Ed Tait is a writer for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. This article was originally published at BlueBombers.com.
Chris Randle and T.J. Heath are trying not to take it personally. ‘Trying’ being the operative word here.
But through the first four games of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers season, the two veteran defensive backs have been often ignored by opposition quarterbacks.
It is a tribute to both their experience and skills – Randle has been a mainstay on the corner since his arrival in Winnipeg four years ago while Heath continues to lead the Canadian Football League in interceptions – but also due to another contributing factor:
The other side of the Bombers secondary features two CFL rookies greener than St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin in Brian Walker and Roc Carmichael.
And so for enemy QBs, attacking one side and avoiding the other has become commonplace early in the ’17 season.
“It’s tough. It’s something me and C-Rand have been talking about… I mentioned it to him the other day,” said Heath. “That’s the game of football.”
Unofficially, Lions’ quarterback Travis Lulay targeted the Randle-Heath side of the secondary just four times in last Friday’s 45-42 Bombers loss – with two completions against – while Carmichael and Alexander were attacked 14 times, nine of them completions. Add in the fact the Bombers were also starting a CFL rookie in Brandon Alexander at strong-side linebacker and it’s very clear opposition offensive coordinators have circled that side of the defence in bright red.
“I don’t think teams have targeted that in this fashion before,” said Randle.
“I haven’t witnessed it. I understand that if you go field (side), you go field, if you go (boundary) you go boundary. But to do it 90 percent of the game… they (Walker and Carmichael) saw every look they could see. It’s good for that to happen. Now that we have seen it happen, now that we have that film we can correct those mistakes and learn from them.”
That’s the issue the Bombers face right now. With veteran Bruce Johnson on the six-game injured list and Kevin Fogg back practising but not yet having the green light to return to duty, the options are limited. There’s also this: despite the early-season struggles, particularly for Carmichael, the club still has faith in their skills. In short, it’s the most-extreme case of learning on the job.
“It’s challenging because you can’t tell (opposition QBs) where to throw the ball,” said Heath. “At the end of the day, we just need to continue to help those guys get better as we move forward. That’s all we can really do, help them improve. Right now, they are a big part of this defence and they know that now. They know now it’s time to really step up and make some plays over there. Once you start making plays over there, then they have no choice but to start throwing the ball to our side. Once we get on the same page, we’ll be fine.
“It’s frustrating at times because you want to play ball, you want to make some plays but at the end of the day there’s nothing you can really do but encourage your teammates to make plays.”
Randle and Heath said the whole secondary has been working together in the film room and trying to improve on their communication in-game. But there are going to be growing pains with fresh faces and a battle to find continuity in the last line of defence.
“You can adjust coverage-wise, but at the same time you can’t stop it,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “The bottom line is we have to step up and make plays. And it’s not like we have to make great plays, we just have to make the plays we’re supposed to make.
“Whether it’s the front, the middle, the back, the left side, the right side, the strong side, the weak side… we have to be consistent as far as what we do. When you’re consistent you have a good defence. Right now, we have the potential to be a very good defence but again, you have to be consistent. You have to be able to show up when you need it most.
“We’ve got to be able to say if we’re up by two scores going into the fourth quarter that at the end of the day we’re going to be smiling, not being disappointed kicking ourselves in the face.”
Asked if he ever gets bored on his side without any action, Randle chuckled.
“I’m on special teams, I’m on defence… when I get a break I guess I’ll take it,” he said with a grin. “But that’s where you can get caught, too. I gave up a catch where if I was on my Ps and Qs a little bit more I would have been able to help if I had been in better position. Those the types of games when you are more susceptible to giving up a play on the back end because you don’t know when the ball is going to come.
“We’ve done some good things through our first four games, like not letting (Toronto QB) Ricky Ray into the end zone, but we’re definitely not content with where we’re at. We’ve got to do better. We’re all pros. You can’t dictate how fast or how slowly someone might catch on. We have supreme faith in our guys. That’s why they’re there.
“But it was all of us, not just the new guys. We all know what we did and didn’t do. Now we’ve got to get better at it.”
BOMBER REPORT – July 25, 2017
The Blue Bombers practised on Tuesday, their final full workout in advance of Thursday’s home date against the Montreal Alouettes.
Here are three things you should know before the club hold their walk-through on Wednesday…
WHO GOES WHERE? Bombers linebacker Maurice Leggett did not practice again on Tuesday but hasn’t yet been officially ruled out for Thursday. Brandon Alexander continued to work in his place with rookies Brian Walker and Roc Carmichael in the secondary alongside safety Taylor Loffler, T.J. Heath and Chris Randle.
“He’s closer,” said O’Shea of Leggett. “We’ll give him another day and see what he’s like (Wednesday) morning. He’s a vet and you’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
DB Kevin Fogg, according to O’Shea, is “closer and closer. He certainly looks better than he was last week and he looks better today than he did yesterday. So how that roster shakes down from here, we’ll figure that out tomorrow.”
LIKE A ROC: Here’s O’Shea when asked about the play of Carmichael through four games:
“The fact is he’s in a tough spot as a rookie, as an American coming in and facing the waggle and seeing route combinations for the first time. The game is new. The sample size is pretty small for a guy who is fresh in the CFL. As far as what we saw in training camp and what we see in games, he does have a high ceiling. We don’t look at it as how far he is from his ceiling, we look at it as he’s got a high ceiling and a lot of potential. He’s doing a lot of things well.
“Sometimes the switch flicks overnight and things start to click pretty quickly. The one thing that holds him in that spot is his work ethic. He and Brandon Alexander are guys that are just always working to get better. When you see that, it’s hard not to like those guys.”
FOURTH-QUARTER BLUES: The Bombers have been out-scored 42-9 in fourth-quarters this year – including 18-zip as the Lions rallied last Friday – but interestingly, have won the time of possession in three of the four fourth quarters this year (33 minutes and 49 seconds of possession vs. 26:11 for the opposition).
It was put to Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall that maybe the club isn’t getting enough from its offence, especially given six two-and-outs in a row later in Friday’s loss.
“Offence has nothing to do with us,” said Hall. “Our job is to get off the field as soon as possible. When our defence is out there, offence isn’t on the field. Our job is to keep them out of the end zone, plain and simple. If the ball’s on the one-yard line, keep them out of the end zone. If the ball’s on the other one-yard line, keep them out of the end zone. Every time we step on the field our goal is zero-one-three (zero points, one point or three points against).”