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July 10, 2018

Ferguson: Bombers offence differs with Nichols, Streveler at the helm

Trevor Hagan/CFL.ca

A couple of weeks ago on Twitter I suggested the following:

While I stand by the belief that Chris Streveler has burst onto the scene as a really good looking young quarterback with a bright future, Matt Nichols showed a level of play against the BC Lions Saturday night that has him firmly atop the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback hierarchy.

If the Bombers are going to do anything this November it will be because Nichols takes them there, but the skills Streveler showed during Nichols’ absence just might help create enough variety to push Winnipeg to new heights in the West Division.

Nobody wanted to see Nichols get injured at the start of the season but live reps in professional football at the quarterback position are rare and valuable. Every snap Chris Streveler took the Bombers learned more about their backup rookie passer.

A CFL backup quarterback should be a change of pace. Teams are at their best when the number two isn’t a carbon copy of the starter as it allows them to traditionally create variety in the offence while the third string quarterback can serve as a more realistic every down emergency huddle runner.

In the three starts Streveler had, he quickly created an identifiable style of quarterback play that was obviously different from Nichols. A downhill runner with a quick release and feet to match. Streveler looked comfortable operating in a multitude of offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice’s quirky sets and the moment never seemed too big – outside of a series of two-and-outs against Hamilton.

With Matt Nichols back at the controls the question becomes what does this mean for the Bombers, Nichols, Streveler, LaPolice and can the team find a way to maximize the strengths of both quarterbacks?

If anyone can do it, it will be Paul LaPolice because he isn’t afraid to try things.

He is after all the man that asked receiver Darvin Adams to throw a touchdown pass to running back Andrew Harris in Montreal and offensive lineman Micheal Couture to run a pass route – which he got a seven yard catch on – against Hamilton. Oh, and we are only four weeks in.

LaPolice showed a smooth ability to transition tendencies and style of quarterback seamlessly that few other coordinators could. See Brandon Bridge and David Watford replacing Zach Collaros down the road in Regina for confirmation of that.

So how did he do it?

LaPolice adjusted the game plan to his quarterback’s skills and with Nichols now back from injury he must reverse course while finding ways to incorporate the positives of Streveler’s game that shined so bright through the first two weeks.

The first noticeable difference between the Streveler Bombers and the Nichols Bombers is the quarterback run game. Streveler had 30 carries in three starts, seven were scrambles, 23 were called runs.

In all of 2017 Nichols had 32 runs total. Exactly half (16) were called runs, while the other half (16) were broken plays and scrambles. In three games Chris Streveler ran a year’s worth for Matt Nichols and was asked to do so by a coaching staff that understands Streveler’s strengths as shown by the higher QB run call percentage.

With Nichols back don’t expect a running revolution of his game, but rather a sprinkling of tall blonde bearded runs with the usual Nichols main course of accurate progression reads.

Having Nichols back also means far more passing on first down.

In Streveler’s three starts 51 per cent of plays were called runs for either himself or a receiver/running back.

In Week 4, with Nichols back in the huddle, that tendency plummeted to 28 per cent, very close to the 29 per cent of first down runs that LaPolice called in 2017 when Nichols was the starter.

Amazingly through this wild fluctuation in tendency based on who is taking snaps from the centre, Andrew Harris’ targeted touch percentage – the percentage of available touches pass or run targeted for a player – remained steady with 33 per cent of Winnipeg plays aiming to get Harris the ball regardless of whether Streveler or Nichols were the one’s handing off the rock.

Matching the more aggressive pass tendency on first down is the in air depth of targets for each passer. Streveler averaged 8.2 yards in air per attempt in Weeks 1-4 while Nichols averaged 11.1 yards in air per pass attempt. A meaningful difference created by multiple factors including Streveler’s inexperience in the offence, play-calling and protection of a young quarterback from making costly mistakes while shooting the ball down the field.

Nichols had as many throws of 35 yards or more in the air (two) in his first game back as Streveler did in three starts.

Any time there is internal turnover at a position as critical as quarterback, everyone is affected. So who has the most to gain, or lose from Nichols replacing Streveler moving forward?

Second year receiver Drew Wolitarsky easily has the most to lose. Not that he will become a non-factor, but the relationship between he and Streveler in the first three games was unquestionable resulting Wolitarsky reaching the end zone three times on just seven targets.

As for the player with the most to gain, I believe receiver Darvin Adams will profit considerably from the return of an established pocket passer and a higher rate of pass play-calls.

With Streveler as the starter this season Adams got seven per cent of available Winnipeg targets. Far below the 23 per cent of targets he received when Nichols returned last week and the 13 per cent of Blue Bombers targets Adams accepted in 2017.

Not only can Streveler be a useful piece for the Bombers, he needs to be if they want to topple the Eskimos and Stampeders this year. The Bombers early season misfortune has suddenly created a double edged sword, capable of winning games in a variety of ways. Time to sit back and enjoy the show.