Menu
@
July 21, 2022

3 Storylines | WPG at EDM

EDMONTON – It’s easily the toughest act to follow in the Canadian Football League in 2022 and an encore many would say was virtually impossible to even come close to repeating.

A year ago, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ ‘Dark Side’ defence allowed just 13.4 points per game while serving as the foundation of a second consecutive Grey Cup championship. That total wasn’t just the lowest in the CFL, it was the stingiest defensive number in these parts since the 1958 Blue Bombers allowed just 11.4 points per game.

So, something to consider as the Blue Bombers – a perfect 6-0 through the first third of their schedule – landed here in the Alberta capital to face the Edmonton Elks Friday night: Even with their injuries and changes – and even with all the offseason rule changes aimed at improving scoring and field position – the Blue Bombers defence is still rolling along, having surrendered a league-low 17.3 points per game.

The intriguing part here? The Blue Bombers’ defence of ’22 is still very much a work in progress.

“We’re getting better every week,” began all-star linebacker Adam Bighill when asked to assess the club’s defence at this point of the season. “We’re still a ways away from where we want to be, but we’re a lot better than where we were in Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3. I can’t really put it on a scale from where we are to where we want to be, but we’re a lot better.

“It’s just been getting that one play better every single time and some of these young guys can see some of these reps and they’re learning, they’re growing which is great. That’s our expectation and now it’s really about continuing that process to be that dominant defence we want to be.”

“We’re starting to see more flashes of that. We gave Calgary a tough time, especially on second down last week (just 25 percent on second-down conversions) and we want to do more of that. We want to keep getting off the field and playing smart, clean football and keep taking the ball away. We’ve been doing a decent job of that this year and there are some things we need to keep working on.”

Remember, too, the Blue Bombers have yet to get a single snap from all-star safety Brandon Alexander this season as he recovers from offseason surgery, while linebacker Kyrie Wilson suffered an Achilles injury. All told, there are three new starters in the defence in Malcolm Thompson, who is replacing Alexander, dime back Donald Rutledge, Jr. and cornerback Demerio Houston, while Casey Sayles – who split work with Steven Richardson last year – is now getting the bulk of the work at one defensive tackle spot.

And as those guys settle in and get more comfortable, this defence could become even stouter.

“At the end of the day in playing professional football continuity is huge,” said Bighill. “It’s knowing who you’re playing next to and communicating and understanding how you guys are going to play in the framework of the defence. The Xs and Os are one thing, but how those Xs and Os move in real life and how you talk, communicate, understand the strengths and weaknesses of a coverage or what you’re seeing… it’s how you make it easier for each other.

“…Offences don’t make it easy on you, because there are ton of looks. So, the idea is the more you get the better you will get. That’s one thing we do a really good job of on defence – fixing mistakes really quick and getting better and levelling up every single day. That’s one thing I see guys doing that I’m proud of and I know helps teams become great defences.

“Make as many mistakes as you want, but don’t make the same ones twice and by November we’re going to pretty darn good.”

More on the Blue Bombers defensive numbers in their 6-0 start and other topic in this week’s 3 STORYLINES…

1. FEWER POINTS ALLOWED > FEWER YARDS ALLOWED

A defence isn’t measured solely on statistics, but they can be revealing. Case in point, the Blue Bombers’ defence – while allowing that league-low 17.3 points per game and having surrendered just seven touchdowns in six games – ranks sixth in yardage allowed per game (348.2) and eighth in passing yardage against (292.3) while allowing a league-high 13 pass completions against of 30 yards or more.

Worth noting: the team is also second in turnovers forced (17), second in rushing yards allowed (73.7) and tied for first in interceptions (nine).

“I’m not a stats person, but I do know this: how many points do you score, how many points do you give up? That’s what decides who wins football games,” said Blue Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “We don’t want to give up a lot of yards but, more importantly, if you don’t give up a lot of points it increases your chances of winning football games.

“Like we say all week long, our motto is ‘0, 1, 3’ every time we go on the field. If you’re able to keep a team out of the end zone you increase your chances of winning football games regardless of how many yards they get.”

2. WHATEVER IT LOOKS LIKE, GET THE ‘W’

The Blue Bombers offence had come under some criticism even in the team’s remarkable start, particularly for its inconsistency in running the ball. Winnipeg ranks fifth in rushing at 83 yards per game and sixth in passing at 264.5 yards.

Yet, Zach Collaros leads the league in passing and Greg Ellingson is the top receiver – granted only three teams have played six games in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Edmonton.

The bottom line is the attack is simply finding a way to play its role in racking up the Ws, and that is offensive coordinator Buck Pierce’s approach each week. Critical in all of this is Collaros, who has thrown for 603 yards with five touchdowns against no interceptions in the last two weeks – a win over 141 yards rushing and the victory over Calgary that featured just 45 yards along the ground.

“Zach… He’s just playing free,” said receiver Drew Wolitarsky this week. “That’s the thing with this offence – we have a lot of freedoms because we’re all smart players. This is the smartest offence I’ve ever been on. We have our scheme, but at the end of the day you’ve got to react out there and Buck puts us in great positions. He really does.

“We have great schemes, but a lot of big plays are coming from scrambles. It comes from this communication, almost invisible communication. We were laughing the other day… Zach said, ‘I’ll be scrambling and then we lock eyes.’ That just comes with playing with someone, with winning and losing with someone. You just build a relationship. We’re playing our freest football.”

3. HEAD DOWN, SOLDIER ON

The Blue Bombers are in their nastiest stretch of their schedule with five of six games on the road, including the next three away from IG Field in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal.

This current chunk began the Monday-Saturday back-to-back in Toronto then Vancouver, has seen them face two previously unbeaten teams in the Lions and Stampeders. Not only that, when they are in Calgary next week, they’ll be facing a Stampeders team coming off a bye.

There’s more – the Blue Bombers will be the last team in the CFL to enjoy a bye week, with that not coming until Week 11 of the schedule in mid-August. By that time Ottawa, Toronto, B.C. will have already had two bye weeks.

And here’s the thing about all this – you’ll hear nary a peep of complaint from anyone in Bomberland.

“It’s the schedule,” said O’Shea with a shrug when asked about managing this chunk. “Of course you need to be aware of it and have some foresight to plan, but I don’t know that anybody thinks about much more than, ‘What are we doing today?’ When the guys the focused on being in the present, then they don’t worry about all that other stuff.”