Screengrab courtesy B.C. Lions

The Lions fought until the end but couldn’t overcome the upstart Montreal Alouettes, falling 21-16 in La Belle Province.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

A grain of salt

The Lions made a highly publicized change to their coaching staff last week, sending O-line coach Bryan Chiu packing in favour of former Leo Kelly Bates.

The early returns from the change were promising, the B.C. offensive front was improved in pass protection and gave up just two sacks on the afternoon. However, just as we must consider all factors when addressing the line’s struggles, we must also put their successes into perspective.

Despite their success this season, the strength of Montreal’s team has not been on the defensive line. Entering the contest, the Alouettes had just 13 sacks on the season, second worst only to B.C., and only nine of those sacks came from defensive linemen.

Throughout the game, the Als sent much less extra pressure than teams have generally used against the Lions, preferring instead to rely on three and four-man rushes. While blocking professional athletes is extremely difficult at the best of times, these were much easier looks for the offensive line to deal with.

The Lions’ front also continued to struggle in picking up stunts from the defensive line, resulting in both Montreal sacks by John Bowman. B.C.’s offensive line shows a failure to communicate when they see defensive twists and aren’t aggressive enough in bumping inside defenders outside in order to pick up the new interior pressure. It will be something Bates will no doubt focus on in the coming weeks.

This week was a step in the right direction but there is plenty more work to be done before Mike Reilly can be truly comfortable in the pocket.

Bread and butter

Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a coaching clinic at which Bates was a speaker while still the head coach at Simon Fraser University.

On the agenda, Bates was supposed to give a lecture on designing an offence but stepped to the podium and announced that he didn’t want to do that. Designing an offence was too theoretical, too abstract and too boring. He was going to talk about the wide zone. He proceeded to wax poetic for an hour about a single play, its history, intricacies and the fine points of its technique.

I couldn’t help but crack a smile when, on the Lions’ first play of the game, Brandon Rutley took a wide zone for 12 yards and a first down. It was a scheme that the Lions went back to throughout the game to great success.

Bates didn’t introduce the concept into the B.C. offence, Jarious Jackson has been using more and more zone runs successfully as the season has progressed and it has changed their offence for the better. I do feel confident in predicting that Bates will take their execution to the next level, however, by bringing a passionate and technical eye to the team.

I’ve been vocal in saying that Bryan Chiu deserved better from the B.C. Lions. He was put in a bad situation by the front office and got little support from the rest of their offence, ultimately falling on his sword for the team.

That said, I’m excited to see what Kelly Bates can do. He is a talented young coach who deserved better than what he got from the SFU administration. He has earned this opportunity and will put his heart and soul into it.

The missing lank

In an offence that is lacking playmakers, the Lions continue to leave an electric option standing on the sideline.

Ryan Lankford looks dangerous every time he touches the ball in the return game, providing excitement that goes beyond just his respectable numbers. Despite that ability to get people out of their seats, Lankford had just a single offensive touch against Montreal, taking an end around for 11 yards.

The Lions have been one of the worst in the league over the past two seasons in integrating their playmaking returners into their offence. Right now, Bryan Burnham is the lone player on the Leos that defences fear. While Lankford may never amount to a top receiving threat, he would give the Lions a speedy option that opponents will have to respect, either taking the top off or running jet sweeps.

Putting him on the field has the potential to open up space for the rest of a receiving corps that needs all the help they can get to get open, while adding a game-breaking option for Reilly to hit deep.

Rookie mistakes

The B.C. Lions’ loss was book-ended by a couple of head-scratching coaching decisions by rookie head coach Devone Claybrooks.

In the first quarter, a Montreal missed field goal resulted in a single but Claybrooks accepted a penalty and forced an Alouettes’ punt. Boris Bede then pounded the ball out of bounds at the seven-yard line. For those keeping track, that is a trade-off of one-point for 28 yards of field position. It’s a trade that Montreal would take every day of the week.

Ultimately, that decision didn’t cost the Lions any points. They gained some traction on the next drive, punted away safely and the defence was able to stop the Alouettes. But decision-making should not be viewed through a results-based lens. The single point was inconsequential at that point in the football game and Claybrooks put his offence in a dangerous situation. It was a mental error and failure of long term thinking from the young coach.

The second mistake is open to far more debate. On their second-to-last drive, Mike Reilly looked to the end zone on second down and his ball bounced off a back-pedaling Shaq Johnson with Bo Lokombo waving in his face. With three minutes left and down eight, the Lions were forced to settle for a field goal.

Admittedly, it was a borderline situation but there was a potential case to be made that Lokombo committed a foul either during the pre-throw hand-fighting or by face guarding as the ball arrived. It was a challenge Claybrooks may have lost, but the Lions needed a touchdown and ending the game with a flag in his pocket didn’t help his team at all.

I’m sure Claybrooks would argue he was attempting to conserve a time-out for one final drive and there is certainly an argument to be made there, but I believe you have to throw that challenge if you have an opportunity to virtually guarantee a score.

Claybrooks is a young head coach for a young staff. I have every confidence in his ability to become a successful head coach, but he is going through the natural growing pains of a first-year bench boss. He’s learning to think long term on the fly and weigh pros and cons instantly in high pressure situations. These weren’t the first questionable calls he’s made this season and they won’t be the last, but he will get more comfortable with time.

Chicoutimi’s finest

On the topic of questionable decisions, B.C. has made a lot of them in the player personnel department this season. While many of them have been spoken about ad nauseum, the release of veteran Canadian David Menard at the end of training camp was an underrated blow to the team’s defensive line.

As an established national at an international position, cost and roster makeup played a large role in deciding to cut Menard. Since being brought back in Week 10, the Montreal product has showed why it was a mistake to send him packing. He’s been a noticeable depth piece on a painfully shallow defensive line and brings valuable versatility in how he’s able to align himself.

Menard had a strong game in an expanded role against Montreal, generating some noticeable pressure and a sack. He serves as a reminder that there is no substitute for quality Canadian depth.

No hammer in the toolbox

When former Lion Bo Lokombo knocked Wayne Moore into next week with a hellacious hit, it served as a reminder of something the Lions have been sorely missing, specifically in the linebacking corps.

In recent years, the Lions have dressed physical backers like Solomon Eliminian, Adam Bighill and Micah Awe, all of whom excelled at stepping into contact and filling holes in the running game. The current iteration has no one who has shown that same ability to lay the hammer.

Against William Stanback, perhaps the league’s most physical runner, the Lions’ duo of middle linebacker Maleki Harris and weakside backer Isaiah Guzylak-Messam combined for just three tackles. They struggled to fill the gaps necessary and too often got run over on first contact.

On defence, you must impose yourself physically on the opponent. If you try to catch runners with your arms instead of running through them, you will lose the football game. B.C.’s linebackers must get more physical going forward.

Showing some teeth

On a positive note, I was extremely impressed with B.C.’s defensive third down stop on Montreal in the fourth quarter, giving the offence one last chance to win.

The way the season has gone for this team, few people would have blamed the Leos’ defenders for packing it in with 30 seconds left. Instead, they kept fighting and forced a big turnover. That shows a level of character that has sometimes been lacking on this team.

Despite everything, the players on the field are still battling and giving their blood, sweat and tears to keep their jobs. I hope Lions fans fight just as hard to support their team through all the struggles.

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JC Abbott
Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. Born in Edmonton but raised in Vancouver, he considers the Ricky Ray trade to be the darkest day of his life.