September 22, 2012

Defence rises to challenge

By Allen Cameron
Calgary Herald

It wasn’t just a challenge for the Calgary Stampeders’ defence to get to know their new co-ordinator Rick Campbell.

They had to get to know his defence. They had to get to know each other. And they had to get to know what each other was capable of.

Now, 11 games into their 2012 Canadian Football League season, it appears that the Stampeders’ D has found its comfort level, and the proof is there for all to see as the Stamps will carry a season-long four-game win streak into Mosaic Stadium in Regina to take on the host Saskatchewan Roughriders (2 p.m., TSN, QR77 Radio).

Through five weeks, the Stamps were one of the CFL’s most generous outfits when it came to surrendering points. In the six games since, only the B.C. Lions have given up fewer points (15.7 per game) than the Stampeders (17.1).

More impressively, the 7-4 Stamps haven’t given up a first-quarter touchdown since Week 4, and that’s been a major factor in giving the Calgary offence plenty of time on the field in the opening stages of games to get them in their rhythm.

So what’s changed? What switch was flicked that turned this defence into one of the league’s best shutdown units, a big reason the Stamps are contending for a West Division title that would have seemed unlikely in the early weeks of this season?

“It’s not a big philosophical change,” said Campbell on Friday. “As coaches, we wanted to make sure we were crystal clear on our assignments, making sure we didn’t have too much in, making sure that whatever we run (on defence), we do it real well and making sure everyone has an understanding of it. That’s the biggest part of it.”

Not exactly complicated stuff, of course, but when you’re dealing with a unit that has had just four players — linebackers Juwan Simpson and Malik Jackson, defensive end Charleston Hughes and tackle Corey Mace — start all 11 games this season, that creates issues.

In recent weeks, though, there has been less fluctuation from week to week in terms of starting units. As well, the young players who had to learn on the fly — coverage linebacker Chris Randle being a perfect example — are far more comfortable.

“I think it’s just a matter of playing together a few more games,” said Jackson. “And I think with any defence, it’s more just knowing your identity. The guys know what we do well as a defence, and you go out there and do your best at what you’re good at Early in the season, you’re going to make some mistakes, and if you learn from those mistakes, that’s when you become a better defence.”

Missed tackles were a particular issue in the early going; now, the Stamps have become a unit that still misses occasionally on first contact, as is the case with any defence, but just about always, there’s another player close by to finish the job.

“One of the biggest things was, let’s not do anything out of our control,” said defensive back Keon Raymond, whose stellar play has helped overcome the absence of fellow DB Brandon Smith due to a lingering shoulder problem. “I think we were trying to do too much in the beginning — everybody was trying to make plays outside the scheme. Now, we’ve settled down, we talk to each other and our young guys have stepped up. Even with all the injuries we’ve had, guys just come in and do their job.”

Experience in the Campbell system, which doesn’t feature as many bells, whistles and gimmicks that of former co-ordinator Chris Jones, has helped, too. Players know their responsibilities by instinct now instead of actually having to think about them.

“It’s Week 12, everyone is comfortable with each other, we play off each other, we make reads together, we talk among each other between plays, and we’re able to be playmakers rather than just strictly paying attention to gap assignments,” explained Mace. “That’s your job, at first. But now we can go out and make plays.

“There’s more of a comfort level,” added Jackson. “You call a play, and instead of thinking, ‘OK, I have to worry about this and this,’ now, you know what you’re doing and you can look at the offence and see what they’re doing. It’s more fluid.”

That’s translating into more turnovers, more sacks and fewer of those explosion plays that defensive coaches despise.

It’s also translating into a more cohesive unit, a group that hangs together on and off the field, which has built a level of trust that is crucial to any successful defence.

“I think the guys just understand that it’s team defence, and we trust each other,” said Raymond. “And we’ve started to grow together off the field as well, so that’s been a big help.”