Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Learning 'Jack' from the pack

Bombers' monster defence got a boost from Super Bowl champs

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The seeds were planted, one by one, over the course of the past few seasons.

But if there was a single moment when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence germinated from a very good defence to a spectacular -- maybe even history-making -- defence it might have been this one:

One day last April, incoming Bombers defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke and Bombers linebackers coach Casey Creehan found themselves talking football in the office of Green Bay Packers defensive co-ordinator Dom Capers. Now, not just anyone gets to fly down to Green Bay to talk football with the defensive co-ordinator of the defending Super Bowl champions.

But Bombers GM Joe Mack isn't just anyone, having worked with Capers when Mack was the assistant-general manager of the Carolina Panthers back in the mid-'90s.

Mack set up the meeting for his new defensive co-ordinator, thinking Burke could only benefit from hearing the insights of Capers. He could have had no idea how right he would be.

Because an idea was born that day: the idea that Odell Willis could be for the Bombers under Burke what Clay Matthews is for the Packers under Capers -- a monster pass-rushing machine.

"They've got Clay Matthews and we've got Odell Willis," Burke recalled Tuesday, "and so we thought maybe we could go down there and find out what they do to help (Matthews) do the things that he's been doing down there.

"They were fantastic. The Packers were really helpful and we brought those ideas back with us and that's kind of where the 'Jack' thing comes from."

The 'Jack' thing, in case you haven't heard by now, applies both to the hybrid defensive end-linebacker position the Bombers have created for Willis and a series of defensive schemes geared specifically to free him up to attack the quarterback.

Matthews lines up predominantly as a linebacker, Willis lines up predominantly as a defensive end and no one is suggesting the latter is now on par with the former in terms of abilities.

But what is true is that both men have become arguably the most dominant defenders in their respective leagues. Consider: With eight sacks so far this season, Willis presently has one more sack than the entire Montreal Alouettes defence and is tied with the both the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts.

That's ridiculous, of course. And it is a monument to just how dramatic the transition of the Bombers has been. What was a very good defence on a bad team last year is the very best part of the best team in Canadian football this season.

"You always have high expectations and you always want to go undefeated," Burke says. "But I have to admit I didn't expect us to be this good, this early. I kind of keep waiting for the bubble to burst. I don't want it too, of course. These guys are just playing their hearts out."

Part of the credit must also reside with Burke. In a winter where Mack made very few personnel moves -- much to the frustration of many Bomber fans -- you could argue that Mack's most important free agent signing was Burke.

"I've heard people say that," laughs Mack. "What I can say is that we are very, very fortunate to have Tim Burke working for us and not against us."

Feeling he had no room to grow in Montreal and nothing left to prove after guiding the Alouettes defence to the last two Grey Cup championships, Burke made the bold decision last winter to head west to Winnipeg and try to do for the Bombers what he did for the Als.

Highly regarded across the league as a defensive guru, Burke takes little personal credit for what has occurred in Winnipeg this season. If there is anything that he is particularly good at, Burke says, it's nothing more than doing exactly what he did in Capers' office in Green Bay that day.

"I steal every good idea I've ever used," he says.

The idea he stole in Green Bay that day might just be the best one ever.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2011 C1

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