It’s a Zen parable – which means it isn’t the sort of thing pro football players are accustomed to hearing.
Then again, Montreal Alouettes defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold has a long and distinguished history of marching to a beat audible only to him.
So when it was time to explain his new scheme to the defensive unit during the early stages of training camp, Reinebold trotted out the well-known allegory of the master who fills a pupil’s cup to overflowing during a Japanese tea ceremony, causing him to spill it.
“It was a cool thing, that metaphor … ‘for me to teach you anything, you need to drop everything you learned in your past life and start fresh from here.’ That’s what we’ve done,” Als middle linebacker Shea Emry said.
Given the way the Alouettes played defence last year – and particularly in the East Division semi-final, which they lost at home to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – no one would argue with the need for a reno.
The injury bug bit the Als defence hard in 2011, and with starters falling seemingly every week, a squad that had buttressed three consecutive Grey Cup appearances started leaking points and yards (359.1 on average per game, fifth-best in the eight-team league).
The sack totals were middle of the pack, the pass defence was the second-worst in the league (282.2 yards per game allowed) and intercepted only 13 balls, which contributed to a minus-7 turnover ratio on the season.
In addition to bringing in a new co-ordinator – former Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Reinebold – and several new position coaches, the Als have overhauled their personnel on the field as well to bolster depth.
Gone are stalwarts such as rush end Anwar Stewart, tackle Eric Wilson and linebacker Ramon Guzman; in are 10 new players on defence (who together outnumber the holdovers).
In their place are some well-established faces – lineman Aaron Hunt, ex of the B.C. Lions, former Edmonton Eskimos linebacker Rod Davis – and some relative unknowns – like NFL castoff Marques Murrell.
Also gone are the 4-3 and the match-up zones the Als typically favoured under Tim Tibesar (now coaching at Purdue University).
Reinebold has designed a flexible alignment based on a loose 3-4 (typically with five men rushing) with backfield coverages hewing closer to either traditional zone or man-to-man sets depending on the situation.
The idea, the players say, is to show as many looks as possible and put maximum heat on opposing quarterbacks.
“There’s five guys lined up, there’s five guys rushing, so it’s going to be 1-on-1 most of the time. It’s an attack defence and that’s what we’re going to do,” said defensive lineman J.P. Bekasiak, one of only two holdovers on the line (the other, 2011 sack leader John Bowman, is out with a knee injury).
The Als will be counting on three of the CFL’s premiere offensive performers once again this year – quarterback Anthony Calvillo, league-leading receiver Jamel Richardson, and league-leading running back Brandon Whitaker – but Reinebold’s task is to craft a defence that can help Montreal break its 2011 habit of letting leads slip away.
“Jeff’s brought in a system I think that allows us to take advantage of our athleticism and not have us overthink on the field,” safety/linebacker Marc-Olivier Brouillette said. “I think we’re a bigger, faster, more athletic defence this year that’s going to allow us to do a lot of different things.”
It is a defence that has a chip on its shoulder, led by a man who is surely eager to rehabilitate a reputation that took a beating during his tumultuous tenure in Winnipeg.
Montreal head coach Marc Trestman said “we’ll see where this goes,” and indicated the defence remains a work in progress.
That it does, and its first test, on Sunday in Calgary, will be a tricky one.
Former Stampeders defensive back Dwight Anderson, one of seven Als starters to miss time through injury in 2011, said there’s at least one immediate benefit to all the changes, which are the most sweeping of Trestman’s four-year tenure.
“The defence is pretty much brand new … there’s a lot of new faces, a lot of new skills,” he said. “It’s going to give the other teams lots to prepare for.”