December 17, 2018

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Record: 10–8–0

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Blue Bomber Report (10–8–0)

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Blue's defence needs to rise to the occasion

IN a league where offence reigns supreme, rarely is there a team defined by its defence. That’s become especially true in recent years, where seemingly with every season comes new rules to protect quarterbacks and encourage more scoring.

The 2018 edition of the Saskatchewan Roughriders are the exception to this rule, their defence acting as the driving force, complemented by an offence that has proven more than once this season they can win without scoring a touchdown.

“I think going into games we know the defence we’re going against, so we know that we probably have to outperform them. Saskatchewan, they do have a good defence, we know that their defence keeps them in a lot of games, so, for us, it’s about getting the offence the ball back,” Bombers defensive back Marcus Sayles said Thursday, following a closed practice at Investors Group Field.

“With their defence, they make a lot of plays, so we got to match it or do better and that’s what this game is going to be, it’s going to be a defensive game. It’s our job to make their offence mess up.”

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IN a league where offence reigns supreme, rarely is there a team defined by its defence. That’s become especially true in recent years, where seemingly with every season comes new rules to protect quarterbacks and encourage more scoring.

The 2018 edition of the Saskatchewan Roughriders are the exception to this rule, their defence acting as the driving force, complemented by an offence that has proven more than once this season they can win without scoring a touchdown.

Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive backs Taylor Loffler, Adam Bighill and Anthony Gaitor bring down Ottawa Redblacks wide receiver Diontae Spencer last Friday in Ottawa. The Bombers defence surrendered 437 net yards in the 40-32 overtime win.</p>

Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive backs Taylor Loffler, Adam Bighill and Anthony Gaitor bring down Ottawa Redblacks wide receiver Diontae Spencer last Friday in Ottawa. The Bombers defence surrendered 437 net yards in the 40-32 overtime win.

"I think going into games we know the defence we’re going against, so we know that we probably have to outperform them. Saskatchewan, they do have a good defence, we know that their defence keeps them in a lot of games, so, for us, it’s about getting the offence the ball back," Bombers defensive back Marcus Sayles said Thursday, following a closed practice at Investors Group Field.

"With their defence, they make a lot of plays, so we got to match it or do better and that’s what this game is going to be, it’s going to be a defensive game. It’s our job to make their offence mess up."

It’s good news then that the Bombers’ defence has matured over the past month, transforming from a unit that was often exposed for big plays downfield into a sound group capable of containing some of the best quarterbacks in the league.

While no one will beat their chest over last week’s 40-32 overtime win against the Ottawa Redblacks — the Bombers’ defence surrendered 437 net yards of offence, much of that during a late-game comeback — the unit isn’t far removed from completely shutting down Mike Reilly and the Edmonton Eskimos. In that Week 16 matchup — a 30-3 Winnipeg win — the defence created six turnovers and limited Reilly, arguably the CFL’s best quarterback, to just 164 passing yards.

"I feel like we should be there every week," said Sayles. "I feel like we expect a lot out of ourselves, our coaches expect a lot out of ourselves and now that it’s evident on film that we’ve done it, we should be able to do it every week. That’s just our standard."

If the defence can rise to the occasion for Saturday’s tilt with the Roughriders and outperforming a stellar Saskatchewan defence, it will likely be enough to earn the two points.

That will be no easy task, however, and not because Zach Collaros and the ’Riders’ offence has been good this season, but because Saskatchewan’s defence has been so effective at shutting down opposing attacks.

Saskatchewan leads the CFL with nine defensive touchdowns, seven of which have come off interceptions returned to the house. They lead the CFL in sacks (41) and most two-and-outs (90) and have come up with big plays in big moments.

In a 19-12 win over Edmonton last week, the Roughriders were trailing by three points with just over two minutes remaining in the game. That’s when defensive end Willie Jefferson stepped in front of a Reilly pass, intercepting the ball and returning it 49 yards to put Saskatchewan on top, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Winnipeg doesn’t need to look at another team’s tape to understand how effective they can be. In back-to-back wins over the Bombers earlier this season, Saskatchewan’s defence forced eight turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

"You know it’s going to be a battle defensively throughout the game on both sides, so there is a mindset that you need to make more plays than the opposing defence," said Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill. "But at the end of the day, we’ve got to execute our stuff."

Bighill has been encouraged by the play of the defence over the past month, especially when compared to the first third of the season, when the Bombers battled injuries and inconsistencies. They’ve been better during Winnipeg’s current three-game win streak, and even before that, when the Bombers lost four straight, there were signs of major improvements.

"I go back and really look at how the beginning to the middle of our season went, I mean, we had new guys in the back end. For the first six weeks it was just injuries and new guys coming in, young guys that haven’t played before and that’s just hurting the chemistry big time and that’s just tough," Bighill said. "We were showing a lot of good things but there were just five or six plays that hurt us and plays that now we’re on top of and making.

"As far as catching fire? Yeah we’re catching our fire, we’re playing more consistent and making teams earn things. We’re not giving up home-run shots and we’re really making offences battle us instead of giving them things. I credit that to a lot to the guys in this room working extremely hard but also to the chemistry of the same guys working together — that’s just pivotal."

The Bombers have still been leaky on occasion, with teams exposing the defence for big gains at pivotal moments, such as Ottawa erasing a 15-point four-quarter deficit last week. But many in the locker room feel there’s been a shift in culture, where no longer is it acceptable to make the same mistake twice.

"When we tackle well, when we communicate at a high level, when we execute our assignments well… the biggest would be when we make the play that comes our way. I think we’ve made more plays of late. Those things translate to better football and better opportunities for our team," said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. "Yeah, there’s a different feel. To pinpoint exactly what that feel is, is maybe a little tough. Maybe there’s a level of accountability and just the idea that they believe this is their time to succeed."

While Saskatchewan’s offence hasn’t exactly struck fear into many CFL defences this year, the Bombers don’t plan to take them lightly. Collaros is 8-3 as a starter this season, and when offered the time to throw has weapons around him, including an electric backfield with running backs Tre Mason and Marcus Thigpen, that can hurt you.

"If Thigpen gets space you never know what could happen. Collaros has a quick release and he’s been an elite quarterback over his time in this league," said Bombers linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox. "They have their talents and their pieces and if they get clicking and in a groove, they can become very dangerous. We can’t allow that."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

Read full biography

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