There's a saying in the reality-TV Jackass-era programming, that, "if you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough." Well, in the world of pro-football, if you're gonna be small, you better be fast, and be even tougher.
The two-week pre-season in the CFL is not the time to make definitive statements about a football team. While the optics of only being outscored by five points in two games are dramatically better than the 70 points they were outscored by in 2013, it is too early to predict what lies ahead for the 2014 Bombers.
It's difficult to gauge success or failure in the pre-season because each opponent you face has its own agenda in terms of starter exposure, game plan, and evaluation criterion. If you think you have your football team pegged before Week 4 or 5 of the regular season -- especially after as much change as this team has incurred -- you are fooling no one other than yourself.
The one thing the pre-season does, though, is provide a snapshot of what is being emphasized, and defensively speaking, we may finally be able to see the direction this Gary Etcheverry scheme is headed in.
Only the greatest of defences, with the rarest combinations of talent, have the ability to take away everything, and limit both the run and pass at once. More commonly, a defensive co-ordinator forges his scheme around what he feels his priorities are to defend, and compromises other areas. If you are primarily concerned about the pass and pressuring the quarterback, then the way you build your team may create vulnerabilities on the ground, and vice versa. For every scheme, for every coverage, for every front and blitz, there is a weakness. Defence is all about defending the probabilities of down and distance, and minimizing the greatest perceived threat in any situation.
To that end, with what little we have been shown of this Bomber defense in two pre-season games, and from what we have been told, giving up yards on the ground may be the price that is paid this season for a stingy backfield over the top, and hopefully, a yet to be revealed, unrelenting pass rush.
With two exhibition games in the books, and nine days to go before things get real, we have every indication this is the identity this defence is shooting for. Against Toronto and Calgary, the Blue and Gold gave up 135 yards and 193 yards on the ground, respectively, for an average of 164 yards a game. While that would be an ugly trend to accept and digest over an 18-game schedule, surrendering just under 200 yards a game against the pass -- like the Bombers just accomplished -- would be a trade-off I would be willing to take, if the sacks also picked up to an elite level in a yet-to-be seen attacking scheme.
You didn't have to be a defensive super sleuth to have seen this style of play coming, and its requisite shortcomings. As soon as the Bomber brass started talking about emphasizing speed over size and disguising pressures through variable fronts, it was easy to identify where the vulnerability might be.
In an interview with Bob Irving last Friday, coach Mike O'Shea made some interesting comments to this exact point: "The bigger and slower you are, the easier it is for the bigger and slower offensive linemen to get you... If you are undersized and you move very well it's a nightmare for offensive linemen to try and get a hold of them." Sage words indeed, when you are talking about rushing the passer and threatening these lumbering behemoths with speed and movement. Nothing quite threatens an offensive lineman like a full complement of afterburners at your disposal.
On the flip side of that coin, though, is the fact nothing also excites an offensive lineman -- they are excitable types -- like running the football against an undersized front. Quicker players may be adept at avoiding and escaping blocks, but if you run around blocks against a downhill running attack, you won't have enough fingers to plug all the leaks in the dam. If the bulldozer is coming straight down main street, and you decide to get out of the way and detour, you might find yourself in a different neighborhood altogether.
While this defence has the personnel to be effective against both fronts -- athletes such as Bryant Turner Jr., Jason Vega and Zach Anderson are far from one-dimensional players -- if they can continue to be as successful against the pass in the regular season as they were in the pre-season, and average, say, three sacks a game, it would go a long way in making a potential weakness against the run easier to forget.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.