Tackle woes in Vancouver (and six other thoughts on the Lions’ loss to the Eskimos)

With a chance for redemption against the Eskimos in front of their home crowd, the B.C. Lions laid a 33-6 egg and may have finally reached rock bottom.

To make sense of it all, here are my thoughts on the game.

The Pylon Gang

Once again, it was a porous offensive line that was front and centre in a Lions defeat, surrendering five first half sacks and allowing continuous pressure all game long. Many on Twitter drew comparison between the orange of their jerseys and the traffic cones they seemed to resemble on every play. I’m sure it was a comparison that Mike Reilly found apt as they scraped him off the turf after the game.

While there is plenty of responsibility to be spread around for the unit’s second dreadful performance against Edmonton, it became painfully obvious that the Lions have a problem at tackle. Left Tackle Joel Figueroa had been the stalwart of the struggling group, but a lingering ankle injury from last week left him limping in his pass sets. He lasted less than a half and was sent sprawling on each of the Eskimos first three sacks.

Neither his replacement David Foucault (who bumped over from left guard) or right tackle Brett Boyko fared much better. Boyko continued to routinely be bull rushed into Reilly and Foucault showed the lack of foot speed that moved him to guard in the first place. While the interior of the line struggled with the unenviable task of controlling the push of Almondo Sewell, it was B.C.’s tackles who kept Reilly a sitting duck in the pocket by being bullied on the outside.

If Figueroa is injured for any length of time the Lions are in serious trouble, but even if he returns next week changes must be made. The organization has pinned its hopes to Boyko for a long time, but since his arrival he has shown exactly the qualities that kept him trapped on practice rosters in the NFL and stapled to the bench in the AAF. Boyko is soon to be 27 and playing his fifth season of pro football. He is no longer a raw rookie to be carefully developed. The Lions simply can’t afford to keep him on the field the way he has performed.

The Hidden Flaw

While attention has been focused on the failures of the big men up front, the mistakes of some smaller men have gone unnoticed. John White IV once again seemed to struggle with his blocking assignments in pass protection, an especially key role given how often Edmonton sent six or more defenders. The offensive line will always get the public blame, but many would be surprised how many sacks this season have been the responsibility of the running back.

Receiver Jevon Cottoy, brought in to block during max protect looks, has also had some growing pains as he adjusts to a blocking role much different than being a star pass-catcher in junior ball.

The loss of Rolly Lumbala, and the Lions comparatively limited use of David Mackie, has been felt in this area.

Sitting Pretty

On the other side of the battle in the trenches, the Lions’ defensive line failed to get any sort of pressure on Trevor Harris. A strong performance against Toronto last week should have been a jumping off point for the group, but they seemed to take a step back.

Starting end Matt Boesen was hurt during the first series and a rotation of replacements couldn’t seem to generate much traction. That’s not great news for Lions’ fans who have been critical of Boesen thus far and hoped someone else might emerge.

Perhaps most concerning, however, was the lack of push in the interior from 2018 all-star Davon Coleman and big man Claudell Louis. That’s been a theme all season long for the Lions and has generated a weakness where many predicted a strength. National Junior Luke looked good late in the game and may deserve a bigger role in the rotation in order to generate something resembling pressure.

The Smallest Silver Lining

There weren’t a lot of positives for the Lions in this one, but their run defence was much improved from its early season dismantlings. The performance wasn’t anything to write home about and they still gave up a couple of chunk plays, but keeping C.J. Gable under the century mark is not an easy feat. In fact, Gable’s 3.6 yards per carry on the evening was less than John White’s. Perhaps a small reason for optimism.

Hard to Comeback When You Can’t Return

Brandon Rutley shocked everyone, including himself, when he took a kickoff 108 yards to the house on his first ever return in Week 1. Since then, he’s been a serviceable enough kickoff return man but an absolute non-factor in the punt return game.

Thursday was just another example of his struggles in this capacity, notching 3.7 yards per return and once coughing up the football. His season average of seven yards per return is not much better.

Rutley is a solid player and deserves more offensive touches, but he lacks the explosive speed and quickness necessary to return punts in the three-down league. As a result, the Lions continue to lose the field position battle. The Lions need to bring in a designated returner in order to have success or utilize Duron Carter in that capacity. Carter has shown return ability in the past and has looked anemic in the offence, so it’s hard to justify not attempting to use his playmaking ability.

The Hottest Seat in BC Place

When a team starts as poorly as the Lions, jobs are on the line. Out of all the coaches in the league, the one who should be most firmly on the hot seat is Lions’ offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson. As much as the players have struggled, Jackson’s monotonous play calling has set them up for failure.

It has been a familiar refrain in Vancouver. Once again, Jackson failed to establish the run game for an offensive line built to be physical road graders. He took a quarterback under continuous pressure and gave him slow developing deep routes. Jackson’s play calling has left Reilly a sitting duck, with no attempt to roll him out of the pocket or discourage blitz through screens and hot routes. Lions’ followers were anticipating a season of excitement, with shiny weapons on offence and the best gunslinger in the league. Instead, they’ve been treated to an offence that doesn’t challenge defences schematically.

Something must change for the Lions to be successful, but the team may be limited in its options. Jackson was kept on under Claybrooks to stay within the CFL’s new coaching cap and firing him before his contract expires this off-season may limit who they can afford to hire as a replacement, given that with such a young staff its likely not an in-house option. If this influences the team to keep him around longer than is prudent, CFL fans will have the league office to thank for some bad football.

The Real Hot Seat

Speaking of heat, the temperature inside BC Place was absolutely stifling. According to reports, it was a stadium decision to close the roof but regardless of who made the decision, the result was some sweaty, miserable fans. It was downright uncomfortable and, with the score being what it was, it was the first time in my life I considered leaving a football game early. That is simply unacceptable.

Despite the product on the field, the Lions’ staff have made a tremendous effort to solve their attendance woes. Marketing videos have been amusing, stadium atmosphere has been upgraded and the grub has gotten much better. All that effort is for not when fans come out to games in a taxpayer-funded sauna. The roof should have been open on a gorgeous night like Thursday, and I hope whoever closed it had to wipe the pool of sweat off my seat.

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