Despite two-consecutive playoff appearances, including a home playoff game last season, Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall has faced heavy criticism for his starting 12-man unit’s play since Hall’s tenure began with Winnipeg three seasons ago. Winnipeg finished with a 12-6 record in 2017 which was good for second in the league but managed to finish last in passing yards allowed per game – giving up over 305 yards per game. As a result, the Bombers’ secondary has taken a lot of criticism.
Some believe that the Bombers’ defensive personnel was the issue. Some believe that Hall’s and defensive backs coach Tonny Missick’s play-calling was the issue. And some believe it was a combination of both. Regardless, the blue and gold’s brass were aware of the alarming numbers that opposing team’s aerial attacks have put up in the last couple of seasons versus Winnipeg and made it a priority to change-up the personnel in their defensive backfield.
Changes that will benefit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Secondary
Personnel additions in the secondary
Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters added many veteran and rookie defensive backs to Winnipeg’s roster to bolster the competition in the secondary this spring. Former BC Lions’ defensive backs Anthony Gaitor, Chandler Fenner, and Steven Clarke (who was recently released) were all signed in the offseason, and rookies Mohammed Seisay, Robert Priester, Chirs Humes, Marcus Sayles, Jordan Thomas, Tyneil Cooper, and Jacob Firlotte are currently in camp.
The Bombers had arguably the best boundary-side duo in the league during the 2017 campaign in Chris Randle and TJ Heath, but suited up two rookies on the field-side for the majority of the season – Brian Walker and Brandon Alexander – who had their share of growing pains. Giving up scads of passing yards on the strong-side was a massive issue throughout 2017 for Winnipeg. Below is a chart of the four previously mentioned starting defensive backs and their 2017 coverage statistics.
Randle and Heath (the boundary-side duo) each started in all 19 games last season, while Walker and Alexander (the field-side duo) played in 16 each. In fewer starts, the numbers show that Walker and Alexander were targeted (and beat) more often per game despite being deployed on the side of the ball that often requires longer/difficult throws.
Fenner and Gaitor are bonafide CFL starters and will surely make a positive impact on the Bombers’ secondary in 2018. Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea is high on the class of rookie defensive backs in camp who are fighting for starting and backup positions, which is likely behind the reasoning of Steven Clarke’s release.
As mentioned, the Bombers auditioned and started a handful of inexperienced CFLers on the field-side last season. Along with Walker and Alexander, Kevin Fogg and Roc Carmichael started at least one game along the field-side in 2017. While no one in this group played superb or with consistency in 2017, all except Carmichael are back this season and all have gained a year of experience.
Albeit there is no guarantee that any of these three returnees will start, familiarity among the group has strengthened which is essential when it comes to communication on the field with one another. Veteran additions Chandler Fenner and Anthony Gaitor will also serve a beneficial role to the younger defensive backs in camp who are still learning the ropes of the CFL game.
Adam Bighill is the type of football player that makes everyone around him better. Although Bighill will be deployed as the starting middle linebacker, Richie Hall will undoubtedly move Bighill around the field with different personnel packages. Versatility is one of the former MODP’s strongest traits; Bighill played for the New Orleans Saints last season as a safety and bounced around from defensive end to safety during his time as a BC Lion.
Bighill’s cover skills are superior to the average middle linebacker’s and are definitely an upgrade in comparison to Winnipeg’s starting middle linebacker last year, Sam Hurl. Expect to see Bighill disrupt opposing quarterback’s when acting as a defensive end or a blitzing linebacker, and to be a force in the backfield as a safety in cover-2 looks or playing a middle zone.
Jordan Younger in at defensive backs coach
For those who were against the scheming and coaching of the defensive backs, Winnipeg parted ways with defensive backs coach Tony Missick in the offseason and added 12-year CFL veteran defensive back Jordan Younger as Missick’s replacement. Younger was playing in the CFL (Missick never played in the CFL) as recent as 2012 which will be beneficial to teaching multiple up-to-date techniques and schemes that are applicable to the CFL game – such as the waggle.
What the backfield currently looks like
At the moment, veteran Chris Randle is locked in at the boundary-cornerback spot, and Chandler Fenner in all likelihood will start at dimeback (strong-side linebacker) and Anthony Gaitor will start at boundary-halfback come week 1. Things will likely change when Maurice Leggett returns to health, as Fenner will likely move to boundary-halfback, Gaitor to field-halfback and Leggett will play at dimeback.
Kevin Fogg’s strong training camp has given the three-year vet a slight edge to start at field-cornerback, but Brandon Alexander, Brian Walker, Marcus Sayles, and Tyneil Cooper are all still in the mix.
The Bombers close out their preseason game action tonight when they travel to BC to play the Lions at 7:30 pacific time.
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