Blue Bomber Report Record: 6–3–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Burke going for five-peat

Blue defensive mastermind has been at last four Grey Cups as coach

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Want a reason to believe the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will return to the Grey Cup game in 2012?

How about four of them.

As in four in a row, the number of consecutive Grey Cup games Bombers defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke has been to.

Indeed, if the Bombers don't make it to November's 100th Grey Cup game in Toronto, it will mark the first time since 2007 that a Grey Cup game was held without Burke as one of the two defensive coordinators.

But if Burke -- who had Grey Cup appearances with the Montreal Alouettes in 2008, 2009, 2010 and then last year with Winnipeg -- is going to nail the five-peat in 2012, it might take his best coaching performance yet.

Burke, of course, was the architect of the stingiest defence in the entire CFL last season, a unit that dominated all season long and almost single-handedly dragged an anemic Bombers offence along with them all the way to the 2011 Grey Cup game.

But after the off-season departures of defensive tackle Doug Brown (retirement) and 2011 CFL sack leader defensive end Odell Willis, Burke finds himself in camp this year with the formidable task of rebuilding his front four in the span of less than a month.

And on top of that, Burke will this season find his revamped defence competing in a CFL East Division that added two Grey Cup winning quarterbacks in Ricky Ray in Toronto and Henry Burris in Hamilton being piloted by two new head coaches who are both former top notch offensive co-ordinators in the Argos' Scott Milanovich and the Ticats' George Cortez.

"With those kinds of changes in the East, I don't think there's any question it's going to be harder for us on defence this season," said Burke. "And then on top of that, yeah, we have some holes to fill. But we've got some good young guys in here and I feel pretty confident I can fill those holes."

While there is no underestimating the loss of Brown, Burke said he thinks the Bombers have a pretty good handle on it with their plan to go to an all-import defensive line this season and make up for the loss of Brown's Canadian passport on the line by starting a non-import in either Pierre-Luc Labbe or Henoc Muamba at middle linebacker.

"I think we're pretty solid on our ratio actually," said Burke, "and I think we will actually be better on the inside (of the front four) than we were last year."

And the loss of Willis? Burke has mixed feelings. "We'll see what we do at (defensive) end. I mean, you're always going to miss a guy like Odell's talent level. When he turned it on, he was really good. But the trouble was he didn't turn it all on time.

"So we'll see, but overall, I think we'll be better. I think we've got some good young DBs in camp to push the vets. I think we're deep right now."

Which begs the question: Can the Bombers defence be any better than they were last year, when they led the league in most of the major statistical categories?

LaPolice thinks there is room for improvement.

"We have to eliminate penalties on defence," said LaPolice. "Certainly, I think we can be better against the run. And we need to continue to have an effective pass rush like we've had."

If anyone can improve on last year's defence, Bombers cornerback Jovon Johnson says it's the man who created it in the first place and the no-mercy approach he takes.

"Coach Burke forces you to challenge guys and make them make plays. Our defensive scheme is all about being nasty, up in your face and forcing you to have to deal with the defensive player the entire game and never backing down.

"We're expected to be up close, in their face and never give them anything -- make them have to earn every throw and every catch. That's what sets him apart from other defensive coordinators. He just loves to challenge."

So, again, can the Bombers defence be even stingier in 2012? "I think it will be hard," says Burke. "All those good quarterbacks, those really good offensive co-ordinators, they'll make it tough.

"But that's certainly our goal."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2012 C3

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