There’s a moment of truth for defensive linemen in the CFL these days. It came for Craig Roh of the B.C. Lions in his last game.
If the monsters of the defensive front somehow elude their equally gigantic counterparts on the offensive line in roughly three seconds and are real lucky, they can find themselves with nobody between them and the opposing quarterback.
In another instant, they must decide whether to pull back so as to avoid a penalty if he has just thrown the football, or make an attempt to tackle the quarterback hoping he doesn’t duck his head into the onrushing defender, which also would result in a penalty.
In the Lions’ game Friday, Roh did something else. Roh managed to get in front of quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, with no Calgary Stampeders teammates in a position to help. Roh could try and use both arms to drop Mitchell, or to grab him for the sack. Roh chose unwisely.
He dropped Mitchell by grabbing him just under the armpit with one arm and below the shoulder with his other. Nonetheless, the flag came out as quickly as it was described on the TSN broadcast as a horse-collar tackle. All during the week as they prepared to face the Ottawa Redblacks Saturday, the Lions said the call was horse-something all right, but called it something else.
Lions coach Wally Buono got no solace when the club took up the play seeking clarification with Darren Hackwood, the league’s director of officiating, going so far as to offer two types of video evidence plus still pictures with a request to show them where the foul occurred.
The response, said Buono, was the league was always going to err on the side of player safety, and that Roh grabbed Mitchell by the nameplate, which is considered part of the collar area. So there’s at least some clarity, beyond what was reinforced during the game by the league’s command centre.
The narrative coming out of the Surrey facility this week has the feel of a Donald Trump speech about fake news. B.C. gave up a field goal after the play in question and lost 21-17 but the Lions made far too many other mistakes to think they were justifiably hosed. B.C. would likely be just fine if they invested in difference-making pass rushers when it comes time to spend their free agent loonies.
It does, however, raise a question as to why anyone might want to play a position where attaining the goal of getting to the quarterback is proving to be impossible, unless you’ve been around long enough to understand the inevitable.
“They’re not changing (the rules),” veteran lineman Ricky Foley said. “Fans want to see high-scoring games. You have to adapt. It’s horse-collar tackles this year. It’s going to be something different next year. If teams hold (offences) to under 20 points, they’re going to make rule changes. It’s not enough points.”
Buono was in denial at first showing the replays and still frames of the Roh penalty to anyone who wandered by his office, but when it came time to face cameras played the role of diplomat.
“When I looked at it I don’t believe under the definition I know that would be a horse-collar tackle,” he said. “But player safety is an issue that also works both ways and it’s helped the defensive player too. The most important players are quarterbacks and if we can keep them healthy the product is better.”
Of course, tackling has become such a lost art its perhaps no surprise as to why the game has changed. The surprising part is the defensive players who are in the Lions meeting room haven’t turned their daily sessions with Robin Ross into whine and cheese outings, according to the club’s defensive line coach.
“The rules have become very restrictive for everybody on defence,” said Ross. “In the old days the quarterback was at fault if a receiver ran a post (pattern) and got drilled by the safety. That’s the quarterback throwing him into a hit.
“The rules have changed but it’s still tackle football. It becomes frustrating because you’re just trying to tackle him. Players are going to get hurt no matter what happens. I guess we have to decide what kind of game we want to be.”
With the Lions, it has reached the point with Roh where he was asked recently if he felt persecuted. In a pre-season game, the Lions defensive end was flagged after he pulled out a mythical sword when he actually did drop a quarterback legally. Objectionable conduct was the call for one of the few times a Lions lineman recorded a sack.
Roh mixed metaphors when asked about the play on Mitchell but made his point nonetheless.
“There’s just a lot of red tape around the quarterback right now. You can see on film the refs are staring at the quarterback making sure nothing happens. It’s not the same for d-lineman. If they’re going to take player safety to that level it needs to be across the board,” he said.
“I was watching an NFL game the other day. The player got a sack and there was head contact and I thought ‘in the CFL that’s a flag.’ I’m all for player safety but with the pandemonium that’s happening in the trenches it’s very hard to make a perfect hit and that needs to be considered in the rule.”
It all happens in the blink of an eye. It’s a pass rusher’s moment of truth. One on one. What to do.
LIONS TALES: Part of the reason the Lions lament plays like the one involving Mitchell is the fact they are last in combined quarterback drops and sacks, which may explain why they will switch their rotation again Saturday. Mich’ael Brooks will be back paired in the interior of the line with Bryant Turner, with Canadians David Menard and Maxx Forde rotating off the edge… SB Bryan Burnham (foot) also returns after a two-game absence. T.J. Lee (elbow) is back after missing three straight. Cody Husband (hamstring) will sit out but OL David Foucault passed concussion protocol and will be activated to serve as a backup… Rookie WR Maurice Morgan, an undrafted import who made the Lions practice roster despite having only three offensive touches in four college seasons at North Carolina State, still doesn’t have a pro reception. Morgan was cut Thursday after failing to snare any of the three balls thrown his way against Calgary.