Lions survive through feast and famine & eight other thoughts on B.C.’s third straight victory

Photo courtesy: CFL/Peter McCabe

It wasn’t always pretty, but the B.C. Lions continued their winning ways with a handful of big plays against the Montreal Alouettes, knocking off their francophone rivals 27-18 in Week 7.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Feast or famine

The B.C. Lions came out of the gates firing on all cylinders Saturday, putting together an easy nine-play, 77-yard scoring drive to set the tone. It was shades of their beatdown of Ottawa a week ago, but the comparisons were quickly put to bed.

While B.C. came out with the win, the Alouettes were the superior offence throughout. The Lions’ victory came on the backs of four successful drives and a handful of big plays, which proved to be the difference in a game where Montreal failed to capitalize on those same opportunities.

“We did make big plays, enough of them. Thankfully we were able to make them, unfortunately, we needed to make them because the regular plays we weren’t making,” quarterback Michael Reilly said post-game.

Head coach Rick Campbell was less biting in his commentary, commending his team on making those plays that they needed to make, but it has become abundantly clear that consistency is the biggest hurdle this Leos team will face on the way to success. Talent-wise, they can go toe to toe with any offence, but too often the little things have fallen by the wayside. On days when the big play isn’t available, that will be their downfall.

Fortunately they have demonstrated a level of timeliness to counter balance that feast or famine system, with their final two drives of the game being the best since the opener. That isn’t something they can rely on against top competition however, and change will have to happen as the Lions’ schedule enters its toughest stretch.

Bend, don’t break

What ultimately saved B.C during those stretches of offensive inactivity was that their defence held the Alouettes to just six field goals despite 453 yards of total offence. It was a strategy not entirely dissimilar from their offensive one, forcing key players to make game-changing plays, but the Lions have the personnel to execute it at the highest level on defence.

With two more picks today, B.C. leads the CFL with nine interceptions and the secondary has probably dropped half a dozen more this season. They’ll sacrifice some yardage in order to put themselves in position to get those takeaways and Saturday was a perfect example of that philosophy in action.

“That’s what we aspire to do, to come out and execute it. Having that bend, don’t break mentality and capitalize on their mistakes is pretty much what we did,” veteran halfback TJ Lee explained post-game of the strategy he exemplified with an early endzone interception.

“I just hope we can play a little bit more relaxed and capitalize on those missed interceptions that we dropped. We’re going to harp on that and chase perfection and obviously not make it there, but chase it.”

As Lee astutely points out, perfection, or even a semblance of it, isn’t really possible with that modern, takeaway heavy strategy. There will be sacrificial yardage and they won’t come down with every 50/50 ball, but when it comes to defending the pass, the Lions’ secondary is about as good as it gets.

Standing back

It was against the run that B.C. quite obviously struggled, allowing Alouettes’ RB William Stanback 139 yards on 18 carries. 81 of those yards came in the first half and so did five carries of over 10 yards. As has been the case all season, the Lions weren’t gap sound and got bullied at the point of attack.

It is easy — and probably correct — to claim that the Lions complete inability to stop the run might have proved the difference in this game had Montreal successfully executed one or two more plays in scoring position. Like most things in life, however, the truth is a little more complicated.

“We want to be better on our run defence, no question. [Stanback’s] a big quality back. He’s a good player in this league. We need to be better, but we wanted to limit their big explosive plays,” Campbell said of the performance. “We wanted to make it more of a running game and make them earn their way down the field, but there’s no question that we want to improve our run defence.”

While the Lions didn’t execute many individual assignments, they would much rather be run all over than passed on and therefore gave the Alouettes looks that were more vulnerable to the run game. That’s entirely logical given how much more difficult it is to produce a successful drive on the ground than through the air. Surrendering 7.7 yards per carry remains unacceptable, but as TJ Lee explained, the strategy was particularly difficult against Montreal.

“They are a 70 protection team, in terms of they have their full back and their running back in so when they do pass they’re able to have more time back there. Coach put us is in a friendly coverage, but when they run we’re out-gapped in the sense that the DBs have to recognize and come from a deeper leverage and shoot down,” he said. “They got a big running back too so once we miss one tackle, they’re off to the races.”

B.C. must get better at making those run-stopping plays, but the strategy ultimately worked how it was supposed to. The secondary had a stellar day thanks to being put in favourable situations and Stanback didn’t deliver any majors despite the yardage.

Being that bad against the run isn’t good, but it is still the right thing to be bad at. It requires your offence to deliver enough big plays to counter-balance — something B.C. just barely did Saturday — and will cost games at times if that doesn’t happen, but the Lions at least have the right process even if their personnel fell short of expectations in that area.

Lucky strikes

“He’s absolutely a weapon the likes of which I really haven’t had before, because there’s not that many of them out there.”

That’s what Michael Reilly had to say about breakout receiver Lucky Whitehead after yet another one of those big plays that — as I’ve discussed ad nauseam — underpins B.C.’s entire philosophy.

Running play-action with an eight-man protection and Whitehead isolated to the field, there was exactly one player that could get the ball. My guy is faster than your guy, just try and stop him.

“They talked about that play day one and they said there’s a very good chance that if we play-action this and we run these hook routes into the boundary that we’re going to get the field corner one-on-one and any high guy to the field is going to jump down,” Reilly said of the play call designed by offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic and receivers coach Jason Tucker.

“There’s not a guy in this league, I think that can cover Lucky one-on-one running down the field.”

The matchup wasn’t even close and Reilly had all the time in the world to find Whitehead wide-open for a 75-yard touchdown. Lucky was too fast, just as he’s been all year.

Burnham down

While Whitehead was again over 100 yards, it was a quiet night for his receiving partner Bryan Burnham. In large part, that was due to a groin injury that left the star receiver questionable to even play this week.

“I looked at him in the locker room at halftime and he definitely was battling through some stuff, but we knew that he was going to come out there and give us everything that he had,” his quarterback shared afterwards.

“The workload maybe wasn’t as high as it normally is, but the quality of the reps that he was able to give us were massive and just having him on the field, the respect that he commands from the defence, opens up a lot of other stuff.”

Burnham only had three catches for 32 yards, but one was a pivotal second down conversion that helped seal the game. He could’ve been a double amputee and the Lions would still be better with him on the field.

Third and Rourke

There was a lot to like about the Lions, first drive of the ball game, but my favourite part of the whole thing was the team actually putting Nathan Rourke on the field for short yardage. The result was a 17-yard run around the left edge that set up the scoring play, a short pitch to James Butler with Rourke still on the field.

I get that Reilly remains one of the best short yardage QBs in the CFL, but Rourke can be that too. His uncanny ability to push, rumble and stumble for more yard is literally his best skill set. I see no valid reason to get more hits put on your 36-year old franchise player when the fresh-faced rookie can make the same or better impact.

Identity crisis

While we’ve already highlighted some of the value limitations of the run game, B.C. should look to steal some of how Montreal has executed in that aspect in order to better utilize their current offensive line.

Both teams strike me as very similar up front, with a general lack of footspeed in their linemen and guys more comfortable mauling than getting in space. B.C. is arguably more talented from a player perspective, but Montreal has been the much better offensive line. They have a clear identity in the run game, Khari Jones has designed his system to their strengths and he does an excellent job hiding their limitations. The Lions OL by contrast is often put under a spotlight while trying to make blocks that don’t play to their skillset.

While nothing like the horrors of 2019, it can often look disjointed in the passing game — with a handful of truly terrible reps every outing — and it has rendered the run game almost none existent.

“We certainly have the capability, we just have to be locked in on every single play because all it takes is one little missed assignment here or there and it’s not necessarily all on the offensive line,” Reilly said after another game where Lions averaged just 3.0 yards per carry.

“Some of that’s me reading it correctly when I’m choosing to hand the ball off or do different things, some of it is we’re asking wide receivers come in and cap the edges and we had at least one or two times where we missed the assignment on that.”

The Lions never really allow their line to get any sort of rhythm and they are employing running backs that don’t quite excel at the gap or inside zone runs that might get maulers like Sukh Chungh, Peter Godber or Joel Figueroa comfortable. The result is inconsistent execution, negligible production and an offensive line group that seems to lack any identity or killer instinct. The personnel and the system don’t really mesh right now and that needs to change going forward.

Macho man

There is only one kicker in the CFL who has been perfect on every field goal this season and that man is Jimmy Camacho.

Now 9-for-9 through four games, the former arena ball kicker has given the Lions something they lacked to start the year and that teams like Winnipeg would kill for: consistency. A miss will eventually kill the streak, but right now Lions fans should thank their lucky stars they somehow fell face first into this situation.

Phillip’s head

I’ve talked a lot about the B.C. defence, specifically the secondary, so far this season, but I haven’t had nearly enough to say about one of the best young coaches in the CFL.

DB coach Ryan Phillips has had his group playing at an exceptional level the last two years, but what many may not realize is that while head coach Rick Campbell is also the defensive coordinator, Phillips has been calling the defence this season.

The results speak for themself and the players speak even louder.

“I can’t say enough about the type of energy he brings, the knowledge and the fun he brings to the guys. We are way more relaxed than any other DB group I’ve been a part of, simply because of how he’s able to give us the message and give us a lot of coverage friendly calls and situations,” TJ Lee said of Phillips post-game with clear admiration.

“He teaches us the game in a way that we can digest it and he’s all about interceptions. We do him a disservice when he puts us in those situations and we don’t capitalize for him.”

The legendary Lion gets the game schematically, he gets the game technically and he gets people. At just 38, he’s a star on the rise once again and it won’t be long before another team comes knocking to offer him an official promotion to defensive coordinator status. Here’s hoping B.C. beats them to the punch internally first.

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.