Feline roadkill & 11 other thoughts on the Lions’ home-opening loss to Edmonton

It was a homecoming 655 days in the making and a disappointment worth the wait.

The B.C. Lions finally returned to BC Place after more than a year and-a-half away and laid an egg that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 2019, losing 21-16 to the Edmonton Elks.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Unfamiliar territory

There must be some mistake. This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to breakdown the B.C. Lions last minute quarterback switch and ensuing social media fervor.

There was no such drama in this one, Michael Reilly started as he was supposed to. I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with myself…

Just analyze the B.C. Lions loss? OK, I guess I know how to do that.

Feline roadkill

There were a lot of things wrong with the Lions’ performance in their home-opener, but at the end of the day it came down to one thing: the inability of the B.C. defence to stop the run when it mattered.

It was a rough day in general for those in the Lions defensive box. The defensive line generated very little pressure on Trevor Harris throughout the night and there is a strong argument to be made that had the team been better in that area to start the game, they wouldn’t have been in the situation they were to end it. Unfortunately, the defensive front reaped what they sowed and in the most crucial moment of the game, got the ball jammed right down their throats.

“Pretty much overwhelmed the whole game. I mean, the last drive we could have gotten a stop and got off the field, but for me, one drive doesn’t define the game,” defensive back Garry Peters said after the Elks marched the field to kill the clock.

“Penalties, being smart, knowing down and distance. It’s just a lot of small things killed us tonight and that last drive just added to it. It pretty much summed up the whole night.”

The Edmonton offensive line manhandled B.C. up front on the game’s final drive and not for the first time on the evening. Full credit is due to their front and to James Wilder Jr. — who demonstrated both explosiveness and patience in a 127-yard outing — but B.C. made it easier then it had to be. Nobody up front could control their gaps or press the point of attack, and while a focus on up-field penetration generated a couple of flash plays, it also saw players running themselves out of position.

Run defence is increasingly less important in modern football, but you still have to be gap-sound at a bare minimum if you want to have a chance of winning close games. The Lions fell well below that mark.

A comedy of errors

It wasn’t immediately apparent that the Lions were in trouble on Thursday, but the Elks first touchdown drive early in the second quarter provided a fitting announcement of their issues.

It started on a high-note. Hakeem Johnson made an excellent special teams tackle, with an advantageous bounce from the Stefan Flintoft punt and an added penalty pinning Edmonton at it’s own two-yard line. Then everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, as the Elks marched 108 yards unfettered for the touchdown.

Rookie corner Jalon Edwards-Cooper started the drive off with a late illegal contact penalty as Harris scrambled in his own end zone. Then T.J. Lee appeared to slip as Greg Ellingson beat him down the sideline for a 47-yard gain. The defence almost had a stop later in the drive, but Edwards-Cooper earned himself another negative by negating a brilliant open-field tackle with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for language used after the whistle. The end result was Harris with all the time in the world against a three-man rush, finding Mike Jones for a touchdown as KiAnte Hardin badly timed his undercut of the route.

It would have been awfully tough to concoct a worse series of events and when all was said and done, that lone touchdown drive proved critical.

Rookie mistakes

So far this season we had only seen the upside to the Lions’ rookie defensive backs, but we got to experience some of the drawbacks against Edmonton.

Even beyond the one scoring drive, Edwards-Cooper and Hardin were both the victim of taking some bad chances and bone-headed penalties. Those are the things you expect from young players just starting out in the CFL. It’s much better to get the growing pains out of the way early as opposed to later.

Knevel up

If you wanted to point to a moment that caused the B.C. Lions offensive struggles on Thursday, it had to be the play early in the first quarter where left tackle Joel Figueroa went down with a knee injury.

Figueroa is no longer an elite pass protector in this league, but he’s solid and reliable. The drop off from him to third-year Canadian David Knevel was considerable.

Thrust into action, Knevel showed on his very first snap that the Lions would be in trouble. He gave Thomas Costigan the edge with a sloppy kick step and immediately conceded a sack, leaving an irate Reilly to trot off the field. There wasn’t another rep quite as bad as that the rest of the game, but it wasn’t an outlier either.

“We count on all our guys and you can’t have one guy going down change the outcome of a game,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game, downplaying the role of the injury. “While we missed [Figueroa], we like the guy that replaced him too, so we should still be able to win.”

Knevel got beat like a drum and, to be frank, the rest of the offensive line wasn’t much better. Kent Perkins had his share of missteps on the other end, while at first glance it appeared centre Peter Godber had extreme trouble adjusting to any twists and games Edmonton had in store.

The end result was only three sacks allowed, but Reilly was under duress most of the night from all sides. It was a big reason why he finished 15-of-25 for 128 yards passing on the evening and it forced the Lions to use fullback David Mackie to chip the end far more often than they might have wanted.

While it wasn’t quite 2019 deja vu, Kelly Bates’ unit had to be much better on the interior with both starting tackles injured — they weren’t and it cost B.C.

Back in the den

It may not have been a sold out Mosaic Stadium or a packed IG Field, but it sure was special to have fans back in BC Place on Thursday.

The team announced a max capacity crowd of 12,552 — honestly not far off from their usual average — but you could feel the energy in the building. The crowd cheered like I haven’t heard in Vancouver for years and it was abundantly clear that every single person in those stands cared deeply about the CFL and this team.

“I think that’s part of the disappointment with guys too, obviously losing but also you wanted to come out here and find a way to win a game for the home crowd. It was pretty emotional to get back in here, it’s been a long time for the Lions and it’s my first game in here,” Campbell acknowledged.

“Disappointed, we couldn’t get it done, but pretty awesome. I thought the crowd was really good tonight. It actually was loud on the field down there several times where you had trouble hearing and talking, which is a good thing. We’ve got to do our part and win football games and keep having this be a fun place to be.”

Regardless of all the Lions’ woes in Vancouver, people missed game days. I missed game days. Every corny video clip, every baby lifted like Simba, every drunken shout of: “You suck Harris!” That was enough to make the heart overflow with joy.

Hopefully a sub-par performance from the team doesn’t diminish that renewed enthusiasm.

At least he’s honest…

A couple of errant throws from Reilly last night raised concerns that his injured throwing elbow was flaring up again, but the quarterback was quick to dismiss that.

“It had to do with me throwing crappy throws,” Reilly said post-game, with deadpan seriousness. “I had some nice ones out there and I had some terrible ones and that’s just the way the day went unfortunately. I’ve got to be better than that for sure.”

Too bad points for honesty don’t count on the scoreboard.

Jimmy on the spot

It will be buried beneath the negatives of the loss, but the B.C. Lions got a really good outing from their kicker in a tough situation.

Jimmy Camacho was signed as an emergency replacement for the released Takeru Yamasaki earlier this week and didn’t get a chance to even practice with his new team before making his debut. Despite all that, Camacho nailed a 49-yarder on the first drive and added two more kicks before it was all over.

After some serious turmoil at the position, it was a feel-good story that didn’t get a chance to shine but I don’t think the loss could diminish it for the kicker. Long after his teammates were showered and changed after the game, Camacho was still laying on his back at mid-field, soaking in both the moment and the Vancouver sky.

A slip of the tongue

I think we’ve all had our troubles with the Edmonton Elks name change, but B.C. Lions PA announcer Don Andrews had an extremely rough time of it on Thursday. In fact, I don’t think there was a single time in the first quarter of the game where he didn’t call the visitors the ‘Eskimos’ before swapping to the much safer ‘Edmonton’ for his calls.

Anyone with a keyboard or microphone in the CFL this year feels your pain Don. We’ll all get through it together.

In memoriam

The Lions ran an in memoriam montage between the first and second quarter and it put into perspective just how many big names we’ve lost since CFL football was last played in B.C.

There were saddened gasps for beloved personalities like writer ‘Cookie’ Gilchrist and TSN analyst Chris Schultz, as well as former players like Norm Fieldgate, Ted Gerela and Jon Hameister-Ries, but only one name earned a cheer of adoration: former owner David Braley.

Say what you want about Braley — and there is plenty to say — but we would not have a B.C. Lions franchise today without him. Fans will always be thankful for that

A Bonnie lass

The only cheer louder than Braley’s memorial came when the club introduced Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, all decked out in her No. 1 Lions jersey.

Everyone in Vancouver knows we wouldn’t have had a crowd in attendance Thursday without her leadership through the pandemic and knowing she’s an admitted CFL fan made that all the more meaningful. You could hardly hear her speak through the raucous applause, though it was clear that she was hoping for a much better showing from the Lions when she instructed them to ‘turn it around on the scoreboard’.

Losing is bad enough, but disappointing Dr. Henry? That’s devastating.

New era

Henry was one of several special guests handed the mic by the Lions throughout the night, but the one that really mattered in the end was the first in-game appearance from new owner Amar Doman, who purchased the team from the Braley estate on Wednesday. While I’m certain he was hoping for a victory to mark the start of a new era, this will not be the moment that defines him.

Doman is exactly what the Lions need. He’s young, for an owner, local, deep-pocketed and passionate. He has a vision for the future and wants to tackle marketing and promotion head on in a city that hasn’t seen that done properly in years. His roots in the Lower Mainland run almost 100 years deep and he is plugged in to a South Asian community that is already a vital part of this fanbase and only needs to be more so going forward.

If you could have crafted Braley’s successor in a lab, it would be Doman. He is everything Braley wanted and also everything the late owner was not. The Lions may have lost Thursday, but the future is a lot brighter for this franchise today than it was a week ago.

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