Ferguson: Bombers evolving offence to fit quarterback
When a team loses their starting quarterback for any meaningful amount of time the effects are typically devastating.
In 2019 the CFL has somehow avoided that trend with Dane Evans developing nicely in Hamilton, Cody Fajardo somehow making Zach Collaros expendable in Regina and even Vernon Adams Jr. starring in Montreal after Week 1 starter Antonio Pipkin couldn’t stay healthy or lay claim to the top job long term.
In each of these situations, adjustments have been made to the offence to put the new leading man in the best situation to have success, but no offence has been as overhauled and manipulated than that of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers since Matt Nichols fell to a shoulder injury in Week 10.
Ready in waiting was Chris Streveler, a mountain of a man with the most varied run package of any backup quarterback in recent CFL memory. After replacing Nichols early in 2018, many Bombers fans spent much of the off-season clamouring for more blonde, bearded power runs in their life, a style of play that fits the passionate Winnipeg fan base and has excited them since Streveler began getting some short yardage responsibilities.
Now is his chance to prove he is more than just a backup capable of running between the tackles and make no mistake, Chris Streveler can throw the ball. The question was could he do it accurately, on balance, with timing and touch?
We all know from watching games that Winnipeg has looked different offensively over Streveler’s four starts this season, but just how different and what are the differences in the way Offensive Coordinator Paul LaPolice and his staff are building around Streveler as the playoffs near?
We begin with when, where and how often LaPolice is asking Streveler to open up and throw.
It’s no secret Nichols had more of an open book in the passing game and that the offence has become more run heavy with Streveler in order to limit risk while also accentuating his exceptional running skill set. Seeing how much was eye opening.
Specifically the amount of fourth quarter (71.4%) and score zone (65.4%) called runs for Streveler, with of course the understanding that some of these come as the Bombers look to protect a lead and others come in short yardage or on the goal line.
When LaPolice does allow Streveler to throw here is how he stacks up with Nichols production from earlier this season.
Again unsurprisingly, Streveler is shown to be less aggressive downfield, less accurate and has a slightly lower production grade.
The reality is for every Bombers hipster who wanted to zig while everyone else was zagging this off-season, Nichols is the better passer and it’s why he pilots the Winnipeg offence so efficiently to the tune of 15 touchdowns and five interceptions before being injured.
Nichols also uses his experience to see the field with greater clarity allowing a wider range of pass attempt types targeting all angles of the field with higher completion rates.
Here is Nichols’ 2019 season to Week 15:
What struck me right away about these target charts is the inefficient downfield passing game with Streveler. Not because it is rare for a backup quarterback to struggle stretching the field in early days of starting, but because we have seen great examples in the last two years of Chris throwing receivers open down the field. He’s more than capable but the only four passes he has completed so far in 2019 beyond twenty yards in the air have all gone for touchdowns. So there’s that.
The Bombers quarterbacks are also just 7/31 (22.5% completion rate) when targeting receivers outside the numbers to either side beyond 15 yards down the field. Again, low efficiency but when they hit, it’s for majors as that same throw location has accounted for five of the Bombers twenty passing touchdowns this season.
Streveler has a higher sack percentage (6.9% of called pass plays) than Nichols (5.5%) which has in some ways hindered the Bombers passing game and likely led to a very conservative call on the final offensive snap of Week 15 in Montreal last Saturday.
What certainly has not hurt the Bombers with Streveler is his ability to answer the bell when called upon to run the rock himself. This has led to a whopping 87.5% of Streveler’s rushing attempts coming on called runs with the other 12.5% coming via scramble on called pass plays. Nichols on the other hand has only been asked to run on 33% of his rush attempts with the rest coming on scrambles.
This of course comes from two completely different sample sizes as Nichols accounts for just 2.8% of his teams rushing attempts while Streveler is ten times more likely to run as he makes up 28.1% of the Bombers rush attempts in 2019.
The biggest question lingering with Bombers fans after the Nichols injury wasn’t necessarily what impact Streveler would have on the offence but how would the change affect those around him, specifically the backs and receivers? Here is a look at how Winnipeg’s targeted touches have been dispersed since the change:
Streveler’s ability to carry the ball himself and the heightened importance in maintaining a constant run threat – especially during Andrew Harris’ two game suspension – has resulted in Streveler taking on massive personal importance to the offence’s success. As a result there is less to go around for everyone else with the exception of Darvin Adams who has actually seen a jump in his game-by-game target percentage since Nichols went down.
As for each offensive skill position players production grade when targeted? It tells a different kind of story.
While Adams is getting more looks, he has actually been less effective with Streveler due to the inefficient downfield passing game.
Streveler’s personal production grade has dipped as well as he takes more of the every down beatings that a running quarterback does while the constant threat of quarterback run – combined with some extra post suspension motivation – has propelled Andrew Harris forward with Streveler in the backfield.
Meanwhile Kenny Lawler and Dan Petermann – both with far fewer touches than their teammates – have found success with Streveler at quarterback.
The Bombers have changed. Will they go back to the old when Nichols returns? Will it be a mix of their ‘two seasons’ at quarterback? If Nichols can’t come back in time for November will the current design be enough to get them through the West and off to Calgary for the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw?
All fair questions that we will answer in due time.
For now they run it more, they control time of possession, they strike less fear in back end defenders, but they are still a force to be reckoned with in the CFL playoffs thanks in large part to an ever evolving offensive scheme with Chris Streveler at the helm.