Bloody lip lessons (& eight other thoughts on the Lions win over Montreal)

The Lions came out flat but woke up late and got a little lucky to squeak by the cardiac Alouettes by a score of 25-23.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Always Keep Your Receipts

Every Wednesday, Kirk Penton of The Athletic publishes the must-read CFL column of the week. It features a bevy of quotes from anonymous insiders on every relevant subject in the league. The peek behind the curtain is routinely informative, often inflammatory, and sometimes downright petty.

Plenty has been said about the B.C. Lions this season, from inside and outside the organization, but this week’s column featured a quote so indicative of the Lions’ performance this week that I saved it for posterity, anticipating the closeness of Saturday’s game.

“With an assist from the commissioner (Vernon Adams suspension), we are going to beat Montreal. That will be three wins in a row.” the anonymous source said, then went on to describe how the Lions could catch Edmonton in the playoff race.

Obviously, no one except Kirk Penton can say who was caught looking ahead, but the quote was indicative of an air of nonchalance that seemed to waft out from the team this week. You simply cannot afford to take anyone lightly in the CFL, but many Lions seemed to have a win against the Matthew Shiltz-led Als already pencilled in. It very nearly cost them the game, if not for Antonio Pipkin’s fumble near the goal line.

The Lions got punched in the mouth by an opponent that they greatly underestimated. That can’t happen in professional football and can’t happen when every game is sudden death. Hopefully the bloody lip serves as a valuable lesson for this young team.

Pillsbury Doughboys

Last week, I wrote that if the Lions didn’t make a significant change to their interior defensive line then William Stanback would have a career day rushing the football.

I have to admit I was wrong. Stanback ran for 147 yards, which was only good enough for his second-highest single-game yardage mark.

The Alouettes attacked the B.C. defensive interior early and often with a rotation of Stanback, Jeremiah Johnson, Shiltz and Antonio Pipkin. They racked up an incredible 248 combined rushing yards and quite frankly, there was more yardage left on the table.

For the second week playing out of position, Odell Willis was a liability in the middle and the Montreal game plan clearly targeted him. His gap responsibilities were consistently abandoned or he was easily washed out by double-teams. Being stuck inside doesn’t allow Willis to play to his strengths and compromises the integrity of the defence.

While it is very easy to pile onto Willis, he was not the lone catalyst for Montreal’s rushing dominance. The coaching staff’s questionable strategy for run defence extended past the head-scratching usage of a Hall of Fame defensive end.

Against a team that was clearly going to run the ball, B.C. continually used three-man fronts with limited external pressure, giving the Alouettes wide open running lanes. With Shiltz posing a significant running threat in and of himself, the Lions turned to Willis to play as a quarterback spy, abandoning vertical penetration in favour of moving laterally with the pivot. This is a role more commonly occupied by a linebacker and it made Willis even easier to move off his spot on handoffs. When Shiltz did keep it and break contain, Willis was rarely in a position to make a play, instead getting caught up in the wash of the interior.

Without a loaded box, Montreal was able to run to their hearts content and their backup quarterback was rarely forced to make plays through the air. It was a strategy that played directly to their opponent’s strengths and hurt them in every aspect of the football game. Shiltz was able to find Eugene Lewis for 97 yards and a score to start the second half specifically because the run option froze the defence. Where were the eyes of the over the top defenders? Staring directly into Willis’ vacant interior gap.

Orange Crush

While their run defending left much to be desired, the Lions’ defensive line was spectacular when given the opportunity to rush the passer.

Jonathan Newsome and Shawn Lemon played a consistent game of “meet you at the quarterback” while collapsing both edges and Willis’ fake spin move for a sack from his regular defensive end spot was as pretty a pass rush move as you will ever see.

Pass rush was one of this team’s greatest weaknesses for most of the season, but general manager Ed Hervey deserves full credit for making the decisive additions of both Lemon and Newsome. They provide fantastic edge pressure that can change the course of a football game and have been difference-makers down the stretch.

Bull Dozier

Don’t expect to see many Lions crack the CFL all-star team, with the obvious exception of Bryan Burnham, but safety Branden Dozier deserves serious consideration.

An all-star in Montreal last season, Dozier was a ratio casualty for the Alouettes during training camp but he hasn’t missed a step since signing with B.C. Dozier’s presence has changed the makeup of the secondary and he was a noticeable presence against his former team.

Dozier made nine total tackles on Saturday, several of them being of the spectacular open-field variety. One play stood out to me as representative of the type of plays he’s made this year.

Montreal had flexed William Stanback out left with Jeremiah Johnson in the backfield, then had Stanback motion across for a jet sweep. Dozier read the play pre-snap from his high safety position, tracked Stanback across the whole formation and made the tackle for no gain near the right sideline. No other defender was even in the vicinity.

That is a play that requires meticulous film study, incredible awareness and unbelievable athleticism. Dozier brings that to the table game in and game out. He should be a key piece for the Lions going forward.

Snap Streak

Phillip Norman has become much more consistent with his snap placement as the team’s centre, but he continues to struggle with snap counts. Once again, the Lions had a play on Saturday where everyone moved except for Norman. That seems to happen at least once a game, except for the weeks where he snaps it when no one else is expecting it.

Week after week, this is a costly mistake that keeps happening. Quite frankly, if my eighth-grade centre kept committing that same error, I’d be making a change at the position. Norman has provided tremendous upside this season, but this is a consistent failure that he has to address if he wants to keep his spot next year.

You the Real M.O.C!

Lemar Durant has been everything the Lions hoped for and more when they signed the local Canadian receiver this off-season.

He made two huge plays against the Alouettes on his way to being B.C.’s leading receiver on the evening. What’s been most impressive is how he’s been able to adapt his role in the offence almost weekly to whatever has been required of him.

Need someone to stretch the field and threaten the safeties like Saturday? Durant can do it in spectacular fashion. Require an intermediate route runner to pick apart zones? Consider it done. Want to spread the defence with underneath shovel passes and motion? Lemar is your guy.

Durant has already achieved more than double his previous peak production and will almost certainly cross the thousand-yard mark, likely the only Canadian to do that this year. He is far and away the Lions’ nominee for Most Outstanding Canadian this season and, given the controversy surrounding Andrew Harris, has a chance to steal a few votes for the West Division nomination.

Crime and Punishment

Had the game not slipped through Antonio Pipkin’s fingertips, the major talking point in a Lions’ loss would’ve been the series of point-stealing undisciplined penalties that the team committed at key times.

The Leos were assessed nine penalties for 90 yards on the evening, certainly not a record-setting amount, but it was the manner in which they took the penalties that was most concerning.

There was an unnecessary roughness penalty by right tackle Justin Renfrow on a late headshot to a prone player that backed the team out of the red zone; a sloppy and egregious hold by Lemar Durant that erased a run to the goal line by John White; taunting call on Duron Carter that forced the long blocked field goal and a spearing call against Odell Willis that started the Alouettes final drive. All were unnecessary, undisciplined and costly penalties.

The Lions failed to finish drives with touchdowns against the Als not through failure of execution but because of penalties. They routinely gave an overmatched Alouettes team new hope and it very nearly cost them the football game. That is a top down issue that has to be addressed this week.

An Underrated Return

DeVier Posey’s time with the Lions was short but his return to BC Place brought a smile to a number of faces, even if it didn’t make headlines.

I was fortunate enough to be coaching community football last season when Posey signed with the Lions after a brief NFL stint. My head coach had played college football with DeVier’s brother, and former Bomber, Julian Posey and they had a close personal relationship. It was less than a week after he landed in Vancouver that DeVier began showing up to our team events.

It went beyond obligatory community involvement. DeVier not only spoke to our players but became a fixture at our games, being a supporter and a fan to these scruffy 12-year olds. He hung around post-game, made himself accessible and did his best to provide any form of encouragement he could to these young athletes week after week.

I know that DeVier wanted to stay in B.C. but things didn’t work out and the team paid Duron Carter to take the role instead. I know there was some disappointed kids, parents and coaches when he signed in Montreal and I personally have been excited to see his recent success with the Alouettes.

What DeVier Posey did for our team wasn’t grandiose but it was illustrative of what he is: one of the profoundly decent human beings who play in the CFL. It’s what makes this league truly special and deserves to be applauded every time it can be.

Student Rushed Night

The Lions’ marketing staff made Saturday night “Student Rush Night”, offering 20-dollar seats to
university students in an attempt to get the younger crowd into the building. It was a much-needed initiative but horribly bungled from the start.

The student promotion was announced extremely late in the week and, while a small crowd of students did attend, it was curiously designed. The Lions focused their attention on four smaller schools (Kwantlen Polytechnic, BCIT, Langara and Douglas) while ignoring the cities two largest student bases in UBC and SFU.

I happen to be a university student who also lives on a university campus and can confidently say that the Lions did no noticeable outreach in my area. While I’m happy to see some attempt to reach out to students, the four schools targeted have a combined student population of roughly 77,000 while the two larger schools provide closer to 100,000 combined.

The CFL and its teams desperately need to attract a younger audience. This is far too important a target market to approach with half-cocked ideas. These types of student promotions can work but they need to be approached with rigor and offer a fantastic deal.

Last year, the Vancouver Warriors, the local pro lacrosse franchise, made some waves on campus by offering a limited number of free tickets for university students. People showed up, there was some buzz for a much less well-established sport and I’m sure the resulting beverage sales were quite impressive.

Schools have established athletics departments that are rife for partnership. A two-for-one deal with some side perks could get people out to watch their college team and then the Lions on the same day. Cheap food and drinks can go a long way. Get boots on the ground and market the event on campus. You can do almost anything except sit back and do nothing.

The Lions had a fantastic idea and a chance to move the needle, but they thought small and fell flat. Hopefully the same mistakes aren’t replicated next year.

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.