Struggles in Trenches Cost Bombers Second Consecutive Game

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were sure to point out how penalties played a role in their most recent 40-26 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos, which awarded the Green & Gold the season series and playoff tie-breaker. There’s no doubt the Bombers shot themselves in the foot at times, with plays such as Weston Dressler’s red-zone fumble swaying the momentum and taking points off the board.

These are all quite general, blame-it-on-yourself excuses that, while certainly legitimate factors in the Bombers losing, don’t acknowledge the fact that the Eskimos were simply the better team on Friday night. Going beyond the penalty troubles, there was one true underlying reasoning for the Eskimos coming away with a huge win – their dominance in the trenches on offense.

This was the second straight week the Bombers’ front-seven cost their team dearly, granting the opposing quarterback ample time in the pocket while also allowing the second 100-yard rushing game in the last three games.

Eskimos’ running back John White averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry on Friday night, rushing for over 100 yards in his return to the starting lineup. QB Mike Reilly, meanwhile, was only pressured on 18.2% of his drop-backs in the rubber-match of the season series, with an average time of 2.56 seconds to throw, which is simply too much time for an elite quarterback to have in the pocket.

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This is the second consecutive week that the front-seven has been completely dominated. Unsurprisingly, the Bombers are 0-2 in their last two games when the opposition’s quarterback has time to re-read the play-call on his wristband post-snap before the pressure gets to him.

The Bombers’ pass-rush was better this week than it was at Calgary, but six pressures on 41 total drop-backs is still nearly unfathomable. Five quarterback hits and two sacks are both good numbers – the Bombers didn’t get home for a sack once last week against Bo Levi Mitchell – but they need to be considerably more consistent.

The Bombers didn’t blitz much against Edmonton, choosing instead to play coverage in hopes of slowing down the likes of Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker. Defensive coordinator Richie Hall called a much more passive game overall one week after the Stamps exploited the Bombers’ cover-1 man-to-man, consistently beating the blitz often before it had a chance.

Jamaal Westerman and Justin Cole were simply not effective enough at defensive end this game. Although Westerman notched a huge sack on second-down in the fourth quarter, together they only recorded one pressure each – that’s not close to good enough, especially against Mike Reilly.

With two hits and one pressure, Euclid Cummings – the Bombers’ interior pass-rush specialist – had a decent game. The Bombers had Cummings play defensive end on numerous occasions, and I was thoroughly impressed with the sheer athleticism he showed on the edge for a 298-lb defensive tackle. Regardless, the Bombers’ decision to only dress three actual defensive ends – as opposed to the four they usually deploy – hurt more than it helped, with Cummings being forced to play out wide and giving Westerman literally no plays off.

The Bombers’ front-seven had been solid all year long up until this recent stretch of two consecutive losses to Alberta foes. A middle-of-the-pack team in terms of rushing yards allowed and opponent’s average yards-per-rush, the Bombers were also an average team with 26 sacks in 12 games. These statistics might not give the Bombers’ front-four quite enough credit, though. Sacks, for example, are not necessarily an accurate measurement of the effectiveness of a pass-rush – hurries and pressures are more indicative – and likely undervalues the play of the Bombers’ pass-rush during their seven-game win streak.

The Bombers have quietly been a mediocre defense against the run. Stout one week but bad the next, their run defense has been mostly hit-or-miss. Cummings and nose tackle Keith Shologan were brought in through free agency to dramatically improve a sluggish interior, and while the Bombers have had some poor games stopping the run, it’d be difficult to justify faulting the defensive line more than the inside linebackers. Veteran weak-side linebacker Ian Wild has had an up-and-down season, and last week’s tilt was one of his down games.

Under no circumstances did the defensive line play a great game against the run – in fact, this was a rather poor game by the standard they set themselves. Westerman was solid as an edge defender, but we’re accustomed to see him going above and beyond in this facet of the game, and he didn’t do much of the sort against an Edmonton offensive line that is really coming together.

The Eskimos didn’t use much misdirection against the Bombers, but rather a plethora of pulling guards and tackles. The Eskimos seemed to run several different plays off one concept that the Bombers could not stop – a combination of counter trey and outside zone.

White’s mesh-point resembled that of an outside zone play, except the Eskimos often pulled both backside lineman. Though they would do so on certain runs later in the game, the play-side offensive lineman did not always down-block to pick up the defenders on the backside. They changed it up as the game went on to keep Westerman honest, but the play-side defensive end was not left for the pulling guard. The Eskimos often had fullback Mike Miller on the backside, and with the mesh-point being out wide, the pulling linemen could simply lead-block up the gap or around the edge for White. The Eskimos ran a few different variances of this concept – including two with an unbalanced offensive line – and it was a concept that the Bombers could not stop.

The Bombers needed good run support from their defensive backs and linebackers to contain the Esks’ game-plan, and Wild certainly had his issues. Khalil Bass had a solid game filling gaps, absorbing blocks and scraping from the backside – unlike Wild, that is. His 10 tackles are an awfully high number, but Wild missed a lot of plays that needed to be made. It’s well-known that Bass is considerably more physical between the tackles – that’s why he was moved to middle linebacker this year – and it showed against Edmonton.

Below is an example of a play that good linebackers need to make. Wild is the back-side linebacker on this trap play, and must scrape towards the play and allow the ball-carrier to commit to a gap before attacking. Bass eats the block from the pulling left tackle, giving way for Wild to make the stop assuming he beats C Justin Sorensen to the point of attack. Unfortunately, Wild over-pursues and does not get big enough in the hole. While Sorensen was an impeding thorn in his side, the Bombers needed Wild to make a good play on White late in the fourth quarter. He could not. This is a play that Khalil Bass consistently makes. 

As a group, the Bombers’ front-seven is struggling down the stretch. They indicated a potential step back in their run-defense when Brandon Whitaker rushed for 100 yards in week 13, and have since lost their pass-rushing abilities, too. This front-seven is full of ultra-talented players, and have certainly proven to be a solid group this season.

They’re simply in a funk right now, and will need to return to form immediately seeing as every game has playoff implications – they cost the Bombers two crucial losses already.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS. (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO. ALL CREDIT TO THE AFOREMENTIONED ABOVE).
JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS. (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO. ALL CREDIT TO THE AFOREMENTIONED ABOVE).

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