The Winnipeg Blue Bombers surrendered the most passing yards (335 per game) and most total yards (408) of any team in the CFL last season.

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers surrendered the most passing yards (335 per game) and most total yards (408) of any team in the CFL last season.

A remedy for Winnipeg’s defensive woes is expected, in large part, to come from a pair of highly regarded free-agent acquisitions — defensive tackle Drake Nevis and defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo. Upgrading the club’s pass rush is considered crucial to any kind of improvement.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Tristan Okpalaugo (left) is expected to be a key cog in improving the Bombers’ pass rush this season.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tristan Okpalaugo (left) is expected to be a key cog in improving the Bombers’ pass rush this season.

Okpalaugo, who was the CFL East Division’s rookie of the year in 2014 and racked up 22 sacks in two seasons before leaving the Toronto Argonauts for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, may be almost as difficult to block as his name is to pronounce.

Nevis is another former NFL veteran, a sturdy, 6-2, 301-pound run-stopper who also collected five sacks and 29 tackles in 14 games with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season.

"The biggest thing is for them to bring their athletic ability," Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall said following Tuesday’s training camp workout at Investors Group Field. "That’s what made them attractive to us... they’ve had success where they’ve been at and they’re going to have success here. They add a different dimension, to make us more — we’re not dominating — but more of a dominant tone (when it comes to) rushing the passer."

Okpalaugo was injured last season in Arizona and did not play. After entertaining offers from a number of teams, he chose to sign in Winnipeg.

"I’m hungry, I just want to get back on the field," said the 6-6, 250-pound end, noting the position changes he’s experienced during his last three stops in the pro game.

"It’s different," he said. "They’re all unique. Going from hands-down D-end to playing outside linebacker to playing standup D-end. It’s different, but it’s fun."

He has missed the energy and excitement of game action, however.

"I don’t feel like it’s an obstacle," Okpalaugo said. "I’m just going to have to knock off the rust faster than usual. I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t working. I was working on pass/run moves while I was hurt, but going against guys and working with teammates is a different feeling."

Said Hall: "This time next week he’s going to be a lot farther along because he’s had another week under his belt just being on the football field again... We’re not doing anything he’s never done before. It’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the scheme and the people you’re playing with and just playing fast."

D-line coach Todd Howard sounded confident with the lineup changes and he’s keen to see how the new personnel fit into the scheme. He wants to see a better pass rush, but also a stouter approach to defending the run.

"I see them equally," Howard said. "I want to see us better against the run. Last year, we gave up 88 yards a game, down from two years ago where we gave up over 100. So, we’ve gotten steadily better in that department as far as stopping the run. When you look at the sacks, comparing 2015, which was my first year, and 2016, my second, there was a difference of a maybe couple of sacks. It just looked different because we had a guy (Jamaal Westerman) who was the second-leading pass rusher (in the CFL). Last year, it was more spread out over the front."

Howard, noting his D-lineman accounted for 28 sacks in 2016 or 1.55 per game, said even a small improvement would be significant.

"If we can improve to average two sacks a game by the defensive linemen, I think that’s going to help us," he said.

Nevis, a LSU product, could be just the sort of middle-clogging defender the Blue Bombers need.

"The thing you notice about him is how thick he is and he works hard, runs after the ball," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "He’s a load inside. So, both (players) certainly can make our D-line work better."

Hall said reducing the number of explosive plays (he said the defence allowed 80 plays of 20 or more yards in 2016) will go a long way.

"We had some breakdowns and we feel if we can take care of those things, our points (against) will also come down," Hall said. "We were all over the map. First in takeaways, last in yards given up, but then third in points given up. We gotta find more of an equal balance."

The catastrophic breakdown exposed the soft underbelly of the Blue Bombers’ defence last season.

"It’s not the explosion plays — it’s how did they get those explosion plays," Hall said. "Whether it’s a missed tackle or a dropped coverage or losing contain. Those are the things we want to eliminate. The 50-50 balls, when they throw them up and come down and make a play, that’s football. It’s the easy plays. We always say we want the offence to work for every yard and we just gave up too many easy yards (in 2016). If we can cut that down, then everything else will take care of itself."

Main training camp continues today at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Thursday. Winnipeg opens its pre-season schedule in Regina against the Roughriders on June 10.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.