Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blue secondary in shambles

Coaching staff struggles to make unit work

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While the spotlights swirl around the staff circus and quarterback carousel, the Blue Bombers' defence has been relegated to the status of sideshow.

Still, while the suits and pivots suck in most of the attention, the squad's defensive backbone poses a curious question, one about how a team can lead the league in sacks -- 27 in all now, and Alex Hall sits atop the leaderboard with nine -- and yet strike so little fear into the hearts of the opposition.

Consider how the Bombers stack up on defensive stats, which look pretty bleak: they're tied with Hamilton for snatching the fewest interceptions in the league, with three, and have given up more first downs on passes than any other team. And even with Hall and friends pressuring the pocket, opposing quarterbacks have a better chance of connecting with their receivers against Winnipeg than anyone else, completing 71.6 per cent of passes.

So it's the secondary, then, and head coach Tim Burke agreed the Bombers have struggled to lock down their coverage on that end. They started off the year trying man-to-man coverage, but that fell flat.

'We just have to be sharper, we have to play with better fundamentals' -- defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan

So they moved more to zone coverage. Against B.C. that held up, but in Game 7 against the Ticats the zone coverage "looked like crap," Burke said. "So we went to man and looked better, but we still didn't play as good as we can."

It's a frustrating question, given that there is talent on the back end, from the likes of veterans Jovon Johnson, Brandon Stewart and Alex Suber, veterans of that 2011 defensive squad that crushed their way to the Grey Cup game. And yet, the details have been slipping.

"We just have to be sharper, we have to play with better fundamentals," defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan said, noting he plans to push the technique.

To underscore the urgency there, the Bombers announced Tuesday that they'd signed veteran CFL defensive back Bo Smith. The 6-0 defensive back got the call from Bombers brass last week, while he was at home in Hamilton, hoping for another chance. Originally from Kentucky, Smith played five seasons with the Ticats before they released him in May.

"I can't tell you what they wanted, I guess I didn't fit their scheme," Smith said, noting he was starting to study to be a firefighter instead. "I'm just happy to get the opportunity right now."

Though Smith hasn't played since last season, he's been training all summer, and after Tuesday's practice he said he felt his body was ready to go.

He's worked with defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan before, and so it shouldn't take long to get him acclimated to the Bombers' system. And if coaches want a little more aggression from the back end, Smith said, he's ready to bring it.

"That's what I do," he said with a grin. "I'm going to try to get my hands on you, and I'm going to tackle... it's just in my blood. I've been doing it since I was eight, so it's just natural."

This is not to say Smith will necessarily figure in right away. For now, Smith will bolster the secondary's depth in case injuries set in -- coaches want to avoid having another situation like earlier this season, where they had to juggle rookies into the defence. That wasn't fair to the rookies or the team, Creehan said.

The fact that the starters now have an eager, proven veteran back behind them doesn't hurt, either.

"He's always there in the back of other guys' minds, in case they decide to take a day off," Burke said. "Or a game off."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2013 C3

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