November 19, 2018

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D for defence? In Bomber-speak, D is for 'denial'

Opinion

Richie Hall insists those miles of yards his Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence is giving up this season — yet again — don’t matter.

“Yards? Everyone can have yards,” the Bombers defensive co-ordinator told reporters last week in advance of the club's 31-17 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Well, yeah, everyone can have yards against Hall’s porous defence.

But please, do go on...

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Richie Hall insists those miles of yards his Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence is giving up this season — yet again — don’t matter.

"Yards? Everyone can have yards," the Bombers defensive co-ordinator told reporters last week in advance of the club's 31-17 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Well, yeah, everyone can have yards against Hall’s porous defence.

But please, do go on...

"It’s not the yards you give up, it’s how you give them up," Hall insisted, reportedly with a straight face.

Well, if the correct way to give up miles of yards is early, often and in huge swaths, bravo Richie — your defence is right on track.

In two games against CFL-calibre opponents this season, Hall’s defence has surrendered 481 yards to Edmonton and 468 yards to Hamilton and, to the surprise of no one but Hall, lost both times. The Bombers D gave up just 128 yards in a 56-10 shellacking of a Pop Warner team masquerading as the Montreal Alouettes in Week 2, but, again, we’re just talking about CFL-calibre opponents here.

Now, I’m not sure what Hall means when he says there’s a right way and a wrong way to give up yards.

'Yards? Everyone can have yards,' the Bombers defensive co-ordinator told reporters last week. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Free Press files)

'Yards? Everyone can have yards,' the Bombers defensive co-ordinator told reporters last week. (Justin Samanski-Langille / Free Press files)

Sure, I suppose you could make the argument it’s better to give up yards in that narrow swath of real estate between the 50-yard lines, where any advance by your opponent will not get them into scoring position.

And yes, I concede that it is clearly more damaging to give up one yard to your opponent when they are on your goal-line than when they are on the 30.

But beyond that, the name of the game in football is field position, and when your defence is giving up almost 500 yards of it game in and game out, you’re going to lose more often than not, regardless of what Hall believes.

I know this because, as Hall apparently has not done, this week I asked the CFL if yards matter when it comes to winning and losing games in three-down football.

The answer from league statistician Steve Daniel? Of course it matters, dummy.

Since the Ottawa Redblacks entered the league in 2014, teams that gained more yards than their opponents have won 241 of 336 — 71.7 per cent — regular-season games.

That seems pretty convincing to me. If you do nothing else but win the yards battle every game, you’re going to have yourself a heck of a season, year in and year out.

But maybe, I wondered, is Hall some kind of defensive genius who has developed some magic elixir that allows his defences — and only his defences — to defy all that overwhelming statistical evidence and every grain of conventional football wisdom?

Hardly. On the contrary, what the numbers show is that the yardage battle matters more to the Bombers than other teams in the CFL. A lot more.

Since the start of the 2016 season, the Bombers have won the yardage battle 10 times — and won all 10 games.

And in the other 29 games where the Bombers were on the wrong side of that battle? They have been a losing football team at 14-15.

Now, there are a lot of things to unpack there.

Pound for pound, this is the most talented Bombers defence in recent memory. (John Woods / Free Press files)

Pound for pound, this is the most talented Bombers defence in recent memory. (John Woods / Free Press files)

First, it’s a joke — and an indictment of Hall’s defensive scheme, in particular — that the Bombers have had more yards at the final gun just 10 times in their last 39 regular-season games.

And second, how can you argue yards don’t matter when your team has been the '75 Pittsburgh Steelers on the rare occasion you’ve won the fight for real estate but are a losing team the rest of the time?

Put it all together and yards not only matter, the numbers would seem to suggest they might be the only thing that matters to this team.

So why, then, are they continuing to give up so many of them?

It’s certainly not for lack of talent. I’ve said before and I will say it again: pound for pound, this is the most talented Bombers defence in recent memory.

I’d stack the current front seven up against any front seven we’ve seen in this town in decades, and that was before GM Kyle Walters landed Adam Bighill, the most dominant linebacker in the CFL in the last 10 years.

So the problem isn’t personnel and, really, it hasn’t been for a couple of years now. The problem is Hall and, by extension, his boss, Mike O’Shea.

Adam Bighill is the most dominant linebacker in the CFL in the last 10 years. (Peter Power / Canadian Press files)

Adam Bighill is the most dominant linebacker in the CFL in the last 10 years. (Peter Power / Canadian Press files)

Because long before Hall was advancing the dubious proposition that the yards a defence gives up don’t matter, it was O’Shea making the same case night after night, arguing that it was the big plays a defence made — and didn’t give up — that mattered more.

I didn’t buy it through the first two losing seasons under O’Shea. I didn’t buy it through the last two winning seasons that saw the Bombers make the playoffs only to lose in the West semifinal.

And I don’t buy it now that the Bombers have limped out to a 1-2 record despite some respectable play from their offence, behind a rookie backup QB in Chris Streveler.

Sure, things should improve soon with injured starter Matt Nichols now practising again, if only because the presence of a veteran under centre should at least help narrow the gap between the yards the Bombers are giving up and the yards they are gaining.

But until this defence figures out a way to keep opposing offences under 450 yards a game — baby steps – the club is going to continue to lose more often than it wins. The numbers prove it.

The problem for the Bombers is they can’t fix the problem until they admit they have a problem.

And at the moment, the two guys that matter most won’t admit it’s a problem, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And that makes them the problem.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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