Outrun, outpassed and outclassed: Nine thoughts on the B.C. Lions’ loss to Winnipeg

Photo courtesy: CFL/Jimmy Jeong

It was billed as a test of the B.C. Lions’ status as Grey Cup contenders, but the final result was a failing grade for the team out West as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers coasted to a 30-9 victory in B.C. Place.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Outrun, outpassed and outclassed

There are only so many thoughts that can run through your head during a positively putrid performance like the Lions put forth on Friday.

The 21-point margin of victory by which the Lions fell to the defending Grey Cup champions was in many ways a kindness, a product of two fumbles by the Bombers in the third quarter. The gulf between the two franchises could hardly have been wider on this occasion.

“I thought we got beat. They were the better team tonight,” a subdued Rick Campbell said post-game, looking like a head coach who had been resigned to his team’s fate for several quarters.

“They’re a good football team. We didn’t play well enough, but I give them credit. I think they’re the best team in this league right now.”

He wasn’t the only Lion to share that sentiment. When a bruised and battered Michael Reilly made his way to the podium, he too had nothing but praise for the opponent that put him on the turf time and again.

“They’re the best in the league, they definitely showed that tonight. They’re athletic, they’re physical, they’re aggressive and they were punishing all night,” Reilly acknowledged, before highlighting just how bad this particular B.C. loss was

“The previous three that we had lost before tonight we felt like there was some stretches that we didn’t play great, but there was also stretches that we played pretty well and had opportunities to win the game. Tonight was not one of those nights. Tonight it was just one of those nights that we got spanked all night and soundly beaten by a team that just was the better team.”

I couldn’t have put it much better myself. Redeeming features will be few and far between in the study of this one and there was not a single aspect of the game where the Lions were superior. Any further explanation is just wasted breath, but thankfully I have some to spare.

Hot knife, meet butter

Defence, particularly the secondary, has been a tremendous strength for the 2021 B.C. Lions. Friday night, it was somewhere between a hapless slapstick comedy and a horror show.

After allowing 510 yards of total offence, linebacker Bo Lokombo nicely summed up what went wrong for his unit.

“Everything,” he said, shaking his head. “They executed at a high level and we came up short today. A lot of guys it was one-on-one matchups and unfortunately we didn’t come up with the play.”

Bombers’ quarterback Zach Collaros was completely unpressured for most of the evening, effortlessly completing 28-of-33 passes for 417 yards and two touchdowns. To say he sliced through the B.C. defence like butter may be an understatement, as the coefficient of friction in this scenario seemed much lower.

While there were no perfect — or even good — performances in the B.C. secondary, some of the issues can be chalked up to the Lions’ battered personnel. Starters Marcus Sayles and KiAnte Hardin, along with primary backup corner Victor Gamboa, were hurt for this game and youngster Jalon Edwards-Cooper went down during, leaving a field-side of rookie Bejour Wilson, Canadian Hakeem Johnson, and SAM linebacker Anthony Cioffi, who proved why he lost his job earlier in the year by getting toasted time and again.

That weak field hurt the Lions considerably — though boundary stalwarts TJ Lee and Gary Peters also had plenty of busts — but Lokombo wasn’t satisfied with it as an excuse.

“The next man up has got to step up,” he stressed. “We’re dealing with a lot of injuries, but that’s universal. Every team is dealing with injuries. It’s about how you bounce back and it’s about how you play collectively.”

The Lions, of course, did play collectively. Collectively poorly.

Whitehead’s bloody lip

As your latest example of why trash talk is both incredibly entertaining and a terrible idea, I present Lucky Whitehead.

The Lions’ star receiver was poised for a revenge game against his first CFL club and answered honestly this week when asked if he was faster than all of Winnipeg’s defensive backs. Whitehead is faster — provably so — but it is hard not to think that the vocal confirmation of that fact wasn’t somewhere in the back of safety Brandon Alexander’s mind as he exploded through his former teammate on a hellacious hit early in the game.

The hit was clean and effective, but the end result was unlucky for the Lions. Whitehead’s right wrist was injured on the play and he wouldn’t record a single catch on the evening.

The injury, which was feared to be a broken wrist, originally caused the receiver to be ruled out of the game, but he made a surprise return after half-time. It was meaningless, as everybody and their mother knew that Whitehead was physically unable to catch the ball when warming up on the sideline, rendering him a useless decoy.

Discussing the decision to use a one-armed Whitehead, head coach Rick Campbell insisted the move was approved by team doctors.

“I was assuming that he was not coming back in and then coming out of the half, our team doctors looked at him and said it was safe for him to come back, that it was not a risk of further injury or anything like that,” Campbell said. “He’s going to get tests done tomorrow and we’ll figure out exactly what his status is.”

While the docs signed off, I’m not sure the move earned my stamp of approval. Lucky’s wrist looked to be hanging by a thread — though I’ll shelve my amateur medical assessment — and he was non-functional in the role after injury. The failure to put in a capable replacement devastated the Lions’ big play offence and while mourning the loss of Whitehead, Reilly was frank about their failure to adapt.

“Injuries happen all the time and if you let one guy going down totally a skew how you play the game, then you’re never going to be successful in football,” he said. “It definitely made things harder, but again, we’ve got to deal with it and we didn’t.”

I have a sneaking suspicion that Whitehead won’t be ready to go after the bye week, so the Lions will have to learn how to deal the hard way.

Balancing act

B.C. Lions fans have plenty of questions as to why their club has no semblance of a run game, but when it comes to establishing offensive balance, the team is just as lost as we are.

“I don’t know the answer to that is,” Reilly admitted when pressed on the topic for the hundredth time this year.

After another utterly ineffective evening on the ground, with four carries for two yards between their two running backs, Rick Campbell dubbed the running game a “bye week project”. Projects require materials however, and I’m doubtful the Lions have the right ones.

Data analytics suggests you don’t need to establish the run to effectively play action pass — defences flinch regardless — but the Lions are testing that hypothesis. Teams are threatened so little by their run game that the Bombers did not even alter their drops in the slightest when Reilly play faked.

Beat us with the run, they taunted. We know that you can’t.

Men against boys

That brings us to the play of B.C.’s offensive line, whose downward trajectory of the last few weeks spiraled noticeably against what is admittedly the best defensive line in the CFL.

It would have perhaps been foolish to expect the big boys up front to win this particular battle outright, but you wanted at least a hell of a lot more fight from them. They looked foolish on a number of the Bombers’ six sacks, hapless in the screen game and soulless on the ground. When former Lions’ lineman Dean Valli — he of “good body, good girth” fame — got on the jumbotron to sing a off-key rendition of ‘Roar You Lions Roar,’ he delivered it with more fire and passion than any 300-pounder in orange actually showed on the field.

Reilly didn’t have an explanation for what went wrong at the podium, but the tape will not be kind to his protectors. Kent Perkins got tossed around flat-footed at right tackle and got caught lunging at air rather than blocking Jackson Jeffcoat. Sukh Chungh looked stiff and slow, whiffing high any time he was asked to block in space. Centre Peter Godber spent stretches of the game looking like a shipwreck survivor, clinging to Steven Richardson like he was flotsam being tossed in the waves. They all got beat too fast, recovered too slowly and ultimately got out-worked in every facet of the game.

“They’re football players like anybody else. I haven’t played a perfect season and neither has anybody else on our team,” Reilly said, letting the unit off the hook after the fact.

“I do think for the majority of the season, they’ve come out and operated it and done their jobs exactly how we asked them to. Everybody’s got off nights and us collectively as a team had an off night.”

The Lions offensive line has been handed an extremely tough assignment. Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic does them few favours with his play-calling and there was little designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quick even against the best pass rush in the league. But the Bombers got after Reilly with four rushers all night — sometimes their backup four — and there continues to be no push in the run game.

For a group that should pride itself on toughness and grit, there hasn’t been much fight. A hard look in the mirror is merited during the time off.

Hang up and listen

If Friday night was a radio show, Bomber’s receiver Kenny Lawler was the long-time listener, first-time caller. Unfortunately, it was the B.C. Lions who decided to hang up and listen, because they definitely didn’t have an answer.

Lawler’s career breakout performance featured 12 catches for 205 yards and a touchdown, as the CFL’s new leading receiver finally declared himself an upper echelon star. With the Bombers moving him all over the field, it seemed a different defender was victimized on every play.

For a team that has thrived by winning the 50/50 ball, there were no victories against Winnipeg. Kenny Lawler came down with everything in his vicinity and B.C. could only watch the brilliance unfold.

Bejour’s baptism

Starting in his first game, rookie field corner Bejour Wilson was introduced to the CFL rather rudely.

The 24-year old out of Liberty found himself in the vicinity of both of the Bombers’ first half touchdown passes and while my first blush impression was that he wasn’t fully at fault on either, he was the one who will be circled on Kenny Lawler and Rasheed Bailey’s highlight reels.

On the first, Wilson appeared to switch to Lawler’s corner route late and got caught stumbling on his heels, rather than driving on the long throw. The result was an easy box out from Lawler and six points for the Bombers. Bailey’s touchdown will require a more complex autopsy, but Wilson — now lined up at halfback — appeared to slip near the goal line, resulting in a bust in behind. It was an inauspicious start to say the least.

A nice forced fumble in the third quarter redeemed him somewhat, but I’m guessing a picture of this game won’t be going on the mantle.

Empty jersey

Listed as questionable with a groin injury, but dressed and in uniform, I assumed Canadian receiver Lemar Durant would get a bigger role in the offence once Lucky Whitehead went down. I was clearly mistaken.

Durant finished with one catch for eight yards and barely saw the field. I get protecting your banged up starter, but you dressed him so he could help your team if disaster struck. It did on Friday, but Durant watched from the sidelines, begging the question of why he was even dressed?

False positive

There is nothing I despise more than having to write an entirely negative reaction to a game, but there were few positives to draw from this one.

Bo Lokombo suggested that the defence did a great job shutting down the run, holding Andrew Harris to 81 yards. I’d say that isn’t quite the flex he thinks it is when the offence could pass at will and they still averaged 5.8 yards per carry, but who am I to take that silver lining away from him?

The reality is that no Lion should be pleased with their performance Friday, except for kicker Jimmy Camacho. The rest have some hard questions to answer.

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.