Milk carton receivers (and six other thoughts on the Lions embarrassing Riders loss)

The sequel was worse than the original as the Lions were embarrassed at home 45-18 against a Rider team loaded with familiar faces.

If this isn’t rock bottom, you can certainly see it from here. Here are my thoughts on the game.

Front Four, Back Foot

It was an entirely different group of big men than usual who were deserving of fans’ ire in the rematch against Saskatchewan.

The Riders rolled for 227 yards rushing against the Lions and their offensive line simply took B.C.’s front four to the woodshed. It was a physical manhandling of epic proportions that had O-Line coaches everywhere wiping a tear from their eye.

The Leos’ lack of pass rush has been a major talking point all season, but against the Riders the defensive line simply checked out and ignored all their responsibilities. The first rule of defensive line play against the run is to eat up space and occupy blockers. Your job is to allow your linebackers the space and opportunity to make plays. Collectively, the unit ignored this responsibility and looked entirely checked out. Often there were three Rider blockers making their way cleanly to the second level.

It wasn’t just costing the Lions yards either. William Powell scored three times on the ground and two of them were as a direct result of an interior lineman running himself out of the play. On Powell’s 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the Lions sent just a three-man rush and Davon Coleman entered his spin move without checking for run. It was clearly something the Riders had game planned for as they ran the draw play right past him.

Given the down and distance on that particular play, one might be inclined to forgive Coleman for gambling on a pass rush move. That certainly isn’t the case for Powell’s eight-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Newcomer Mackendy Cheridor simply sidestepped Riders’ right guard Dakoda Shepley and then watched helplessly as he occupied both linebackers and escorted Powell untouched into the end zone.

Overall, the group seemed unwilling to do the dirty work necessary to be successful, trying instead to gamble on flash plays that might win them a coach’s favour. The Riders use of the read option with quarterback Cody Fajardo necessitated a defensive discipline that the Lions couldn’t deliver. I’ve never seen defensive ends exploited that badly on option plays outside of college football.

Ed Hervey made a conscious decision to save money on his linebacking corps. It’s made up of serviceable football players, but gone are the days when Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill patrolled the second level and made plays out of nothing. The linebackers need the defensive line to do their jobs to be successful and that isn’t happening right now.

Baby Steps for Big Men

On the offensive side of the trenches, believe it or not, Saturday’s game may have actually been a step in the right direction. Now, it certainly wasn’t a good performance by any stretch of the imagination and none of their parents will be hanging it up on the refrigerator. But at this point any sign of progress in that position group is a welcome sight.

While they still surrendered four sacks, Reilly had a little bit more time than he’s had in weeks past and was on his back slightly less often. That’s not anything to be excited about but baby steps are the best hope for this group.

Lions’ fans should also be optimistic that change is in the air. Hervey opened the bye week by acquiring American tackle Justin Renfrow from Calgary and Peter Godber should be coming off the six-game injured list shortly. Quite literally, the only way for this unit to go is up.

The Case of the Missing Receiving Corps

Right now, Dairyland is hard at work printing the faces of Duron Carter, Lemar Durant, Shaq Johnson and Jevon Cottoy on the side of their milk cartons.

With the exception of Bryan Burnham, who caught five passes for 49 yards, the Lions receiving corps seemed to take the day off on Saturday to enjoy the beautiful weather in Vancouver. The group of supposed game-breakers were smothered by the Riders’ defensive backs all night long and caught a combined three passes for 17 yards.

The Lions got out-run and out-maneuvered by their opponents. To not be able to create separation that frequently is a failure of route running and fundamentals. There isn’t a team in the league that fears B.C.’s receivers right now and that must change.

White Out

I’m baffled by the coaching staff’s continued persistence in using John White as the lone feature back. White is by no means devoid of talent — I’ve been a fan of his since his Edmonton days — but he has struggled to generate any traction lately and has been a general liability as a blocker.

On the other hand, Brandon Rutley showed last week that he can be the type of north-south runner that opens up your entire offence. With both backs in the line-up, Rutley got just three carries, despite averaging five yards on each of them.

Establishing a run game is essential to winning. Right now, Rutley gives the Lions a better chance to do that and they are not taking advantage.

Bad Punting from a Land Down Under

The Leos brought Australian punter Josh Bartel in to rectify a dismal punting game and that simply hasn’t happened. That was on full display against his former team as he averaged just 32.2 net yards, a full 14.6 yards less than his Saskatchewan replacement Jon Ryan. The Lions’ offence needs all the help it can get and right now they are losing the field position battle because of the punting game.

It doesn’t all fall on Bartel’s shoulders, however. The Lions’ kick coverage unit has been dreadful, and they entirely lost contain on Loucheiz Purifoy’s 87-yard return touchdown. Special teams coordinator Taylor Altilio has a massive job to do in whipping this unit back into shape.

Dynamic Duo

Despite the lopsided score, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Lions and two players really stood out to me as bright spots.

The obvious choice is returner Ryan Lankford who notched two massive return touchdowns, only the second time in Lions’ history this has occurred. Lankford was quick and decisive, choosing his lane and attacking it with little hesitation. Scoring 12 of the Lions’ 18 points, the game often looked more like Ryan Lankford vs. the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

On the defensive side of the ball, safety Brandon Dozier was a noticeable presence throughout the game. Collecting 10 tackles — a condemnation of the Lions defence in and of itself — and one massive forced fumble, Dozier looked every bit like the all-star he was in Montreal.

Both of these impact performers were in-season additions by Hervey, proving even more that decisive moves can pay off and need to be made.

Our House?

When the Roughriders come to town, you expect a lot of green jerseys in the stands. What you don’t expect is for the home fans to completely pack it in and surrender their home field.

Riders’ fans gave their team a standing ovation in a stadium virtually empty of Lions’ jerseys at the end of the game and the players led a rousing chant of “Go Riders Go.” It was a complete and utter takeover of BC Place stadium.

The product on the field for the B.C. Lions has been terrible this season, and the players are rightfully embarrassed, but Lions fans ought to be embarrassed by their performance as well. In football more than any other sport, fans have a tangible and real impact on the game. You are not simply a consumer of the product but an initiator and actor in it. When fans abandon that responsibility, they share a small part of the culpability for their team’s performance.

If you want the B.C. Lions to win, you need to make your voice heard and your presence felt. Fair weather fans make bad teams worse and good teams impossible.

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