It was complete and utter domination as the B.C. Lions buried the miserable Redblacks for the second straight week.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
The pen is mightier than the sword
I wrote last week that when playing against a team as bad as Ottawa, it’s almost impossible to properly judge the improvement of the offensive line. What we can assess is how much better the scheme has been at making their lives easy.
The Lions’ offence, particularly in the running game, was spectacularly designed for this game. They used zone blocking concepts extensively to get the Redblacks moving laterally, then either sliced them inside through natural holes with John White or caught them going the wrong direction by shoveling the ball underneath to Lemar Durant with the entire blocking scheme serving as an elaborate misdirection.
The Lions have relied on outside receivers motioning inside for extra blocking most of the season but, after a couple of weeks of trending in this direction, finally transitioned into the heavy usage of six linemen sets and using more inline blockers. Brett Boyko played extensively as the extra man beside Justin Renfrow and putting Jevon Cottoy in more of a wing formation has removed variables and greatly improved his blocking.
John White’s seven-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the textbook example of this new-found schematic brilliance. The Lions lined up in the above described concept, six linemen with Boyko as tight end on the right side and Cottoy as a wing on the left side, with trips to the left and Reilly in shotgun with White.
The play that proceeded was a thing of beauty. The front side of the play made a traditional zone block to their left, opening up and forcing the entire defence to run with them to protect the edge. The three backside linemen each executed a cut block, collapsing all those defenders. The only player forced to make a difficult block was center Phillip Norman, who quickly sealed a blitzing linebacker. With the frontside defenders running wide to preserve their assignments and the backside defenders on the ground nursing bruised shins, the hole generated was big enough for a truck to drive through.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) September 21, 2019
It was a play so simple and well-designed that its success was not strongly dictated by the strength of the players on the field. Average execution of simple blocks would have generated almost as much space. You may never find a better example of a play’s success translating directly from the coach’s pen to the field.
We may never know what has transformed the Lions offensive scheme. Is this the impact of Kelly Bates bringing new ideas and blocking preferences into the organization? Has Jarious Jackson finally had an epiphany and made decisive changes to his system? The answer is probably a bit of both, but Lions fans should be ecstatic that it’s finally happening.
A lost insider
It was fantastic to see Odell Willis finally crack the century sack mark in the fourth quarter and he did so in beautiful fashion with a decisive spin move that left Nolan MacMillan dazed and confused. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reason why my eyes were drawn to him all game long.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) September 22, 2019
The Lions made the questionable decision to move the future Hall of Fame defensive end inside to defensive tackle and it went about as well as could be expected. In the passing game, Willis was finally a menace to the opponent. Ottawa’s guards simply weren’t used to facing a player with his combination of speed, strength and athleticism, resulting in Willis generating some real pressure for the first time this year.
The run game was an entirely different story. Willis seemed to have no concept of the gap responsibilities of a defensive tackle and instead rushed himself out of position repeatedly. He didn’t anchor and failed at the number one responsibility of interior linemen: to occupy space.
The Lions were extremely fortunate that being down two scores by early in the second quarter, and experimenting with their QB situation, forced Ottawa to completely abandon the run game. The Redblacks handed off 14 times for 63 yards on the evening and seven of those carries, for 50 yards, came on the first drive, most of them directly through Willis’ gap.
They also added a 12-yard screen pass on that drive that Willis failed to read correctly. The Lions were only able to stop the drive by bringing Junior Luke into Willis’ spot for the red zone package. Had Ottawa possessed the strength of will to stick with the run game past drive number two, the result might have been much different.
I don’t hate the idea of moving Willis inside as a situational pass rusher, it’s clearly an effective change of pace. Defensive line purists will hate me for saying this, but the analytics suggest that somewhat compromising your run defence in favour of added pass rush is well worth it. Shawn Lemon, for example, is a notoriously poor run defender yet consistently changes teams’ fortunes by providing valuable quarterback pressure. In a passing league and a passing era, that’s all the more important.
However, Willis playing on the inside exceeds the level of defensive liability I’m willing to take on in any situation that is not an absolute pass. The Lions still have running backs like William Stanback, C.J. Gable and William Powell left on the schedule. If they don’t strengthen the interior, those players could have career games.
I raved about the Lions’ secondary last week and they put together an encore performance that was equally impressive.
Ottawa changed what they were doing offensively for the second half of the back-to-back, but the result was the same. Even with the Redblacks fielding a stronger receiving corps, the Lions didn’t just keep two sub-par pivots under 200 combined yards, they took absolutely everything away.
This is a group that is playing textbook Rich Stubler defence. They will give you only what they want to give you and force you to make big plays to beat them. Their progress throughout the year has been nothing short of incredible, going from a group that I routinely criticized as they learned a new system to one I praise almost weekly.
That is a testament to their talent, the patient installation of Stubler and the positional coaching of Ryan Phillips.
An ornamental garnish
Alas, Duron Carter was finally an impact player in a football game, but it served more as a reminder of what he hasn’t been this season than as a confirmation of what the Lions hoped he would be.
Carter’s second touchdown of the season, and second in as many weeks, may have been the best route he’s run all season. It was a perfect inside slant that set up the defender with a great head fake and resulted in his lone catch.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) September 22, 2019
He added the splash play of the week with his 67-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Shaq Johnson off a lateral throw from Mike Reilly. It lit social media on fire as most trick plays do and was amplified because, well, he’s Duron Carter and humility isn’t his strong suit.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) September 21, 2019
It was a great play call and well-executed, but it worked as well as it did because of how ineffective Carter has been all season. The second that Carter swung out on the bubble, the whole defence went with him because, as they would know from film study, that’s been Carter’s primary use all season. The Lions’ have thrown him a couple of designated screens a game in order to placate him because he can’t get open downfield. They ignored Johnson as an option precisely because Carter’s usage has been predictable, and he no longer scares them.
While trickery makes highlight reels, it provides very little in terms of value and quality route running like he exhibited on the touchdown has been few and far between. Carter has been a lot like the sprig of parsley on top of your pasta this season. Sure, it might attract your eye occasionally, but it doesn’t really serve a purpose and its best left to the side.
It may have come in garbage time against a surrendering defence, but boy did Jamel Lyles look explosive with three carries for 62 yards on the final drive. Against a loaded box, the rookie read his blockers perfectly, made one decisive cut each time and burst into the second level.
Lyles was my third-rated running back going into last year’s CFL draft, behind only Brady Oliveira and Maleek Irons, though I strongly considered putting him ahead of Irons based on his ceiling. Somehow, he fell to the Lions in the eighth round, 69th overall. He was selected five rounds after Irons and taken after inferior backs like Gabriel Polan (27th overall), who quit midway through Redblacks’ training camp, and Jeshrun Antwi (48th overall), who returned to the University of Calgary for his fifth year and was average before suffering an injury.
Lyles was a dynamic triple threat All-Canadian during his time at the University of Manitoba and during his lone BCFC campaign he set a single-season rushing record with 1,604 yards, 128 more than the best season by some bum named Andrew Harris.
This is a local kid with starter potential and it would greatly behoove the Lions to give him more opportunities going forward.
Down, not out
This may come as a shock to most but, after two wins against Ottawa, the Leos are not out of the playoff race.
It’s not a possibility I would encourage anyone to bet on, but a strong final five games and a continued collapse by sub .500 Edmonton could land the Lions in a crossover spot.
Essentially it would require B.C. to run the table and Edmonton to lose out, including an upset by feeble Ottawa next week, as well as the continued ineptitude of both Toronto and the Redblacks, but this is the CFL.
Stranger things have happened.
For your consideration
As we get closer to awards’ season, I present to you my candidate for Most Outstanding Player: Bryan Burnham.
Obviously, this would be a long shot. The award rarely goes to receivers and almost never to players on losing teams, but he is more than deserving of consideration.
Burnham is currently the league’s leading receiver, despite playing in an offence that has bordered on anemic for most of the season. He is indisputably the top all-round pass catcher, capable of running every route and playing any role required. He has quietly put together a season that I would easily contend is as impressive as current favourite Brandon Banks.
More so, while the league uses the unconventional language of Most Outstanding to ensure its winner is indeed the league’s top player in terms of talent, Burnham could win a Most Valuable Player award if it existed.
No player means more to his team than Burnham. Without Banks, Hamilton still possesses receiving weapons. Winnipeg can still run down your throat without Harris. More than ever before, quarterback play has been replaceable and inconsistent throughout the league. The Lions simply could not function without Burnham.
His leadership has also been paramount throughout the season, keeping a downtrodden team together. You even saw him on Saturday calming down the emotional leader Mike Reilly after a high hit by George Uko. Every single person on this team looks to Burnham for production and guidance.
It may not result in hardware, but we are witnessing a very special season in every capacity from the Leos’ No. 16 and it deserves far more recognition than it’s currently getting.