A Bad Case of Déjà Vu (and six other thoughts on the Lions playoff elimination)

The rollercoaster ride of a playoff push for the B.C. Lions came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end against the equally desperate Eskimos.

The Leos’ couldn’t overcome injuries and stalled on their way to a depressing 19-6 loss.

Here is my post-mortem on the death blow to the Lions’ season.

Long Live the King

The early injury to Mike Reilly was not nearly as dramatic as Scar tossing Mufasa into a rampaging herd of wildebeests, but it was equally as heartbreaking to viewers everywhere.

Reilly has endured a veritable gauntlet this season, enduring hit after hit and remaining upright. Of all the injuries for him to succumb, a broken non-throwing wrist is as much of a fluke as could possibly happen. If his hand is in any other position during contact, the Lions likely win this football game, but in a game of inches the most important measurement was the 90-degree angle of Reilly’s left elbow.

It was a hit that the Lion King had to take. From the outside, it looked like an RPO which Reilly pulled and perfectly replaced the blitzer with a quick throw. The scheme meant there was no blocker to take the contact away from Reilly. He had to take the hit to make the throw and its something that he would no doubt do again if given the chance. Unfortunately, it resulted in a freak injury.

Reilly deserved better than he got most of this season and it was tragic to see him go down when the team was finally surging. The good news is that his injury should not affect his 2020 season in any way, so expect to see a locked and loaded Mike Reilly as soon as training camp opens.

Déjà Vu

In their first two meetings this season, Phillip Lolley dialled up six- and seven-man pressure routinely to completely overwhelm the Lions. Fast forward to Week 18 and, lo and behold, the Eskimos presented the exact same game plan and B.C. looked completely unprepared for it.

Facing that much pressure play in and play out is a virtual no-win scenario in pass protection. The Lions were better up front than in their first two matchups, but still surrendered four sacks.

You simply cannot block everyone on every play against that type of defence. Instead, you need to rely on effective blitz counters to punish the opponent for pressure and force them to drop more defenders. Making that change has been the struggle of Jarious Jackson’s career.

Jackson’s passing offence has been largely predicated on the strength of Mike Reilly’s downfield playmaking ability. Concepts are often late developing and put stress on the offensive line to properly protect, more so than in other offences. It’s part of the reason why the early offensive line struggles completely decimated the Lions offence and their resurgence has coincided with a more lethal passing attack.

When faced with a defence sending heavy pressure, the time is almost never there to hit those throws. Even with time to anticipate this problem, Jackson has often struggled to add quick throws, hot routes and varied screens into his game plan. Add a backup quarterback into the equation and you have a recipe for disaster.

It was easy to predict, given their previous success, that Edmonton would send the house. Jackson’s failure to adapt is his biggest weakness as an offensive coordinator and his growth in this area has been far too slow over his two years in B.C.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Speaking of dealing with heavy pressure, the Lions’ offensive line and running backs seemed to spend the evening doing their best Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers impersonation. Except instead of “you say potato, I say potahto” it was “you think I’m blocking outside, I think I have inside responsibility”. Not quite as catchy.

Without being privy to the protection calls, it’s impossible to tell who was in error, but something was off about the Lions’ blitz pickups from the start. Against pressure that at times outnumbered the protection, the offensive line often squeezed inside and left the outside blitzers to John White or Brandon Rutley.

Multiple times, however, the back stepped up inside, where there was already protection, and left the edges completely unblocked. Other times it looked like the line call was at fault, with a play fake naturally carrying the back to an inside gap but the line squeezing down anyway.

Regardless of who was at fault, the two position groups seemed to rarely be on the same page and there were some costly miscommunications. John White’s blitz pickups have been a consistent issue this season that has dissipated somewhat in recent weeks, but it reared its ugly head again Saturday. It may have been a near un-winnable protection scenario for the Lions, but a little synchronicity between units could have gone a long way.

Better on the Bench

It’s an unfortunate reality, but Danny O’Brien is the type of veteran backup who is not good enough to play professional football.

Five years into his career, O’Brien has stuck around due to his intellectual value. He seems to be a very decent man, I’m sure he is fantastic in the quarterback room and his extra set of eyes has no doubt been extremely valuable for Reilly.

It was speculated on the broadcast that he is someone who has a future in coaching, and that is essentially the role he is already playing with the Lions, but there is a reason why teams don’t strap the pads on their QB coach and send him onto the field. There is no correlation between your mental aptitude for the game and your physical ability.

O’Brien was in a tough situation against Edmonton, without a doubt, but he simply didn’t have the ability to make the plays necessary to beat the team that cut him in preseason. His feet were slow and stagnant. He hung on to the ball when he needed to get rid of it and when he had a chance to make a throw, he missed it. Short throws were low and behind, while his deep shots came off the back foot with no provocation and sailed long. This was a winnable game, but O’Brien could not make the plays necessary to win it.

The decision to roll with O’Brien as the lone backup quarterback after he was cut by Edmonton was a bit of a head-scratcher from a talent standpoint, but it was largely forgiven thanks to the durability of Reilly. In hindsight, it was likely a mistake.

Good teams always have the next guy in the building, regardless of how good their starter is. Calgary has Bo Levi Mitchell and Nick Arbuckle, Hamilton Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans. Reilly may be better than both of those starters, but B.C. has yet to find a young backup. Its something that should be a priority in the off-season.

In the meantime, with the final two games being simply academic, I see very little point in starting O’Brien given that his long-term football prospects are minimal. The Lions have brought in Brandon Bridge as an extra arm, but the intriguing option would be to give pre-season star Grant Kraemer a spin at the controls. After a year on the practice squad, you will not get a better opportunity to assess his development and determine his future prospects. Standing pat with O’Brien gives you no such advantages.

Revealed, Not Built

The old cliché is that adversity does not build character, it reveals it. If that is true, then the members of the B.C. Lions’ defence have been revealed to be persistent, unified and unbowed in their absolute refusal to quit.

When Mike Reilly went down, every CFL fan understood it to be the end of the Lions’ season. The offensive ineptitude that followed was simply confirmation. Not once did the defence break faith and they did everything they were physically capable of to try and keep this season alive.

It was far from a perfect performance. The holes in the interior were still exploited in the run game and they let Logan Kilgore escape the pocket far too often for anyone’s liking, but when the chips were down, they made gritty plays. In a game that could have gotten out of hand, Edmonton scored one touchdown. B.C.’s goal line stand showed the tremendous fight that this unit has developed. Aaron Grymes’ tears on the sideline when told he couldn’t return were indicative of the profound passion and desire that fueled this defence.

It is rare that a team can be eliminated and still be proud, but this defence deserves to hold their heads up high. They have grown together, fought tooth and nail, and done everything possible to make the playoffs over the last few weeks. If the Lions can maintain most of this core, it could be the start of something great.

Baptism by Fire

With injuries in the secondary, rookie defensive back Hakeem Johnson was pressed into action and his proceeding exploitation by Greg Ellingson showed he wasn’t quite ready for the bright lights of the defence.

Don’t get me wrong, that is an extremely difficult matchup for any player, but Johnson was not even competitive with Ellingson on multiple routes. For me, it brought back concerns I had about Johnson pre-draft.

Many teams fell in love with the Western product because of his strong testing numbers and freak athleticism, the Lions no doubt more than most thanks to their success with his older brother Shaq. I was far less enamoured with him, however, and it often seemed to me that his coverage skills would require a great deal of refinement if he was to have success at the next level and that his athleticism didn’t always translate on the field.

I’ll be the first to admit that defensive back is far from my area of expertise, but I felt strongly that Johnson was over-drafted when the Lions made him the second DB selected at 33rd overall. One of a number of players I liked better went to Edmonton at pick 51, Scott Hutter, and he beat a Johnson block on special teams to make a highlight reel open field tackle in this game.

Johnson spent the early season on the practice roster but is now the lone true backup cover-man on the Lions’ active roster. It doesn’t much matter going forward, but that was a less than ideal scenario.

It should be noted that the Lions’ started the season with Canadian Dominique Termansen as the starting corner but released him after he was ousted from the starting lineup. He has since been a reliable depth substitute in Montreal. No doubt many factors went in to his release, but Johnson’s depth spot may have been a better fit for a player of his experience level, instead of pressing a raw rookie into an no-win scenario.

Checking the Ego at the Door

Every week, I’ve tried to highlight a depth player making the most of their opportunities and I’ve been waiting to praise the man they call the oldest rookie in the league for awhile. No time like the present.

Korey Toomer is a 30-year old defensive end who spent seven years on NFL rosters. He has a Super Bowl ring. He started some games. He made some money. Since coming to the CFL, Toomer has embraced a special teams’ role with passion and zest. He has done everything asked of him without hubris or ego.

Last week against Toronto, he was spectacular, but I neglected to put him in my piece. It is perhaps more fitting that I acknowledge him this week after an effective and underrated performance. That has been the type of season he has put forward. Every time he steps on the field, I end up noticing No. 56. He seems to do the little things right, as a savvy vet should, and has embraced his role.

I don’t know if Toomer will be around for long, after all he is over 30, but his presence this season has been impactful, even if his stat line might not show it.

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