December 12, 2018

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'Riders' swarming defence a stern test

Avoiding turnovers key for Bombers' offence in Saturday's matchup

John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols gets a pass off while under pressure from Saskatchewan Roughriders' defence during the first half in the Banjo Bowl in September.</p>

John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols gets a pass off while under pressure from Saskatchewan Roughriders' defence during the first half in the Banjo Bowl in September.

There’s no team in the Canadian Football League that relies on the play of their defence more than the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Conversely, it can be argued no other team requires a strong performance from their offence to win more than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

It’s these opposing dependencies that should make Saturday’s matchup between the two West Division clubs at Investors Group Field as entertaining as the two points they will battle for will be crucial for the league standings. The Bombers (8-7) sit in third place in the West, four points behind the Roughriders (10-5).

“They got a good mix of guys who are grinders, and they got some really good athletes. They definitely fly around, rally to the ball. They make plays by causing confusion and chaos out there and they’re very consistent that way,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris, describing the Roughriders’ defence.

“They’re a team where if you break a tackle there’s always going to be a guy right there to bring you down. That’s one thing that we definitely admire about them and we see that on film. Getting an opportunity to go against a team like that is always fun, because you know that level of intensity is going to be up all game.”

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There’s no team in the Canadian Football League that relies on the play of their defence more than the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Conversely, it can be argued no other team requires a strong performance from their offence to win more than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

It’s these opposing dependencies that should make Saturday’s matchup between the two West Division clubs at Investors Group Field as entertaining as the two points they will battle for will be crucial for the league standings. The Bombers (8-7) sit in third place in the West, four points behind the Roughriders (10-5).

"They got a good mix of guys who are grinders, and they got some really good athletes. They definitely fly around, rally to the ball. They make plays by causing confusion and chaos out there and they’re very consistent that way," said Bombers running back Andrew Harris, describing the Roughriders’ defence.

"They’re a team where if you break a tackle there’s always going to be a guy right there to bring you down. That’s one thing that we definitely admire about them and we see that on film. Getting an opportunity to go against a team like that is always fun, because you know that level of intensity is going to be up all game."

For the Bombers, inconsistencies on offence have been a major talking point all season.

Quarterback Matt Nichols has steadily improved over the last month — including coming off his best performance of the season in a win over the Ottawa Redblacks last week — but he still doesn’t look like he did a year ago, when he was voted the team’s most outstanding player.

Harris has been the bruising back that won him the rushing title last season, and with three games remaining he’s behind only Ottawa’s William Powell for top spot, though he’s already set a career-high with 1,233 yards.

Only once this year has a Bombers receiver eclipsed 100 receiving yards in a game. Still, the Bombers’ offence averages a CFL-best 28.6 points per game — an impressive stat when you consider Winnipeg is near the middle of the pack when it comes to average net offence (362.2 yards).

During their current three-game win streak, the Bombers offence has been gaining around 335 yards per game, but has averaged 31 points during that stretch. The defence single-handedly defeated the Edmonton Eskimos in Week 15, allowing just three points and accounting for six of the team’s seven turnovers, but those performances have been few and far between.

"As a team there were spans where we weren’t doing what we needed to do. There were uncharacteristic mistakes being made in all phases, including myself," Nichols said. "We went through that rough patch but we’re back to playing our type of football right now and that’s what we’re going to continue to do."

It was a bold prediction by Nichols, who in two outings against the Roughriders this season has struggled against Saskatchewan’s swarming defence. The Roughriders have wrapped up the season series, winning back-to-back games earlier this year; first in a 31-23 win at home over the Labour Day weekend and a week later on the road, 32-27, in the Banjo Bowl at IGF.

It should be noted that no two offences have benefited more from turnovers this season than the Bombers and Roughriders, with Winnipeg leading the way with 131 points scored off turnovers, 12 more than Saskatchewan.

But those numbers are a bit skewed when you add the fact the Roughriders’ defence often gets the job done without having to pass the ball over to the offence. Saskatchewan’s defence leads the CFL with nine touchdowns, including seven pick-6s. Their special teams have put up three punt return touchdowns and one score off a kickoff.

The Bombers’ offence accounts for 92 per cent of their team’s points. More than 20 per cent of the Roughriders’ points have come from defence and special teams.

Saskatchewan’s defence proved to be the biggest factor in both wins over the Bombers, forcing eight turnovers compared to three for Winnipeg.

"First thing I would say is I think their speed and athleticism across the board, they run very well to the ball and when they get to the ball carrier they’re in a bad mood, they’re physical," said Bombers offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. "Certainly they got the ability to rush the passer with three, four, five people and they’ve made plays when they’ve had the opportunities."

Saskatchewan is strong in all areas of their defence but it’s the defensive line that makes them so dangerous. With two outstanding ends in Charleston Hughes, who leads the CFL with 15 sacks, and Willie Jefferson, the Roughriders have the rare luxury of rushing three linemen and still getting pressure on the quarterback.

"There’s no opportunity to relax or kind of say ‘that’s good enough’ because those guys somehow find ways to make plays," said Bombers left guard Patrick Neufeld. "You saw Willie last week get the game-winning interception for a touchdown and he got one against us in the Banjo Bowl. Charleston always finds a way to get to the quarterback, whether that’s beating a guy or chasing him around the horns. You got to make sure you stay on top of those guys and you can’t let them get comfortable in what they’re doing."

With a successful push using a three-front, the Roughriders can use nine players in coverage, making it hard for receivers to get open. But according to Harris, rarely is it ever that simple.

"On one given drive you’ll see three different blitzes, four different fronts. For most teams, you’ll get a sense of their game plan right off the jump, whereas their’s could be all over the place," said Harris. "It could be heavy, dropping nine in the first half or first series and then they’ll come out blitzing, bringing four guys to the line instead of three. They just bring so many different looks at different times and it just keeps you on your toes."

The Bombers understand the difficulties presented by the Roughriders and are confident they can finally find an answer for their relentless defence. But it starts with protecting the ball and making smart decisions, doing whatever it takes to be sure they’re not losing the turnover battle.

The Bombers are 8-0 when they win the turnover battle, and 0-7 when they equal their opponent or give up more.

"We got a saying here that ‘the ball is the Cup,’" said Harris. "We understand it’s very, very hard to win if we lose the ball, whether it be interceptions or fumbles or turnover on downs and that’s definitely something we take a lot of pride in, having good ball security and making sure we’re not making those mistakes. That’s something that could definitely be the difference between winning and losing."

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.

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