Friday, March 7, 2014

Off-Season Roster Analysis: Winnipeg Blue Bombers Linebackers and Defensive Backs

This is part 5 of our 6 part series taking a look at the Bomber roster post-free agency.  This post will take a look at the linebackers and defensive backs.

A strong defensive backfield has become a Bomber hallmark in the late 00's and early 10's after many lean years in the mid 00's.  The 2013 Blue Bomber secondary ranked 2nd last in the league, only ahead of Toronto, in terms of passing yards per game allowed, and tied with Hamilton for most passing touchdowns allowed at 35.  

Now, there is one big excuse that turns the Bombers secondary (and defense as a whole) from an average or even good one into a bad one statistically.  That excuse is the complete lack of a functional offence. The more possessions a defense faces, the longer a defense spends on the field, the more yards and points it will give up as a rule.

The offence wasn't the only problem for the 2013 Blue Bomber defense though.  A scheme that relied heavily on assignment perfection with very little tendency breaking nor ability to disguise coverages and create pre-snap confusion for opposing offences was ripe for the picking as veteran players left their prime (Jovon Johnson), young players learned the ropes and inept players were thrust into the lineup out of necessity .  

Exhibit A for this was the week 5 game, where the Blue Bombers faced Bo Levi Mitchell in his first CFL start.  Simply put, they got picked apart, and did nothing to challenge a very young quarterback physically or mentally.  Mitchell did not have to make any difficult decisions or throws, an easy pass for 8 yards was always there. Where was the zone blitz?  We just let a guy in his first start complete 88% of his passes?  What?  If you needed a punch in the gut to realize the gulf between the coaching staff in Calgary and the Bombers 2013 coaching staff, that game was it.

In 2014, we can likely look forward to the other extreme.  Etcheverry doesn't tend to keep it simple like Burke.  He tries to disrupt the offence and cause pre-snap confusion.  Who is going to blitz?  Who is going to drop into coverage?  Anyone can and will do anything.  Neither philosophy is right or wrong, just different, and in either case you need 12 guys to do their jobs properly...and potentially the more moving parts you have on defense the more you confuse the guys who are tasked with executing the scheme, no matter how innovative it is.

Let's take a look at the current depth chart:

SAM- Banks, Dunn, Sears*

MLB- Parker, Hogue 

WIL- Wild, Tate, NEWMAN*

Weak CB- Randle, Sears*

Weak HB- Washington


Strong HB- Suber 

Strong CB- Markett, BUCKNOR


Rookies- Loper, Leggett

*Likely to play/be in contention to start in multiple positions

Let's take a look at each position individually.  It should be noted that it is very hard to judge linebackers and defensive backs when you don't know what the coverage call is.  It is also rare to get a good look from TSN broadcasts to let us determine the coverage being played on each play.

With that in mind...


This position has been problematic for the Blue Bombers for some time, since Clint Kent was deemed finished and released prior to the 2012 season, and was played primarily in 2013 by Desia Dunn.  

Dunn had an inconsistent rookie season, which is not unexpected. 
It is uncommon for a CFL rookie to be given the role of SAM without playing in another secondary position first, because it is a position that requires some familiarity with the Canadian game, heavy on reads and quick decision-making, plus they generally end up covering one of the opposition's top receivers.  Where does Dunn fit in 2014?    He'll be fighting to stay on the team as depth in my opinion.

Banks had played some version of this position for years in BC.  He should provide stability and leadership for the Bombers.  Will he provide all-star level play?  He sure should be motivated to prove Wally wrong, but at 35 he is clearly coming to the end of his illustrious CFL career (eight time divisional all-star, five time league all-star, two Grey Cup rings, $1 million dollar guaranteed Glieberman contract).

Johnny Sears has all of the skills you want in a SAM.  He is a vicious and reliable tackler in the box, he can cover any receiver on the field and he brings just a little bit of crazy to the field, not Hefney 09-11 crazy, but still a good amount.  Can he stay healthy?  In my opinion, Sears is unlikely to win a starting position in this crew due to his inability to stay on the field during his Blue Bomber career.  He is pencilled in as a designated import to play dime and maybe some other spots in different packages, and injury replacement.  Sears can play anywhere in the secondary, so that versatility works in his favour.


This position is up for grabs in the absence of Henoc Muamba, and regardless of who takes over there will likely be a significant drop in production.

We lack any CFL experience at this position.  Terrell Parker has played WIL, and backed up at LB, but not started at MLB.  He is a likely candidate to make the transition.  We don't have to worry about Parker's ability to get around the field, but will he be able to make plays between the tackles?

The other candidate under contract as of now is Doug Hogue from Syracuse via the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers.  Hogue started out his NCAA career as a running back, and converted to linebacker in his junior season.  See a couple scouting reports here.


Ian Wild is the incumbent at WIL, and seems to be a lock after a tremendous rookie season taking over after Terrell Parker's injury.  His scrappy versatility as a guy who can play in the box but also cover running backs and slots outside of it should fit well within Etcheverry's scheme.  In 2013 he was all over the field making plays.  Wild is also the incumbent long snapper and an excellent special teamer across the board, giving him even more value. 

Kenny Tate is an intriguing prospect who seems to fit at WIL, but could also figure in to the competitions at MLB, SAM and the secondary. Tate was recruited to Maryland as a receiver and converted to defender, and that's really the word that best describes his NCAA career.  He played everywhere.  Tate was a top NFL prospect who had some knee trouble that scared off NFL teams.  He will attempt to resurrect his pro football career with the Blue Bombers. 

Graig Newman also factors in at WIL.  He played at a hybrid linebacker position for Saskatchewan in limited packages, and based on Kyle Walters comments when he signed with the Bombers as a free agent, that is a role he may fill in Winnipeg.

Weak Corner-

Chris Randle comes to Winnipeg from a very crowded Calgary Stampeders secondary.  Randle played the weak corner spot for the Stamps, the same spot that Jovon Johnson has mostly occupied for the Blue Bombers since 2009 (after playing half in 2008).  It is safe to assume that Randle will remain at this key secondary position (weak-side are the easiest throws, your weak HB and CB should be your best DB's) for the Blue Bombers in 2014.

Randle led the Stamps in knockdowns (9) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (4) in 16 games in 2013 after being Calgary's nominee for Top Rookie in 2012.  

You can see a brief 2013 highlight reel for Randle here.  Clearly you can't judge a player by a three minute highlight reel, but one of Randle's clear strengths is the ability to make plays on the ball when it is in the air.

Johnny Sears has also played the weak corner position well in the past, but again, can the Blue Bombers rely on him to stay on the roster for more than three weeks at a time?

Weak Half-

Demond Washington will be the starting weak-side halfback for the Blue Bombers in 2014.  He is the top player in our secondary, and likely the top player on our defense with Muamba in the NFL.  Washington is an elite CFL player, he can go toe to toe with any receiver in the league, is a strong tackler, comes in to help stop the run, another vicious tackler and he has ridiculous football sense.  If a ball bounces off someone's foot and is still live or is tipped up in the air anywhere on the field, there's a 50-50 chance Demond Washington is coming down with it. 


This position is up for grabs.  The competitors in this derby are Donovan Alexander, Cauchy Muamba and Graig Newman.

Alexander and Muamba have experience on their side.  Alexander started at safety for the Eskimos the last three seasons.  Muamba has started much of the last two seasons for the Lions and Blue Bombers. Newman has seen limited playing time for the Roughriders.  

Generally there are three things you are looking for in a safety (and this may or may not apply with Etcheverry).  They are range: can the guy cover a lot of ground and take good angles to contest a pass or make a tackle; reads, when he cheats, does he make the right read pre and post snap and cheat to where the play is going, or is he always getting caught on the wrong side of the play; tackling, can he make a tackle consistently.

In my opinion, Muamba failed miserably at all three of these in 2013, although it is hard to judge his reads, the fact that he was chasing the play so often gives us some clues.  Muamba got burned on deep balls. The worst thing a defensive back can do when a ball is in the air is stop moving and try to read where the ball is headed without continuing to move, much like a fly ball in baseball, you need to be able to track the ball as you travel to it.  Muamba struggles with this and all it takes is losing one step to a receiver on a deep ball and it is game over. Tackling is also poor.  If a ball carrier came at Muamba, there was a good chance he would go for another 5 or more yards.  One thing Muamba did surprisingly well was blitz.  For a couple games in September including the Banjo Bowl, Creehan/Burke were sending him often, almost felt like they threw up their hands and figured since the safety can't cover, just send him at the QB.

Safety is a position that needs to improve, and there is no advantage for Muamba in this situation as the incumbent.

Strong Half-

Alex Suber is likely to start at strong halfback for the Blue Bombers in 2014.  Suber is now the longest tenured member of the secondary, entering his 5th season with the Bombers.

Suber is among the top DB's in the league at defending timing routes, slants, hitches, any quick dig routes or outs by a slot.  Anything downfield is a weak spot for Suber.  It's not a size disadvantage, it is an issue with tracking the ball, holding position and timing when to make a play on the ball.  Suber is also a strong tackler in the secondary.

Strong Corner-

This position is up for grabs, as it almost always should be.  Strong corner is one of the simplest positions on the field, and should almost always be occupied by a young, cheap player in my opinion.  Brandon Stewart has played this spot since 2009.  Far too long.

Marty Markett has the inside track on taking a starting spot here with a season under his belt.  Markett's best assets are speed, strong ability to cover downfield and make a play on the ball in the air.

Non-import Matt Bucknor could be in the mix for this position as well, at least in some packages to satisfy the ratio and potentially full-time if none of the non-imports pan out at safety.

Final Thoughts-

Middle linebacker and safety are huge concerns.  It is unreasonable to expect anyone to fill Henoc Muamba's shoes.  Will Terrell Parker step up and provide at least adequate play in that position?  Could the Bombers potentially add a CFL veteran like Robert McCune? 

At safety we brought Alexander and Newman in to compete.  Hopefully one of them can earn the position.  If not, we have some cover with Bucknor who can play corner, or with Newman to play a hybrid spot if he struggles at safety.

Randle is a clear upgrade on Jovon Johnson, and the mood of the team should be improved by the departure of a couple long suffering, physically declining vets from the secondary.

Demond Washington should have a huge season as a clear team leader in his 3rd year.  He's my pre-season prediction as the Blue Bombers Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2014.

There are a couple X factors on defense heading into 2014.  Johnny Sears, we know he can play, can he stay healthy and be a force wherever he lines up?  Kenny Tate, what can he do?  He's an exciting prospect based on his NCAA career, maybe not Dwayne Slay, but still exciting.

Joe Mack had a pretty good track record of bringing in impactful players at linebacker and defensive back.  Has the new regime unearthed any gems in 2014?

No comments:

Post a Comment