The B.C. Lions were looking to avoid a post-Bombers letdown in a battle of undefeated CFL teams but their most important player didn’t get the memo, throwing away their record in a 45-24 loss to the Toronto Argonauts.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Bad with a Vengeance
Through three weeks of the season, Vernon Adams Jr. had seemingly locked his problematic alter-ego in a closet and wasn’t going to let him out. Well, Bad VA escaped containment on Monday night and returned with a vengeance, taking out the Lions’ hopes of an undefeated season in the process.
Entering the game, Adams had just three interceptions in his time with the Lions. He hadn’t always been consistent, but the big mistake had eluded him. He doubled that margin in this game, tossing six errant passes into the arms of waiting Argonauts’ defenders — just one shy of the CFL single-game record.
It started with a telegraphed curl route to Keon Hatcher that was nearly picked off by DaShaun Amos late in the first quarter. That foreshadowed the very next play, when Adams failed to recognize the rotation between safety Royce Metchie and halfback Robertson Daniel, finding himself baited into an early interception.
If that play could be forgiven as the product of a good defensive scheme, the rest could not be. Everybody and their grandmother knew that Adams was looking for Dominique Rhymes later in the half and Daniel had perfect leverage to break on the ball, popping it up for Jonathan Jones. A third-and-four gamble late in the frame might as well have been a punt, as Tarvarus McFadden sat on a Rhymes corner route the whole time and looked like he was receiving a pass intended for himself.
The plays only got worse in the second half. A designed rollout pass in the third quarter landed in Daniel’s chest again. With neither B.C. receiver in close proximity, the play’s only redeeming feature was that the line of scrimmage was still outside the 20-yard line, therefore preserving VA’s streak of no turnovers in the red zone as a Lion.
Pressing for a comeback in the fourth quarter, there was no need for him to toss up a prayer to Keon Hatcher on first down; a sack would have kept his team alive. Instead, 21-year-old Qwan’tez Stiggers caught the easy overthrow. At least Adams’ final interception — again to Daniel — was a desperate scramble under pressure at the end of the game, but it was returned 62 yards for a touchdown to rub salt in the wound.
Perhaps the worst part of Adams’ performance was that, save for those six plays, he was the better quarterback on the night. All told, he threw for 388 yards and three touchdowns, including some truly brilliant moments. His rollout strike to Dominique Rhymes on the corner route to open the scoring was the best throw by any quarterback in the league this week and he mounted several efficient drives in response to turnovers, including a fantastic one in the fourth quarter that ended with him breaking contain and finding Keon Hatcher in the end zone.
All of that good was erased by unforced and unnecessary errors, which proved to be the difference in this game as Toronto scored 34 points off of Adams’ interceptions. While the media loves to harp on quarterbacks, rarely do they actually deserve to shoulder all the blame. This is the exception, as B.C. actually out-gained the Argos by a margin of 413 to 329. They were the better team, save for six mistakes.
I wrote last week that VA had shaved the rough edges off his game and was now a more polished version of himself. I don’t think I was totally wrong, but perhaps I spoke too soon. How he responds to this performance will dictate how the remainder of the Lions’ season will go.
No Honour Without Thieves
All the hype this week was about the Lions’ prolific defence and the team responded by allowing 24 more points in this game than they had in the rest of the year combined.
In reality, Ryan Phillips’ group was solid throughout and it is difficult to blame them for surrendering points given the prime field position their opponent was afforded on virtually every drive. Still, I was underwhelmed by the strategy employed defensively and the lack of big plays generated.
Chad Kelly is a young starter with a big arm and arguably too much confidence for his own good. That should be a feast for an opportunistic defence but instead, B.C. seemed to simplify their game plan. After going all ‘Beautiful Mind’ to box up the Bombers last week, Phillips showed Kelly plenty of man coverage and he was able to deliver the ball into tight windows. While the Lions’ front four provided adequate pressure and Mathieu Betts added two more sacks to his resume, the 29-year-old signal-caller was allowed to roll out and was rarely mentally taxed by what he saw downfield.
As a result, the Lions were never in a position to force an error or generate a turnover that they desperately needed. Despite all the early success, those have been few and far between this season. The conservative approach was likely for fear of being exploited deep by Kelly’s cannon but instead, they made him look like a seasoned veteran matriculating his way down the field. That wasn’t the case for him against Chris Jones’ zone-heavy look last week.
All of this would be a moot point had the Lions’ own quarterback protected the football, but B.C. needs to start taking some chances and generating some more turnovers if they are going to win when their offence has an off day.
Sprung a Leake
The Lions’ special teams coverage units have looked much improved this season, thanks in part to some new personnel and the arrival of veteran coach Mike Benevides. However, their errors on Javon Leake’s 91-yard punt return touchdown flipped this game on its head late in the first quarter.
There was nothing particularly impressive about the second-year returner’s effort on the play; he went in a straight line completely untouched to the end zone. His teammates did their job blocking for him, but the Lions didn’t exactly make it difficult for them.
After gunners Emmanuel Rugamba and Adrian Greene were kicked out at the point of attack, contain man Josh Woods bubbled too close to the sideline and left a lane wide open. He got his butt kicked by Trevor Hoyte on the block and Toronto successfully rubbed out Amir Siddiq, Riley Pickett, and David Mackie as they tried to fill the gap.
It was sloppy play all around from the unit and B.C. never regained control of the game.
Leake’s punt return touchdown would not have been possible if not for a time-count violation committed by Dominique Davis ahead of a QB sneak two plays earlier. It turned a certain first down into a punting situation and ultimately provided the turning point of the game.
The Lions were guilty of two more time-count violations before halftime and appeared livid with the officials for blowing in the play clock before substitutions had been made. However, there is no excuse for that type of sloppy clock management and it wasn’t the only amateurish error committed by the team, as they were drawn offside defensively multiple times by hard counts.
Toronto was the worse offender, committing 10 penalties for 125 yards, though 60 of that came as the result of a late-game brouhaha between Andrew Harris and Tibo Debaillie. However, B.C.’s 13 penalties for 107 yards were far too many in a game where they desperately needed to give themselves a break.
Before the game, Toronto running back A.J. Ouellette told TSN’s Matthew Scianitti that if his team “went off in the run game,” a steak dinner would be purchased for his offensive line.
Ultimately, the team finished with 106 yards rushing, with 70 yards coming from Ouellette himself — falling just short of my benchmark for a bone-in ribeye
The Argonauts led the league with an average of 152 rushing yards per game coming into this contest, while B.C. was often criticized last year for their struggles to stop the run game. The front six did a really solid job maintaining their gap responsibilities in this one, with the gross majority of the yardage coming after the game was already decided.
Ouellette was held to just six rushing yards in the first half and didn’t get going at all until three minutes remaining in the third quarter, carrying three times for 22 yards and a score after VA’s fourth interception. The Argos would add 48 yards in the fourth quarter, much of it on the final drive.
It was a perfect illustration of the run game’s place in modern football: you don’t win because of it, you use it because you’ve won. If anyone points to Ouellette’s late-game surges while criticizing the Lions this week, kindly tune them out.
Monday marked the return of receiver Keon Hatcher after a three-week absence to start the season. Adams got him involved right from the start, finding him for 14 yards on a quick slant on the first throw of the game.
Hatcher was a revelation last year, stepping up in an already crowded receiving corps and catching 70 passes for 1,043 yards and five touchdowns. The 28-year-old doesn’t get the same level of acclaim as Rhymes or Lucky Whitehead but he should. In fact, people within the organization will tell you it is Hatcher who has assumed the leadership role in the receiving room left vacant by Bryan Burnham and continues to keep the unit gelling.
The Arkansas State product finished this night as the team’s leading receiver, catching eight passes for 104 yards and a late-game touchdown. He looked exactly like the player we’ve become accustomed to and showed some impressive concentration on one juggling catch in double coverage. With him back in the lineup, the Lions can only be more dangerous offensively — so long as they can protect the football.
Fade the Line
The B.C. Lions’ offensive line entered Week 4 as the highest-graded unit in the CFL according to analytics firm Pro Football Focus. They had allowed just four sacks this year but last week’s win over Winnipeg was their shakiest performance — surrendering three of those sacks and nine interior pressures on 35 dropbacks from VA.
A bounce-back performance was needed against a Toronto defensive line that feasted in its first two appearances, including a dominating performance by defensive tackle Dewayne Hendrix last week. Oversized freak of nature Shawn Oakman was also back in the lineup, while defensive end Folarin Orimolade is pound for pound the most dangerous pass rusher in the league.
Overall, it was another mixed outing for the line with little to show in the run game and three sacks allowed. They were far from the root of Adams’ problems but B.C.’s quarterback faced consistent pressure, albeit often due to a myriad of stunts and blitzes called by Corey Mace.
On each of the sacks, miscommunication was to blame. Thomas Costigan got home early in the game when receiver Jevon Cottoy failed to give right tackle Kent Perkins the help he was expecting; centre Michael Couture whiffed on a looping Orimolade; and he and Andrew Peirson failed to properly manage a game between Oakman and linebacker Jonathan Jones. In between, there were some strength issues from the group inside and left tackle Jarell Broxton — who has yet to officially surrender a sack this year — deserved to have at least one pinned on him when VA escaped Orimolade after a vicious inside move.
This is still a solid offensive line that you can have faith in week to week, but they aren’t a group you can stick on an island. When Adams’ efficiency has slipped, so has their effectiveness. Get the ball out with timing and they’ll be just fine.
Welcome to the Club
Lions’ second-year safety Quincy Mauger rarely gets called out in a talented secondary, but he looked like the Lions’ best player on Monday.
The Georgia product was flying downhill like a bat out of hell and made several key second-down stops, collecting five defensive tackles and another on special teams. He did all that while sporting an old-school club on his injured right hand, a real oddity for a defensive back.
There may be nothing more badass in football than a dude balling out with a club. If Mauger would only add in a throwback neck roll, he’d be a cult hero forever.
I have never been so enamoured with a single play design as I was with the Lions’ longest offensive play against Toronto, a 61-yard catch by Justin McInnis in the second quarter.
On the play, Alexander Hollins motioned cross-formation and appeared to be heading for a swing screen, as he so often does. Adams pump faked the toss and caused both defensive backs on that side to drive down hard, only for their would-be blockers to release in behind. The safety over the top rolled to cover the bust on the nearest and deepest player — in this case, Rhymes — while McInnis was left wide-open on the sideline. The timing of the play made it almost like a screen executed thirty yards downfield, with Rhymes out in front of the pass catcher and already primed for a one-on-one run block.
The big gain led to Rhymes’ second touchdown of the game on the next play and was yet another example of how Jordan Maksymic is the CFL’s most innovative play caller right now. He had some expertly designed route concepts in this game, but that took the cake.
A Case of the Mondays
I’ll be very interested to see the television numbers for Monday’s game when my colleague Justin Dunk publishes them on Wednesday.
Except for Labour Day, long weekends are a tricky balance for the CFL and the league did itself no favours with how they scheduled this one. After attempting to create a consistent Thursday through Sunday slate this summer, they abandoned all logic for Canada Day by providing just three games of action with nothing on Sunday and their biggest draw, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, on a bye.
The matchup between Toronto and B.C. was tremendous on paper and delivered excellent entertainment value, but neither team is a ratings juggernaut. Putting them all alone on a day the league usually doesn’t play felt ambitious.
On a holiday weekend that felt like it was over early, I wonder how many casual viewers were too busy driving back from the cabin to even know to put the game on.