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

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’ Defensive backfield could rival Ottawa in 2016

The Blue Bombers’ defensive backfield has been somewhat of an anomaly in the last two seasons.

Arguably seen as the Bombers’ most talented unit heading into last season, the Bombers still finished sixth in passing defense. It takes the entire defensive unit to stop the pass, however, and the Bombers failed to generate a consistent pass-rush, while the Linebackers often struggled in coverage.

Despite very conservative play-calling, the Bombers’ secondary, with the exception of one player, was no slouch in 2o15. With the release of the most picked-on defensive back in the league, Demond Washington, as well as several potential additions in training camp, the Bombers could develop into the league’s top secondary this season.

Of course, nothing is awarded in the pre-season. The Bombers’ defensive backs will have to play up to their full potential on a weekly basis in order to join the conversation with Ottawa, who easily boasted the league’s top secondary last season.

The Redblacks’ overload of absurd international depth behind star-power within the starters allowed them to dominate each week no matter who was in the lineup. Ottawa released one of the league’s best cover-men, Brandon McDonald, early in the season for taking too many stupid penalties. Abdul Kanneh, who emerged as a top-2 defensive back in the CFL, took over the boundary corner position, while Brandyn Thompson drawed in at the now-vacant boundary halfback spot. Thompson ended up being one of the league’s top halfbacks and a CFL All-Star. Jerrell Gavins, one of the league’s best raw cover-men, had a great sophomore season, while veteran field corner Jovon Johnson turned back the clock in his ninth CFL season, earning All-Star honors.

The Redblacks’s depth went far beyond Thompson’s emergence, though. Ottawa’s nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie, Forrest Hightower, proved he was a great halfback in the many starts he received, while Brandon Sermons made his first-career start in the Grey Cup game at boundary corner, displaying unlimited potential against star pass-catcher Derel Walker. With two rookies starting in the Grey Cup game, Jermaine Robinson provided even more stability as the last line of defense at safety. Although injuries limited him to only two regular season games, Robinson has a long way to go before he’s in the same conversation as the league’s top safeties, but he certainly hasn’t reached his potential, either. Jacques Washington’s play made many forget about the 27-year-old, and we also shouldn’t overlook the contributions of Oregon safety John Boyett in limited action at safety.

Antoine Pruneau, meanwhile, avoided a sophomore slump after an outstanding rookie season at strong-side linebacker. The University of Montreal product was picked on here and there, but didn’t emerge as much of a burden in coverage as expected with the league’s change to the illegal contact on a receiver rule. Ottawa ran far more man-coverage than any team in the league – a direct result of boasting an ultra-talented secondary – and Pruneau got more comfortable as the season wore on.

Winnipeg’s weak-link, Demond Washington, never did figure out how to cover receivers without drawing a flag. The departure of the four-year Bomber, who somehow earned a contract in free agency with Hamilton, truly was addition by subtraction at it’s finest. While not an official stat, Washington would have easily led the CFL in passing yards allowed – and that’s excluding his surely league-leading illegal contact/pass interference penalties against. If it weren’t for Washington’s dependable tacking abilities and his awareness in zone-coverage, he’d have been released at some point during the season. But Mike O’Shea is a man of second chances, and he surely wanted to give Washington every opportunity needed to adjust and adapt to the new zero-tolerance rules – he truly does have all the athleticism in the world to blanket receivers hands-off. Seeing as Washington never could get his game together at all, the Bombers really can’t get any worse with who they play at boundary halfback this year. And if training camp is any indication, the Bombers’ play in Washington’s vacated spot could be night and day compared to last season.

The Bombers have some extremely intriguing rookies that are living up to their football resumes in camp. It’s nearly impossible to rival Ottawa’s depth from last year, which won’t be nearly as good this year – Brandyn Thompson has all but officially retired; Jovon Johnson signed with Montreal; and Jacques Washington was released, partly influenced by Boyett’s emergence as well as the numbers game – but it’s hard not to envision several of Winnipeg’s rookie DB’s that’ll start the season as starers, designated imports or practice roster players making a large impact in 2016. The Bombers also have exceptional Canadian depth in the secondary, as Taylor Loffler is not far from being pro ready, while Teague Sherman and Derek Jones both have started games.

The Bombers have a couple starting positions available, but it’s not exactly clear where those positions are. Chris Randle, one of the league’s most underrated cover-men during his time as a corner, could slot in at boundary halfback or field-side corner depending on if the Bombers choose to roll with an All-American secondary. The safety position is not quite set in stone, as perhaps one of Winnipeg’s most exciting prospects, Johnny Patrick, could take Macho Harris’ starting spot, which is welcomed. A former third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, Patrick had 27 NFL games under his belt before concussions forced him out of football.

Patrick’s ability to switch from corner to safety has certainly caught the attention of the coaching staff, but it’s been Kevin Fogg that has been earning more praise than any rookie defensive back at Blue Bombers training camp. With interceptions in both of the first two practices, the Liberty product, who seems to resemble Bruce Johnson with his outstanding change of direction skills, has received reps with the first-team unit at boundary halfback. Seeing as he’s earned those reps over some extremely talented football players in Julian Posey, Donald Celiscar and veteran defender Chris Randle, it’s not hard to envision Fogg bursting onto the scene and becoming Winnipeg’s 2016 version of Johnny Adams.

Fogg, of course, needs to have an outstanding rookie season before anyone even considers comparing his rookie year to Adams’ last year, as the University of Michigan State product completed his inaugural CFL season as a top-2 defensive back in the CFL with Ottawa’s Kanneh. Whereas Kanneh is an athlete, Adams is more of a technician, and his abilities gave the Bombers faith to run cover-6 coverage with Adams alone on the boundary using press-man techniques despite having deep-third responsibilities.

Adams’ abilities to take on more coverage responsibilities than perhaps any other defensive back in the league will only make the job’s of Bruce Johnson and Maurice Leggett even easier. The Bombers truly have an All-Canadian, elite trio in Adams, Johnson and Maurice Leggett – it’s true, a large majority of the DB’s I’d consider elite play in either Winnipeg or Ottawa. Johnson is one of the league’s most unappreciated players – his lack of interceptions has him flying under the radar – but he is certainly a top-3 player at the halfback position. Maurice Leggett, meanwhile, was the league’s best safety in 2014 before switching over to strong-side linebacker last year, where the coverage duties are nearly identical to that of a safety, but with slightly more man-coverage. Leggett should continue to be an elite player with the position change, as he showed many glimpses of even being a more physical upgrade over Chris Randle.

Randle, of course, moved from corner to SAM linebacker last season before tearing his ACL in the Labour Day Classic. Despite showing vast improvement as the weeks went by, it was clear that Randle wasn’t the same player when he had a receiver running full-steam ahead towards him before the ball was even snapped. One season removed from being the team’s coverage ace at boundary corner, the Bombers now insist on playing a rookie at Washington’s halfback spot instead of Randle – and it’s somewhat understandable with the level of talent the International scouting department has brought in.

Randle will instead compete at field-side corner with veteran Canadian incumbent Matt Bucknor. Randle’s more comfortable at corner, and having the former Utah State alum at field corner would simply be unfair to offenses – a player that good shouldn’t be playing field corner. While it’s possible Randle is a casualty of the ratio – despite very good Canadian talent, it would slightly complicate things elsewhere for the Bombers to have a designated import at defensive back without a Canadian starter at field corner – it will be an interesting battle to watch in training camp. Bucknor’s passport gives him the advantage, but the fifth-year Bomber has nonetheless had a great camp so far.

While a better tackler than coverage player, Bucknor still had a really solid 2o15 campaign. He’s going to get burned once in awhile – ask Kenny Stafford or Terance Toliver – but makes the needed plays when he can rely on his technique and not raw speed.

The Bombers have a plethora of options in the secondary, and with three elite players as well as Chris Randle to build around, the Bombers defensive backfield could reach new heights that perhaps not even Ottawa will see in 2016 if a couple of these young defenders – be it Fogg, Patrick or Posey – are as good as advertised.

And at the very least, with no Demond Washington, there’s no way this secondary can get worse. It’s only up from here, and from how the team is situated on paper, the sky truly is the limit for this group in 2016.

Additions in Secondary Cement Leggett as Bombers Best Option at SAM Linebacker

Mike O’Shea put one topic of discussion to bed for now when he announced at Wednesday night’s fan forum that Maurice Leggett will make the full-time switch to strong-side linebacker this season while Chris Randle moves back to corner back.

Leggett originally took over the position after Randle suffered a torn ACL in the Labour Day classic. Although, similarly to Randle, he struggled at first in the new role, Leggett eventually really settled in and even became an upgrade over Randle at the strong-side linebacker position. While the Bombers are fortunate to have two solid options to play one of the most important positions in the game, the decision to continue with Leggett at strong-side linebacker was likely a no-brainer.

Although Randle is an upgrade in pass-coverage, Leggett is significantly better as a run-stopper. He is far more aggressive at the point of attack, shedding off blocks and delivering better open-field tackles. Randle, meanwhile, does a good job reading the play and flowing to the ball carrier, but he simply does not attack with the aggressiveness that Leggett does. As a result, defensive coordinator Richie Hall used the former Kansas City Chief closer to the box and in the blitz, which we didn’t really see with Randle.

Leggett isn’t far behind Randle in pass-coverage, either. The strong-side linebacker spot is essentially a strong-safety position, anyway, and we already know Leggett is an elite safety. The 29-year-old shows great awareness in zone coverage, quick-hips, ball-skills and an overall knack for reading the play as both a safety and strong-side linebacker, where the coverage responsibilities are actually very similar in many CFL defenses.

While Randle is, indeed, quite better in man-coverage, Leggett isn’t that terribly far behind, and you could technically point to a lack of experience as a reason. Also, many of the man-on-man assignments for SAM linebackers are against fullbacks and no. 3 slot-backs, anyway – not elite, go-to receivers. And it’s not like Leggett is a liability in man-defense – see Washington, Demond – but perhaps just not the guy you’d want covering no. 1 receivers on a consistent basis.

Randle, on the other hand, is an elite cover-man, and would immediately become the league’s best wide-side corner. The Bombers may look at playing him at the vacant boundary halfback position, but with his press-technique – and also lack of aggressiveness in the run game – he could be best suited for the wide-side position, with Johnny Adams firmly entrenched in the boundary. The Bombers also already have some promising candidates to play boundary halfback in Louisville’s Johnny Patrick – seriously, keep an eye on this guy in training camp – and Ohio’s Julian Posey, who looked more than serviceable in his week 20 start against Toronto.

Although the Bombers could still be tempted to keep Randle at SAM linebacker and Leggett at safety since it would only create one position to fill – Washington’s boundary halfback position – the Bombers should feel confident in the players they have brought in to compete for that safety spot. Former Detroit Lion Jonte Green is a natural corner, but could be better suited to play safety in the CFL with his tackling skills and ability keep the action in front of him and react in zone. The Bombers also signed Macho Harris in January, supplying a veteran presence and fall-back option if training camp doesn’t uncover a solid, rookie safety.

Regardless, it’ll be hard to not play Leggett at strong-side linebacker this season, as he’ll still get to roam the secondary often as the Bombers run plenty of cover-4, and will be closer to the action in the run-game. And this move will allow the Bombers to play Randle at field-side cornerback, which isn’t fair for opponents – he’s far too good for that position. The idea of having Randle as the wide-side corner must have Richie Hall salivating at the mouth over Winnipeg’s loaded secondary, which will be even better as a result of having anyone but Demond Washington at halfback, and perhaps spectacular if Washington’s replacement, Johnny Patrick, is as good as advertised.

But a secondary can sometimes only be as a good as the strong-side linebacker, and the Bombers are fortunate to have two excellent options to fill that spot. And while playing Randle at SAM linebacker does have it’s own advantages for filling out the rest of the secondary, Maurice Leggett remains the best option.

Maurice Leggett of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers goes on to score a touchdown on his punt return against the Ottawa RedBlacks during first half of CFL action at TD Place in Ottawa, October 03, 2014. (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)
(Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen) I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO.

Randle Renews Deal With Bombers

Bomber fans will get to see at least two more seasons of Chris Randle’s play-making in the Blue & Gold.

The 27-year-old agreed to terms with the Bombers on a two-year extension, keeping him in Winnipeg through the 2017 season.

Randle, who started at boundary cornerback for the Bombers in 2014, really came into form as a linebacker after a rough start, largely due to the position change. The Utah State alum recorded 37 tackles, a sack and an interception in nine games before suffering a season-ending injury in the Labour Day Classic. He’s one of the most underrated defensive backs in the league and a key piece to this defense.

Extending Randle’s contract a year before it was originally set to expire is great for GM Kyle Walters, who’s one of the best in the CFL at managing contracts and renewing them midseason or ahead of time, creating a much less stressful December and January.

Randle
Brian Ronogh: Winnipeg Sun