August 11, 2011
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are on top of the CFL's East Division standings with a 5-1 record, and much of their success is thanks to their dominant "Swaggerville" defence. There are plenty of notable stories around that defence, including how their pass rush has gotten even better despite losing CFL sack leader Phillip Hunt to the NFL in the offseason, how their shorter-than-average secondary is doing just fine and how they're playing to honour the memory of defensive line coach/assistant head coach Richard Harris. However, one of the most interesting ones relates to the highly-unexpected source for some of their defensive ideas: famed NFL coach Dom Capers, currently the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
It's not like the Bombers just read one of Capers' playbooks, either. As Paul Wiecek of The Winnipeg Free Press writes, new defensive coordinator Tim Burke (who previously held the same position in Montreal) and linebackers coach Casey Creehan got to head down to Green Bay to meet the man himself this offseason. Capers' time is certainly in demand, but the Bombers' staff pulled that off thanks to a connection from Winnipeg general manager Joe Mack, who was the assistant general manager with the Carolina Panthers during part of Capers' stint as their head coach in the late 1990s. That proved to be quite a crucial meeting, as Burke and Creehan have been able to use many of the ideas they discussed with Capers, particularly the "Jack" hybrid end/linebacker scheme.
In Green Bay, that scheme has been a perfect fit for Clay Matthews (seen at left above celebrating an incomplete pass the Packers' defence forced late in the Super Bowl); north of the border, Odell Willis (seen at right above celebrating a July 28 win over B.C.) has excelled in that role, picking up a league-leading eight sacks so far (his closest competitor has four). Willis (seen at right bringing down Calgary quarterback Henry Burris) currently has one more sack than the entire Montreal defence and the same amount as the Toronto Argonauts' and Calgary Stampeders' defences have each managed. As Wiecek writes, there are some differences in how the two men are employed (with Willis starting on the line more often and Matthews generally starting in the linebacking corps), but the unconventional approach has led both to great success:
"They've got Clay Matthews and we've got Odell Willis," Burke recalled Tuesday, "and so we thought maybe we could go down there and find out what they do to help (Matthews) do the things that he's been doing down there.
"They were fantastic. The Packers were really helpful and we brought those ideas back with us and that's kind of where the 'Jack' thing comes from."
The 'Jack' thing, in case you haven't heard by now, applies both to the hybrid defensive end-linebacker position the Bombers have created for Willis and a series of defensive schemes geared specifically to free him up to attack the quarterback.
Matthews lines up predominantly as a linebacker, Willis lines up predominantly as a defensive end and no one is suggesting the latter is now on par with the former in terms of abilities.
But what is true is that both men have become arguably the most dominant defenders in their respective leagues.
Much of the credit for Winnipeg's defensive turnaround should go to Burke, who's improved the Bombers' defence from a unit that conceded the third-most points in the league last year to the best group in the CFL despite losing arguably their top player in Hunt. It's notable that Montreal's defence hasn't been as impressive since he left, either. Still, it's interesting to see the role that ideas and connections play. Would Willis and the Bombers' pass rush be as effective without the ideas Burke picked up from Capers? Perhaps, but no one can say for sure. (It's worth pointing out that the CFL/NFL exchange of ideas and people isn't a one-sided one either, as Packers' quarterback coach Tom Clements had a great career as a quarterback north of the border with Ottawa, Saskatchewan, Hamilton and Winnipeg. It's also worth noting that this isn't the Bombers' only connection to Green Bay, as Willis once played af2 (arena football) there with the Green Bay Blizzard, now in the Indoor Football League.) It's certainly worked out well for Winnipeg thus far, though. If they can maintain their success this season, they might just want to send Capers a key to Swaggerville—or perhaps a complimentary t-shirt.