Those who watched last Thursday’s season opener between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers likely came across one familiar thought – this is the same old Bombers’ defence. After Derel Walker’s 101-yard touchdown, same old Bombers’ defence. Nate Behar’s catch on a two-point convert, same old Bombers’ defence. After Mike Reilly engineered a 14-play 90-yard game-tying drive, same old Bombers’ defence.
While assuming that 2018 will be a year of defensive letdowns from the Bombers’ defence, allow me to present a glass-half-full perspective.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers Defensive Breakdowns
Eliminating big plays is something that has been talked about around the Bombers’ locker room.
New #Bombers LB Adam Bighill to me, yesterday, on the defence allowing big plays: “There is no acceptance for any big play. It should never happen.”
— Paul Friesen (@friesensunmedia) June 15, 2018
Thursday night, the Bombers gave up big plays from start to finish through the air. Winnipeg gave up four passes of over 20 yards, allowed a league-worst 487 total yards, and as mentioned earlier allowed Mike Reilly to lead game-tying and winning drives. All of these statistics shine a bad light on Winnipeg’s defence.
But these defensive gaffs were different than years past and different from Winnipeg’s playoff meeting versus the Eskimos.
Edmonton versus Winnipeg – November 12, 2017
When Mike Reilly and the Eskimos defeated the Blue Bombers 39-32 in last year’s West semi-final, Winnipeg had multiple mental lapses. Reilly threw for 334 yards and three touchdowns, and CJ Gable added two scores on the ground. Winnipeg’s defence allowed Reilly and co. to score with ease due to busted zone coverages by their young defensive backs, and poor tackling.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) November 12, 2017
Edmonton versus Winnipeg – June 14, 2018
Last Thursday’s game was a different story. Derel Walker’s 101-yard touchdown was a case of one of the best receivers in the CFL beating one of the best defensive backs in the CFL. Chris Randle, the cornerback, maintained near perfect coverage, but Walker made a play. D’haquille Williams’ 46-yard grab over Kevin Fogg was a 6’3 receiver using his vertical advantage over a 5’10 defensive back, which happens from time to time (and 6’3 defensive backs do not grow on trees). Lastly, Nate Behar’s 2-point convert was an incredible catch and effort to stay in bounds.
Sometimes receivers beat defensive backs, sometimes defensive backs shut down receivers. It happens, and sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due in regards to the three previously-mentioned catches.
It should be noted too that on 21 attempts, the Eskimos averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. That number is significantly better than last year’s West semi-final in which Edmonton averaged 6 yards per carry on 23 attempts. Winnipeg’s run defence was excellent, and the likes of Drake Nevis, Jovan Santos-Knox, and Adam Bighill consistently factored into stopping Edmonton’s ground game.
Blue Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall also did a superb job of pressuring Reilly throughout the game, blitzing Santos-Knox and Bighill effectively and often. That combined with the performances of Jackson Jeffcoat and Tristan Okplauago made life harder on Reilly.
Concerns with Last Week’s Outing
After rewatching TSN’s feed of the Edmonton-Winnipeg game, I discovered some eye-opening concerns. The least, but still a concerning aspect of last week’s game is the defensive backs’ numbers in regards to targets, catches, and yards.
Chris Randle’s numbers are skewed by Derel Walker’s 101-yard catch-and-run, although Randle did not fare well. Randle’s boundary partner, Anthony Gaitor, had a tough outing too. Whether Gaitor was in man or zone coverage, every time Reilly threw the ball in his direction, it was caught. Kevin Fogg was targeted the most, which was mainly during the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Reilly attempted 15 passes, completing 11 for 102 yards. Of those 15 attempts, the nearest Bombers defensive back was eight or more yards away from the line of scrimmage 8 times. During all 15 attempts, the Eskimos trailed 30-22, or the game was tied at 30. What this means is that Richie Hall was basically calling a prevent defence in a one-possession game versus Mike Reilly. As a result, Reilly took what the Bombers gave him, throwing multiple short completions (slants) to his receivers.
With 49 seconds remaining in the game, Kevin Fogg lined up nine yards away from Derel Walker on the field-side. Reilly hit Walker on a slant route for a 15-yard gain, ultimately putting the Eskimos in field goal range. Enough said.
The Last Word
Winnipeg’s defensive errors versus Edmonton last Thursday were a result of poor execution. Pressure was applied on Mike Reilly, but he often escaped and made a play. The coverage was there, but the receiver won the jump ball. Executional errors are better to have than mental errors. Hence, believing that the Blue Bombers defence will be their same old self is jumping the gun. After all, they were facing off against Mike Reilly and a deadly Eskimos’ offence in strange circumstances (two weather delays, longest CFL game EVER).
Winnipeg now travels to Montreal to face off against Drew Willy and the Alouettes. Willy, the former Bomber pivot, led Montreal’s offence to a league-worst 10 points in Week 1. Montreal’s offence, specifically their passing game, is viewed as the worst in the CFL. To boot, the Alouettes are currently considered the worst team in the CFL.
In the end, the Bombers should be given a free pass for last week’s outing. That being said, if Winnipeg allows a plethora of passing yards and cannot contain Montreal’s offence, speculation about whether the Bombers’ defence is similar to last year’s will be valid.
In a competitive West Division, the blue and gold need to stay afloat by defeating a weak East Division opponent this Friday night.
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