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)

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.