They are numbers that have been recognized yet should be truly celebrated with a blare of trumpets across the Canadian Football League.
Willie Jefferson – the Winnipeg Blue Bombers game-changing defensive end – registered three knockdowns, along with three tackles, to move him into exclusive company as the only player in league history with 50 quarterback sacks and 50 pass knockdowns.
Jefferson now has 53 sacks and 52 pass knockdowns in his illustrious career, as first pointed out by TSN Sports stats guy Jon Perlberg. And what do those numbers mean, besides the impact the veteran defender has had on just about every game?
“It means a lot of work has been put in already,” began Jefferson in a chat with bluebombers.com, “but I’m about 50 away from 100 and I’ve still got some work to do.
“You look at defensive ends you usually just look at sacks, tackles, forced fumbles. But I’m different. I want to get my hands on the ball as many different ways as I can and most of the time when I do get my hands on the ball – whether it be a tip or a knockdown – most of the time it’s good for the defence and gives us the chance to get off the field or make a turnover.
“It’s just me putting my work in on the field. I’m not done. I’m nowhere near done. I’ve got a lot more work to do. Halfway to 100.”
Jefferson has three sacks, 12 tackles, a Pick-6 and a league-leading seven pass knockdowns this season. And it could be argued the four-time CFL All-Star – and the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player – might be having his best season. Jackson Jeffcoat, the other half of the Blue Bombers’ towers of power at defensive end, has missed two games this year and with that comes extra attention for Jefferson.
He’s been doubled with tight ends and fullbacks venturing to the tackle’s wing on whatever side he’s line up on and he’s had to fight through chip blocks. But in every game this year he’s registered at least one defensive stat, from tackles to sacks to knockdowns, to interceptions to tackles for a loss.
“He just has the ability to make a lot of different plays,” said Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea after Wednesday’s closed-to-the-media practice. “He’s just got all those different things in his quiver. He gets stopped on a rush, he gets his hands up. He’s dropping out, he covers a guy. He’s a certain distance away and he’ll intercept the ball and he’s going to score – he’s got a bunch of touchdowns in his career.
“He gets sacks, he can stop the run, he takes up a lot of space on the edge. He’s just a terrific athlete and more than that, he is a real playmaker. Some guys can be great athletes and it doesn’t amount to as much as a guy like Willie or guys that are playmakers.
“He is fun to watch,” added O’Shea. “I wasn’t aware of that (50 sacks/50 knockdowns) stat, but those numbers certainly add up. He’s always looking to make an impact and he does seem to do that to impact the game when you really need it, which that in itself is very impressive, too.”
Long-time CFL fans will point out that many defenders from other eras must have reached the 50-50 sacks/knockdowns mark. Fair comment, it’s just that the knockdown, for example, didn’t begin to get tracked until 1995. That shouldn’t take anything away from Jefferson’s accomplishment and the work he’s done on honing his craft – especially the knockdown aspect – since arriving in the CFL with Edmonton in 2015.
“It’s something you have to learn,” Jefferson said. “When I first came up here all I knew was to try to beat the man in front of me and try to get to the quarterback and get him on the ground. A lot of the time you get pushed around the quarterback or behind him and you have no impact on the play.
“Coach (Chris) Jones kept telling us if we can’t get around the corner, to get our arms into the throwing arm, especially with me being as tall as I am and having long arms.”
Yes, being 6-7 and having a massive wingspan certainly helps. But as Jefferson’s game matured so has his understanding of other ways to impact a play and, ultimately, a game. Jefferson had 16 pass knockdowns in 2019, setting a CFL record by a defensive lineman, and has had 28 in his last 39 games since joining the Blue Bombers. Four of his career six interceptions and two of his five career touchdowns have also come in Blue Bombers colours.
Again, this is about a man still working on his craft. The next target, the 100-100 mark.
“I’m not trying to be complacent and settle for the fact that teams are going to slide to me or give me an extra blocker or chip me… do this, do that. I still want to impact the game,” Jefferson said. “I still want to be the player I am and affect the quarterback or the run game as much as I can. So, if I’ve got to beat a double-team, switch sides, come into the middle, get off a chip block – whatever it is – I’m going to do it.
“I’m just trying to find the little things I can do to make myself better or have other teams off guard. I’ve just got to keep trying to get better, keep being hungry and keep being relentless in getting to the quarterback and affecting the game as many ways as I can.”