Dru Brown plays up and down in Winnipeg’s narrow loss to B.C. Lions (& seven other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the B.C. Lions on Saturday night by a score of 40-32 at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Brown doesn’t drown

Quarterbacks have one job in their first career start: don’t falter when the lights come on. It’s happened to plenty of young passers and some never regain their confidence following a dismal debut, returning to the bench before fading into obscurity.

Though his performance was far from perfect, Dru Brown played well enough for his team to win in his first CFL start. He completed 28-of-39 pass attempts for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions with two carries for 14 yards.

The 25-year-old started slow and threw a pick-six midway through the second quarter when he targeted Rasheed Bailey on a ten-yard out. The ball was thrown late and slightly behind the receiver, which made it easy for former Blue Bombers’ defensive back Marcus Sayles to undercut the route.

One of the reasons Brown’s pass came out late was a low snap from Michael Couture, who made his first start at centre since Week 2. The young quarterback refused to blame the snap for the outcome of the play, putting the error squarely on his own shoulders.

“You can’t put it on Mike,” Brown told CJOB after the game. “Mike’s one of the best guys on the team. He was holding it down tonight, so that’s 100 percent my responsibility.”

The interception took place on first down, so there was no need to force the ball into a window that had already closed. The next time he has to hit a timing route after a bad snap, Brown will have to go to his next read, throw the ball away or scramble.

Brown settled in nicely after halftime, connecting with Dalton Schoen and Rasheed Bailey for touchdown passes to cut B.C.’s lead to eight points. He displayed impressive quickness as he eluded defenders and threw effectively on the run after leaving the pocket, including a beautiful pass to Rasheed Bailey along the sideline on a key second down that was upheld following a challenge.

Winnipeg was in scoring position with just under three minutes remaining in the game when disaster struck again. Brown was off target on short pass to Nic Demski and it was intercepted by veteran halfback T.J. Lee, who returned it 102 yards to the end zone. Despite his many successes — he drove the field and threw a second touchdown pass to Bailey moments later — Brown seemed overwhelmingly disappointed by his performance.

“It’s pretty obvious that if I don’t make those two mistakes that we probably win the game,” said Brown. “I gotta be better, I gotta be more detailed because things like that just can’t happen.”

“It’s frustrating, it stings, it makes me very, very angry but I’ll learn from it. I’ll be better from it and I’ll move forward.”

Head coach Mike O’Shea was understandably upset by the loss but stood by his young quarterback, complimenting his ability to bounce back following an early pick-six.

“He certainly fought back from a bit of early adversity. He managed to gather himself and put together some drives and score points. I like that resilient effort. I like the whole team’s resilient effort. We had a chance at the end and we gave ourselves a few chances, really. We did make some mistakes — I’m not just talking about the interceptions or whatever — it’s not just on Dru,” said O’Shea.

“I think there’s a few mistakes we made right before the half that you’d like to have back but we’ll treat this the exact same way as any win or any loss. We’ll go through this process, we’ll make mistakes, and we’ll certainly get smarter from this one.”

Return records

Winnipeg and B.C. combined for 598 return yards on Saturday, unofficially smashing the CFL’s all-time single-game record. The previous mark was set on July 7, 2012 when the Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts combined for 428 yards, becoming just the third game in league history to eclipse the 400-yard mark.

Janarion Grant accounted for 245 of those yards and returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. He now has three return touchdowns on the year and is the only player in the league to return a punt for a touchdown this season.

Grant also gained sole possession of the club’s all-time record for most career return touchdowns with seven, surpassing Keith Stokes. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment considering he’s only played 33 career games in Winnipeg.

B.C.’s Terry Williams had a sensational performance as well, recording 341 yards across three punt returns, five kickoff returns, and three missed field goal returns. He provided his team with excellent field position throughout the game, returning the opening kickoff for 40 yards and a missed field goal for 90 yards.

Marc Liegghio finished the game one-for-four on field goal attempts with misses coming from 52, 53, and 45 yards. O’Shea indicated postgame that one of Liegghio’s attempts was over the team’s allotted pregame distance, saying they asked the kicker to do some things they “don’t normally ask.”

As noted in last week’s postgame column, the Blue Bombers have struggled in kick coverage over the past month and their issues only got worse in Vancouver.

Liegghio had to make two special teams tackles, which is a major indictment of the cover units. Offensive lineman Liam Dobson also made a special teams tackle following Liegghio’s third missed field goal.

Hold the line

The play of the offensive line is one of the primary reasons the Blue Bombers have been the best team in the CFL over the past three years. The club rested three veterans on Saturday — Stanley Bryant, Patrick Neufeld, and Jermarcus Hardrick — and shuffled their two other regular starters, Geoff Gray and Chris Kolankowski, into new positions.

The line held up relatively well, though Winnipeg was forced to throw the ball more than usual after falling behind early. Dru Brown is also a threat to run with the ball, which forced B.C.’s front seven to be conscious of maintaining contain on passing downs. B.C. finished the game with three sacks and a fourth that was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty.

Gray was beaten by Mathieu Betts on an inside move near the end of Winnipeg’s first drive, though Brady Oliveira stepped in to provide help. The pressure forced Brown to flee the pocket and was caught from behind by Sione Teuhema, who rushed from the opposite side of the formation.

Eric Lofton also seems vulnerable at times from the right tackle spot. At 29, the veteran blocker shouldn’t be viewed as a project. He’s been a member of three other CFL teams since 2017 and it seems unreasonable to expect him to improve much beyond where he is now — what you see is what you get.

Stanley Bryant has played well this season but he hasn’t performed to the level we’ve seen in the past. He appears to have played through injury for most of the year but he’s also 36 and undoubtedly nearing the end of his career. The future first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee will leave a massive hole on the left side of the offensive line when he retires, which could be as soon as this off-season.

Drew Richmond could be in the mix to start at tackle in 2023, though he’s spent the entire campaign on the six-game injured list. Tyler Witt, who came in at guard after Kolankowski went down with injury in the fourth quarter, could also be a potential candidate.

As for the other spots along the line, Kolankowski and Gray are already under contract for 2023, while Hardrick and Neufeld are likely to return. Michael Couture is a pending free agent and it wouldn’t be surprising if he explored opportunities elsewhere after losing his starting job while out with injury.

It’ll be nice to watch this group at IG Field two weeks from now, though the lineup will likely be different. Assessing offensive linemen in person is far easier than the limited angles they provide on television.

Valet Parker

Rookie defensive back Jamal Parker made his first career start at boundary halfback and shone in replacement of all-star Deatrick Nichols. He made a team-leading seven defensive tackles, one special teams tackle, and one sack as the defence held Vernon Adams Jr. to just 138 passing yards.

Parker’s tackling was particularly impressive as he consistently wrapped up opponents around the ankles before bringing them to the ground. Defensive backs are often guilty of launching themselves at opposing ball carriers instead of employing proper technique to make tackles.

Not Parker. That’s rare.

Lawrence of A-play-bia

Defensive back Desmond Lawrence made his Winnipeg debut just two weeks after being released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, starting at field-side cornerback. He made a nice play to defend an early deep shot to Dominique Rhymes but struggled in the second quarter.

The 27-year-old lost track of Alexander Hollins on a deep route that would likely have gone for a touchdown had Vernon Adams Jr. not underthrown him by at least ten yards. Lawrence bumped Hollins as the receiver was waiting for the ball to arrive and B.C. successfully challenged for pass interference. Three plays later, Rhymes outmuscled Lawrence for the ball in the end zone to make it 27-10 heading into halftime.

Lawrence and Rhymes met again in the end zone late in the third quarter and the defender won the battle with the ball falling incomplete. Rhymes motioned to the bench to challenge for pass interference, though head coach Rick Campbell was out of challenges.

It’s clear that B.C. was planning to test Lawrence in his first start with a new team and the results were middling. The Blue Bombers have been vulnerable at times this year to the field-side of their secondary and though Lawrence was far from being a lockdown defender, he probably deserves another chance to start in the club’s regular season finale.

Draft gem

I’ve been covering the CFL draft for around six years now and I’ll be the first to admit that not all of my opinions or predictions have aged well. One player I was right about, however, is B.C. Lions’ linebacker Ben Hladik.

The six-foot-four, 235-pound defender fell to the third round of the 2021 CFL Draft, which was surprisingly low for the standout UBC product. He entered the starting lineup in Week 7 of this season when Bo Lokombo, the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Canadian, suffered an elbow injury and has kept the spot even after the veteran returned to action.

Hladik has made 52 defensive tackles, six special teams tackles, two interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble this season and only seems to be getting better. B.C. got a really good one.

Gun metal

B.C. sported an updated version of their “gun-metal” third jerseys on Saturday and the club was clear that they will “only be worn in 2022.” The uniforms are slick, though the numbers are still difficult to read at times.

It’s been over a year since Amar Doman purchased the Lions and this off-season would be the perfect time for him to put his stamp on the team. B.C.’s logo last underwent a major overhaul in 1967 and has remained virtually the same since 1990. It’s a nice design but it could stand to be modernized, particularly with the team hoping to appeal to a new generation of fans.

The team wore their Indigenous-themed logo for the first time in September and did so again on Saturday. It’s unclear if the design could potentially become the team’s new primary logo but it’d be nice to see something new either way. Toronto and Edmonton have introduced new logos that were very well received. Why not B.C.?

Next up

The Blue Bombers (14-3) are heading into their final bye week of the regular season before a season-ending game against the B.C. Lions (11-5) at IG Field on Friday, Oct. 28. They will then have another bye week ahead of the West Final, which will be played in Winnipeg on Sunday, Nov. 13 against B.C. or Calgary.

If the way in which Mike O’Shea handled the team’s roster in last year’s regular season finale is any indication, expect Zach Collaros to start but not finish the contest. The same will likely be true for a number of other key veterans, though we’ll have to wait and see how the team looks coming out of their bye week.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.