Players in positions to fail (and 6 other thoughts on the Lions’ loss in Regina)

In a battle of West Division bottom feeders, the Lions boggled the chance to turn their season around and fell 38-25 to the Roughriders.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Square pegs, round holes

It would not be a 2019 B.C. Lions game if I did not start by talking about the offensive line.

Mike Reilly was once again a man under siege, sacked four times and facing heavy pressure from the fearsome Riders’ front of Micah Johnson, Charleston Hughes, AC Leonard, Zach Evans and Makana Henry. Hughes, in particular, was virtually unstoppable throughout the afternoon, notching ten defensive tackles and three sacks.

It came as no surprise that the Lions’ big men found themselves outclassed by some of the league’s best pass rushers, especially with their two best blockers sitting on the injured list in Joel Figueroa and Sukh Chungh. Reilly’s protective detail for the game consisted of two backup guards, a guard at right tackle and the often-exploited Brett Boyko moving across to protect the blindside. This was hardly a recipe for success and only got worse throughout the game with injuries to veteran Hunter Steward in the first half (he would return for the second) and centre Jean-Simon Roy late in the game.

It is incredibly easy to pick on the performance by this unit. Tackles David Foucault and Boyko continue to demonstrate that they lack the foot speed required for blocking athletes on the outside without help. The interior, for their part, was devoid of the grit and nastiness that make offensive lines great. Ultimately, these are professional athletes who are more than deserving of any criticism that comes their way but its high time we addressed the baffling coaching decisions that have put the players in this situation.

It is a coach’s job to put players in a position to succeed. Thus far, the Lions’ linemen have been set up for failure. Two years ago, David Foucault demonstrated in his first CFL season that he could not succeed as a professional tackle. Wally Buono’s staff adjusted, arguably too slowly, and Foucault has become a serviceable guard. The current coaching staff has rolled back the clock by failing to make the same necessary adjustment with prized acquisition Brett Boyko and doubled down by continuing to give Foucault opportunities at tackle. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result. The Lions seem to be trying to confirm that theory.

Then there is the curious usage of Phillip Norman. A tackle in college, he finally earned a start at guard in his second year with the team. Why he and Foucault didn’t swap positions is a question in and of itself, but the Lions made the baffling decision to move him to centre when Roy went down. He promptly botched two shotgun snaps. The decision is made more puzzling by the fact that Hunter Steward, who started the season at centre, was still on the field. Steward is a liability at centre in his own right, but not leaning towards that experience late in game is bizarre.

Whoever is making the decisions along the offensive line clearly needs to re-evaluate. Whether it is OL coach Bryan Chiu determining the starting five, offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson and DeVone Claybrooks adjusting to their preference, or Ed Hervey exerting pressure from above, the line will never succeed if players continue to be forced out of their natural positions. And, for his part, Hervey needs to bring in players who can fill those spots and it must happen soon. There are a number of quality free agents available who could help this team right now, failure to bring them in borders on negligence.

Fundamental flaws

Even with the offensive line’s struggles, the offence produced enough opportunities and controlled the clock well enough to potentially win the game. It was on defence and special teams that this football game was lost.

Poor tackling has been an issue for the team throughout the season and it once again reared its ugly head. While the Riders’ defence feasted on the Lions short screens, flats and swing passes, the Lions let their opponent off the hook several times by failing to secure tackles underneath. Field corner Anthony Thompson twice hurtled past a ball carrier near the line of scrimmage to concede a first down and he wasn’t alone in this transgression.

This failure of football fundamentals cost the Lions big on special teams when Marcus Thigpen returned a game-changing kickoff 100 yards for a score to end the first half. By my count, five different Lions had a shot at tackling Thigpen, but he easily brushed past their flailing arms.

It wasn’t just tackling either. The Lions took sloppy pursuit angles all game long and failed to keep Fajardo in the pocket. They gave the Riders ample room to make plays and made themselves far too easy to block out.

The defence that Rich Stubler and DeVone Claybrooks have installed in B.C. is notorious for its complexity. The learning curve has been steep for this unit but now their problems aren’t schematic. Such an intense focus on learning the intricacies of a complex defence has come at the expense of their fundamentals. Feet have stopped moving, contain is being lost, and eyes are dropping while tackling. It may be time to get back to basics with this group.

All quiet on the defensive front

On the subject of defence, the defensive line turned in a performance that rivaled their offensive counterparts in terms of ineptitude. The Lions failed to generate any semblance of a pass rush and got physically manhandled by a stout group of Rider hogs.

The Lions’ struggles to find an effective rookie at defensive end have been well publicized, but it is the performance of their veterans that leaves me concerned. 2018 all-star Davon Coleman was virtually invisible, save for an intercepted two-point convert and Claudell Louis has yet to attract any sort of additional attention to free him up. Invisibility might have been welcomed by the group’s leader, as Odell Willis had a night to forget. Held entirely off the stat sheet, he stuck out like a sore thumb when he badly overran a Cody Fajardo read option in the third quarter. Fajardo kindly filled the gap he left behind and ran for a score.

The Lions have recorded just seven sacks all season and none in two straight weeks. You simply can’t win in a passing league without quarterback pressure. Tuesday will mark one year from the day that Ed Hervey acquired Shawn Lemon via trade last season to fix a similar lack of pass rush. A move like that would go a long way towards fixing the Lions.

Time to walk the talk

So far this season I’ve held my tongue on Duron Carter but its time to break the silence.

I’ve never been a fan of Carter, his frequent antics or general abrasiveness, but its hard to argue that his personality hasn’t been good for the league. Like it or not, Carter attracts eyeballs.

Saturday night was a perfect opportunity for Carter. Back in Regina, he could fully embrace the villain role thrust upon him and become the weapon that the Lions brought him in to be. But, while he tied a season high with 65 yards, Carter continued to be a virtual non-factor.

Duron seemed more interested in basking in Rider Nation’s boos and fighting with Nick Marshall than he did in running crisp routes or contesting the football. That has been a theme all season. Talent is never a question with Carter, but effort and focus are. The Lions need him to pull it together and turn into the genuine deep threat they were promised, or he may be at the end of the line in the CFL.

Run it like Rutley

On the positive side for the Lions, Brandon Rutley finally got his opportunity on offence and looked positively explosive. The Lions were most successful on drives where Rutley was involved and it was easy to see why. He ran with power and tenacity, a combination that Ed Gainey won’t soon forget after Rutley ran through his face on a particularly violent carry.

Unfortunately for Lions’ fans, Rutley went down with injury in the fourth quarter and his status going forward is uncertain. Hopefully he and his 5.6 yards per carry are good to go next week.

Public (quarterback) endangerment

It is hard to fathom the thought process of DeVone Claybrooks when he allowed his prized quarterback to finish an unwinnable game, even after he took a low shot from Makana Henry that caused him to come up limping. Any quarterback, let alone the hyper-competitive Mike Reilly, will lobby to finish a football game and the day they don’t they should retire. But it is the head coach’s responsibility to protect his players from themselves. Allowing a beaten down Reilly to continue to absorb punishment on meaningless snaps in a three-score football game is almost criminal. You must protect the player and your team’s investment in him.

Even more egregious is the decision to attempt to throw a two-point convert with just three seconds remaining while down 13 points. At that point, you aren’t just endangering your quarterback, but also every single player on your team for the benefit of your own pride. It was pointless, unnecessary and fortunately ended without injury.

Coach Claybrooks, I don’t care if you wear your hat crooked but please screw your head on straight.

Money doesn’t buy happiness

The Lions might have made Mike Reilly the league’s highest paid player, but he looks like a man spiritually defeated in ways I’ve never seen before.

I’ve always held Reilly in the highest esteem as a leader who says all the right things in public, deflects praise onto his teammates and fights to the whistle. He is someone I’ve looked up to and advised young athletes to emulate. These qualities remain, but he looks physically exhausted and visibly frustrated with the situation around him. Its hard to blame him, he faced some rough early years in Edmonton but nothing quite like this and not at this age. The toll on his body is showing for the first time in his career. He continues to go through the motions, fight for touchdowns and battle until the end, but football doesn’t look fun for him right now.

Even at the lowest point in Edmonton, Reilly had players and coaches around him that he trusted. That has yet to be the case in B.C. and I feel for the strain that places on his psyche. The Lions staff and players need to win him back with decisive changes and improved effort in the coming week.

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