Lions fail the mid-term & nine other thoughts on a humbling loss to the Bombers

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

To be the best, you have to beat the best and the Lions simply couldn’t pull it off on Saturday.

The CFL’s hottest football team got shown what real dominance looks like, losing 43-22 to the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Here are my thoughts on a humbling defeat.

Failing the mid-term

Every university student has been there at some point. After a late-night cram session, you show up to a mid-term with unearned confidence. You feel on top of the world until you sit down at the desk, open up the exam booklet and realize you don’t even understand the first question.

It never gets better from there.

There was no avoiding the fact that this game was circled on the calendar as the B.C. Lions’ first major test of the season and like a frat boy who didn’t think he needed to buy the textbook, it started about as badly as you could possibly imagine.

The Bombers opened the game with a statement 97-yard return touchdown from Janarion Grant on the first kickoff and from there, the errors piled up. The Lions had a promising drive going in response until quarterback Nathan Rourke lost track of defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat dropping into coverage and was easily intercepted. Winnipeg marched the field with ease as Zach Collaros found Dalton Schoen for a touchdown and they repeated their march following a Lions’ two-and-out.

It was 21-0 by the end of the first quarter and 24-0 before the Lions could mount any sort of response.

The Lions, of course, got better and created some semblance of a ball game. On this scantron sheet of football, they bubbled in answers correctly on some tough questions and each of their three touchdowns were brilliant. It wouldn’t matter in the final marking.

While none of the Lions would oblige in providing a grade for this outing, it’s pretty clear they failed. It may not have been as bad as those initial stomach-dropping, butthole-clenching moments at the exam table may have predicted, but it was still pretty bad.

Hall of mirrors

Nathan Rourke and the B.C. Lions’ offence have been a relentless juggernaut to start the season, but you can’t call yourself an elite CFL quarterback until you’ve conquered the challenge posed by Richie Hall’s Winnipeg defence.

The Canadian gunslinger has thrived so far this year by making easy reads and getting the ball out of his hands quickly, but nothing was going to be simple against the veteran defensive coordinator. Hall provided a multitude of different looks and Rourke, for the first time since he took over as the starter, had moments where he appeared flummoxed.

“What we hadn’t seen before is the personnel they have,” Rourke said post-game. “They obviously allow their guys to do a lot of stuff and when you give your playmakers freedom to do things, it’s harder to pinpoint exactly where they’re gonna be on each play based on what the coverage is. They might be doing something else. They’re just out there playing football and they did a good job of that and that’s tough to prepare against.”

The Bombers used the whole playbook to try and force the young quarterback into mistakes and in the early going, he got happy feet and couldn’t find the open targets this offence is designed to provide. Winnipeg could rush with eight or drop nine defenders with equal effectiveness and their athletic defensive line were the stars of the show.

Wille Jefferson rushed from nearly every alignment and impacted the game in a multitude of ways. His running mate Jackson Jeffcoat gets credit for ensuring the Bombers’ early onslaught continued, as there was no way Rourke could have anticipated him dropping underneath what would otherwise have been a wide-open checkdown.

On a positive note, Rourke did figure out the secret to the defence in the second quarter and made a few brilliant plays. His 66-yard touchdown to Josh Pearson is as good of a throw as you’ll see in the CFL this year and he placed the ball perfectly on both Dominique Rhymes’ majors.

Nevertheless, the mistakes in the early going hurt the Lions and you have to give the veteran DC credit for the victory in this one.

“We did some good stuff on offence, we just turned the ball over too many times. And then Willie Jefferson’s just a pain in the butt. They line him up inside on the guard and he batts a couple balls down that are gonna be completed passes,” head coach Rick Campbell said. “They just play all-around good football and they force you to play really well to beat them.”

Unfortunately on this night, B.C. didn’t.

You only need one flavour

On Friday, Lions’ defensive back Marcus Sayle rankled his opponents with a prediction that B.C. would beat the Bombers “pretty bad” due to what he called a “vanilla” Winnipeg offence.

Bombers’ defensive end Willie Jefferson later warned that B.C. better beat that so-called vanilla offence if they wanted to talk tough and it proved to be prophetic. As ice cream aficionados know well, a mom-and-pop shop doesn’t need 101 flavours to provide you with a great cone. You just need one great flavour and maybe a few toppings.

That was what the Bombers provided on Saturday, putting together their best offensive performance of the season by a wide margin. Their once-fabled running game appeared resurgent with a heavier dose of Johnny Augustine and some razzle-dazzle from newcomer Greg McCrae. Zach Collaros looked every bit the reigning MOP as well, finding the gaps in B.C.’s defensive secondary that they will provide if given enough time.

Sure, Winnipeg may now rely on possession receivers, not game-breakers, but that’s a bit of a misnomer when Dalton Schoen can catch eight passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and Greg Ellingson adds seven for 98 and a score.

As a result, the vanilla Bombers seemed to be just about as unstoppable as a broken BC Ferries’ soft serve machine and the Lions were the poor sucker desperately trying to catch it all in their little cup before the staff noticed.

“They just executed better. They beat us on a bunch of scramble plays. That first touchdown on me was a corner ball, I should have just turned and played the ball,” veteran defensive back T.J. Lee admitted. “Your leaders gotta lead, you know what I mean? That could have changed the whole trajectory of the game.”

None of the big plays we’ve come to expect from Ryan Phillips’ unit were there in this one. They seemed just a little too far in off-coverage to get there, simply a hair too slow, and could never claw back the momentum that Winnipeg seized so early on.

MOP up duty

In my estimation, the biggest reason for that defensive failure was the sensational play of reigning Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros and the Lions’ inability to get to him.

A big part of the Lions’ dominant run on defence over the first three games has been the newfound success of their defensive line. After years of lacking a pass rush, they’ve suddenly been able to get home with four and sometimes even three-man rushes. That wasn’t happening against the reigning champs, especially early.

Zach Collaros had altogether too much time to operate and B.C. was forced to blitz more heavily than they have been. The Lions eventually got some flashes of pressure — once their opponent had established a nice lead — but it left B.C.’s coverage vulnerable.

Collaros is the type of player who is at his best when there is one late rusher flushing him from the pocket and B.C. struggled to contain his playmaking ability on the move.

“He was the Houdini guy tonight. He made some key plays where we did our job on defence, but then he scrambled around and made a couple key first downs and a touchdown,” Campbell noted post-game.

“I thought that was a big part of the game. I know our defensive guys will be itching to play again cause they know they can show better but at the same time, we’ll give them credit cause they played better than us today.”

The ticket to success against the Bombers is to keep Collaros unsettled within the pocket and not let him escape, but the great wall in front of him mostly stopped that from happening. B.C.’s lone sack came courtesy of a late safety blitz from Quincy Mauger.

Stay in your lane

The only thing more demoralizing than allowing a return touchdown for a football team is one taken back for a score on the opening kickoff.

You knew exactly how this game would go as soon as Janarion Grant made his 97-yard house call to open the game, but it was not the only bust of the evening. Grant would have had a second kickoff return score in this game as well were it not for a questionable penalty and then this score would have been even more lopsided.

It was not immediately apparent based on the resources I had available who was at fault for either bust but on the first one, a Lions player flew in hot and fast, losing his lane integrity and getting pancaked in the process. Grant simply sprinted through the hole he left.

Poor kick coverage has been a consistent issue for B.C. over the last few years and it’s been lingering in the background this year as well, though this is the first time it has risen to the forefront. The team has a continuing mission to get bigger, longer, faster and more physical with their backups to solve that problem, but it is clear more work needs to be done.

No Luck

Dominique Rhymes was the darling of the receiving corps this week, hauling in six catches for 136 yards and two scores, but it was the minuscule role played by Lucky Whitehead that has to be the elephant in the room.

The electric speedster missed the first two days of practice this week with an injured ankle and it is clearly bothering him. Still, if you are healthy enough to dress, you need to be healthy enough to produce and the Lions failed to get Whitehead the football. He finished with just two catches for 14 yards.

“I do think that we need to do a better job of getting him involved,” Rourke acknowledged. “I certainly went to him a couple times and missed him twice. Maybe that’s a bigger part of it. We’re not talking about it as much if I make those throws.”

There is more to it than two missed wide-side outs, however. While the Lions’ offence is much improved this year, I have yet to see Jordan Maksymic truly scheme Whitehead free deep as he did last season. In fact, Lucky has more often been the decoy.

Perhaps the receiver’s health makes that impossible but right now it feels like there is an important element missing from the Lions’ attack.

Jevon Duh-Doy

Jevon Cottoy had an incredibly rough end to this football game.

He was the target on Rourke’s second interception, a pass that sailed way high and resulted in Cottoy getting drilled in the ribs. The homegrown receiver was down for an extended period but returned to the game only to cough up the game-clinching fumble and deflect up another pick on a pass from Michael O’Connor that he should have caught.

Cottoy makes a lot of highlight-reel plays and his best years are still in front of him, but this is a contest he’ll want to forget.

Picking nits

This was unquestionably Nathan Rourke’s worst game as a starting quarterback but the results were still respectable. He finished 16-of-25 for 278 yards, three touchdowns and two picks, and while he was pulled late, it wasn’t performance-related.

“I’m with that guy all the way to the end, it was about living to play another day,” head coach Rick Campbell stressed. “He’d still be out there playing right now if he had his way, but I told him, ‘We’ve gotta look at the big picture here and we have a lot of important football ahead.'”

As always, there were moments of pure brilliance from the Canadian pivot, but it wasn’t all good. What has become increasingly clear is that Rourke tends to sail his passes, a flaw that resulted in a late interception Saturday night and just a 64 percent completion mark.

Given Rourke’s dedication to the minutiae of quarterbacking biomechanics, I have no doubt that is something he’s focusing on in training. The other major issue I saw Saturday is a much easier fix.

For a quarterback as athletically gifted as Rourke, it is a problem to finish the game without a single rushing yard. B.C.’s signal-caller insisted to the media that the opportunities simply weren’t there but especially when he was struggling early, there seemed to be moments when he could have taken off but tried to force himself to solve Richie Hall’s scheme through the air.

Any quarterback needs to be pass first, but Rourke’s legs are just another weapon in his arsenal and an important one which keeps the defence honest. He needs to be encouraged to be as free a playmaker as the defenders that sometimes perplexed him.

As for the adversity of a less-than-perfect performance, Rourke had this to say.

“It wasn’t gonna be all sunshine and roses. I’m not that good of a player. I have to go through this kind of stuff on a personal level.”

International man of mystery

The CFL’s Global program has yet to win the hearts and minds of many fans, mostly becoming a farming ground for punters — albeit some pretty good ones.

Though a few other position players have flashed on special teams, Winnipeg’s Thiadric Hansen has been the only exception to that rule. The German defensive end carved out a rotational role defence very early in his career and has 13 defensive tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles to his credit, in addition to being one of the league’s most dominant kick coverage players.

Some will tell you that Hansen has been the only positive prospect to come out of the international initiative, but that is quickly becoming untrue because the second viable full-time Global position player was on the same field as Hansen on Saturday.

Belgian defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie has become an integral part of the Lions’ defence and has already started getting far more defensive reps, often in critical situations, than Hansen ever has. He added two tackles on Saturday, while his German counterpart was held off the stat sheet.

Debaillie is the best CFL story no one is talking about right now and it’s made even more remarkable by the fact that he was unceremoniously cut by Edmonton this offseason, a week after Chris Jones took over. The supposed defensive guru had no interest in a third-round Global pick and practice roster player but is now scrambling to find viable stop gaps for a battered defensive line. Meanwhile, Debaillie is making big-time plays for B.C.

Ain’t karma grand?

No week off

The Lions will have a week to soak in this defeat as they head into their second bye week, but I will not get such a reprieve.

Instead, I’ll be flying to Halifax — AirCanada willing — to take in Touchdown Atlantic. If you need your football fix, make sure to check 3DownNation for my East coast thoughts.

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.