Bombers Deploy No-Huddle Offense to Rout Eskimos

To say the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense is feeling really good following a season-high 560 yards from scrimmage against the no. 1 defense in the CFL would be an extreme understatement.

With the entire offence leaping into the end-zone stands after major scores and QB Matt Nichols getting down with little touchdown dances of his own, it’s evident the Bombers are more confident than ever after knocking off the 7-0 Edmonton Eskimos with a 33-26 win on home turf. Andrew Harris, who racked up a ridiculous 225 yards from scrimmage on the night, had a very telling quote to reporters following the game, perfectly summing up how the offense was able to be so successful while simultaneously expressing a form of confidence the Bombers have earned the right to carry.

“We’re the best team in the league at the no-huddle. We put teams in the position where they have too many guys or the wrong personnel. We’re going to continue to expand that. It’s good to mix in throughout the game.”

Harris hit the nail on the head with that statement and explanation. The Bombers displayed one of the quickest, most efficient no-huddle offenses against Edmonton, consistently getting the ball snapped merely moments after the play is whistled in by the officials. As a result of this efficiency, the Bombers were able to consistently catch Edmonton before they were ready.

When watching this game, it’s clear Bombers’ offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice wanted to take advantage of Edmonton’s excessive defensive personnel substitutions by going no-huddle. Eskimos defensive coordinator Mike Benevides changes personnel groupings in-game more than any defensive coordinator in the league. In Thursday’s game against the Bombers, the Eskimos were constantly flipping between their base and nickel personnel (DB #42 Cauchy Muamba subs in at WILL linebacker) packages throughout the game, attempting to put faster, more natural cover players in space in passing situations.

Leading up to this huge week nine showdown, Lapolice and the Bombers’ staff clearly believed they could catch the Eskimos with either the wrong personnel on the field or without enough time to communicate everyone’s assignments after making personnel changes – and they were right. The Bombers had tremendous success with their no-huddle offence in this game.

It might sound hard to believe, but only 12 of the Bombers’ 73 offensive plays against Edmonton were actually ran from the no-huddle. It was the Bombers’ effectiveness on those 12 plays and the stress they put on the Eskimos, however, that made them seem to be more frequent.

The Bombers achieved a first down on a whopping 9 of those 12 no-huddle plays. They averaged 12.6 yards/attempt when passing the football with the no-huddle, which comes out to 15.8 yards-per-completion. The most mind-boggling statistic from this week nine game, however, is that the Eskimos took four illegal substitution penalties for having too many men on the field – all of which happened when the Bombers were in no-huddle.

The Bombers especially exploited Edmonton’s personnel groupings and substitutions by going no-huddle after explosion plays or big second-and-long conversions. On a 2nd-and-10 with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, the Eskimos bring out their dime personnel to stop the pass, substituting linebackers Christophe Mulumba and Alex Hoffman-Ellis for defensive backs Cauchy Muamba and Chris Edwards. After gaining 14 yards on a slip screen to slot-back TJ Thorpe, however, the Bombers are able to gain a fresh set of downs and, knowing Edmonton is stuck with 8 defensive backs on the field on 1st-&-10, Lapolice is licking his chops up in the coach’s booth. The Bombers go no-huddle, giving Edmonton no time to substitute their linebackers back in the game, and pound the ball with Harris, gaining seven yards on the play. Benevides actually tried to rush his linebackers onto the field while Nichols aligned his offence, but it was too late. In fact, Edmonton was called for illegal substitution (too many men) to add salt to the wound, as Hoffman-Ellis couldn’t get back off the field in time after trying to sub back into the game.

Edmonton scrambling to make personnel changes while the Bombers go no-huddle after converting second-downs was a massive reason for Winnipeg’s success on first-and-10. After allowing Andrew Harris to be wide open down the seam for 20 yards on 2nd-&-10 in the second quarter, the Eskimos attempt to substitute out of their base defense and into their 43 nickel personnel package, while also substituting Canadian pass-rusher Kwaku Boateng into the game for international DE Mike Moore. Once again, the Bombers’ are too quick getting to the ball for Edmonton, and the Eskimos take an illegal substitution penalty for too many men while also giving up 17 yards in the air to Clarence Denmark. In the below GIF, you can see Moore still walking off the field as the Bombers get the snap off with :17 seconds left on the play-clock.

With Matt Nichols quickly communicating the play and getting the ball snapped 2-4 seconds after play is whistled in, Edmonton defenders were routinely late getting to their spots and rarely had time to observe what the Bombers were doing pre-snap, struggling just to get their own play-call communicated and called out.

On this second-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Lapolice puts his offence in no-huddle mode after a modest three-yard pickup on first down. With neither team making personnel changes, Edmonton should be able to get their play called and everyone properly aligned, but Nichols and Co. are simply too fast. The Bombers catch Edmonton off guard with a rare empty set in the backfield, and the Eskimos simply do not have time to adjust accordingly with the ball being snapped with :16 seconds still on the play-clock. Edmonton is late getting lined up and TJ Thorpe is left with a free first-down worth of real estate ahead of him.

The Bombers’ tempo offence is also a big reason for their success in short-yardage situations. Nichols scored on a QB Dive from 1 yard out in the third quarter to make the score 23-10 after the Bombers went no-huddle and gave the Eskimos no time to bring out their goal-line personnel. The Bombers gained 10 yards and an automatic first down again in the fourth quarter by hurrying to the ball in a short-yardage situation, creating all types of confusion and disorganization for the Eskimos.

Despite the officials taking the time to bring out the sticks and measure, Winnipeg is in no-huddle mode. Seeing as the game was stopped for the measurement, Edmonton is not expecting the Bombers to rush to the ball as soon as the play is whistled in. Rather, they’re expecting the Bombers to call a play in the huddle after finding out they didn’t have the first down, or to substitute in their short-yardage personnel. But the Bombers do neither, instead using no-huddle verbiage in almost a “pretend” huddle to catch the Eskimos in mediation, waiting for the Bombers to declare whether they’re bringing out their short-yardage team or not. Edmonton is stunned to see the Bombers rush to the ball, and are stuck between having their base personnel and short-yardage personnel on the field. The Eskimos not only align offside, but are flagged for their fourth illegal substitution penalty for too many men on the night.

On what will be seen as a catastrophic night for Mike Benevides and his unit whom, on top of taking four illegal substitution penalties, missed countless tackles as well, Lapolice and the Bombers’ offence deserve full remarks for their game-plan and execution. Nichols routinely had the offence ready to snap the ball before even the officials – let alone the opposing defense – was ready.

Coming off their best offensive performance of the season, look for the Bombers to expand their no-huddle offense, as Harris suggests. Considering the success the Bombers’ no-huddle offense had on such limited snaps against the no. 1 defense in the CFL, upcoming defensive coordinators should be having nightmares about having to face this up-tempo Lapolice attack.

Harris’ Yards-After-Catch Ability Saves Offense Against Alouettes

It was no secret entering week five that Andrew Harris was the heartbeat of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, but in a match-up against a well-respected defense where the Bombers needed him most, Harris rose to the occasion and reminded the league of his value to the blue and gold.

Harris finished Thursday night’s contest as the Bombers’ leading receiver with nine catches for 93 yards, increasing his season receiving totals out of the backfield to 37 receptions for 298 yards (59.6 yards/game), with a whopping 249 of those yards coming after the catch.

Harris’ eye-popping receiving totals aren’t the result of anything extraordinary from offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. He hasn’t been lining up as a slot-back in two tail-back personnel sets like he did in 2013 with the BC Lions in his younger, shiftier days. Rather, with the way defenses are defending Matt Nichols, Harris is being fed the ball on simple check-down throws. And with the consistency of which Harris is converting these check-downs into first downs, Nichols owes a lot of thanks to the 30-year-old local product.

Without Harris’ clutch yards-after-the-catch, the Bombers lose to Montreal and fall to 2-3 on the season. The Alouettes and defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe prepared the perfect game-plan for Nichols, and with the exception of a couple nice plays in the final minute such as his 15-yard scramble to set up the game-winning score, Nichols struggled mightily to solve Montreal’s vaunted defense.

Thorpe, who heavily reinvented his defensive system this off-season – which I believe is the reason behind Bear Woods’ release – played to Nichols’ achilles heal: his lack of decisiveness against deep-dropping linebackers as well as 8 and 9-man coverages. With four linebackers and three defensive linemen as their personnel grouping of choice, the Alouettes tempted Nichols into checking the ball down. With Harris slipping out of pocket, however, the Bombers had a fantastic option to lean on when their quarterback could not solve the coverage.

All night Nichols looked uncomfortable in the pocket, hesitating before releasing the football knowing the threshold for error against so many defenders in coverage and tight windows is very small. Excluding all hitch screens, RPO bubble screens and broken plays (2 resulted in sacks), Nichols’ passing numbers sans Harris – who’s numbers are separate on the right of the chart – and garbage time emphasize how anemic the Bombers’ passing offense would have been without the Winnipeg product generating excellent YAC on check-down throws.

Evidently, with Montreal sending zone-blitzes to create five-men pressure with three defensive linemen, dropping the remaining two or three linebackers (depending on if a defensive back was one of two blitzers) deep, Nichols struggled to find his targets downfield. With cornerbacks playing loose-lock press-bail with LB help underneath and help over the top from the halfback, the windows in between defenders were very small. The Alouettes did a great job disguising which linebackers were coming and which were dropping into coverage, too, making Nichols very anxious in the pocket, resulting in several errant throws on short passes.

Fortunately Nichols could rely on Harris to keep the offense on the field when he struggled to solve the defense. Late in the second half, Montreal’s linebackers no longer wanted to take on Harris in the open-field, engaging on the powerful ‘back with arm tackles.

In the end, Harris finished as the Bombers’ leading receiver on top of scoring the game-winning rushing touchdown with no time on the clock. With how productive Harris has been on converting check-down throws in first downs, it won’t be long until teams defenses start keying on Harris coming out of the backfield, opening up the coverage downfield for Nichols.

Evidently, his effect on the Blue Bombers’ offense is tremendous.

 

How Nichols Can Shed the Game-Manager Label in 2017

Putting a label next to Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols’ name has been next to impossible throughout his seven-year career.

At times, he’s looked like a potential franchise quarterback, particularly when he first broke into the league. Other times he’s seemed to have capped off as a solid backup quarterback. During his seven-game starting streak in 2015 with the Edmonton Eskimos, consequently leading to Nichols being traded mid-season for a conditional seventh-round pick, the Eastern Washington product seemed closer to being out of the league than to being one-and-a-half years away from a monster contract extension, which he’s expected to receive from the Bombers in the coming weeks.

The past two seasons have provided some clarity in terms of who Nichols truly is as a quarterback, as 27 of his 32 career starts were made in either the 2015 or 2016 campaigns. Heading into 2016, Nichols had started just barely one season worth of games in his career. In the case of a late-bloomer at the quarterback position, it makes perfect sense that 2016 was Nichols’ breakout season, and that we likely haven’t seen his best yet.

Nichols established himself as a starting quarterback for the first time in his career this past season. While many will point to the Bombers’ turnover-creating defense, sound pass-protection and consistent run-game for Nichols’ success, the veteran passer still did a great job getting rid of the football quickly and limiting turnovers. Nichols’ numbers don’t compare to those of the elite quarterbacks in the league, but his record as a starter (10-3) speaks for itself. For these reasons, Nichols’ latest label has been a “game-managing starting QB”.

A game-manager in football is described as a quarterback with a very conservative play-style, who makes very few costly mistakes and relies on their defense or rushing-attack to win games. Although there were games where Nichols single-handily carried the team – the West Final in B.C. immediately comes to mind – this is a somewhat accurate way of describing Nichols’ play in his first true season as a starter.

Nichols operated very well within Paul Lapolice’s system in 2016. Entering the season, Lapolice prioritized protecting his quarterbacks and having them release the football quickly, implementing route combinations that give the check-down throws better spacing to get more yards after the catch.

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Nichols dealt with pressure – the achilles heal for most quarterbacks – surprisingly well. His yards per attempt only dropped about a yard when under pressure, and he maintained a very solid adjusted completion percentage of 61.8-percent. More impressively, despite his yards per attempt still being decently high at 7.4, Nichols’ percentage of turnover-worthy-throws didn’t even increase by a full percent when he was under pressure – 4.6-percent of his throws were deemed turnover-worthy when not pressured compared to merely 5.4-percent when under duress.

I first noted a bit of conservative play in Nichols’ game early in the season against the blitz. He was making good reads and getting rid of the ball quickly, but he was rarely actually making teams pay for sending pressure. That changed as the season progressed, and Nichols became a threat when defenses blitzed the pocket-passer on 2nd-and-long.

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While its not the case in the above GIF, Nichols’ mechanics naturally get messy under pressure. But despite his inability to consistently maneuver the pocket, as well as his erratic footwork, Nichols’ quick decisions and recognition have made him decently effective when blitzed or under pressure.

In my opinion, Nichols’ game-manager label was justified by his decision-making in 2nd-&-long situations when the defense drops 8 or 9 defenders in coverage. In these situations, defenses encourage quarterbacks to throw the underneath route so they can rally and make the tackle short of the sticks. While Nichols is good at recognizing coverages – and the coverage’s weaknesses – in these situations, he’s very reluctant to throw into tight windows between linebackers over the middle, quickly targeting his check-down or the underneath throw instead. If he sees pre-snap or during his drop-back that the coverage indicates that he’ll likely be forced to instead quickly progress to his reads in the intermediate level over the middle, Nichols is very reluctant to pull the trigger into a tight window.

Don’t be confused, though. This isn’t an Alex Smith situation. Smith, the poster-boy for game-managing NFL signal-callers, simply refuses to throw the ball deep. He’s far too comfortable throwing underneath and simply does not take any chances. Nichols takes what the coverage gives him, whether it’s a corner-route against cover-3 or a go-route down the sidelines on 1st-down.

nichols-conservative

The exception to this theory is, as mentioned, on 2nd-&-long versus a three or four man rush, and he’s forced to throw across the middle. An example of a situation like this would be if the Bombers had a smash concept (corner-hitch) in the boundary, with a high crosser from the most inside slot receiver to the wide-side and a little 5-yard sit from the most outside field slot. Nichols sees the cornerback drop into a deep-third and therefore knows the corner-route won’t be open. He can’t throw the hitch, as the defense will make the easy tackle and the Bombers will be punting. He moves on in his progression to the middle of the field, and though if he times the throw well and puts some some zip on the ball he’ll be able to hit the high crosser for a first down, Nichols hesitates and throws the check-down to the sit-route. The defense rallies to the pass-catcher and Mike O’Shea sends out his punt team. The home fans are in disgust seeing the QB throw a five-yard pass on 2nd-and-10.

There’s a time and place for throwing, for example, that five-yard sit-route on second-&-long. Offensive coaches love to say, “end every drive with a kick” – an extra point, field goal or punt – and if there’s truly no window open across the middle, its much better to live to see another down than to throw an interception.

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The above GIF is an example of a perfect time to take the check-down. That throw was safe and likely gave the Bombers the best chance to gain the needed yardage for a first-down. Kohlert was tackled one yard short of the sticks, but the Bombers were able to keep the drive alive and convert on 3rd-&-1. While Ottawa’s secondary forced Nichols into the check-down in the GIF above – and that’s OK – it becomes a problem when the quarterback quickly takes defense’s bait and throws underneath when he has even a slight hesitation about throwing over top of the linebackers.

Nichols is just as willing as other quarterbacks to give his receiver a chance to make a play, but he must fight the temptation of frequently taking the defense’s bait and missing opportunities for plays downfield on 2nd-&-long when the opposition drops everyone into coverage.

While there’s other weaknesses in Nichols’ game – those of which that are not linked to his game-manager label, but rather simply all-around flaws – he came along nicely in 2016. Lapolice likely graded Nichols out quite well, and perhaps better than other offensive coordinators would have. There’s a reason Drew Willy absolutely abused throwing the check-down to Andrew Harris out of the backfield in 2016 after seemingly not throwing a single check-down in two seasons under Marcel Bellefeuille. Under Bellefeuille, Willy thrived on using his solid arm-strength and decent release time to force plays downfield, but it unfortunately led to him taking a lot of punishment. Lapolice heavily encouraged his quarterback room when he took over to make quick, safe decisions and avoid taking unnecessary hits – after all, his starting quarterback was coming off a slew of injuries in 2015, including a season-ending knee issue. And while Lapolice certainly wanted to see Willy check the ball down more, it obviously wasn’t his intention to have no. 5 absolutely abuse them.

There’s reason to believe that Nichols can shed the game-manager label in his second year in the system. Lapolice will cater his offense towards Nichols’ strengths and the Bombers’ new-found, really good pass-protection. Nichols, who’s still growing as a passer at almost 30 years-old, has shown glimpses of what he needs to do more consistently in the future.

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Nichols has shown that he’s not that much of a game-manager, but he’s going to have to make more throws like the one in the above GIF against those types of coverages in the future to completely remove himself from that conversation. Although Rory Kohlert dropped the ball, that was a really great play by Nichols – evidently, there’s reason to believe that Nichols can make plays like this more consistently next year and ultimately shed the game-manager label in his 8th professional season.

He needs to be re-signed first before we talk about next season, though.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Walters, Bombers Must Ignore External Options, Pay Nichols

Its been 36 days since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 2016 season ended, and Matt Nichols, the team’s Most Outstanding Player nominee who resurrected the blue & gold from a 1-4 start to an 11-7 record, is set to be a free agent in about two months.

Contract negotiations between Nichols’ agent and Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters were expected to be very tough, with the Bombers hesitant to repeat the past of Drew Willy’s egregious contract, and Nichols’ party looking to take advantage of a time where their client’s stock may never be higher.

Nichols’ agent set the tone to begin negotiations, demanding a steep salary of $450,000 annually, a figure that neither the agent nor the general manager likely believe will be agreed upon. While $450,000 is simply too much to invest in Nichols whether or not the team believes he’s an elite QB in the making, if it comes down to paying the veteran of 32 career starts around $400,000 (similarly to Willy), the Bombers must disregard any external quarterback options and do what it takes to retain the services of Nichols.

If Walters deems Nichols’ asking price simply too egregious, he has likely fall-back options in Darian Durant and James Franklin. Durant is a proven commodity with low value on the open market who’d settle for exponentially less and more incentives, while Franklin is a young passer at 25-years-old that’s done nothing but make the most of his few opportunities in two seasons as a backup in Edmonton. Despite the intriguing possibilities both of these two options present, the Bombers must turn their cheek from these options and offer all their attention (and cash) to re-signing Nichols.

The Bombers haven’t had an established, legitimate franchise quarterback since Kevin Glenn in 2008. Allowing Nichols, the club’s first QB in five years to lead them to the playoffs, to walk because they’re unwilling to reward him with starting quarterback money – whether we’re talking elite QB money or average QB money – is absolutely foolish.

Soon-to-be seven years removed from a Grey Cup berth, the Bombers are in no position to gamble at the quarterback position. There’s no guarantee that Durant or Franklin will be an upgrade, or that their lesser dollar value will be worth the potential play drop-off that may occur at the position. Although he was surrounded with little talent on a terrible Riders team, the 34-year-old Durant wasn’t very good last season and has had a terrible slew of injuries recently. Franklin, meanwhile, has just three career starts under his belt, and we’ve seen many times before in this league where young quarterbacks flop in a full-time role after a promising debut.

Nichols’ 2016 campaign proved that, at the very least, his floor is as a bottom-tier starting quarterback. Not a solid backup quarterback, but a starting quarterback that’ll win you games if you surround him with plenty of talent – this is likely his floor. Despite six years in the league, we’ve yet to witness where his ceiling might be. Considering the vast improvement in his play from 2015 to 2016, its clear that Nichols is still developing and improving at 29-years-old.

Nichols appeared to reach his max potential as a mediocre backup option in 2015, which marked his first season as an appointed starting quarterback after Mike Reilly suffered a torn ACL in week one. Nichols struggled mightily last season while sporting the green & gold, but he improved steadily after a mid-season trade to Winnipeg in exchange for a conditional late-round pick. He entered the 2016 season as Drew Willy’s backup, but resembled an entirely new quarterback when he was given the keys to the offense in week six.

The truth is that Nichols hasn’t even started two seasons worth of games in the CFL. Heading into this past season, he had just 19 career starts under his belt. Nichols’ recent upward trend suggests he still has room to grow as a passer at nearly 30-years-old. Although it’s unlikely he’ll always be surrounded with the amount of talent that was at his disposal in 2016, his break-out season, his growth behind solid pass-protection and a hard-nosed run-game should have him prepared to carry the reigns in the future.

Nichols has the majority of the leverage in this contract negotiation. Kyle Walters and the Blue Bombers organisation must realize that he’s their best option going forward and he must be payed close to his asking figure, whether or not they figure he’s currently worth the upper-echelon quarterback money.

After all, Nichols is realistically their best bet and their safest bet, with the potential to pleasantly surprise the club in the future.

Assessing the Bombers’ Complicated Free Agents Situation

Thanks to GM Kyle Walters being on top of things and extending contracts early, the Winnipeg Football Club has been in favorable situations in terms of having a relatively small amount of pending free agents to re-sign in the off-season since he took over in 2013.

Despite having already extending key players such as Chris Randle and Mathias Goossen, Walters is still poised to face decisions regarding the most free agents he’s had since taking over the player personnel reigns from Joe Mack. Fortunately, the Bombers’ 19 pending free agents about represents an average number in the CFL.

The Bombers’ cap situation is quite interesting heading into the off-season. They’re now without the egregious contract of Drew Willy, but Nichols’ needed pay-raise – which will likely contain a base salary of at least $300,000 – erases much of the breathing room when you consider that both Khalil Bass and Darvin Adams after expected to go from making peanuts over the last two seasons to north of $100,000 annually.

There will be other pending free agents, of course, that will demand smaller pay-raises, but pay-raises nonetheless. Every penny counts for the Bombers this off-season considering the league’s minuscule salary cap of 5.1 million. Evidently, Walters can’t keep everyone. (Although it does make sense to wish for as much continuity as possible in order for this young team to build on a successful 2016 season). It would also be nice to have a little bit of free cap space for a change after the shopping spree that was the free agency spending last February.

As we look into who should stay and who should go regarding the club’s upcoming free agents, its important to consider that the Bombers will make other moves that will affect their re-sign phase that aren’t directly previewed at this time. The Bombers could be poised to release players with large cap hits such as Patrick Neufeld, which would completely change the way the re-sign phase is approached. For now, though, we’ll deal with the cards that are dealt.

The club released their free agents list on the official team website. Here’s my take on the team’s suspected current cap situation in relation to their upcoming free agents, and which of their 20 should be offered an extension.

Retain without hesitation…

QB Matt Nichols

Nichols has provided the Bombers with the most stability at the quarterback position since Kevin Glenn’s first stint in the blue and gold. As proven by the Montreal Alouettes and certainly the Bombers themselves, quality quarterbacks are not easy to come by. Whether they’re elite passers or lower-echelon game-managers, starting-caliber pivots are a must-resign when the free agent market is as weak as it will be this February. Negotiations won’t be easy between Nichols’ party and Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters, as Nichols has leverage thanks to both the free agent market and his 10-3 record as the starter in 2016. On the other hand, Walters must be careful with both the term and annual average value of the deal following the Drew Willy contract disaster, as well as Nichols’ unconvincing numbers that could regress next season. Regardless, this deal absolutely must get done as soon as possible. The Bombers need Matt Nichols.

WR Darvin Adams

All Adams did in 2016 was produce. Though his season was ravaged by a broken collarbone injury that limited the fourth-year veteran to just eight games, he was productive enough in limited action to warrant a significant pay-raise from the dollar figures he first signed for two off-seasons ago when he came over from the Toronto Argonauts with 261 career receiving yards. Adams accumulated 690 yards and six scores this season, and his phenomenal yards-per-game average of 86.3 yards puts him in the elite company of Adarius Bowman and Chris Williams. Don’t expect Adams to get paid like those two – the minuscule sample size is one of a few reasons – but he’ll still be benefiting financially from an extremely production season.

LB Khalil Bass

Bass’ value to the Bombers’ defense, despite only being a professional for two seasons, is often over-looked. He’s their much-needed bruiser between the tackles, eating blocks to free up his teammates and causing havoc at the point of attack like no one else on the defense does. He provides a steady back-side presence when the ball goes away from him, and is a surprisingly consistent tackler despite his willingness to deliver the bone-crushing hits. As the MIKE, the young ‘backer is depended on to shift his defensive lineman’s alignment and switch around assignments based on the offensive formation and motion, and as far as I can tell, Bass seems is quite reliable in that sense, too. At just 26-years-old, the Bombers need to keep around the Portland State product who’s stepped up and filled a key role in the defense in just his second season.

FB James Tuck

The Bombers were in no dire need to pick up other team’s Canadian training camp casualties, but they pounced on the opportunity to sign Tuck when the Argos released him – and for good reason. Tuck was a special-teams demon in 2016, and at the ripe age of 26, he should be around for awhile. While he falls into the category of a pure special-teamer who doesn’t necessarily have a regular position on offense or defense, Tuck does provide emergency depth at fullback, with Christophe Normand dressing as the Bombers’ lone fullback.

LS Chad Rempel

Rempel’s name was rarely – if ever – brought up this season. As a long-snapper, that’s always a good thing. Rempel, 35, is truly one of the best in the business.

Should the price be favorable….

LB Tony Burnett

Burnett, 26, should be re-upped from his rookie deal with a one-year contract. With Ian Wild missing several games due to injuries, Burnett had the opportunities to prove himself on defense and did not look out of place. In fact, the drop-off from Wild to Burnett was hardly noticeable at all. The USC product is another good season away from being in high demand on the free agent market to fill a starting role next year. The Bombers won’t let him walk, however, if he unseats Wild for the starting job at weak-side linebacker in 2017 – a move that would make sense financially and potentially on the field, too. If he’s again a depth player behind Wild next season, Burnett will continue to be heavily-relied upon on special-teams as he gathers film for a trip to free agency in 2018.

QB Kevin Glenn

A proven backup quarterback is a must-have in the CFL. At this point in his career, Glenn, soon-to-be 38, is exactly that. Youngsters Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett haven’t given the Bombers any reason to go young and cheap at the position. Glenn must be re-signed.

SB/KR Quincy McDuffie

McDuffie had a quietly good first season in Blue after three seasons in Hamilton as depth to Brandon Banks. He’s merely 26-years-old, and led the league in both major kick return categories: return average (27.7) and touchdowns (2). McDuffie will likely take over all return duties next year, as its not ideal to have a starting DB in Kevin Fogg returning punts full-time. And if Fogg does not earn a starting job in the secondary, there’s likely not a spot on the roster for him at all. McDuffie, meanwhile, looks to be a solid backup receiver when used properly, too. He’s well deserving of a slight pay-raise from the near-league minimum he likely earned in 2016.

LB Sam Hurl

Hurl is a very solid special-teamer and, despite the Bombers being destined to draft another linebacker in 2017 along with recent draftees Garrett Waggoner and Shayne Gauthier, it he would be a noticeable loss if he isn’t deemed affordable. Signed as a starter two seasons ago, Hurl will have to take a pay-cut after being demoted following his first season in Winnipeg.

QB Dominique Davis

Davis has had very few chances to show his skill in a real-game situation, and that could work in his favor. In terms of accuracy and ball-placement, Davis was clearly superior to fourth-string quarterback Bryan Bennett, who’s also a free agent, in the pre-season. The Bombers are looking for a young quarterback to move into the backup role and displace Glenn, and though they’ll likely add two new faces in the off-season, expect them to retain one of Davis and Bennett. The former, who kept his third-string job all season, should be the one.

SB Thomas Mayo

At minimum salary, the Bombers may as well bring back Mayo, who showed potential in his few opportunities, for training camp.

Worthy but likely not affordable…

DT Euclid Cummings

Cummings is an athletic specimen who’s statistics did not represent his effectiveness in his first season in the blue and gold. While his sack totals decreased from 8 in his unofficial rookie campaign to just three sacks in 2016, he remains an above average pass-rusher at a position largely centered on pass-rushing – the 3-technique. The 290-pounder provides versatility in that he can shift out to defensive end if needed, possessing the speed and some of the flexibility needed for playing on the edge. Regardless, as an international defensive tackle who was inconsistent against the run, the Bombers can’t break the bank for Cummings. I was surprised to read reports indicating Kyle Walters paid Cummings $140,000/year after really just one season in the league in 2015. He’ll request about the same money this year, and seeing as Darvin Adams and Khalil Bass will go from making pennies to well north of $100,000 this off-season, the Bombers may have to sacrifice Cummings, who could leave for the NFL regardless.

Clarence Denmark

There’s a decent chance the Bombers make room to bring back Denmark, which would likely come through releasing Tori Gurley, who has an official contract in place should he not defy the odds and earn another NFL shot. But the Bombers have to be weary in investing veteran money in international players. They certainly can’t keep both Denmark and Gurley along with Weston Dressler, Darvin Adams and Ryan Smith. For now, Denmark is the one without a contract for next year.

Time to move on from…

WR Rory Kohlert

After starting all 18 games for the third straight season – well, he missed one game last year –  Kohlert lost his starting position heading into the West semi-final, a move that was long overdue. Kohlert’s numbers have continually declined since a career-high 594 yards and three TDs in 2014. The Bombers are desperate for improved production from a Canadian at field-side wide receiver – Kohlert has shown that he’s no longer capable.

HB Julian Posey

The Bombers are loaded with faces at defensive back. There’s no reason to bring back a occasional-practice roster player that gave up an average of 41 receiving yards/game in six starts.

LB Jessie Briggs

Having drafted Canadian linebackers Garrett Waggoner and Shayne Gauthier in the last two years, the Bombers will likely choose between Briggs and Hurl in the coming months. Briggs is the cheaper option, but Hurl has significantly more starting experience. Though he played injured, Briggs had a poor season this year, riddled with penalties and missed tackles.

FS Teague Sherman

Though he was certainly legitimately injured at one point, the Bombers willingly kept Sherman off the active roster with the emergence of rookie FS Taylor Loffler. Fellow Canadian defensive backs Derek Jones and Brendan Morgan are already under contract for next season, leaving little room for the veteran. The University of Manitoba alumni should get another look elsewhere in the league.

QB Bryan Bennett

Seeing as they picked up Kevin Glenn mid-season, the Bombers certainly aren’t completely sold on Davis and Bennett for immediate returns. Glenn’s arrival could be irrelevant, but look for the Bombers to bring in a new arm next season to hopefully compete in the future for the no. 2 spot.

Bombers’ Bye Week Comes at Perfect Time for Team Looking to Peak

For a team looking to play their best football of the season to both solidify the second seed in the West as well as enter the playoffs at their peak potential, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ bye week could not have come at a better time.

Coming off a gutsy comeback win at BC Place Stadium, Mike O’Shea’s group especially needed the bye week to help shorten their injured lists, with several players battling week-to-week injuries and others in need of one last week to return from longer-term ailments. In the young week of practice since resuming from their break, the early returns of the bye week have been promising for the Bombers in preparation for their week 19 tilt against Ottawa.

Both weak-side linebacker Ian Wild and nickel linebacker Maurice Leggett seemed to have benefited from the week off, as the two have suited up for consecutive practices. Wild has been on and off the active roster recently, battling some sort of hindering injury. Leggett, meanwhile, also missed the Bombers’ last game despite returning late in their week 16 game after suffering a then-seemingly serious knee injury early in the second half. With the week off, Leggett’s injury is likely a thing of the past. Wild should be good to go against the Redblacks, too.

The upcoming home-and-home with Ottawa features two important games for the Blue and Gold. Of course the Bombers, who have long clinched a playoff spot, and likely won’t finish lower than third in the West, desperately want that home playoff game, but they also need to put together a complete, all-around dominating performance. That hasn’t occurred since the win over Hamilton in week 8, really.

The Bombers have yet to hit their peak in 2016. Either the defense forces an absurd amount of turnovers and the offense does enough – but nothing spectacular – in approximately a 250-yard passing game, or Matt Nichols and the offense plays great and the defense holds them back (see recent loss versus Edmonton). The latter of which has rarely taken place in 2016 – the offense has been good, not great – but seeing as the first situation has been their most common recipe to success, it’s succeeded more times than it’s caught up to bite the Bombers in the rear. Regardless, it’s time the team reached its peak, with the offense firing on all cylinders, going beyond simply benefiting from turnovers, while the defense continues their ball-hawking ways – all in the same game. That’s where they’ll need to be in the playoffs.

With the injury report looking quite favorable in return from the bye week, the time is now for the Bombers. The offense will get a significant boost in the return of Darvin Adams, who’s been out since week 6 with a collarbone injury. With newly-signed additions Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith still finding their place in the offense, and Drew Willy struggling mightily at quarterback, Adams was single-handily carrying the Bombers’ offense at one point. The Auburn University product was on a tear to start the season, accumulating 503 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games to open his second campaign in Winnipeg. Adams will draw in for newly-signed pass-catcher Tori Gurley at the X-position, who still needs time to perfect that play-book. Offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice, meanwhile, probably still needs more time and another game before deciding which slot-back between Clarence Denmark and Smith will be pulled from the roster to make room for Gurley down the stretch, if the Bombers do, indeed, go that route. Adams’ insertion directly into Gurley’s spot continues the recent theme of a bigger-bodied receiver at boundary wide receiver, who can stretch the field and offer their quarterback a larger catch radius on lower-percentage throws.

Along with Adams, the Bombers received more positive news from the long-term injury front, with versatile Canadian offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld returning to practice for the first time since going down in week five against Calgary. The timing couldn’t be any better for the club, as with RG Sukh Chungh on the 1-game following the win against the Lions, it means they now won’t have to… a) keep not one, but two of their bona-fide starting international receivers on the sidelines for a seventh Canadian starter so the Bombers can start a fourth American on the line in Manase Foketi… and b) press rookie Canadian Michael Couture into the starting lineup, as the Simon Fraser product has shown he needs more seasoning in a depth role before being a starter, even in a one-game scenario.

Neufeld returning to the field following the bye week in time to replace an injured starter is perfect timing, as was the bye week itself. The team needs to reach their peak potential, and it’s now late in the season. The playoffs are just around the corner.

The Blue and Gold are undoubtedly getting healthy at the right. So the question remains: will they play their best football of the season at the right time, though?

Darvin Adams (4) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the pre-season game at TD Place in Ottawa, ON on Monday June 13, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Darvin Adams (4) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the pre-season game at TD Place in Ottawa, ON on Monday June 13, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

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).

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.

Image result for cover-1 robber

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

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.