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June 23, 2021

“We’re at a different level”

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sports - Bombers Photo of Winnipeg Blue Bombers DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Coach, RICHIE HALL, during practice with team at the U of M Sports field on Chancellor Matheson Road Wednesday. Oct 16h, 2019

Richie Hall has had a lot of time to reminisce about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 2019 Grey Cup championship and his voice gushes with pride when he speaks about his defence during that memorable November run.

Yet, like so many who were stung by the loss of the 2020 Canadian Football League season and how the pandemic has delayed the start of 2021, the Bombers’ defensive coordinator is also thrilled just to be getting back to the grind again.

And what the Bombers have returning on defence – even with the departures of starters like Winston Rose, Marcus Sayles, Drake Nevis and Craig Roh – is still pretty dang good.

“We have a good foundation that we’ve put in place over the last number of years and what we want to do is expand on what is already in place,” began Hall in a Zoom call with media on Wednesday. “Will it be the same as what we did in 2019? There will be some similarities, but at the same time 2021 is different.

“We’re at a different level. We have different players. They’re comfortable in what we’re doing and we just want to take it to the next level.”

The Bombers defence ranked fourth in the CFL in offensive points allowed in 2019 at 21.5 and were by far the stingiest unit against the run (64.2 yards) and sixth versus the pass (303.4 yards). As well, the defence’s 45 forced turnovers was second overall to Calgary, who had 47.

But it was in the Grey Cup playoffs that the Bombers’ defence found another gear or two, limiting the Stampeders to 14 points in the West Semi-Final, the Saskatchewan Roughriders to 13 points in the West Final and then the powerful Hamilton Tiger-Cats to just a dozen in the Grey Cup.

In those three games – including two in hostile territory – the Bombers yielded just four touchdowns. Now the focus is on building on what happened in November and finding new faces for the secondary.

“When you look at it right now, if we had to line up today we have 10 starters,” said Hall. “The biggest thing we have to look at is we lost Marcus Sayles and we lost Winston Rose. That’s the onus of emphasis right now, trying to find two people to replace that and provide depth all around. We as a staff feel very good going into training camp right now just because there’s not a lot of patchwork we’re trying to fill.

“Is (finding replacements) easy? No, I don’t think it’s ever easy replacing people of the calibre we lost. But, at the same time our secondary at the beginning of 2019 was different than when we won the Grey Cup. It’s an evolution.

“We have a lot of young guys that we’re excited to see that are going to be battling it out and that’s why you have training camp. We’ll see who wins. Are we concerned about it? No. When you look at each year there’s always been a number of changes that we’ve had to make for whatever reason and we seem to have come out OK and the talent they have brought in has risen to the top.”

The Bombers are excited about two veteran free-agent additions signed in 2020 in defensive back Josh Johnson and defensive end/linebacker Tobi Antigha. As well, vets like Nick Taylor and Mercy Maston were in-season additions who didn’t start until near the end of ’19. Couple that with the late-season move of Brandon Alexander to safety – he’ll open camp there – and this group is gung-ho just to have a full training camp together to build on that chemistry that seemed so instant in the playoff run.

“We feel very confident as a staff,” said Hall. “Those guys, they’ve been here, they understand the culture that Coach O’Shea has created. You’re going to have an opportunity to be successful. Anyone coming here is going to have an opportunity to hoist that trophy because we have a good football team – offence, defence and special teams – and we’ve shown that over the last number of years. We don’t have a blueprint as to how we win football games, we just find a way to win.”

WELCOME ABOARD

Hall will be working with a new defensive line coach this season, as Darrell Patterson replaces Glen Young, who has moved on to be the Toronto Argonauts defensive coordinator. Hall and Patterson both played in the 1980s – Hall as a corner with Calgary and Saskatchewan; Patterson as a linebacker with the Blue Bombers and Ticats.

But it was a conversation Hall had with hall of fame linebacker James West that helped seal the decision to bring in Patterson.

“Matter of fact, I talked to Darrell about a year ago when the position became available when Glen departed,” said Hall. “I didn’t know a great deal about him because he was playing for Winnipeg and Hamilton and I was with another team. I remember competing against him, but never had the opportunity to work with him.

“There’s a person that I keep in contact with regularly that’s a real good friend of Darrell and that’s James West. He was connecting things as far as telling me some of the things about him as a person. Football is football, but the other thing is will he be a fit for us as far as our staff. I’m very excited to have him aboard and he’s very excited to be coming back to Winnipeg.”