Lions play scared in loss to Bombers (& six other thoughts)

Photo Scott Grant /
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

After going down to the wire last week against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the B.C. Lions proved competency was a mirage in Winnipeg, falling 32-16 to the West Division leading Blue Bombers. Here are my thoughts on the game.

A team of turnstiles

After two straight performances that could be seen as steps in the right direction, the B.C. Lions’ offensive line returned to their typical form against the Bombers. The Lions surrendered seven sacks and Mike Reilly became intimately familiar with IG Field’s turf on a number of occasions.

Recent addition Justin Renfrow struggled in his second start at right tackle and was the victim of three of those sacks — edge rushes by Willie Jefferson and Thiadric Hansen and an inside-outside stunt by Jake Thomas. Center Philip Norman — the other new American that B.C. played last week — also failed to handle the physicality of Winnipeg’s defensive interior. Norman got out-muscled by Drake Nevis on multiple occasions and was manhandled by Jake Thomas for a second sack.

Answering the problems that have plagued this unit go beyond a simple ratio switch along the front and applies to more than the line alone.

Pass protection is a team wide issue, as evidenced by two massive free shots that Reilly took in the fourth quarter. When Jeff Hecht walloped Mike Reilly, John White was aligned on the wrong side and was unaware of the safety blitz. Later, Adam Bighill came through untouched for a strip sack when Ryan Lankford and Wayne Moore became confused about their backside blocking responsibilities.

These were free blitzers who were not the responsibility of the offensive line. In order to block these plays, the blitz must be recognized, communicated to teammates and a running back must make the correct adjustment to execute the block. The Lions have not been able to do any of these things.

Good offensive lines have good help around them. They have running backs who are excellent in pass protection, tight end packages for additional help, and screens and roll-outs built into the offence to help relieve pressure. The B.C. Lions have none of these things and until they do, making changes along the offensive front will be little more than aesthetic.

Doing too much

It appeared as though Mike Reilly was struggling to see the field for the first time this season.

This isn’t entirely Reilly’s fault. It’s a product of the intense pressure he’s been under all season, but he’s starting to hold onto the ball a little longer and appears to be questioning what he sees downfield. The free shots he took also fall partly on his shoulders for not recognizing the blitz and adjusting the protection accordingly.

All this is to say that Mike Reilly is human, and he is reacting in the way that any quarterback on a bad team would. Reilly’s desperate to win and is starting to force things to make it happen. That is a recipe for bad plays, and you saw it in the sacks he took and the pick he threw to Willie Jefferson.

As hard as it might be, everyone on the Lions has to simplify, relax, and go back to basics. That includes Reilly. Playing to win, instead of taking each play as it comes, is more often the mark of bad teams than good ones.

When life gives you Lemon(s)

Pass rush has been B.C.’s biggest defensive issue all season and prompted them to trade for Shawn Lemon last week. That move made an obvious and immediate impact against the Bombers.

Lemon had two sacks in his return to the Lions and was a noticeable presence throughout the night. While he gets a lot of criticism for being an inconsistent run defender, there’s no argument that Lemon is good at disrupting the passer.

That is by far the most important thing for a defensive end to do in the modern CFL and Lemon is among the best in the league at doing it.

Don’t take fear for Grant-ed

Janarion Grant burst onto the scene last week with two kick return touchdowns in his CFL debut and B.C. clearly took notice.

The Lions’ entire special teams scheme seemed to be predicated on keeping the ball away from Grant — not a bad idea, except for the fact that it repeatedly came at the cost of field position. The Lions attempted two short kickoffs and sent one punt intentionally out of bounds, giving the Bombers an average field position at their own 40-yard line on those three plays.

Even when they kicked the ball to Grant, the kicks were intentionally short and designed to get the cover team right in Grant’s face. This backfired when Grant took a 47-yard kickoff for 56 yards to B.C.’s 26-yard line, killing the team’s early second half momentum.

Sergio Castillo sits ninth in the league with an average of 61.8 yards per kickoff and kickoffs routinely go for upwards of 70 yards. The Lions essentially shaved 20-plus yards off an optimal kick and still gave up a game-changing return.

Even the Bombers’ punt block touchdown could be contributed to the Lions’ wariness of Grant. Against a look that may have required some extra blockers — and backed-up in field position that warranted max protection — the Lions sent four gunners to control Grant. Marcus Sayles came unblocked off the edge and scored a quick touchdown.

Scheming ways to eliminate a dangerous returner is an important part of a special teams’ coordinators job, but the Lions’ active fear of Janarion Grant — and lack of trust in their coverage unit — played directly into Winnipeg’s favour. Playing scared resulted in lost field position and points against.

One, two, …?

Duron Carter may have made his biggest play of the season against the Bombers with a 56-yard throwback pass to Lemar Durant, but he isn’t being paid to throw long balls and remains invisible as a receiver.

The Lions have a star in Bryan Burnham and a capable number two in Durant, but CFL offences need at least three legitimate threats. Shaq Johnson and Jevon Cottoy are serviceable in the fourth and fifth receiver roles, but there is a gaping hole in the number three position that Carter currently occupies.

The Lions need someone who scares defences and stretches the field vertically. Thus far, Carter has been no more than a sideshow and agitator. With NFL cuts coming in a few weeks (and a number of ex-CFLers on the bubble) the Lions need to be active and aggressive in the receiver market.

Another name to consider is ex-Ticat receiver Jalen Saunders. Cut in the off-season as he recovers from an ACL tear, Saunders is still on the market with Labour Day just around the corner. While I would guess that Hamilton has a side deal with Saunders to bring him back once healthy — especially with the extra cap space from Masoli’s injury — that wouldn’t be legally enforceable, and it might behoove Ed Hervey to inquire as to the price tag for the electric receiver.

Looking on the bright side

It can be difficult to find positive takeaways from the Lions this season — they are few and far between — but how about Kevin Haynes?

In his second game with the Leos, the Central Washington product saw significant reps as a package linebacker and was very noticeable. He logged four tackles and sack, the most of any B.C. linebacker despite not playing every down.

The Lions’ linebacking corps has been middling at best so far this season and I will look to see Haynes play a bigger role as the season progresses. He could be a breakout candidate down the stretch.

Thinking global

It was a monumental night for the CFL 2.0 initiative as Winnipeg’s German linebacker Thiadric Hansen got regular game reps and recorded a strip sack against Mike Reilly. He would have been credited with a second sack as well, if not for an offside call against Willie Jefferson. For a passionate football player who slept in bus stations just to keep playing German semi-pro, it was certainly the moment of a lifetime.

Hansen’s performance was the second time in as many weeks that the Lions have fallen victim to an impact play by a global player as French Valentin Gnahoua was a big part of the caravan that escorted Frankie Williams to the endzone last week. That got me thinking about the ways that teams have deployed their global players this year.

In addition to Hansen being impactful for the Bombers, Maxime Rouyer has become a regular special teams’ contributor in Edmonton and Andres Salgado got his first live game reps at receiver for Calgary at the end of the first half last week.

Ottawa and Hamilton have mostly dressed their global players as emergency kickers, while Montreal and Saskatchewan have used theirs as a seventh offensive lineman. While these players don’t see the field a lot, the strategy makes logical sense as a way of protecting your team against a costly injury with the additional roster spot. No matter what happens, these teams will still have a kicker or a blocker if injuries come to pass.

Only two teams in the league have dressed their global player as a receiver and haven’t given them any special teams’ responsibilities: Toronto and B.C. This isn’t even advantageous as an injury substitute as these two teams have shown that they will employ returners, running backs, and full backs in receiving roles before pulling their global player off the bench.

On the list of pressing issues facing the B.C. Lions, global player usage is admittedly a low priority. But it’s not a coincidence that the CFL’s best teams are the ones finding ways to use their extra roster spot, while the two worst teams are the only ones failing to use it in any meaningful way. Whether that is because of the quality of their coaching, lack of schematic innovations or their scouting staffs taking the global draft less seriously, the result is the same.

When the Lions suited up against Winnipeg, they were essentially playing a team of 45 with a roster of 44. That has an impact, no matter how small.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.