Lions still suffering in Pipkin purgatory & other thoughts on B.C.’s loss in Montreal

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

The B.C. Lions couldn’t escape the torment of their Rourke-less existence on Friday night in Montreal, losing 31-10 to the Alouettes.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Pipkin purgatory

Given the divine bliss that Lions fans experienced while watching a generational young quarterback perfect his craft earlier this season, you’d be forgiven for feeling like the current version of the Lions’ offence was some sort of hellish punishment.

Alas, if the team was truly awful, it might make for more entertaining football than what has been on display the last two weeks.

The team’s decision to start 27-year-old Antonio Pipkin under centre this week ensured that the Lions remained in quarterback purgatory, trapped in a never-ending cycle of mind-numbing first-half inadequacy followed by a flash of late game competence. In essence, nothing changed. Despite a bye and a full week of practice, Pipkin was exactly the same quarterback he showed himself to be two weeks ago — and in every other start of his career.

Pipkin made a handful of throws that you would expect a professional quarterback to make; his third-down strike to Bryan Burnham late in the third quarter was the best of the night and set up the team’s only touchdown. He also teased the ability to make plays with his legs — a facet of his game that offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic failed to maximize, in my opinion — but was too often late and off-target with his throws.

The Lions’ once highly efficient offence crawled to a standstill as he double-clutched the ball, second-guessing his reads. When he did pull the trigger, it seemed a fifty-fifty shot as to whether it would land near his target. Nafees Lyon’s spectacular pick-six was as bad a missed throw as you’ll ever see, while smaller errors — like his indecision with Keon Hatcher at the goal line in the third quarter — also took points off the board.

In the end, Pipkin was 13-of-24 for 174 yards and an interception, while rushing seven times for 31 yards and the team’s only touchdown. We knew this performance was coming from the second his start was announced and yet head coach Rick Campbell mostly let his passer off the hook, blaming poor team play and the team’s unfortunate circumstances for the result.

“I thought our football team wasn’t good enough as a whole in the first half, so that complicates the quarterback situation. When we come out in the third quarter and we play with energy and effort and edge and everybody’s playing together, then you can see there are glimpses that we do good things, but less than that ain’t gonna get it done,” he said to the media.

“We’ve lost quarterbacks the last two weeks and so it’s Pipkin, the third guy who gets almost no reps in practice. He knows the playbook and all that stuff, but it’s not a guy that’s been practicing a ton. It’s not an excuse. It’s just reality.”

What is clear is that things much change quickly at quarterback if B.C. is to have any hope of salvaging their season. The Alouettes were an incredibly beatable team on Friday night and the Lions should have won easily with merely competent quarterbacking.

They didn’t get it; that’s not an excuse, just a reality.

Adams fallacy

Fortunately for the Lions, they have the supposed solution to their quarterbacking ills already in-house and we got our first look at him against Montreal.

After acquiring Vernon Adams Jr. from these same Alouettes in exchange for a first-round pick during the bye week, Campbell opted not to start the veteran pivot against his old team while he familiarizes himself with the playbook. Instead, he kindly waited less than a quarter to throw him into the fire

Adams entered the game with 52 seconds remaining in the opening frame and was promptly sacked. He lasted just four series under centre, none of which saw any success, completing one pass for 17 yards that Keon Hatcher fumbled and tossing two incompletions on bad reads.

The Lions’ attempt to generate a spark with their new signal-caller ended at half-time and the team rode Pipkin the rest of the way. While B.C. improved after the intermission, it seemed an odd decision to stick Adams in so briefly and then tell him to ride the pine even when the game was already lost.

“I just didn’t want to put him in that spot,” Campbell said of the decision to keep his future starting quarterback out of garbage time. “Pipkin had been playing and at that point in the game, that obviously didn’t enter my mind. We talked about things but not at that point.”

The head coach admitted that he entered the game without a laid-out plan for how to use his quarterback tandem and it showed. As shaky as Adams looked in his brief appearance, if you are comfortable putting him in the game, you need to be comfortable giving him more than three throws. In my opinion, Pipkin should never have gone back under centre in the second half, but at the very least, you need to give your new QB every second of meaningless play time at the end of the game to help prime him for next week.

Campbell refused to name a starter for Week 15 against Calgary after the final whistle but this team didn’t pay through the nose for Adams to watch their season slip away. He has to be the guy going forward and the Lions are worse off for every extra rep Pipkin received this week.

Scarier than Terry

The Lions also acquired kick returner Terry Williams via trade from Ottawa last week and he looked as advertised in his first action. The Tennessee-Martin product averaged 22.2 yards on five kickoff returns and six yards per on four punts, flashing some one-cut explosiveness. It was a fine debut, though Williams no doubt suffered a rude awakening when he found out the level of blocking he can expect to see from the Lions’ special teams.

Despite the new return game weapon, B.C. badly lost the field position battle in this game thanks, in part, to the other side of the special teams’ coin. The Lions’ kick coverage units continue to be akin to a game of Russian Roulette and the chamber with the bullet in it is getting closer to the firing pin with every spin.

It nearly went off again against Montreal, as Chandler Worthy bounced a return where he initially ran into his own blocker outside for a 51-yard gain. It was a play that never should have happened, as the Lions were sloppy in their lanes and bordered on laziness in their pursuit.

It looked as if Emmanuel Rugamba got sucked inside and Hakeem Johnson was jogging half-heartedly as the contain man before Worthy made him get on his horse after winning the angle. A feeble tackle attempt by Loucheiz Purifoy tacked on some added yardage at the end and the Alouettes were primed to score.

“Special teams, it’s all about want to,” linebacker Jordan Williams said post-game. “Guys have to run a little harder, get off more blocks, more mano-a-mano, and try to be a man and step up and make tackles. You could draw all the X’s and O’s, you can do this and that; it’s all about attitude.”

Right now, B.C. doesn’t seem to want to be on the field for the game’s third phase. The special teams unit doesn’t appear to take any pride in their performance. In a season, where the margin for error has shrunk dramatically, this is the area that is going to cost the Lions the most.

69 problems

As much as attitude matters, part of the Lions’ special teams’ issues stem from personnel problems and that was exposed by one particular player on Friday.

In the fourth hour of 3DownNation’s live CFL draft coverage this past offseason, the Lions stunned me by taking a player I had never heard of in the eighth round — a developmental defensive lineman from the Ottawa GeeGees named Adam Wallace.

Wallace wasn’t on anyone’s radar except B.C., who had become intrigued by him after hearing the raw college backup ran a 4.97-second forty-yard dash at 260 pounds. They took a late-round flyer on his athletic traits and sent him back to school for more seasoning. Low risk, high reward.

Unfortunately for the Lions, with the very next pick in the draft — the 69th overall selection — Montreal took Western Mustangs linebacker Zach Lindley. While Wallace had all the measurables and none of the production, Lindley was the reverse. He was a key part of a Vanier Cup-winning defence but deemed by many to be too thin for pro football after checking in at 190 pounds.

The Lions and seven other CFL teams now have egg on their face, as Lindley has blossomed into one of the league’s best special teamers in his rookie season with the Alouettes. On Friday, he decimated B.C. with two huge plays in the first half.

On the first, Lindley shot through the inside shoulder of up-back Jordan Williams as Stefan Flintoft punted from his own endzone, forcing a shank that put Montreal in prime field position. Then when the Lions attempted a fake punt late in the half, Lindley was there to snuff it out, screaming across the field to tackle David Mackie.

B.C. could have desperately used a player like Lindley this season but he didn’t quite fit the big and physical mould that they were looking for. They’ll need to find a few players in his image next season, while hoping that third-round pick Ryder Varga can be that same type of difference-maker once he finishes his degree.

Faux physicality

The B.C. Lions’ defence did more than enough to give their team a chance to win the football game on Friday, holding Trevor Harris to under 200 yards passing and notching two interceptions. Still, I found myself wanting more from the unit.

As two anemic offences did battle, the startling disparity of physicality between the two teams was placed in sharp relief. The Alouettes were flying around in their home stadium, delivering several big hits. The Lions fumbled twice as a result — Adarius Pickett’s dislodging of the football from Bryan Burnham was the play that sealed the game — but they also created several incompletions due to the ferocity with which they broke on the ball. They were even physical in the run game, with Micah Awe decleating James Butler with one of the year’s best tackles down by the goal line.

The Lions, meanwhile, looked tentative on the back-end, rarely pressing the issue or taking it to their opponent. For the second straight game, they got steamrolled on the ground while trailing, allowing Walter Fletcher and Jeshrun Antwi to rumble for 120 combined yards. Linebackers seemed far too content to sit back on their heels and rarely met the runner in the hole, guaranteeing five yards a carry.

Even more concerning was how the Alouettes’ receiving corps physically manhandled B.C.’s secondary. Eugene Lewis, in particular, seemed to be a mismatch, abusing Delvin Breaux one-on-one and driving for extra yards on a couple of short catches. Across the board, it seemed like too much space was afforded for the Larks’ pass-catchers to work and the Lions opportunistic secondary looked slow, with Loucheiz Purifoy having an especially off night in my opinion.

The Lions’ only attempt to save face physically seemed to come in short-yardage, where they put backup quarterback Dominique Davis in a headlock on two separate occasions, causing him to be justifiably irate. It was a poor display of fake macho from a team that got generally pushed around by a mediocre opponent.

The Lions are supposed to be a team that flies to the football in the passing game, creating turnovers or changing momentum with big hits in space. Whether it was the absence of their leader T.J. Lee or simply a fear of being overly aggressive without the safety blanket of a potent offence, they looked like a shadow of themselves against Montreal.

One for you, one for me

The Lions’ offensive line has punched well above their weight class for much of the 2022 season but suffered their worst performance of the year against Montreal, allowing five sacks. However, before the raw numbers make you turn on the big boys up front, that effort has to be put into context and their starting quarterback has to take his share of the blame.

By my estimation, Pipkin alone was responsible for three of the sack allowed, most notably the team’s first-quarter safety that caused everything to go off the rail. He sensed pressure off the right side but rather than step out through the clear escape route or hit an open checkdown, he tried to squeeze through the quickly closing gap beside running back James Butler and ran headlong into his own blockers.

In the fourth quarter, Pipkin was sacked again by Wes Sutton on an RPO that never should have been pulled — three defenders awaited the quarterback off the right edge while Butler had first-down yardage available inside. The final sack, a strip by Thomas Costigan, needs to be owned by the quarterback as well, as it exhibited some of the worst pocket awareness I’ve ever seen.

That’s not to say that B.C.’s offensive line was blameless, however. Joel Figueroa got beat by Nick Usher’s power inside on Adam’s first play and a poorly handled stunt exchange by Sukh Chungh and Peter Godber allowed Mike Moore to join him at the quarterback. Chungh also seemed to simply give up on his block on Mustafa Johnson’s second sack, allowing him to kill that drive.

There were other mistakes in protection as well that didn’t result in sacks. A whiff by fullback David Mackie forced Figueroa to kick out on one play, allowing a looping Usher to drill Pipkin. Another quarterback takedown was overturned by an unrelated penalty despite a bad miscommunication by Phil Norman leaving Johnson completely unblocked up the middle.

The reality is that a lot of those late errors might have been ignored in other games this season thanks to Rourke’s fastest draw in the West. They mattered this week and both the offensive line and quarterbacks will need to do a better job going forward to limit those negative plays.

Are you not entertained?

It will be little more than a footnote in the story of this game but B.C.’s first interception came on one of the craziest you’ll ever see — and perhaps the only one really worth watching in the dull Friday night contest.

Pressing in the red zone, Montreal dialled up a wide receiver pass off a reverse but failed to execute their blocking assignment. Obum Gwacham shot through unblocked to make the play but Eugene Lewis hit him with the spin move and still got the pass off. Unfortunately for him, it was picked off by Gary Peters on the goal line. However, quarterback Dominique Davis — the trick play’s intended target — punched the ball free and caused a mad scramble for possession, which the Lions eventually one.

It was chaotic, ugly and wildly entertaining. Here’s hoping more CFL offences start dipping into their bag of tricks as we near the end of the season.

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.