Trevor Harris and the Ottawa Redblacks Big Test for Winnipeg Blue Bombers Defence

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OTTAWA, ON - AUGUST 04: Trevor Harris (7) of the Ottawa Redblacks looks downfield for a receiver against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canadian Football League (CFL) action at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Canada on 4 August 2017. (Photo by Sean Burges/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence has gotten the better of their competition throughout the majority of their eight contests in 2018. Contrary, the Bombers have only faced one opponent with a winning record – the Edmonton Eskimos in Week 1. Low and behold, the Bombers gave up a season-high 402 passing yards and 481 total yards in that game against the Eskimos.

In Week 10, the Bombers welcome Ottawa’s third-ranked offence (total yards) led by gunslinger Trevor Harris. The Redblacks (5-3) will mark the second opponent with a winning record that Winnipeg has faced.

The Redblacks offence is designed for Harris to get the ball out of his hand quick, with the occasional deep ball. Ottawa’s quick-passing offence is shaping up to be trouble for Winnipeg’s current defensive scheme.

Richie Hall’s scheme

One of Richie Hall’s base coverages is a match defence. As described in detail by Eric Matthews, defensive backs are often basing their coverage off of the receivers in front of them and their routes. Often times the cornerback and halfback will drop into a deep zone, which could result in five defenders (safety) playing on deep routes.

Eric notes that Hall coaches the strong-side linebacker to follow the number three receiver (often Brad Sinopoli) to wherever he lines up. If the receiver runs inside, he’s passed off to the linebackers. If he runs a short outside route, the strong-side linebacker plays man coverage to him. And if he goes deep, the strong-side linebacker hovers near the receiver before passing him off to the safety for man-to-man. Short passes to Sinopoli is a basic yet effective strategy of the Redblacks offence. As a result, this will put a major responsibility on the Bombers strong-side linebacker (yet to be named) as well as the other linebackers.

Short hitch/screen passes are vulnerable in this scheme. The majority of short routes are the linebackers responsibility and not a defensive back’s duty. If Winnipeg’s defensive backs are dropping into a zone, if say no receiver on their side goes vertical, this situation can allow Harris to complete quick passes often.

And this is where the “bend but don’t break defence” comes into play.

Bombers defence giving up yards, not points

In years past, the Bombers’ often described “bend but don’t break defence” has bent, but held, against weaker opponents, and crumbled against elite offences, such as Mike Reilly and the Eskimos.

Winnipeg’s offset has been turnovers. Over the last two seasons, Winnipeg has led the CFL in both turnover ratio (+43) and points off of turnovers (315). Over those last two seasons, there were numerous Bombers games where the defence allowed total yards amounts in the vicinity of 400 but did not get torched on the scoreboard thanks to takeaways at key moments.

In 2018 the Bombers defence ranks no worse than fourth in points given up, passing yards against, and total yards against. The Bombers are still snatching takeaways too, ranking first with an average of 2.25 takeaways per game.

Ottawa’s offensive game plan

On the other side of the ball Friday will be the aforementioned Trevor Harris. Harris and the Redblacks are coming off of a 24-17 win in Montreal. In that win, the Redblacks amassed 600 total yards, 487 coming via the air. Harris completed a career-high 44 passes, good for second-most in a single game in CFL history.

What’s eye-opening, but not so surprising, is that of Harris’ 44 completions, only eight were caught at a distance of more than 10 yards. But to counter the short passes, the Redblacks accumulated 207 yards after the catch, which contributed to Harris’ 487 passing yards.

Out of his 54 throws, Harris only attempted five passes of more than 20 yards, and only one was completed – a 22-yard throw before YAC.

Last week’s outing was perhaps the most significant example of Ottawa’s short yet deadly passing game, despite a disappointing 24 points to show for – although six Redblacks turnovers definitely factored into the lack of finished off drives for Ottawa.

Ottawa’s receivers

Ottawa’s two best receivers, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli, have not put up consistent production versus Winnipeg in the past. Diontae Spencer, on the other hand, has, aside from last season. Spencer could be a problem for Bombers’ cornerback Chris Randle, who will likely see a lot of Spencer. Randle is an elite CFL defensive back, but can struggle with speedy receivers like Spencer from time to time i.e. Brandon Banks last week.

Chandler Fenner, Maurice Leggett, and Brandon Alexander will see a lot of Ellingson and Sinopoli, which should be a good test for the Bombers’ defenders.

The last word

Through nine weeks, the Redblacks lead the CFL in pass attempts per game with over 39 per contest. The Bombers defence has their work cut out for them with Harris and Co. Will Adam Bighill and the Bombers defence step up and shut down Ottawa’s passing game? Or will the Redblacks offence continue to click against a zone-heavy Winnipeg team? Tune in Friday night on TSN at 7:30 central to find out.

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