Lions’ defence plays kingslayer & 10 other thoughts on B.C. upsetting the Bombers

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

The king is dead. Long live the king.

On Thursday night, the 2023 B.C. Lions achieved what their electric 2022 predecessors never could, walking into IG Field and defeating a full-strength Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ team by a score of 30-6.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Crown Him

In so many ways, Thursday’s battle of undefeated Western powerhouses can only be presented in parallel to last year’s Week 5 matchup between the two teams.

The Rourke-led Lions looked like the hottest team in football back when Winnipeg walked into BC Place and curb-stomped their hosts 43-22, a loss that foreshadowed the rest of the season. While B.C. conquered every other opponent, the Bombers humbled them in the West Final by a score of 28-20.

So what changed? The three-time defending West champs continue to field much the same roster, as does B.C., and for as good as it has been, this Lions’ offence is nowhere near where it was at this stage a year ago.

The answer is the defence and while there are plenty of individual player accolades to be handed out, that all starts with Ryan Phillips and his masterful defensive game plan.

Coming off a week in which his unit pitched the franchise’s first shutout since 1977 and made the Edmonton Elks look like a bad U Sports team, Phillips opened up his safe and pulled out a perfect formula for beating the Bombers. The genius was in its precise balance of pressure, keeping Zach Collaros unsettled while never letting him escape the pocket and create big plays down the field with his feet.

Whether it was sending Emmanuel Rugamba screaming off the edge when he knew Winnipeg’s sixth OL would down block, allowing linebacker Ben Hladlik to loop outside and free up space for stunting defensive ends, or simply trusting in three-man pressure to get the job done, RP seemed to innately know exactly what was needed on every down. The result was seven sacks for B.C. and a usually unflappable opposing quarterback looking deeply unsettled.

More impressive than the calls was the precision with which every Lions’ defender seemed to perform their duties. Pass rushers attacked with near-perfect lane discipline, the type of thing that only happens when it has been preached ad nauseam.

After an initial drive that saw Winnipeg running back Brady Oliveira gash the team for solid yardage, B.C. started to rally to the ball in swarms and even routes underneath were barely given room to breathe. In coverage, a 47-yard catch by Carlton Agudosi late in the second quarter proved to be the Bombers’ only gain of over 20 yards, with both Garry Peters and Marcus Sayles continuing their recent run of sensational play with impactful knockdowns, including a few in the endzone.

Just a few seasons ago, the Lions were lambasted for their poor tackling and their anemic pass rush. Their talented secondary has at times been deemed too opportunistic, prone to boom or bust performances. Slowly but surely over Phillips’ tenure, those problems have disappeared. What remains is a complete defence that is better than the sum of its parts because of culture and coaching. On Thursday, he outshone his former Lions teammate and Winnipeg offensive coordinator Buck Pierce for the first time.

Since the 2023 season began, 3DownNation has been handing out weekly awards. Phillips has been our Coach of the Week in each of the first two weeks and he undoubtedly will be again. Holding the league’s most potent offence to 213 net yards without a touchdown was his crowning achievement and it is far past time that we look past some of our inherent biases to put RP in the head coaching conversation.

Drive in the Dagger

While the story of this game was the defence, the B.C. Lions secured their victory with one ruthlessly efficient drive at the end of the first half.

With just 49 seconds remaining until the break, B.C. took over at their own 40-yard-line while holding a slim 10-6 lead. They would need just five plays to flip the momentum decisively back in their favour and it began with the throw of the night from Vernon Adams Jr., who sliced the ball in perfectly between two defenders to Lucky Whitehead for a 29-yard gain.

That was followed up quickly by a 17-yard catch-and-run from Alexander Hollins, before VA chose to decisively use his legs on a six-yard scramble. A timeout was then called and the quarterback amusingly played waterboy for right tackle Kent Perkins after conversing with his coaches. With the squirt bottle frantically pitched back to the sideline, Adams found Justin McInnis for a 16-yard contested catch and managed to get the next play off before the bobbled ball could be reviewed, hitting Hollins with a two-yard touchdown strike thanks to a sneaky pick from the big-bodied Jevon Cottoy.

It will soon be forgotten due to its early-season nature and positioning at the end of the wrong half, but you will not see a two-minute drill executed better than this one all season. The playcalling was exceptional and Adams was deadly calm — even when delivering high-quality H2O to the hoggies. It changed the game going into the intermission and Winnipeg never got back up off the mat.

Calling on Hollins

I was one of many who professed skepticism about the Lions’ ability to challenge the Bombers without receivers Dominique Rhymes and Keon Hatcher in the lineup due to their respective foot injuries. Somebody other than Lucky Whitehead would have to step up.

Alexander Hollins proved to be that person, putting together a performance that should be a career launching pad. The second-year target hauled in a team-leading eight catches for 84 yards and that pivotal second-quarter touchdown, becoming an unlikely second-down outlet for Adams. However, his impressive statistics were just part of the story.

On the Lions’ first offensive series, Hollins drew a defensive pass interference penalty from rookie DB Abu Daramy-Swaray to begin the march down the field. He then doubled down, generating another PI flag from Desmond Lawrence in the endzone to set up a Dominique Davis score. Those yards are easy to dismiss, but Hollins had a sizeable step on his defender on both occasions. Had VA placed the ball correctly, he would have scored himself without the referee’s assist.

Hollins was impressive down the stretch last season and has the potential to be a legitimate thousand-yard player like his teammates. It will be fascinating to see how the Lions manage his usage with both Hatcher and Rhymes potentially back next week.

Place your Betts

Amidst a sensational overall defensive performance, Canadian end Mathieu Betts was the shining star. Coming off a breakout seven-sack season in 2022, the 28-year-old now has five in three games thanks to a hat trick on Thursday.

Lined up against legendary left tackle Stanley Bryant, Betts was relentless all night. He beat the future Hall of Famer clean off the line for his first takedown of Collaros, squeezed past a sliding Geoff Gray for another, then finished the night by butchering Bryant with an inside move. That doesn’t even begin to describe his impact off the stat sheet, including a deflected pass that was very nearly stripped and another inside move that all but handed a sack to Nathan Cherry.

Betts has added more weapons to his pass rush arsenal thanks to defensive line coach John Bowman, but his secret to success continues to be an explosive get-off and relentless motor. It remains as fun to watch now as it was at Laval. The Lions’ defensive line is built to succeed by committee, but Betts is the chief disruptor and should work himself into the all-star conversation by year’s end.

Bargain Basement

I’ve brought it up before, but can we discuss just how ridiculous it was that the Lions were able to pick up Ben Hladik in the third round of the 2021 CFL Draft?

The team’s starting Canadian middle linebacker seemed to be constantly around the ball yet again against Winnipeg, finishing with four tackles and an interception that essentially sealed the victory. Back when the Vernon native was coming out of UBC, I had him pegged as a first-round target for the local team. Instead, he fell to pick number 22.

Three short years later, you could make an argument for Hladik as the first overall pick in that draft. Of the 21 players taken ahead of him, just two are currently starters — both offensive linemen in Toronto’s Peter Nicastro and Montreal’s Pier-Olivier Lestage. Five players, including each of B.C.’s first two picks, have yet to sign CFL contracts. Two players are already out of the league entirely, including the top pick in tight end Jake Burt.

It will still be a few years before we can write the story of that draft, but right now passing on the Thunderbirds’ freakishly athletic defensive star looks pretty foolish.

Canadian Counterpoint

Speaking of Betts and Hladik, I find the quality of Canadian content on B.C.’s defence to be absolutely delicious.

Before the last round of collective bargaining negotiations, we heard a lot of moaning about the need to change the ratio to prevent teams from loading up their defences with American talent. Indeed, many teams listed just one Canadian defensive starter, which was held up as a reason for declining offence. American defenders were simply too good to be scored on.

It is delightfully ironic that just a few years later, the best defence in the league is also the one that employs the most Canadian starters. Putting Betts, Hladik, and Bo Lokombo on the field, plus a heavy dose of David Menard and Nathan Cherry, has made B.C. better overall and there was no better showcase for that than Thursday.

The Grass is Always Greener

I must admit, I didn’t think much about the addition of Justin McInnis when the Lions’ signed him in free agency. On initial impressions, it seemed like purely a depth and ratio flexibility move.

Through three weeks, the six-foot-six Canadian target has been much more than that, impressing me with his ability to win contested balls on the outside. While he has had some drop issues — there was another bad one in the third quarter against Winnipeg — McInnis has looked much more like the player I thought he would be coming out of Arkansas State instead of the player he was in Saskatchewan.

In three years with the Riders, McInnis struggled to stay atop the depth chart and battled weight issues coming out of COVID. He collected 48 receptions for 596 yards and two touchdowns. Through three weeks in B.C., he has 10 catches for 150 yards and a score — on pace to increase his previous career production this season by 150 percent if he can stay involved once others get healthy.

Hard in the Paint

For all my poetry on the beautiful performance by B.C.’s defence in this game, the Lions were also the far nastier team — even occasionally pushing the limits of the rulebook.

Defensive tackle Woody Baron seemed to take a little too much pleasure in burying Zach Collaros on the first drive of the game, drawing a roughing the passer flag. Later, safety Quincy Mauger took a major penalty for drilling a vulnerable Dalton Schoen late across the middle, long after the ball had flown past. Both could have been costly, but Winnipeg mustered no response.

The hits were far more enjoyable when they were legal. Josh Banks nearly drew another flag for crushing Collaros, but had his violence supported by review. Josh Woods popped Drew Wolitarsky and Marcus Sayles nearly smacked Brady Oliveira into next week late in the game.

While the Lions having a little extra fire in their bellies to take on the preseason favourites was no surprise, I was stunned by the lack of response from the Bombers. That’s not to say I’m arguing in favour of retaliation, but you must respond physically — at least between the whistles — when faced with an aggressive team. Instead, Mike O’Shea’s group looked uncharacteristically passionless and it showed on the scoreboard.

Taken for Grant-ed

Janarion Grant managed a couple of solid returns late in the game, including a 40-yarder, but B.C.’s coverage unit largely bottled up the CFL’s best returner a week after he logged one of the greatest scores in league history.

It may be a low bar to cross given their recent past, but I think the Lions’ have looked better on special teams this season after being a weekly liability the last few years. The quality of talent on the coverage units has improved dramatically, with Josh Woods taking the lead role alongside Josh Archibald, Ryder Varga, Brooks Parker, David Mackie and Adrian Greene. You aren’t going to fully silence guys like Grant, but B.C. held him in check as well as could be expected.

On the Level

It wouldn’t be my weekly gameday recap without an assessment of Vernon Adams Jr. but I’ve ceremonially placed it at the end for a reason. Simply put, VA is no longer my primary concern with this Lions team.

Three weeks in, I think we have a pretty good idea of what the quarterback will look like this year. His capacity for big plays is always there — the late second-quarter strike to Whitehead and his wide side out to Hollins in this game were both exceptional — and his explosive athletic ability remains a true wild card. There will still be bad mistakes — his deep throwaway that was nearly picked off comes to mind — but for the most part, Adams has mellowed.

An offseason with Jordan Maksymic, learning an offensive system that stresses timing and getting the ball out quick has sanded many of the rough edges off his game. Most importantly, I think VA has genuinely matured and has gotten better at blocking out the noise — or at least pretending to. The result is an efficient down-to-down player with the talent to wow when needed. A statline of 20-of-30 for 241 yards and two touchdowns is no longer headline material for me.

Consistency over an 18-game season will be the ultimate challenge, but this is not the freewheeling Adams we saw in Montreal or the player rushed into a new system last year. This is VA as he was meant to be, put in the ultimate position to succeed.

If you are still reading, Vernon, I can’t wait to watch the film.

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.