June 11, 2014

Morris: Expect an aggressive Lions defence


He has the title of defensive coordinator for the BC Lions but Mark Washington doesn’t like to talk about defence.

Guarding his team’s end zone isn’t Washington’s idea of defence. The former Lions’ defensive back wants his players to be aggressive. He wants them attacking the offence to make big players that force turnovers and scores points.

Now that’s defence in Washington’s eyes.

“You don’t want to leave the procurement of field position just to the offence,” Washington said during a break from the Lions training camp at Kamloops, B.C. “We want to gain some ground. We want to score points too.

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“Defence, you are technically defending our goal, but we want to attack the other team also. If we can attack more and get our offence and special teams in better positions, then that’s the way we would like to be.”

This is Washington’s first training camp as defensive coordinator. Already the players have seen a difference.

“The one thing I can say is we are going to be aggressive,” said linebacker Solomon Elimimian. “We are going to be fundamentally sound.

“It’s going to be fun playing in this defence.”

Washington was promoted into his new job last December when the Lions released Rich Stubler. It’s not that the defence was bad last year when B.C. finished with 11 wins and was ranked among the top two in 11 of the league’s 25 defensive categories.

One factor in the decision was head coach Mike Benevides was afraid he might lose Washington to another team. Both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes had shown interest in him.

The Lions have failed to win a playoff game since winning the 2011 Grey Cup. During that time the BC defence has sometimes lacked a killer instinct. Last year the Lions gave up a nine-point fourth-quarter lead to lose 29-25 to Saskatchewan in the CFL Western Semi-Final.

Having been mentored by Stubler, Washington wasn’t going to criticize his old boss. At the same time he brings his own ideas on how things should be done.

“Our players will be taught better fundamentals, not just schemes but fundamentals,” he said. “Also, we are putting a lot of stress on finishing games strong, not allowing the offence to dictate things to us.

“I’m not talking anything bad about what happened last year. Ultimately we want to make sure we finish games. We want to have the lead and we want to take the ball away and give it to the offence and allow them to finish the game. If we need to make a stop, then make a play to win the game.”

Washington is taking over a defence that will be without veterans like defensive end Keron Williams, nickelback Korey Banks, and linebacker Anton McKenzie. There also have been questions raised about J. R. LaRose at safety.

“We are missing some guys,” Washington said. “We have some guys stepping in.

“Every position can get better from the back end to the front. That’s why we bring in good players.”

Washington played 11 CFL seasons as a defensive back with Montreal and BC He retired in 2008 and became the Lions’ defensive backs coach.

“The guys know me,” said Washington. “I know them.

“I know their capabilities. I know what they can do. I know their strengths and weaknesses. You are able to design a defence from there.”

Some coaches like to rule with an iron hand. They expect players to do what they are told, without question. Washington believes asking questions helps a player under his role.

“I want guys to pose questions because that means they are thinking about what they should do,” he said.

“There is always the time and the place to answer a why. Sometimes you do it on the field, sometimes you sort of have to pull the guy to the side. As long as things are done in a respectful way.”

A coach also has to see the big picture, where a player usually only needs to focus on his role.

“The players on the field have a good feel for what is going on,” said Washington. “The coach is thinking in a bigger realm.

“He is thinking not only for that particular play, he is thinking about the next drive, the next quarter or half. He’s even thinking about the next game, what he may be setting up in the future. The perspective is a little bit broader.”

There has been a lot of focus during training camp about the learning curve the offence is facing under new offensive coordinator Khari Jones. Washington doesn’t expect to introduce as many changes on his side of the ball but things won’t be the same either.

“There are some new things to learn,” he said. “I’ve put my wrinkle on things.

“There are some things that worked that we are going to keep doing. Can we make a better mousetrap? Yes, we can make a better mousetrap.”

Linebacker Adam Bighill, who led the Lions with 92 tackles and four forced fumbles last season, likes what he sees so far.

“There are slight variations and tweaks,” said Bighill. “What he really brings is a different mindset and a different focus and a different approach to how we are going to be playing together as a defence.

“Discipline is one of them. It’s about building trust with one another. We are all going to do our jobs. Having discipline and building trust is going to be the foundation for being a dominate defence.”

Washington sees his new role as a natural progression in his coaching career.

“To be able to go from a player, to an assistant coach and now to a coordinator position has been a dream come true,” he said.

“I know it doesn’t happen every day and I am going to take full advantage of it. I know how blessed I am.”