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.