December 22, 2018

Year in Review | #6 Defensive Transformation

It started inauspiciously enough with a hard slap across the face in the first quarter of the first game of the year.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were hosting the Edmonton Eskimos in the curtain raiser of the 2018 Canadian Football League season at Investors Group Field back in mid-June. And, after forcing Mike Reilly & Co. off the field with a two-and-out on the first possession to open the season, the special teams unit had the guys in green and gold backed up to their own nine-yard line.

But on the next play, Reilly teamed up with Derel Walker for a 101-yard TD strike that seemed to instantly pop all the party balloons and good vibes that come with the start of a new season. And for those who had watched the Bombers struggle in playoff losses to the Eskimos in 2017 and the B.C. Lions in 2016, it was the kind of déjà vu moment that often comes with a string of curse words long enough to make a biker blush.

Yet, by the time the curtain dropped on the Bombers 2018 campaign, their defensive unit was considered a CFL force, ranking right up there with the crews in Calgary and Saskatchewan.

And that defensive transformation – from a bunch which was so susceptible to assignment busts and those dreaded ‘explosion plays’ to a feared force – comes in as the #6 story in our Year in Review series.

Consider these numbers, as evidence:

  • The Bombers surrendered 20.8 points per game defensively, second in the CFL only to Calgary’s 17.8. This after finishing fifth in points allowed in 2017.
  • The Bombers finished tied for first with Calgary in the turnover ratio (+13), marking the third-straight season they have led in this category. Over that stretch Winnipeg is +56, best in the CFL.
  • Winnipeg surrendered 4,814 passing yards in 2018, or 267.4 per game. That was fifth overall, but just behind Saskatchewan (245.5), B.C. (247.2), Hamilton (247.7) and Calgary (251.9). That also represented a marked improvement from 2017, when the 5,788 passing yards surrendered ranked dead last in the league.
  • The Bombers also surrendered just 19 plays of 30 yards or more defensively against, fewest in the CFL.


All of this is to say, the club made significant improvements on the defensive side of the ball. There were any number of reasons for that, from Jordan Younger and James Stanley joining the coaching staff, to head coach Mike O’Shea’s faith in defensive coordinator Richie Hall, to the obvious impact of linebacker Adam Bighill and other new faces like Anthony Gaitor, Craig Roh and Marcus Sayles.

Interestingly, Bighill saw the potential early in the season, telling in June:

“This is not last year. It’s completely different. We’ve got new guys in here. We’ve got new thought processes. We’ve got new schemes and new ways of approaching things. It would be completely foolish to say, ‘We’re going to do everything the same that we did last year’ because, obviously, it wasn’t good enough. Never, at any point, have we said, ‘We’re satisfied.’ We have that thinking every single practice when we’re out here, that we’re not ever satisfied, because there’s always a way to improve.

“You have to look at a defence year by year. I would just say you can’t judge a book by its cover. The sky is the limit here with the guys we have and what we can do on defence.”

Now, it’s not like there weren’t some blips with the Bombers defence in ‘18, especially in the first half of the season. But even though the club dropped its Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl doubleheader with Saskatchewan, there were signs the defence was finding traction when the games would matter most.

And as the Bombers finished the regular season by winning five of its last six and then went 1-1 in the playoffs, it could be argued that run was done largely on the back of a defence that had morphed into a powerhouse by September.

In the stretch run – and minus the regular season finale in which a number of regulars were rested – the Bombers gave up just 60 points in five games. And among those defensive gems were a 30-3 spanking of the Eskimos in Edmonton, a 31-0 shutout of the Roughriders at home, and a 29-21 victory over Calgary that sealed a playoff spot.

Bighill, named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player, was at the heart of that turnaround. But so, too, was a more aggressive defensive philosophy that saw the Bombers finish in a five-way tie for the most sacks in the CFL with 45, while adding 20 interceptions, tied for second most.

“We’re coming together at the right time. We’re playing really good football right now,” said Bighill late in the season, offering an update on the growth of the defence compared to earlier in the year.

“It’s been a growing process (for the defence). There’s always going to be some growing pains. I’m just proud of our defence and the way we’ve continued to step up these last few weeks now and really prove who we are and who we’re going to be.

“It’s still not done. There’s still more work to do. But we’re on the right journey and this thing ends at the end of November and we’re taking it one game at a time to get there.”

The big question heading into this offseason, of course, is whether Bighill – a pending free agent – will be at the centre of the Bombers defence next season. Ditto for Jovan Santos-Knox, Jackson Jeffcoat, Taylor Loffler and Kevin Fogg.

That said, as the calendar is about to flip to 2019 the state of the Bombers defence isn’t the concern it was at this time last year.

This is the fourth in a series recapping the Top 10 Bomber stories of 2018.

Next: #5 – Harris Goes Back-to-back