Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bombers Need More Than a Great Middle Linebacker

Middle Linebacker Sam Hurl needs to be much better, but not all the blame regarding Winnipeg's run game should be directed at him. Photo via Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@wpg_bluebombers)
They're working with a new defensive coordinator, a new middle linebacker and a new season, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers still can't stop the run. 

In week one of the 2015 season, the Blue & Gold's run defence looked no better than the ninth ranked unit they were against the run last season. Winnipeg gave up a whopping 212 yards on the ground to Saskatchewan, and almost all of the blame fell on the shoulders of newly signed middle linebacker Sam Hurl. And now, as a result, the Bombers appear prepared to make changes to improve their odds of slowing down their opponents' rushing attack in the coming weeks. 

I'll be the first to tell you that Sam Hurl was an underachiever in Saskatchewan and that he seemed to confirm this in his first game with the Bombers. That being said, I wouldn't say benching Winnipeg's free agent acquisition would solve all immediate matters, as stopping the run all starts with the big guys up front. 

The Bombers' two interior defensive lineman, Zach Anderson and Bryant Turner Jr., simply need to be better. Defensive tackles are supposed to cause havoc by plugging gaps, which helps the linebackers. They take on multiple blockers and as an added bonus, rack up tackles and sacks. Anderson and Turner Jr. did none of that, and it made Hurl's job all that more difficult. Saskatchewan rarely had to double-team Winnipeg's duo, instead allowing centre Dan Clark to quickly work up to the "second level" (the linebackers) knowing his guards, Brandon Labatte and Chris Best, could handle Winnipeg's interior. Hurl had very few opportunities to square up with Roughriders' running backs Anthony Allen and Jerome Messam, instead often being picked up by Clark or even double-teamed. The Bombers need Anderson and Turner Jr. to be far more disruptive as neither made their presence felt until late in the fourth quarter. 

When you look at the statistical numbers from the Bombers' win over Saskatchewan, the 212 rushing yards against clearly stands out, as does Hurl's low amount of tackles (four). It should be mentioned that 132 of those yards were gained on three carries, so Winnipeg's yards per carry may not have been that terrible. However, it's Hurl's inability to clean up tackles that were difference, particularly on Anthony Allen's 47 yard gallop. The University of Calgary product had a perfect angle to end the damage nine yards in but had his wrap-up tackle cleanly broken, resulting in 37 additional yards gained after-contact by Allen. And on Jerome Messam's big 53 yard touchdown, a great middle linebacker in Hurl's spot would've limited the gain to five yards. While Saskatchewan's offensive line opened up a huge hole, Hurl's blocker missed his cut block, however since he was late identifying the inside handoff, he was ultimately late to ball and Messam was gone. These are the plays that need to be made by a starting middle linebacker, and if Hurl can't make him, then it's next-man-up for the Bombers. 

Head Coach Mike O'Shea seems to be kicking the tires of 2014 second round pick Jesse Briggs and rotating him in at middle linebacker. I'm not sure how much this move will bolster the run defence (though it's worth a try), it provides the Bombers with more options in their coverage. The Bombers blitzed Sam Hurl on nearly or more than 50 percent of passing plays, and I'm quite sure that's due to the poor awareness in zone coverage he's displayed. With Hurl struggling mightily to supply any sort of pressure with a pass-rush, the Bombers were repeatedly burned by the blitz. Defensive coordinator Richie Hall finally took note of this in the fourth quarter and replaced Hurl with Greg Newman during passing situations, allowing another former 'Rider to cover the middle instead of having Hurl blitz. Briggs, meanwhile, is very athletic (he ran an insane 4.57 at the CFL combine) and excels as a coverage linebacker. Moving Khalil Bass into the middle with Briggs taking over at his weak-side position would make sense, but either way, increasing the McGill products' game reps is worth trying to bolster Winnipeg's linebacker play. 

But again, it wasn't all Hurl's fault. Take Nic Demski's 23 yard carry for example. The Bombers, as they did far too much Saturday night, blitzed Sam Hurl through the "A-gap" and were in man coverage. Nickel linebacker Chris Randle motioned with Demski and read the jet sweep perfectly, but took a terrible pursuit angle and was left in the wind. That play could've been a one yard gain, but Randle's poor play, as well as defensive end Thad Gibson's poor contain, resulted in a huge gain for Saskatchewan. 

Here's where Bombers safety Maurice Leggett would have flew in and limited the damage, but the former Kansas City Chief was out in week one with an undisclosed injury. His replacement, rookie Demetrius Wright, was ineffective, and having Leggett as a safety-net is the difference between a 50 yard gain and a tackle by Winnipeg's 2014 Most Outstanding Player limiting the damage to a mere 8 yards. 

Hurl underachieved, no doubt. Four tackles (one was on special teams) is not good enough, but no matter who the Bombers plug in at middle linebacker, the run-game-woes will continue until they establish some sort of presence along the interior of their defensive line. Starting Briggs will improve their pass defence (they gave up 285 yards through the air), but his presence as a run-stuffing middleman won't be noticed all that much without help from the four lineman up front. Having Leggett back too will help, but it's all about Zach Anderson, Bryant Turner Jr. and the rest of Winnipeg's defensive line to stop the run. 

The Bombers will get a good opportunity to get their run-defence on track against Hamilton in week two. The Tiger-Cats only managed to pick up 37 yards on the ground against Calgary's often-used three-man front, and they'll still be running with fourth string Ray Holley at tailback due to injuries. 

If the Bombers can figure it out and stop the run, they could be a very good team in 2015. And while Sam Hurl probably isn't a serviceable middle linebacker, it's not fair to put all the blame on him. 

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