Two steps forward, one step back (and 7 other thoughts on the Lions heartbreak in Hamilton)

Photo Scott Grant /
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

It looked for a moment as if the B.C. Lions had finally started to show the pulse that they so badly needed, but a fourth quarter collapse left them in palliative care.

Here are my thoughts on the Leos’ heartbreaking 35-34 loss in Hamilton.

The striped elephant in the room

There is no point avoiding it, we have to talk about the decisive missed call that played a key role in the B.C. Lions’ loss.

With 1:32 remaining in the fourth quarter, Josh Bartel was forced to punt the ball to Frankie Williams with Hamilton behind by six. Williams took the ball 57 yards to the B.C. 23-yard line, giving the Tiger-Cats prime field position for an easy go-ahead score. However, Tyrice Beverette committed an egregious block in the back against Kevin Haynes right at the point of the catch. This missed penalty was directly responsible for springing Williams.

I’m really not one for criticizing referees, quite frankly I find it distasteful. Football referees have one of the toughest jobs imaginable, making difficult calls at extremely high speeds. That being said, I don’t think anyone could argue that Al Bradbury and his crew didn’t have a particularly rough night, including the refs themselves. Just as the players need to watch the tape and improve for next week, so must the men in the striped shirts.

Being the victim of a missed call that crucial is an unfortunate and unlucky situation for the B.C. Lions, who deserve a break more than anyone in the CFL. Fans are livid and they have a right to be, but I hope they maintain a sense of perspective as well. I’m sure Ticats fans aren’t exactly thrilled with the soft roughing the passer call against Ted Laurent that allowed Reilly a chance to hit Bryan Burnham for his second touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter.

Refereeing mistakes are simply a part of the game and if they cost you a victory, you probably didn’t deserve to win anyway. The Lions lost, not because of a missed call, but because of the same fundamental errors they’ve struggled with all season long.

The center-al issue

It was the best performance of the year for B.C.’s embattled offensive line, but once again it proved to be a big man’s mistake that was the turning point of the game.

For most of the contest, the Lions’ hogs capitalized on a run heavy game plan to establish an aggressive mentality they’ve been sorely lacking. They took it to the Tabbies with a zone heavy scheme that got the defence hopelessly moving laterally and allowed the guards to move to the second level with ease.

151 yards on the ground put the fear of God in Hamilton’s defence and made the offensive line’s job in pass protection much easier. They conceded three real sacks, but Mike Reilly had time to throw for the first time all season and the sacks were a result of schematic mistakes or strong coverage, rather than the pure physical domination of weeks past. It was clear that Sukh Chungh’s return from injury and the trade for Justin Renfrow had the desired effect.

It was another lineup change, however, that may have ended up costing B.C. the game. Phillip Norman was given his first start at center, despite his reputation for botching snaps with extreme force.

He was sound for much of the game and did his job as a blocker admirably, but with the game hanging in the balance his fundamental flaw reared its ugly head. Norman sailed a snap that took the Lions out of field goal range, points that would have won the game. Even worse, Reilly badly rolled his ankle while recovering the ball and was visibly affected by the injury for the rest of the game. His health status going forward, despite his trademark bravado, is certainly in question.

A center who botches snaps is a bit like a returner with ball control issues, no matter how good he is at the other components of his job, the cost of the mistakes is simply not worth it. Norman has the skills to be a fine lineman but playing him at center was a massive miscalculation by the Lions’ coaching staff.

Even with both Peter Godber and Jean-Simon Roy hurt, the Lions have other options at center. Andrew Pierson has done nothing but perform admirably in his starts last season and against Saskatchewan two weeks ago. Even rookie Jonathan Harke, who’s spent the season on the practice roster, is a natural center. Both would at least complete the most essential task of that position: getting the ball to the quarterback.

Bryan burn-them

Bryan Burnham clearly wasn’t pleased with the critiques of the Lions’ receiving corps and he came out of the bye week with a noticeable fire.

It was one of the best performances of his career as he recorded seven catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns, proving why he has been a CFL all-star the last two seasons. Several of Burnham’s catches bordered on the miraculous and his pirouetting toe-tap to set up a score at the end of the second quarter must be the early favourite for catch of the year.

Burnham’s heroic outing was a much-needed reminder that there is, in fact, some top tier talents on this B.C. Lions’ roster, even if they do lack depth. It’s simply a matter of scheming the ball into their hands.

Special attention

The B.C. Lions played well on offence and acceptable on defence, but it was in the third phase that they lost the game.

Special teams’ coverage has been dubious all year in B.C., and they haven’t been alone in what has been dubbed the “Year of the Return”, but this time it cost them a very winnable game. To put in statistical terms how bad the cover team was, Josh Bartel was averaging a respectable 42.2 yards per punt. His net average, however, was just 24 yards. Those are simply atrocious numbers and put the Ticats in prime field position on almost every drive.

Those stats only account for their struggles in punt coverage, they don’t include the 108-yard kickoff return touchdown that the Lions gifted Frankie Williams in the second quarter. Kicking off from the right hash, the Lions had six cover men on the short side of the field and three more players on the right side of the mid-field marker. It was no surprise then that Williams used his considerable speed, and a platoon of blockers in front of him, to exploit the Lions wide side coverage.

Taylor Altilio is in his first season as a special teams coordinator in the CFL, with just three years as an assistant, and his assistant Keith Stokes is in his first season as a coach period. That inexperience is costing the Lions both schematically and technique-wise.

The veteran coordinator Jeff Reinebold, who the Leos let walk this off-season, took full advantage and rubbed it in his former employer’s face with an arsenal of trick plays and crisp schematic brilliance. He has been sorely missed this season.

Heads in the clouds

You could make a strong argument that the Lions’ defensive backfield is their best position group and, for the most part, they’ve played like it this year. However, it was a couple of obvious mental errors by the secondary that hurt the Lions on defence.

On the Ticats opening drive, Aaron Grymes and Isaiah Guzylak-Messam both decided that the league’s best receiver was the other person’s responsibility and left Brandon Banks completely uncovered on the seam route, resulting in an easy touchdown.

Then, with the game on the line, T.J. Lee was caught flat-footed and too deep in the end zone to recover against Banks’ speed on a deep out for the go-ahead points. These mental lapses are inexcusable at the best of times, but when they come against the league’s most lethal weapon in situations you know he’s being targeted, they leave you shaking your head.

Gary Peters had a particularly bad night and that has been a recurring theme this year. He gave up seven catches on eight targets, according to one statistician, for a total of 95 yards. Particularly bad was his coverage against Banks on the play that set up Hamilton’s second to last score. Peters simply got lazy, losing track of both Banks and the quarterback, and gave up a costly 27-yard gain that put Hamilton on the three-yard line. He seems ill-equipped for the demands of playing boundary corner and B.C. needs to consider a change at that spot.

White knight?

John White was brilliant on the ground Saturday, showing the speed and power that the Lions coveted him for. Keeping him involved on the ground is pivotal to their offensive success.

However, it was also White who badly blew a blitz pickup on the Simoni Lawrence sack that forced the Lions to punt the ball to Hamilton for their game-winning drive. White is good for at least one missed blocking assignment per game and I’m sure the Lions’ embattled offensive line is getting awfully tired of being blamed whenever he misses a block.

Missing piece

Shawn Lemon. Alex Bazzie. Justin Capicciotti. Tristan Okpalaugo. Nikita Whitlock. “Poop” Johnson.

These are just a few of the proven disruptors in the pass game that are currently available through trade or free agency. Yet, B.C. continues to trot out the same makeshift defensive line that fails to get pressure and allows young, inexperienced quarterbacks the time to pick apart the defence.

I’m not sure why Ed Hervey is sitting on his hands to make changes in this area, but if he’s waiting to add someone through NFL cuts, it better be an awfully big fish.

The impact of a Hall of Famer

On a non-game related note, Saturday was the Hall of Fame game and one of my favourite dates on the CFL calendar. It was a truly spectacular class this year, including a couple of Lions’ greats in Mervyn Fernandez and David Williams. It was good to see these legendary players finally get their due.

It was one inductee in particular, however, that got me thinking about the ways Hall of Famers truly impact our lives.

Frank Smith was enshrined as a builder for his incredible 21-year tenure at UBC. He was a legend, winning five Hardy Cups, two Vanier Cups, and sending 47 players into the CFL. As a student at that institution, I have been able to enjoy high quality football because of the program he built and all of their success, even so far as the 2015 Vanier Cup win, can be directly attributed to his legacy.

His indirect impact on my own life goes far deeper. When arriving at UBC, Frank Smith attracted the transfer of a young linebacker from SFU named Michael Mackay-Dunn who would go on to be a three-time team captain and a Hardy Cup champion in 1976. Under Frank Smith, a lifelong love and passion for football blossomed. This was something that coach Mackay-Dunn would passed on four decades later to a young lineman and team captain at Earl Marriott Secondary: myself.

What Frank Smith taught to my high school coach, he would teach to me and I continue to pass on to the athletes I coach today. Perhaps I’m not here writing this article if it wasn’t for Frank Smith. That is the true impact of a Canadian Football Hall of Famer, the inspiration they give others.

How many great Canadian receivers in Winnipeg, B.C., and Toronto got involved in the game after watching Ernie Pitts, Swervin’ Mervyn, David Williams or Terry Greer slice apart defences in front of their young eyes? Do star Canadian running backs like Andrew Harris and Sean Thomas-Erlington even get a chance if Jon Cornish doesn’t demand to be on the field just a few years prior? Does every child in Saskatchewan have a Riders jersey in their closet without Jim Hopson?

These are the legacies that Hall of Famers leave and the Canadian Football League must continue to honour the greats of the past, while doing a better job at teaching their brilliance to future generations.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.