Lions’ offence musters too little, too late and 10 other thoughts on B.C.’s loss to the Argos

Photo courtesy: CFL

With a resounding clang of the upright, the Toronto Argonauts got their revenge.

After falling to the B.C. Lions by an embarrassing 44-3 margin back in Week 3, the Boatmen held off a late surge at home and secured a 23-20 victory when Sean Whyte’s game-tying field goal attempt failed to find the centre of its target.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Too little, too late

It doesn’t matter who you are, at some point in your life you’ve had that same awful experience.

Snuggled in bed, you groggily rise from your slumber and fumble for your phone, only to be greeted by a number you didn’t expect. You’ve overslept. With panic rising in your chest, you throw off the covers and rush desperately through the bare essentials of your morning routine, attempting to claw back the time that was long ago squandered away.

It has happened to everyone. Unfortunately for the B.C. Lions’ offence on Saturday, they just happened to wake up halfway through a football game.

For much of the first half, it was an open question as to whether quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and his cohort had even gotten off the team charter to Toronto. They started with three straight two-and-outs and mustered just 11 yards of net offence in the first quarter, with that yardage only coming by virtue of a 13-yard James Butler run that ended with a lost fumble.

By halftime, the yardage count was 139 and B.C. had scored one impressive touchdown, but there was still no semblance of rhythm to the attack. At best, the Lions looked listless. At worst, they could be described as scattered.

In many ways, that wasn’t particularly surprising given that the Leos are without two of the league’s best pass catchers in Bryan Burnham and Lucky Whitehead. That is enough to neuter even the best of offences, though I was disappointed in the failure of other targets to elevate themselves for the occasion — namely, Keon Hatcher, who seemingly packaged a whole game’s worth of effort into his 31-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. Before that, his biggest contribution was an egregious drop on a third-and-seven gamble that could have changed the complexion of the game.

The Argos deserve full credit as well. Missing arguably the league’s best defensive player in linebacker Wynton McManis, defensive coordinator Corey Mace came with an abundance of different types of pressure and disguised coverages. For long stretches, both Adams and his protection looked baffled by what they were seeing, a fact the quarterback skirted around post-game.

“It doesn’t matter about the personnel, they’re just bodies out there. I just kind of started slow a little bit,” Adams said. “I don’t know, they kind of got into different looks. I’ve just got to be ready for my hot throws and different things like that. Had a couple of guys open there and just didn’t get to ’em.”

While Adams missed his fair share of reads and throws, even I — his harshest critic — am not putting this loss fully on his shoulders. He needs to be better, but this was a full team failure and not a single player on the offensive side of the ball should escape blame.

Too much to handle

Compounding the offensive issues was the complete and utter collapse of the offensive line. Though they ultimately allowed just three sacks, two of which came on the first two drives, I thought the unit played their worst game in pass protection all season.

As I explored in depth last week, it remains true that Adams is holding on to the ball too long and not being decisive enough in the pocket. He had plenty more double clutches in this one and often failed to recognize where pressure would come from pre-snap, though the Argos’ coverage played a role in that. However, that is an excuse for the big boys up front when things are otherwise well executed, not when they are getting physically manhandled.

Right from the jump, Toronto’s front four — without former NFL first-rounder Shane Ray — gave B.C. fits. Right tackle Kent Perkins appeared unable to handle power rushes from 245-pound Canadian Robbie Smith and Ja’Gared Davis got loose often as well, notching his second multi-sack game of the year. Inside, it was a comedy of errors for centre Peter Godber and left guard Phil Norman, as each committed a couple of horrific holding calls.

Though he doesn’t appear on the boxscore at all, the Argos’ best player in this game was defensive tackle Shawn Oakman. The six-foot-nine, 287-pound behemoth was a one-man wrecking crew rushing both from both inside and outside alignments, directly causing multiple sacks, drawing holds, and making VA generally uncomfortable throughout. The Lions had no answer for his brute strength.

In the interest of fairness, the o-line had a really strong evening on the ground, executing several plays to perfection as Butler powered forward for 82 yards on nine carries. However, you have to pass protect at a high level in modern football. There was no valid excuse for their failure to do so at BMO Field.

Victory Nield down

As has become something of a familiar refrain, the B.C. Lions’ defence gave up too many yards through the air in this game — 352 this week — but made big plays with their backs against the goal line to force several short-field goals.

In general, I noticed — and appreciated — an increase in aggression from defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips, with more man coverage and blitzes dialled up than he has used of late. Unfortunately, due to the offensive failures, that same strategy proved to be the team’s undoing in a game where they were otherwise good enough to win.

With Toronto down four with just over three minutes left, Phillips sent the house after McLeod Bethel-Thompson. The quarterback responded with a perfect 37-yard shot to little-known backup Canadian slotback Tommy Nield for the touchdown. It was as bad of a missed coverage as you’ll see from halfback Marcus Sayles, who couldn’t flip his hips on the post route and allowed an inside release with no safety over top to a player who — from a physical standpoint — had no business beating him with the game on the line.

“We’ve got to make sure we know where help is and when we choose to zero blitz, we’ve got to make sure we get home in a timely manner. It’s hard on the DBs if you’re zero blitzing and you don’t get home,” head coach Rick Campbell noted post-game. “That’s part of football though; when you zero blitz, we call it a hero/zero type deal. It can be really good for the defence or not.”

To be frank, the bust highlights a serious concern I’ve had with the Lions of late. For years, I’ve lauded their secondary, while harping on the defensive line and linebackers. While the latter are now playing excellent football, the former looks off.

On paper, the secondary should be a strength for the Lions and it started out as such. Now they lack their usual swagger and are allowing far too many big plays. Sayles hasn’t looked like an all-star all year, Louchiez Purifoy has seemingly disappeared over the last few weeks, and 31-year-old T.J. Lee has made a bevy of uncharacteristic errors since returning from injury.

The unit as a whole just doesn’t seem to be feeling it and teams are beginning to exploit them every week.

Vernon’s finest

Had the Lions managed to eke out a victory, there is no doubt that the TSN turning point would have been attributed to second-year Canadian linebacker Ben Hladik.

The UBC product came busting through the Argos’ line on the first play of the fourth quarter, trucked running back A.J. Ouellette en route to Bethel-Thompson, and punched the ball loose in spectacular fashion. Jordan Williams recovered, added a nice return, then fumbled himself, before Mathieu Betts saved the day.

“That was a very big play in the game, a huge momentum swing that gave us an opportunity to win the game,” Campbell said of Hladik. “He really showed up tonight, he was very noticeable and making some big plays. Good for him. He keeps getting better and he keeps working at it and he’s a good football player. We’re lucky to have him.”

A native of Vernon, B.C., Hladik has seized his opportunity in the middle of the Lions’ defence and refuses to be taken off the field, with last year’s top rookie Williams and reigning Most Outstanding Canadian Bo Lokombo now rotating with each other as a result. I thought his six-tackle performance against Toronto was his best game yet, as he was constantly around the ball.

I was extremely high on Hladik ahead of the 2021 CFL Draft and when picking for the Lions as part of a live 3DownNation mock draft, I selected him fourth overall. He ultimately fell all the way to round three, where B.C. snagged him with pick 22. That’s looking like an absolute steal for the team these days.

Hollins is ballin’

Despite the offence’s difficult evening, I liked the flashes we saw from rookie receiver Alexander Hollins starting in place of the injured Lucky Whitehead.

The Eastern Illinois product had three catches for 47 yards in his CFL debut, hauling in a 33-yard touchdown in the second quarter. It was a bit of a risky throw by Adams given the lack of true separation but the quarterback — to his credit — placed it perfectly and Hollins came down with the great concentration catch in double coverage.

That was not even the rookie’s best play of the night, as he later made a fantastic 63-yard catch-and-run which would have put B.C. on the goal line, if not for a holding call on Phil Norman.

While I can’t speak to the overall consistency of his route-running, Hollins looked fast and twitchy when the spotlight was on him. B.C. desperately needs another American pass catcher to step up the next few weeks and he could be that guy.

Birthday jitters

It was punter Stefan Flintoft’s 28th birthday on Saturday and he may have been guilty of starting the celebration too early, as he began his night with a hanging 29-yard illegal punt out of bounds.

There were a couple of ugly line drives in the mix as well — though those may have been intentional due to B.C.’s spotty coverage — but Flintoft made up for it with a spectacular punt late which caused Toronto to start at their own one-yard line after returner Javon Leake unintentionally went out of bounds while chasing it.

Though Saturday wasn’t his best night overall, Flintoft continues to be a field-flipping American commodity in an era where Global boots have become almost ubiquitous.

Baron von Doom

The Lions’ defensive line had another characteristically strong outing and frequently gave Bethel-Thompson fits with their effort approach. In particular, high-priced free agent addition Woody Baron had his coming out party against the Boatmen, notching his first sack since making his Lions debut following injury three weeks ago.

Baron got a few more shots in on the quarterback as well, bloodying McBeth’s chin strap, and was a constant disruptor. That is tremendous news for a team that is about to have some difficult choices to make along the defensive front.

Obum Gwacham won’t be on the injured list for much longer, which will likely cost energetic rookie Sione Teuhema his spot in the rotation. Meanwhile, the team’s biggest offseason signing, defensive tackle Steven ‘Stove’ Richardson, is on pace to make his debut before the playoffs after recovering from an Achilles injury. That means underrated nose tackle Josh Banks, who was stellar against the run in Toronto, is also staring down a potential benching.

While unfortunate for the players involved, that is a testament to the Lions’ depth up front and the tremendous job the personnel department has done to upgrade a position that was a major weakness not too long ago.

Somebody call a Priester

Somebody is probably going to make Argos’ defensive back Robert Priester pee in a cup after tonight’s game, which is the highest possible compliment I could send his way.

The five-foot-nine, 180-pound halfback is largely unheralded but played like a man possessed against B.C., delivering a couple of hellacious hits. His early forced fumble on James Butler was jaw-dropping — mainly because the ball flew twenty feet in the air — but he very nearly added to it with an interception as well.

I maintain that his hit on Adams Jr. which Campbell challenged unsuccessfully should have been roughing the passer but clearly, this was Priester’s night.

High school flashbacks

The usually disciplined Lions had major penalty issues in this game, committing 14 infractions for 130 yards, but none had the coaching staff ripping their hair out with more vigour than the pair of offsides which set up Toronto’s first major.

Time and again, B.C. was stifling the Argos in the redzone but what should have been an incredible defensive stand was sullied by not one, but two offside penalties drawn by hard counts on third down — one on Emmanuel Rugamba and the other on Sione Teuhema. The amateur hour display ultimately allowed Chad Kelly a rushing touchdown.

As a high school coach, I sympathize with the Lions’ staff. We’ve all had a game where you are helplessly yelling, “Watch the ball” from the sideline while an overeager line allows your opponent to roll down the field without ever running a play.

It sends a shiver down my spine just thinking about it and it should never happen at the professional level.

And the Oscar goes to…

I have little interest in dwelling on the missed Sean Whyte field goal that ultimately cost B.C. the game, as it was seemingly a group failure. Yes, the usually automatic Whyte should have hit the kick but the snap was high and the hold wasn’t quite perfect as a result, causing a knuckleball that drilled the upright. I have no doubt he’ll make the next one.

What I do wish to discuss is the Academy Award-winning performance by the kicker after the fact, drawing a misconduct penalty on a yapping Chris Edwards without ever being touched.

Usually, flops are embarrassing and deserving of ridicule. However, I believe this one deserves genuine credit. I’ve never seen a sell job so convincing in football. There was no Shatner-esque overacting here; Whyte’s performance hit all the right notes and was not accompanied by any whining or finger-pointing. It was legitimately impressive.

Unfortunately, Whyte’s method acting was so good that it caused two teammates to come to his defence and negated any advantage the Lions may have gained in terms of field position.

As with any actor, stage or screen, one man’s performance can’t make up for a poor supporting cast.

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.