variations the Bombers utilize, the cornerback is responsible for the outside-breaking route, the halfback switches onto any vertical route and the free safety, though dropping deep, must switch onto any inside-breaking route at the intermediate level. Loffler was late recognizing the inside-breaking receiver a few times, and the Stamps made him pay early. Loffler was late reacting twice on these plays, getting beat across his face for gains of 30 and 19 yards to veteran receiver Marquay McDaniel.

Perhaps the most noticeable downfall of the Bombers’ defense was a completely ineffective pass-rush on Mitchell. The Bombers did not record a sack on Mitchell and, frankly, they hardly pressured the fifth-year passer, if ever. Although Mitchell plays the quarterback position with great anticipation and a quick release – and his offensive line is absolutely second-to-none – the Bombers’ pass-rush was inexplicably poor in Saturday’s showdown.

While, sure, the Bombers’ defensive backs truly did play one of their worst games of the season, they received absolutely no help from the front-seven. Mitchell took full advantage of his never-ending time in the pocket, playing pitch-and-catch against man-coverage  – and, in the process, taking advantage of some rather outrageous routes called that no defensive back should have to cover. Maurice Leggett stood no chance using trail-technique in man-coverage on Marquay McDaniel’s 15-yard juke-route, while Chris Randle’s first catch allowed – which didn’t come until the fourth quarter – occurred on a 20-yard corner-turned-out-route to the wide-side of the field. The defensive backs weren’t to blame in either of those situations – Mitchell cannot be afforded the time to throw those ridiculous routes.

Randle, meanwhile, was one of the lone bright-spots on the Bombers’ defense, however much of his success was simply based on scheme. The Stamps didn’t test Randle in coverage, as the boundary wide receiver spot – which was mostly occupied by Anthony Parker, though it didn’t really change with who was playing the spot – primarily ran different clear-out routes to assure Mitchell good spacing as he attacked the Bombers’ halfbacks and switches in man-coverage. In other words, the Bombers played far more man-coverage than zone, and Randle’s match-up was rarely used as anything more than a clear-out, decoy or check-down route to help diagnose the coverage, such as a short speed-out to keep the corner low while Mitchell threw to dig-routes over top.

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The Bombers continued with the strategy they introduced last week against Toronto, playing Randle exclusively at left cornerback and Johnny Adams exclusively at right cornerback as the two star defenders’ roles sort themselves out. Coincidentally, Randle and Adams each played an equal 28 snaps at boundary cornerback and 28 snaps at field cornerback against the Argonauts. As expected, that balance was not replicated against Calgary, however. Randle played 69.6-percent of the defensive snaps at boundary cornerback, though by virtue of the Stamps’ offensive game-plan, was not under siege very often.

The Bombers challenged the Stamps with basic cover-1 and cover-2 man-to-man all game long, calling significantly less cover-3 and cover-4 than they typically do. Of course, the Bombers have a few different variations of even basic cover-2. The two-deep zone players are occasionally Loffler and weak-side linebacker Tony Burnett, while other times it could be Loffler and Leggett – their nickel linebacker. The Bombers sometimes even bring in a second safety (TJ Heath) and play two-deep over standard man-coverage. Regardless, the Stamps’ won virtually all these man-to-man match-ups on Saturday – and quite handily, at that.

Boundary halfback Kevin Fogg struggled in his match-ups, as all of his catches/yards allowed came in standard cover-1 or cover-2 man-to-man with the exception of a 14-yard catch in the second quarter, which saw his flat-zone flooded with two curls at nearly identical depth, leaving the rookie halfback to choose one to cover in a lose-lose situation.

Field halfback Bruce Johnson was no better in coverage – too often did the three-year veteran allow receivers to dictate their release – while Leggett was, once again, heavily targeted and victimized. Leggett, who’s most commonly used as an underneath “rover” when aligned to the field-side – for reference, see his pick-sixes on Jeremiah Masoli and Kevin Glenn – or as a strong-safety in two-high deep alignments, had increased coverage duties with the Stamps intentionally drawing him to the boundary with their trips formation when the Bombers were in man. The aforementioned Marquay McDaniel, who’s had success against Leggett in the past, had another two receptions against the 29-year-old, taking advantage of no. 31’s trail-technique with crafty moves at the stem of his route.

The touchdown that Leggett allowed was largely just poor communication, but it’s worth noting that he did seem to allow Mitchell to freeze him with his eyes. Randle and Fogg both retreated into deep-zones – indicating cover-4 in the boundary – although that was likely a coverage adjustment they made pre-snap with Leggett following the receiver in motion to the short-side.

The original play-call certainly didn’t have both Randle and Fogg retreating into deep-quarters, but they likely made an adjustment with Leggett coming over to account for the third receiver. The Bombers seemed to make the exact same adjustment twice later in the game, and on both of those plays, Leggett correctly dropped low and underneath any potential 4-route from the no. 2 receiver. If he’d done that on the above play, Lemar Durant wouldn’t have had the easiest touchdown of his young career.

Halftime Adjustments

The Bombers continued to show trust in their defensive backs despite a brutal first half, continuing to call a lot of man-coverage in the third and fourth quarter. They found a way to compensate for the Stamps attacking the middle of the field, however, subbing a second safety in more frequently, and also having Loffler and Leggett – when he aligned as a strong safety – occasionally play the “robber” role.

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Though I’d point to the sustained drives on offense  – as well as the Stamps’ own mistakes and conservative play-calling on offense – in the second half before crediting the Bombers’ defense, they did show some life in coverage at times. While the pass-rush remained invisible, the secondary seemed to communicate better, taking away the Stamps’ attempts to create confusion with the trips formation to the short side.

That led to the Stamps attacking the backside more often, with the Bombers sometimes sacrificing safety help over the top to bring Leggett or Loffler (or both!) over to the boundary against trips. Bruce Johnson and Johnny Adams mostly struggled, but with the Stamps failing to capitalize on some plays – as well as the Bombers’ run-defense stepping up – the Blue & Gold managed to hold the Stamps’ offense to merely nine second-half points.

Aside from not completely packing it in at halftime, there’s still not much for the Bombers’ defense, who’d been outstanding over the summer, to be proud of from this game. While they were undeniably out-schemed, even worse was the way they were out-played on the field. Sure, Richie Hall called an incredibly heavy dose of man-coverage and, at times, put his players in positions to fail, but the Bombers’ defensive backs have proven to be capable of holding their own in these match-ups at least somewhat. The defensive line, meanwhile, has no excuse for their performance. The Stamps’ offensive line simply outclassed them. Fortunately that doesn’t mean this otherwise rather stingy front-four can’t bounce back.

With tough upcoming in-division games, the Bombers’ defense needs to have a rather huge bounce back, in fact. The playoffs are near, and this unit cannot have peaked at the wrong time – summertime. It starts with defensive game-planning, but the players on the field must play better, too.

If the last seven games meant anything, Bombers’ fans should feel confident in this unit playing strong down the stretch despite the debacle that was their loss to the Stampeders and their prolific offense last week.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Brendan Morgan, left, looks on as Calgary Stampeders' Jerome Messam runs the ball during first half CFL football action in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Brendan Morgan, left, looks on as Calgary Stampeders’ Jerome Messam runs the ball during first half CFL football action in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Offensive Play-Calling Limiting Nichols, Offense to Merely Field Goals

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers could soon learn that its not always a good thing when your kicker leads the CFL in points scored.

The Blue & Gold’s season completely turned around when sixth-year quarterback Matt Nichols was anointed the starter ahead of their week six match-up in Edmonton – a game they’d go on to win 30-23. The Bombers have since won seven consecutive games and are undefeated with Nichols behind center, and while he’s been a massive upgrade at quarterback, there’s been a visible issue with the Bombers’ offense regarding settling for field goals once entering opponent territory.

The Bombers currently have the fourth-worst red-zone offense in the league, and while that’s probably not good enough for a team that’s serious about contending for a Grey Cup, it’s having the league’s leading scorer in kicker Justin Medlock that speaks higher volumes to the lack of finish shown from the offense this season. While having scored touchdowns on 18 of 34 trips to the red-zone this season is neither good or terrible, Nichols’ unit needs more to show for driving the ball inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. It’s been largely between the midfield stripe and the opponent’s 21-yard line where promising drives are stalling, and that must change with upcoming games on the schedule against power-house offenses that will make Winnipeg pay for not coming away with six points instead of merely three.

While the success rate is, quite obviously, not there, the Bombers’ offense is still an incredible anomaly when it comes to drives ending inside their opponent’s 40-yard line. The Bombers have not allowed a single sack while in scoring range over the last four weeks – excluding a short loss on a failed quarterback draw in the late stages of the Labour Day Classic, that is – and have seen just one drive stall courtesy of a penalty. They’ve converted 4 of 7 second-and-medium situations in that span, as well as 8 of 9 second-and-short situations. Most absurdly, Nichols and Co. have not turned the ball over once while inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, and yet Mike O’Shea’s club has come away with major scores on just a disappointing 6 of their last 16 drives that penetrated into scoring range dating back to their red-zone stinker in Montreal.

The Achilles’ heal of an otherwise efficient offense that makes virtually zero drive-ending mistakes such as sacks, holding penalties or interceptions in scoring range is both massive and outrageous – the Bombers have not converted a single second-and-long situation in their last four games while in scoring range.

The Bombers are fortunate to be quite the productive offense on first down – and credit to offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice and the offense for compensating for their weakness with efficient play-calling and execution 1st-down. The ground-game is averaging 5.5 yards-per-carry, while Nichols has completed nine of fifteen passes on 1st-down for 95 yards over the last four games – an average of 6.3 yards-per-attempt. Four of the Bombers’ six touchdowns in this 4-game span have come from their great short-yardage team, with the remaining two coming on a second-and-six touchdown pass to Clarence Denmark’s corner-route against Toronto and a second-and-six touchdown run from Andrew Harris back in week 10 from 19 yards out. This first-down production while in scoring range has been huge in the Bombers rallying to seven straight victories, as offenses that can’t convert second-and-long situations are typically much more anemic than Nichols’ unit currently is.

The issue is easily found in Lapolice’s play-calls in second-and-long situations. Four of those seven attempts were gadget plays that fooled no one – a quarterback draw, a delayed bubble screen/W-Swing and two running back smoke screens in separate games. Lapolice has not hidden his affection for screen passes – particularly his patented wide receiver hitch screens, which have been quite successful, in fairness – but has not always done a good game job calling them situationally.

Considering the offensive line’s continued success in pass-protection this season, Lapolice will need to soon trust his quarterback to hang in the pocket and deliver first-down throws on five-step drops on second-and-long situations. Although defenses are typically on their heals the most on second-and-medium distances, Nichols’ success as a passer on these plays cannot be over-looked. One of many steps for Lapolice to take is to simply work on diversifying when he calls designed throws (i.e. the WR hitch screen) rather than consistently pulling them out in either first-and-10 and second-and-long situations.

Several pundits have pointed to the Bombers abandoning the run while in scoring range, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case, and it’s not overly relevant to their struggles. Although they’ve passed 15 times on 1st down over the last four games compared to just 8 run plays, as a result of their first-down production, the Bombers find themselves quite often in second-and-short and do not hesitate to use their stout rushing-attack in those situations. The Bombers simply haven’t found themselves in an insurmountable amount of second-and-long situations that follow suit of the result of an incomplete pass on 1st-down. Frankly, just 7 second-and-long situations inside the opponent’s 40-yard line is not many in four games. It’s when a team is converting them – however often they come up in comparison to other offenses – at an identical rate to Lapolice’s group that it becomes a huge issue.

A much larger issue than shying away from the run-game while in scoring range is the absence of injured boundary wide-receiver Darvin Adams. Perhaps the most valuable receiver in on the roster for his unique ability to win both at the line of scrimmage and the catch point, the Bombers don’t have a receiver capable of replicating Adams’ abilities as a deep-threat, red-zone target. Though he has the size and other skill-sets, rookie receiver Gerrard Sheppard has shown in multiple opportunities he’s not capable. (See Sheppard’s drop on a perfectly-placed ball in the end-zone on a fade-route in Regina, or his inability to control his body and get his feet in-bounds on another opportunity down the sidelines back in Montreal).

Weston Dressler has been the Bombers’ best pass-catcher and, at times, their lone threat in the receiving corps. The diminutive speedster has caught five of his last eight targets for 54 yards while in scoring range over the last four games. But his role isn’t to be a large, reliable deep-threat target in the end-zone for Nichols. All three of the incomplete passes thrown his way have been on fade-routes in the end-zone, unsurprisingly.

Adams was averaging 84 yards-per-game before being placed on the 6-game injured list following his huge game in Nichols’ first start of the season. Given his abilities to stretch the field with deceptive speed and high-point catch abilities, Adams’ impact will be noticeable upon his return.

Nichols hasn’t quite gotten the credit for having to work with a patch-work receiving corps during his time as the team’s starter. Of course, when you throw one red-zone touchdown pass in four weeks the “game-manager” label is legitimate. Regardless, the Bombers need to find ways to come away with six points more than three points with the personnel they have, especially considering the current level of which the defense is playing.

LaPolice has surely spent plenty of time adding and evaluating the red-zone section of his play-sheet recently given the offenses current struggles. The Bombers won’t be able to keep up with the Stampeders at McMahon Stadium without finishing drives with majors, and seeing as Nichols will likely still be without several key contributors in the receiver corps once again, Lapolice is going to have to find new ways to out-scheme and out-coach his opponent in the score-zone.

Whether its a matter of scheme of personnel, the Bombers’ current ways, evidently, are not good enough.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Matt Nichols, top, calls the play during first half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterback Matt Nichols, top, calls the play during first half CFL football action against the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Friday, July 1, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

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.

Willy Traded: Bombers Receive Massive Compensation in Salary Dump

“I’ve always said it takes two [quarterbacks] to win in this league,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea told reporters just days before the Drew Willy era would officially end in Winnipeg.

While finding a way to somehow dump Willy’s hefty salary to the Toronto Argonauts in a blockbuster, three-team trade that sent shock-waves across the CFL, Winning Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters also maintained an experienced no. 2 quarterback for his coach by acquiring Kevin Glenn from the Alouettes – and all it cost him was the mere price of a fourth-round pick after acquiring two much better draft selections – and a roster player – for the former backup. Simply dumping Willy’s salary off to another team before bringing in a cheaper backup would have been an even exchange for the Bombers. Walters, however, managed to make it greatly lopsided in his favor.

The return for Willy, a quarterback free-falling downhill, was even more mind-blowing than the idea itself of another general manager acquiring him with his current contract situation. An unproven, 29-year-old veteran, the Bombers’ compensation for Willy was massive – a 2017 1st-round pick, a 2018 3rd-round pick and defensive back TJ Health, who’s tied for first in the CFL with five interceptions.

A third-round pick and a roster player – but not necessarily an emerging rookie star like the aforementioned – would have been a fair trade with Jim Barker. Heck, even two mid-round picks for Willy would have benefited the Bombers’ future as long as long as the trade with Montreal was still made. The fact that Walters managed to negotiate the return he received was pure robbery.

Considering the Bombers acquired their current starting quarterback, Matt Nichols, for about as close to free as it gets – a conditional seventh-round pick – Walters was surely laughing on his way home from the office. (Not really. Like most general managers, Walters probably couldn’t help but ponder how many lives he changed that night). The Bombers now have two first-round picks in the upcoming Canadian college draft, and Toronto’s selection would’ve likely be in the top-five.

The inclusion of Heath in the trade was quite surprising, and not because he found out he was being shipped away just minutes following a multi-interception game on his birthday. The Bombers are absolutely loaded a defensive back – they could field two starting defensive backfields – and there’s no lack of young talent in the position group. O’Shea and his defensive coaching staff already had an upcoming problem – a good problem, that is – on their hands when all their defensive backs healed up. Their decisions will only be even tougher with another exciting rookie added to the group in Heath.

With Ryan Smith potentially back on the shelf for awhile – and the fact that the Argos’ receiving corps is nearly as deep as the Bombers’ secondary – it would’ve made more sense for Walters to go after a receiver since Barker was, oddly, willing to part with a roster player (which seemed unnecessary for this deal). Talented – but, like Duron Carter, problematic – receiver Vidal Hazelton has been a healthy scratch for the past three games, while break-out sophomore Kenny Shaw will see his touches decrease with the rest of Toronto’s receiving corps gaining health. Regardless, the fact that Walters actually pressured Barker into giving away one of his roster players when the Bombers probably didn’t need to be offered any more value is impressive. And the addition of Health has given fans an indication that Walters isn’t done making moves yet.

Although Walters could simply be acquiring trading assets, there’s no glaring positional need for Walters to fulfill mid-season – not even at receiver – which rules out that potential reasoning. With the secondary producing immensely, it’s not as if Walters isn’t satisfied with the play he’s witnessing – however everyone seems to disagree with Bruce Johnson – and even less so with the depth. Heath is in the first year of his rookie contract despite being 29-years-old. If the Bombers weren’t already prepared to allow Johnny Adams to walk in free agency – which would be an eye-brow-raising move to say the least – they certainly are now.

For Willy, once the face of this city formerly dubbed ‘Willypeg’, he enters a really good situation for himself in Toronto. Although the same could be argued regarding the Bombers’ near future at quarterback, there’s room for him to emerge as the long-term starter for the Double Blue. Ricky Ray could retire sooner than we think, and the Argos weren’t prepared behind him to lose the future Hall of Fame quarterback. It’s possible that all Willy needs is a fresh start – see Hajrallahu, Lirim – and given the huge bonus that is having Scott Milanovich, the ultimate quarterback guru of the CFL, being there to guide the lost quarterback, Barker should have a lot of faith in Willy.

Walters, himself, even touched on Willy needing a breath of fresh air in Toronto – both regarding the media and fan-base – in his comments in a BlueBombers.com interview. He was under the microscope early and often this season in Winnipeg, crumbling early on against the pressure.

In year three of the Willy-Walters-O’Shea era, and with big-fish signings all around, that trio had a lot of pressure surrounding them heading into the 2016 season. Willy seemed to have shouldered it all before the regular season had even started, and his confidence fell off a cliff as a result. He’s shown the capabilities of being a starter in the past, but his mental toughness became the defining reason for his exit from the city he owned for a few weeks in the summer of 2014.

The Argonauts won’t look back at this trade too negatively if Willy re-establishes himself in the CFL, of course. But for the Bombers, who had no reason to keep Willy at his current salary as long as they could acquire Kevin Glenn, this trade will be a win-win no matter what happens to Toronto – or even Matt Nichols – in the future.

I’ve long been a supporter of the University of Buffalo product, but after the immense downfall that took place early this season – whether that was a product of Willy’s skills or just his confidence level – he was never going to make it as long as he was wearing Blue & Gold, unfortunately.

Knowing that only makes the ridiculous compensation Kyle Walters received for his expensive, doomed former franchise quarterback even sweeter.

Play Breakdown: Kevin Fogg’s Game-Breaking Interception on Kilgore

Whether its on special-teams or defense, Bombers’ rookie corner Kevin Fogg has done nothing but continuously spark the team since he became the second-most experienced player in the secondary due to a slew of injuries.

The Bombers’ offense was struggling out of the gate in week 8 at BMO Field, with constant two-&-outs and short drives courtesy of bad field position. The struggles reached a climax when QB Matt Nichols threw a bad interception to Argos’ FS Thomas Gordon early in the second quarter.

But, as they’ve done quite frequently this season, the defense responded on the very next play. Fogg picked off QB Logan Kilgore for his first interception of the night – he’d go on to throw four more – on a great break on the ball from the 1st-year halfback. Middle linebacker Khalil Bass went on to intercept Kilgore on the next possession, and the offense finally punched it in for six. The Bombers would go on to lay a beat-down, defeating the Argos in their own barn by a score of 34-17.

THE BREAKDOWN

The Bombers were in cover-3 on Fogg’s interception at the 11:08 mark of the second quarter. It was 1st-&-10, and defensive coordinator Richie Hall had called a relatively common, conservative zone coverage.

Fogg was responsible for a deep-third of the field – Fogg (#23), FS Taylor Loffler (#16) and CB Terrance Frederick (#35) split the field into three deep zones – while weak-side linebacker Ian Wild and SAM linebacker Maurice Leggett dropped underneath to middle-hook zones.

Boundary cornerback CJ Roberts (#17) is in a curl-to-flat zone, while field halfback Bruce Johnson (#25) is guarding the flats. Roberts is taking away any corner-route or deep out-route from the no. 3 receiver in the boundary, while cautiously eyeing the flats.

Screenshot 2016-08-22 10.28.42

Break-out slotback Kenny Shaw is the intended receiver on the play. The second-year Argo ran a post-corner, meaning he stemmed on a 45-degree angle to the corner before redirecting and breaking inside on a post-route. Seeing as Shaw is the primary receiver on the play, Kilgore’s first read is on the WILL, Ian Wild, to see if a window would open up to throw a strike down the seam. The young quarterback probably thought the SAM linebacker, Moe Leggett, would bail to the flats or use trail coverage on Shaw – a rookie mistake of pre-determining.

Kilgore’s eyes probably lit up when he watched Wild bail to the left, thinking there’d be a huge window to throw the ball to the post-corner. That would’ve been correct except Leggett hadn’t actually fled for the flats as he anticipated, and would have made the interception if he wasn’t eyeing the hook-route of the no. 2 receiver in the boundary.

In the end, Kilgore made a fine decision on the play; he really only needed one linebacker to vacate, and that came into fruition. The interception was simply a great play from Wild and Fogg, who saw Shaw cross his face on the corner-route and immediately crashed downhill to the receiver. Wild, meanwhile, showed off his incredible range on the play. Despite dropping towards the wide-side of the field, the fourth-year veteran redirected when he saw Kilgore ready to release the ball. He flipped his hips and flew over towards Shaw, covering a lot of ground in the process. Wild delivered a bone-crushing hit as the ball arrived, keeping the recipient on the ground for a few minutes. Essentially, Shaw had no chance to catch that pass.

Fogg would finish the game with two interceptions, a sack, a fumble recovery and a 17.2 yard punt-return average, earning Player of the Week honors.

His first interception, though, would be his finest play of the night.

NATHAN DENETTE (THE CANADIAN PRESS) I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
NATHAN DENETTE (THE CANADIAN PRESS) 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.

Serviceable Quarterback Play Showcasing Bombers’ Contending Roster

Both Bombers’ general manager Kyle Walters and his personnel department have, through three seasons on the job, built a contending roster for head coach Mike O’Shea.

It’s for this reason that the Bombers’ terrible start to the season was so puzzling, as none of the free agent signings were underwhelming, and it was very evident that the roster boasted the talent to dominate. Naturally, the blame was pointed directly at O’Shea, but as Bombers’ fans know better than most from experience, the success of a Canadian Football League team is heavily dependent on the quarterback no matter the supporting cast on offense or defense. Drew Willy, the franchise pivot who was signed to mega, $415,000 annual contract, was simply not getting it done.

With Matt Nichols now supplying consistently serviceable play, the Bombers’ entire roster is being showcased, and they appear to be one of the most talented teams in the CFL. The defense, which has played the last few games missing nearly their entire secondary, leads the league in takeaways with 27 – the next team on the leader-board is the Argonauts at 16. The run-game is finally taking off under star, Canadian running back Andrew Harris, who leads the CFL in rushing at 505 yards now that opposing defenses have to, at least, respect the Bombers’ aerial attack. In a league that has underwent a passing explosion since drastic rule changes in 2015, having done it two games in a row, the Bombers are proving to be one of the only teams to be able to win with under 300 yards passing.

Walters’ master plan, which was completed this off-season with free agency and the draft after a planned, three-year rebuild, is coming into fruition. The missing ingredient during the tumultuous start of the season just so happened to be at the most crucial position in the game: quarterback. With Nichols now inserted into a starting role, the Bombers’ last few off-seasons are looking great.

No matter the free agent signings, teams’ scouting departments must be able to consistently discover American players who are sitting on their couches, waiting for a call to resume their professional football careers. Winnipeg’s scouting department has sorely underachieved during Walters’ term, annually failing to uncover a starting caliber American rookie offensive lineman, receiver and defensive end – not to mention some depth at the position – until this year. Travis Bond and Jermarcus Hardrick, although the latter had already spent some time in the CFL, have solidified the offensive line, while Jace Davis and Thomas Mayo are each better than any rookie receiver the Bombers have brought in since Chris Matthews.

Finding young defensive backs has been the only consistent discoveries of the scouting department until this season – Johnny Adams and Bruce Johnson were great acquisitions – and they’ve continued that trend in 2016. Boundary halfback and dynamic kick returner Kevin Fogg is a threat to win Rookie of the Year, while Terrance Frederick and CJ Roberts are developing into future starters as they fill in for the injured Chris Randle and Johnny Adams. Rookie Canadian Taylor Loffler, meanwhile, has solidified a starting safety spot just months after being drafted in the third-round.

Johnny Adams was one of the league’s best defensive backs in his rookie season, while Chris Randle was playing at a higher level than any defensive back in 2016 before suffering an injury. Without them, the Bombers’ secondary has been a dynamic, turnover-machine, displaying the depth of this team.

Walters nailed free agency this signing – the Bombers inked contracts with six big-name free agents: Euclid Cummings, Andrew Harris, Euclid Cummings, Keith Shologan, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – defying the foolish belief that free agency is a terrible idea for rebuilding teams, and that there’s always a reason the players weren’t initially re-signed, and it rarely works out, etc. His acquisitions in 2015 have panned out good, too, as Darvin Adams has emerged into a go-to receiver, and two-time All-Star Stanley Bryant has been consistent protecting his quarterback’s blind-side.

The Bombers’ offensive line has been one of the teams weakest positional groups during all of Walters’ tenure, but they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved while Drew Willy was behind center during the first five games of the season. Versatile international pick-ups Jermarcus Hardrick and Travis Bond were great acquisitions, while 3rd-year Canadian Mathias Goossen, who’s in his first season as a full-time starting after being selected with the second overall pick in 2014 – is blossoming into an elite center. According to 3 Down Nation’s John Hodge, the Bombers surrendered an average of 3.2 sacks-per-game with Drew Willy at the helm. Under Nichols, who’s decisiveness and movement in the pocket is the difference, the average sack-rate has dropped to 1.66 sacks-per-game since making the switch at quarterback.

The defensive line, meanwhile, has been good all season, and they’re making the flashy plays now that the defensive backfield is encouraging offenses to run the ball, and quarterbacks to hold onto the ball. A unit that has plagued this defense over the last two seasons, former Toronto Argonaut Euclid Cummings has been a one-man wrecking crew at defensive tackle, supplying the needed pressure from the pass-rushing, three-tech position. Jamaal Westerman continues make a case as to why he’s the most well-rounded defensive end in the game, and opposite him, Shayon Green is finally coming along after a tumultuous start to his rookie season. This unit has dominated the opposite offensive lines three weeks in a row – all of which were played in front of a supposedly patch-work secondary.

There’s no direct correlation between Matt Nichols and the defense, of course, but the offense is finally controlling both the time-of-possession and the field-position. He hasn’t had to carry the team, passing for 350-to-400 yards on a consistent basis like most quarterbacks for their team to have a chance – in fact he hasn’t even had to pass for 300 yards. But he’s managing the production on first down, recognizing busts in coverage and giving his receivers opportunities to make plays. In two of three starts, Nichols has simply stuck to basics of the system, managing the game and delivering the ball to his play-makers – and kudos to Nichols; Drew Willy wasn’t capable of fulfilling even the simpler job for pivots in Paul Lapolice’s offense.

It’s scary to imagine how good this team would be if an elite quarterback like, say, Mike Reilly was leading the charge – at the end of the day, quarterbacks make the entire roster better. But, for now, Nichols is holding up his end of the bargain, and his serviceable play is proving to be enough on a team with a great supporting cast, from the starters all the way down to the practice squad.

PHOTO CREDIT TO NATHAN DENETTE OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
PHOTO CREDIT TO NATHAN DENETTE OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Stock Market Report: Bombers vs. Eskimos

No, Milt Stegall is not an active Bomber, and it’s not 2006. A modern-day Blue Bomber football team arrived in Edmonton, conquered the Eskimos, and left the City of Champions with a legitimate victory. The Bombers’ 30-23 victory was the club’s first win in Northern Alberta since 2006, indeed.

And Stegall wasn’t the miracle performer. Instead, a pair of Canadians provided the magic in the club’s huge win for Mike O’Shea’s desperate group.

BLUE-CHIP STOCKS

1. Andrew Harris: The Winnipeg native has been due for a break-out game on the ground, and he certainly delivered in Edmonton – a team that he’s coincidentally been known to dominate during his days as a BC Lion. Rushing for 127 yards on 5.8 yards-per-carry, Harris’ finest hour came in week six. While the Bombers’ offensive line played their best game of the season, I try to make sure that the play of the offensive line (and the opposition’s defensive line) has no impact on my observation of the running back’s performance; he’s assessed for his reads and what he does after making the right (or wrong) read. He could grade equally as successful in a game where he averages 2.6 yards-per-carry or 5.8 yards-per-carry. Harris made confident reads with anticipation, and showed no signs of hesitation and good pad-level hitting the hole in the second game versus the Eskimos’ struggling defense in 2016. He broke three tackles at the point-of-attack, but also consistently kept his feet moving through contact for extra yards. With Harris’ star-studded performance, the Bombers’ offensive line’s best game of the season run-blocking, and Edmonton’s demoralizing interior defensive line play, the recipe for great offensive success running the football was in place for the Bombers – 127 yards was the result.

2. Jamaal Westerman: Six pressures, an unblocked sack, but a QB-stop nonetheless, and ridiculous run-support, Westerman was, once again, the Bombers’ best defensive player; in other news, there’s nothing to see here. Eskimos’ LT Tony Washington proved to be the next offensive lineman incapable of blocking Westerman’s patented counter pass-rush move, but it’s hard to blame him considering the NFL veteran’s huge tool-box and unpredictability at his stem that’s claimed so many victims in the CFL. Along with his club move, Westerman could also hit lineman with a grab, rip or swim move after the initial bull-rush, and if they begin to guess, he’ll take advantage by continuing his bull-rush all the way, or turn his rush into a speed-rush. Essentially, Westerman is unblockable, and his counter/club move claimed victims three times three times to provide severe pressure on QB Mike Reilly.

3. Darvin Adams: The fourth-year veteran has become the Bombers’ most valuable player in the receiving corps, and an integral contributor to the offense; in other words, he’ll be heavily missed for the next 6 weeks as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Adams connected with QB Matt Nichols in each of his first seven targets on route to a total of 10 catches on 13 targets for 121 yards and a touchdown, which was the result ofa a good release off the versus press-man but largely a bad play from CB Pat Watkins, who was caught peaking into the backfield. Adams’ performance before the injury proved his worthiness, as his consistent play can be broken down to four really good plays and two spectacular plays. Adams’ 1st-quarter leaping, out-of-bounds grab qualified as two of those huge plays, as he perfectly drove CB Pat Watkins to flip his hips around exactly as he began a quick, sharp cut to the sideline that was proceeded with a fantastic catch. An incompletion early in the third quarter was his other exceptional play, where Adams fought off a physical press-coverage with power and his cut-on-a-dime ability to create great separation on another out-route.

4. Jamarcus Hardrick: The first-year Bomber looked right at home back in his natural position at right tackle. Hardrick did not surrender a single QB pressure despite being matched up with an All-Star DE, Odell Willis, and strict sack-master, Markus Howard. With prototypical size, raw strength and natural, quick feet, Hardrick possesses all the physical gifts to be a great book-end, and with Willis and Howard each playing poor games, his physical gifts were all he needed. As he continues to polish his technique, Hardrick will win more battles three yards into the pass-rush when the quarterback hits the top of his drop and the defensive end is forced to make a decision on how he’ll attack the play. But, regardless, Thursday was a major step in the right direction with the Bombers relying on Hardrick to be a staple at right tackle as Canadian starter Pat Neufeld is out for an extended period of time.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

1. Travis Bond: I’ve always believed that if Bond hadn’t missed the Bombers’ second preseason game in Ottawa due to an ailing injury then he’d have won the starting spot at left guard out of training camp – he was that good in his first and only preseason against the Alouettes. Bond showed exactly why the Bombers thought he was worthy to store him on the two-man active roster reserve all season in his season debut in Edmonton. Thursday was the best the offensive line has looked all season, and Bond was a significant contributor. He saw a lot of one-on-one blocking, too, as defensive coordinator Mike Benevides loves to eliminate the opposition’s center from double-teaming in obvious pass-blocking situations by aligning both defensive tackles as 4-techniques that shade the inside of the offensive tackles, with defensive tackles outside the tackles. Bond, as a result, saw a lot of All-Star interior defender Almondo Sewell, and made him look rather pedestrian, frankly. One of Bond’s few, and only major, blemish was a sack allowed from Howard – the defensive end who aligned as a three-technique, and beat the rookie left guard with a spin move.

2. Taylor Loffler: The eventual third-round pick in the 2016 draft has shown this season exactly what I concluded in my pre-draft work: he was the most pro-ready CIS defender available in the draft. So when a series of past injuries consequently made the former University of British Columbia Thunderbird drop to the nineteenth selection, the Bombers knew exactly who they were getting. That pick has already payed dividends just a few months since the draft, as Loffler was an integral piece of the Bombers’ success against the Esks’ aerial in his first-career start. Formerly a member of NCAA D1 program Boise State for four years, Loffler broke up two passes with big hits, and despite not recording a solo tackle, he was in on a lot of gang tackles. He also managed to, impressively, allow just one catch – a 24-yarder to Chris Getzlaf in garbage time – whereas starting FS Macho Harris allowed two touchdowns to Cory Watson when the Eskimos visited Winnipeg a few weeks ago. Harris is still an upgrade over the Canadian rookie at this point in his career, but Loffler should remain a legitimate option to complete the Bombers’ seven starting Canadians while RT Pat Neufeld is out.

3. Khalil Bass: It’s no coincidence that Bass has had a considerably larger impact on the defense since he’s been allowed to play linebacker rather than basically playing defensive tackle, aligning head-up on an offensive lineman on the line-of-scrimmage on first-down. Bass’ best two games of the 2016 campaign have come in the last two weeks, with Richie Hall attacking the run-threat of Jerome Messam and John White differently than in past games this season. He showed great anticipation and took good angles to the ball against the Eskimos on Thursday, but made two really huge plays in second quarter on John White in the hole, absolutely laying a lick on the start runner at the 12:13 mark, and then doing a great job scraping from the back-side to the cut-back lane at the 6:22 mark, making another physical stop. While Bass played a huge role in limiting White to just 8 yards rushing, he was better than usual in pass-coverage, making a great play to quickly change directions and instinctively pick up – and knock-down – Derel Walker’s crossing route later in the second-half.

(Just missed: LB Ian Wild, CB Terrance Frederick, C Mathias Goossen)

JUNK BONDS

1. Justin Cole: Yes, the Bombers still have a huge hole in their defense at front-side defensive end. Shayon Green, though he easily had his best game against Edmonton by a mile, should have been cut two weeks ago after getting numerous chances to supply something in his starting role; former Alabama rush-end, Adrian Hubbard, did no better excluding a game-winning sack vs. Hamilton, and has since been cut; and Justin Cole’s season is certainly off to a rough start given his performance in Edmonton. Green ended up receiving more reps than Cole as the game wore on, as the latter was unable to do anything from the 3-tech position – the Bombers will often bring in three defensive ends in certain sets, with one aligning at defensive tackle – and looked ineffective on the edge. Cole looked indecisive and uncomfortable in his pass-rush techniques, which could be due to his lack of reps in practice ahead of this game. He was cut in training camp due to a major injury, and after sticking in Winnipeg for awhile to recover, he went home at some point in the regular season before only recently returning. The Edmonton game can be excused as a warm-up to get re-accustomed to live action, and he should be much better against Hamilton – the Bombers need him to be the answer.

2. Keith Shologan: If the Bombers had one disappointing free agent signing this season it’d be 30-year-old nose guard Keith Shologan. Fourth-year Canadian backup Jake Thomas has consistently out-played the former Saskatchewan Roughrider and Ottawa Redblack in passing situations, and while Shologan is better as a run-defender – Thomas has never be great against the run – he still hasn’t lived up to expectations. The Eskimos and Stampeders have likely set a precedent for attacking the Bombers’ defensive line, consistently calling their protections to the side of Euclid Cummings in four-man fronts with no immediate blitzing threats, even if Cummings’ side of the alignment is the weak-side. The Bombers need Shologan to win those 1-on-1 match-ups to take the pressure off of Cummings.

3. Stanley Bryant: Winnipeg’s premiere left tackle certainly played his worst game of the season against two struggling defensive ends in Willis and Howard. He allowed a bad sack after whiffing on a block on DB Cord Park’s blitz, and was bailed out several times by quick throws from Nichols. The Bombers will need a bounce-back game from their key free agent signing in 2015 against Hamilton’s John Chick, who’s playing at a much higher than level than anyone on the Esks’ defensive line.

(Just missed: WR Rory Kohlert, SB Gerrard Shephard, FS Brendan Morgan, CB C.J. Roberts)

BUY/SELL

BUY: Nichols played good, but Edmonton’s struggling defense was the biggest factor. His stat-line – 26/33 for 304 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs – would say otherwise, but Nichols was rather average against the Eskimos, which is still better than Drew Willy has ever been in 2016. The Eskimos’ defense is nearing 2015-like Roughriders’ ineptitude, and the newly-appointed Bombers’ starter more of less took simply took what the defense gave him. Pat Watkins stood no chance covering emerging wideout Darvin Adams, while both of their halfbacks, Marcell Young and Cord Parks, were simply terrible in this game. A dominant rushing attack helped the offense dramatically, but there’s no denying that Nichols certainly did his job distributing the football to his play-makers. And the best news? Nichols, who isn’t necessarily known as a mentally-tough quarterback, never got down on himself, and also responded to the little adversity he faced. It was refreshing to see the Bombers’ offense under Nichols respond to Edmonton’s third quarter touchdown drive with a six-point drive of their own. The Eskimos – Nichols’ old team who traded him away for virtually nothing- were the perfect team for the six-year veteran to start his stint as the starter against.

SELL: Kyle Walters’ team is still plagued by a lack of depth. The Bombers have had razor-thin depth in the past from the 2012 season to the end of the 2014 season, but that’s no longer much of a pressing issue anymore. Walters has drafted his Canadians exceptionally well, and the scouting department is beginning to actually find their own International players. OK, so finding defensive backs has never been an issue for the U.S. talent-finders in recent years, but holding the CFL’s leading passer to under 300 yards and no touchdowns until garbage time with four backup defensive backs is ludicrous. LG Travis Bond, meanwhile, provided an instant spark off the two-man reserve, while SB Thomas Mayo has been solid when his number is called. Oh, and Matt Nichols is a solid backup – well, now starting – quarterback.


OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: RB Andrew Harris
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: DE Jamaal Westerman


Credit to DailyNorseman.com for the format


Winnipeg Blue Bombers Andrew Harris (33) runs in for a touchdown against the Edmonton Eskimos during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers Andrew Harris (33) runs in for a touchdown against the Edmonton Eskimos during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday July 28, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO. ALL CREDIT TO JASON FRANSON AND THE CANADIAN PRESS.

Blue Bombers’ Positional Roster Grades: Defense and Specialists

The Bombers final cuts have been made as the team prepares for their home-opener on Friday against the Montreal Alouettes. In year-three of the Kyle Walters, Mike O’Shea era, it appears as though Richie Hall’s defense should improve to a top-five unit in the new year, while O’Shea’s specialists could take the league by storm.

Legend:
A or higher = great
B+ or A- = above-average
B = average
C+ or B- = below-average
C or lower:  very poor

DEFENSIVE LINE

Additions: Keith Shologan, Euclid Cummings, Shayon Green, Trent Corney

Starters: Jamaal Westerman (DE), Euclid Cummings (3-T), Keith Shologan (NT), Shayon Green (DE)

Depth: Jake Thomas, Trent Corney, Sam Scott (1-game), Derrell Johnson (reserve)

Practice-roster: Adrian Hubbard, Louie Richardson, Padric Scott

It’s been largely the defensive line that has plagued this defense recently, and this is easily the best unit the Bombers’ have boasted since 2013. Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings, both added in free agency, are two of the best players at their respective positions, bringing some much needed assistance to the league’s best defensive end, Jamaal Westerman. The club has good depth inside in fourth-year Canadian Jake Thomas, while 9th-overall pick Trent Corney should make an immediate impact as a rotational pass-rusher. Shayon Green brings down the group’s grade, as he was quite underwhelming in preseason action. The Miami product made this team with his athleticism and his motor, but he appears one-dimensional as a pass-rusher and struggles against the run. Look for Corney to really push Green for reps as the seasons wears on if Derrell Johnson doesn’t.

Grade: A-

LINEBACKER

Additions: Shayne Gauthier, Kyle Knox

Starters: Khalil Bass (WIL), Ian Wild (MIKE), Maurice Leggett (SAM)

Depth: Tony Burnett, Sam Hurl, Jesse Briggs, Garrett Waggoner, Teague Sherman

Practice-roster: Shayne Gauthier

Ian Wild will resume his duties as the club’s middle linebacker after the Sam Hurl experiment mostly failed last season, and we know exactly what Wild offers. Meanwhile, the club will be looking for Khalil Bass to take the next steps in his development in year-two, which is his play in pass coverage. Maurice Leggett, who’s likely the league’s top safety, has made the full-time switch to strong-side linebacker, and while he’s a terrific threat as a run defender – he could probably play weak-side linebacker – some of his raw cover skills are not quite up to par. Tony Burnett, who had a tremendous preseason in his sophomore season, could soon move Leggett back to safety, but he’ll have to continue to make a name for himself on special-teams first. The Bombers’ Canadian depth is great, too, as Hurl is a good Canadian backup middle linebacker and an excellent special-teamer, while Garrett Waggonner has a ton of potential that needs to be fulfilled.

Grade: B

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Additions: Macho Harris (FA), Kevin Fogg (INT rookie), Julian Posey (INT rookie), Taylor Loffler (CDN rookie), CJ Roberts (INT rookie)

Starters: Johnny Adams (CB), Kevin Fogg (HB), Macho Harris (FS), Bruce Johnson (HB), Chris Randle (CB)

Depth: Julian Posey, Taylor Loffler, Derek Jones, Brendan Morgan

This is easily the most top-heavy unit on the roster, as Johnny Adams, Chris Randle and Maurice Leggett are bona-fide stars, and Bruce Johnson is one of the top raw press half-backs in the league. Randle, one of the league’s premiere defenders, found himself competing for the field corner position after recovering from a torn ACL, as Leggett is set to stay at SAM linebacker, and Adams emerged as arguably the league’s best corner in 2015. Randle, who’d be playing short-side corner on most teams, easily displaced Matt Bucknor and his passport, giving the Bombers an elite cover-man at field corner. But there some large holes in the secondary at safety and at weak-side halfback, as both Kevin Fogg and Julian Posey left much to be desired in preseason action, while it’s hard to believe that Macho Harris is employed – let alone a starter. An unlikely, but smart scenario would be for Tony Burnett to emerge into a role a SAM, moving Leggett back to safety in place of Harris. And while that would be ideal, I’d be content if even Teague Sherman took over at safety in place of the four-year Rider.

Grade: B+

KICKER/PUNTER

Additions: Justin Medlock (FA)

Starter: Justin Medlock (K/P)

Depth: Sergio Castillo (1-game)

After witnessing Lirim Hajrallahu almost single-handedly cost the team wins, the Bombers went out and signed one of the greatest kickers in CFL history, Justin Medlock. The 32-year-old is easily the league’s top kicker, although his punting has been largely below-average throughout his career. Sergio Castillo had himself a great preseason, solidifying a backup plan should Medlock miss time with an injury.

Grade: A

RETURNER

Additions: Quincy McDuffie

Starter: Quincy McDuffie

Depth: Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith, Tony Burnett

One of the fastest players in the league, McDuffie is a somewhat proven returner in the CFL and won this position in Winnipeg quite handily. He’s a fearless, decisive returner with great vision, short-area quickness and deceptive force. McDuffie, who returned a punt for a touchdown against Winnipeg in 2014, will be an electrifying returner in 2016. Tony Burnett will likely return kickoffs along with the Central Florida product.

Grade: A

PHIL HOSSACK: THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)
PHIL HOSSACK: THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)