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

Blue Review: Bombers Command League-Wide Respect Despite Loss to Stamps

Although many argue there are no moral victories in football, it’s hard to not come away with some sort of a positive feeling following the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 36-34 loss to Calgary Stampeders, which dropped them to 8-5 and ended their seven-game win streak.

The loss, of course, was still gut-wrenching. But looking at the greater picture, it’s clear the Bombers passed the test, proving they could go punch-for-punch with the CFL’s measuring-stick franchise in their own barn. It took a last second, game-winning field goal from the Stampeders to hold off the Bombers from completing a 24-point comeback. This Bombers team isn’t having a repeat first half if these two teams meet again in the playoffs – all bets are off.

11 other thoughts on the Bombers’ loss.

1. Stamps’ quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell had some strong words directed to the Bombers in his halftime interview that, while a juicy quote from the CFL’s most marketable player, says a lot about what most pundits thought about the Bombers’ legitimacy despite a seven-game winning streak. “[Winnipeg’s] finding out who they are right now, and we’re going to continue to show them,” Mitchell told TSN’s Farhan Lalji while his team lead 27-7 at the break. Despite ultimately falling short, the Bombers’ second-half proved to Mitchell and the league that this team’s for real.

2. After a terrible first half where he looked very uncomfortable in the pocket with noticeable happy-feet – that of which caused evident accuracy issues – Matt Nichols settled down nicely in the second half. Simply put, he stopped trying to force throws into nine-man coverage and began to play his game, simply settling for what the defense gave him and identifying it early. The Bombers had some momentum after a great throw and catch from Nichols to Clarence Denmark for a 10-yard touchdown connection in the middle of the third quarter, but the comeback officially felt legitimate after Ryan Smith went up and fought for a ridiculous 40-yard catch over Stamps’ corner Tommie Campbell. That catch may have been the turning-point.

3. The first half felt all too familiar for Bombers’ fans that have seen Calgary route the Blue & Gold twice already this season, obviously sparking Mitchell’s choice words at half-time. The Bombers’ defensive backs couldn’t cover air, and the pass-rush seemed non-existent as Mitchell dissected the defense. While all aspects of the defense tightened up in the second half, a large amount of the credit should go to the offense for grabbing the momentum from the Stamps and pressuring Dave Dickenson into some much more conservative play-calls on offense in the second half.

4. In his first full season as the Bombers’ special-teams coordinator, Mike O’Shea’s unit has played sound football for most of the season. While they began to shake and stutter in back-to-back games against Saskatchewan, the wheels that drove the Bombers’ special-teams completely fell off in Calgary. Stamps’ returner Roy Finch averaged 34.2 yards-per-return on kickoffs and 11.5 yards-per-return on punt returns, as the Stamps only ever had to drive half the field for the entire first half. The Bombers don’t need to score 27 points in the second half if their special-teams aren’t a garbage fire for the opening 40 minutes.

5. I don’t know if anyone loves playing Winnipeg more than Stamps’ pass-catcher Marquay McDaniel. The 32-year-old often-underappreciated veteran has 28 catches for 442 yards and two touchdowns in his last four games against the Bombers’ secondary, dating back to week 15 last season. While several point to Maurice Leggett’s struggles against McDaniel, I think no. 16 has victimized a fairly vast amount of Blue Bomber defensive backs nearly equally in the last four contests.

6. The Stamps’ offense has always been very confident in their match-ups against the Bombers. We’ve heard it in half-time interviews and more – both Mitchell and McDaniel have been quoted in the past for saying “they’re giving us man-coverage and they can’t cover us one-on-one” – and it’s true. I’d be extremely hard-pressed to find another defense that’s called nearly as much man-coverage as Blue Bombers’ defensive coordinator Richie Hall in the last five weeks or so, and the Stamps are the first team since the secondary broke out to really exploit this risky play-calling. In fact, Hall and Co. have typically always given Mitchell’s receivers man-coverage in previous games in hopes of pressuring the young passer with some exotic blitz packages. With McDaniel’s route-running and Mitchell’s anticipation, Hall is going to have to re-evaluate his approach to stopping the Stamps in future games.

7. Though I’d have disagreed, it was fair to question the Bombers’ legitimacy of being contenders prior to this game. That debate, however, is now over. A non-contending team doesn’t bounce back from being down 23 points in the third quarter to come within a 52-yard field goal from knocking off the Stampeders at home. Having taken care of the teams that they’re supposed to beat on a seven-game winning streak, the Bombers proved they could hang with Calgary. This team is for real.

8. This game featured two of the 2016 CFL draft’s shining stars in Stamps’ linebacker Alex Singleton and Bombers’ free safety Taylor Loffler, both of whom have emerged into solid starters in their rookie seasons. Though I’ve yet to do a comprehensive review of the Bombers’ defensive assignments in their secondary, it would certainly seem as though Singleton out-shone Loffler tonight.

9. For whatever reason – questions about his ability to have an impact on special-teams could’ve been one – second-year Canadian receiver Lemar Durant fell to the bottom of the second round during the 2015 draft despite being one of the most naturally gifted players available. Kyle Walters was one of eight general managers to foolishly pass on Durant, though he actually passed on Durant for another receiver in Addison Richards. As Richards’ young, injury-riddled career remains a disappointment, Durant continues to show Walters he made a huge mistake in the 2015 draft. The Simon Fraser product, who finished the match with four catches for 76 yards and a score, was the one who recorded the 22-yard reception in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter that set up Rene Parades’ game-winning kick. That hurt.

10. With Richards not even pushing for playing time despite Rory Kohlert proving he’s no longer a starting-caliber receiver, the Bombers will look to draft a receiver early in the 2017 draft. Meanwhile, Regina Rams’ receiver Mitchell Picton is lighting up the Canada West with seven touchdowns in four games. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder would be nice compensation for the Riders drafting Nic Demski in the 2015 draft as well.

11.  With the Eskimos knocking off the Lions last night in a crucial West Division match-up, the Bombers are now one game back of BC for second place in the West and four points up on Edmonton for third. Of course, the Bombers’ next three games are against Edmonton and a home-and-home with BC. The playoff picture is about to clear up real fast.

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Photo credit to Al Charest / Calgary Herald. I do not own this photo or claim to.

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.

Bombers Discover Team Identity Amidst Winning Streak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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