Irresponsible gambling (and seven other thoughts on the Lions loss to the Ticats)

The Lions found themselves in a battle against the East Division leader but couldn’t overcome their own mistakes, losing to the Ticats 13-10.

Here are my thoughts on the game.


The B.C. Lions offensive line gave up its third seven-sack performance of the season, drawing the renewed ire of fans, but things are not always as they seem.

The first sack of the game, on the Lions first drive, was a designated free read defender that made a fantastic play to recover once Reilly pulled the ball and rolled out. That wasn’t the only sack of the afternoon that wasn’t a blocking issue either.

There were two coverage sacks, where Reilly initially had time but was forced to double clutch the football when none of his reads came open. One was a snap count issue when centre Philip Norman snapped the ball on one instead of two causing Dylan Wynn to come through unblocked, certainly a mental error but not a blocking one. One drive ended when Reilly tried to step up and tripped over his own feet. Overall, just two of Hamilton’s seven sacks were fully on the shoulders of the B.C. front.

Every offensive lineman knows that the expectation is perfection, that is the burden that you accept when you play the position. B.C.’s front has fallen well short of that mark this season, it fell short on Saturday, but it is also very easy to use offensive line play as an excuse and a crutch. When we focus on sacks without explaining the reasons behind them, we ignore the other factors and problems that contribute to losses.

Reilly has been hit because of poor offensive line play, that is indisputable, but he has also suffered from receivers who couldn’t get open, schemes that have put him in the line of fire and poor blitz pick ups by running backs. The biggest shot of the game that Reilly took was as a result of a missed blitz pickup by John White, resulting in an end zone pick annd taking points off the board.

Fans are going to criticize the offensive line and they should, but they should also hope that the Lions are looking at changes to address the deeper issues, because it can be far too easy to just blame the scape-hogs up front.

Please gamble responsibly

The Lions took an obvious devil-may-care attitude in to Saturday’s game and ultimately it cost them a win.

B.C. seemed unusually willing to go for it on short yardage in their own end from the start, even once attempting a third down sneak inside their own 20. Then they upped the ante by gambling on a fake punt early in the third quarter of a tied ball game.

The play design had a pulling blocker and long snapper Tanner Doll had no help to his right, causing David Dean to get deep penetration as Doll struggled to block and get his head up simultaneously. Ryan Lankford was forced to bubble deep behind the line of scrimmage to avoid him and Hamilton was able to contain the play. B.C. turned the ball over at their own 38-yard line and Hamilton scored their only touchdown on the ensuing short drive. It was a fateful decision that proved to be the difference in the contest.

The Lions are desperate for a win and are willing to swing for the fences in order to get one but forcing yourself to gamble will result in more losses than wins. Any good play-caller will tell you that you must let the game come to you and breaking tendency out of desperation rarely works. This week should serve as an important lesson for B.C.’s young coaching staff to not make play decisions based on record and address only the situation in front of them.

Time to Shaq it up

For three years, the Lions have been telling us how much potential Canadian receiver Shaq Johnson has and hyping him up as a break-out candidate. Against Hamilton, he showed that skill and had one of his better career games with five catches for 75 yards, including a gorgeous toe-tapping back shoulder catch along the sideline for a gain of 37.

Johnson has played predominantly as a field-side wide receiver throughout his career, which is why he’s never really lived up to the hype the Lions have given him. His position is the furthest from the ball, often an afterthought and rarely gets many targets. With the Lions current receiving situation, it is time to move him closer to the quarterback.

Duron Carter was again a virtual non-factor, making just one catch on four targets for a single yard at his boundary receiver position. Switching him and Johnson would provide a good opportunity for both players. Johnson could give the Lions a legitimate threat in the boundary and a chance to prove he needs a bigger role going forward. For Carter, playing weaker field corners may allow him to stretch the field in a way he hasn’t been able to this season and contribute a bigger chunk of yards on fewer targets.

Not buying it

I was a fan of how B.C. adjusted their offence on Saturday and got Mike Reilly on the move far more often than weeks past. Offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson used zone read concepts to roll Reilly out of the pocket. Reilly is a fantastic passer outside and getting him on the move has been something I’ve called for all season to relieve pressure on the protection unit.

There was only one problem with this adjustment: Hamilton wasn’t buying what B.C. was selling. The Ticats keyed on Reilly every time he pulled the ball and got in his face, making a concept designed to get him time to throw result in more pressure.

Going forward, B.C. needs to do a better job of running out of those concepts to make defenders hesitate. Hamilton seemed to be able to tell if Reilly was going to pull the football pre-snap and virtually ignored the running back. The Lions need to make defences pay for that decision and then the plays will work as designed.

Making them miss

Another aspect of B.C.’s offensive change was the inclusion of increased short routes, screens and quick throws that allowed the Lions’ athletes to make plays in space.

Reilly threw for 286 yards against Hamilton, but the receivers accumulated 176 of those yards after the catch. David Mackie, Bryan Burnham, Wayne Moore and Jevon Cottoy all showed flashes of brilliance when they got the ball early and were able to put a move on defenders.

B.C. has been overly reliant on deep passes and late-developing routes all season. Seeing playmakers making plays was a breath of fresh air and took some of the weight off Reilly’s shoulders. It is something that must continue to be integrated into the offence going forward.

Covering their bases

Everyone knows Rich Stubler’s defensive system is one of the most complex to learn in the CFL, but it seems to be coming together for B.C.’s secondary.

You might not realize it, but B.C. has allowed the third fewest passing yards per game in the CFL this season, behind just Saskatchewan and Edmonton. Some of that is due to teams running the ball with a lead, but it is also a result of the B.C. secondary doing what it’s supposed to. They force opponents to dink and dunk down the field, resulting in a high completion percentage but very few yards. After some early season struggles in this department, the defensive backfield has begun to eliminate big plays against.

Saturday was a master class in this and contributed to a very poor outing for young Dane Evans, despite him being under limited pressure. Aaron Grymes was exceptional, breaking up almost everything in his area, while Garry Peters, who I’ve been critical of, made two cerebral interceptions by baiting Evans into unwise throws.

The secondary is the Lions best position group talent-wise and will only get better now that they’ve got the hang of the system. Once B.C. can establish a consistent pass rush, that group will be especially dangerous and could play spoiler to a few teams down the stretch.

Extra special penalties

It was a quieter night for the Lions beleaguered special teams’ unit, with just the failed fake punt and a 41-yard Brandon Banks return standing out as negative highlights, but a deeper look shows a different problem.

The Lions committed 127 yards of penalties against the Ticats, but 97 of those yards came on special teams. On just six kicks, the Lions’ coverage unit committed four penalties for 60 yards, while six return opportunities generated another four penalties for 37 yards.

Committing a penalty on two thirds of all your special teams’ plays is inexcusable and resulted in big losses in field position. B.C.’s offence found itself starting in the shadow of its own goal post multiple times, while Hamilton was much closer to mid-field. In a game where points were hard to come by and drives routinely stalled out, that field position difference was massive.

While much of this penalty trouble can be attributed to sloppy play and mental errors, punter Josh Bartel has some responsibility for it on the kick coverage side of things. He currently holds the ninth best punt average in the league at 42 yards and underperformed against Hamilton with 39.9 yards per punt. For context on how short Bartel’s kicks are compared to the rest of the league, the Aussie’s longest boot of the season went just 50 yards, one yard longer than Saskatchewan quarterback Cody Fajardo managed on a quick kick.

When kicks are travelling that short, its difficult for the cover team to get downfield without committing a no-yards penalty. That’s costing B.C. 15 yards on top of the shortness of the kick nearly every punt. Bartel was brought in to solve B.C.’s punting issues and it just hasn’t happened.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions brought in an NFL cut to compete for the job down the stretch, though the ideal candidate and former Lion Ty Long likely won’t be available as he seems poised to win the Chargers’ punting job after three preseason games.

On the edge of their seats

I had a great view of the game from the BC Place press box, but I often found myself looking at the action in the stands in addition to what was happening on the field.

There was what appeared to be a tour group in the seats directly in front of me and they were having the time of their lives. I won’t speculate as to where they came from, but they were clearly new to Canada and experiencing the CFL for the first time. They lived and died with each play, jumping to their feet and screaming for every near miss or big gain. It was a great thing to see new fans being made before my eyes.

The CFL truly is a tremendously exciting game that can transcend all languages and cultural barriers. Teams put out a great product and an in-game experience that anyone can enjoy.

As a fan of a struggling team, it can often be difficult to endure the losses and continue to enjoy the experience. Those giddy CFL newbies gave me an important reminder to enjoy the greatness in front of me and provided as good an advertisement to come out to games as I’ve ever seen.

Whether the Lions win or lose, you will be paying to see an exciting game at a cost you can’t find anywhere else. All it takes is to relax, take a breath and enjoy what’s in front of you with fresh eyes.

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