Lions order second goose egg over easy and 10 other thoughts on shutting out the Elks (again)

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/BC Lions

The B.C. Lions may have been the last road team to lose at Commonwealth Stadium almost four years ago but they were never going to be the next, pitching a 27-0 shutout against the Edmonton Elks.

The win marks the first time in modern CFL history a team has held the same opponent scoreless twice in one year and extended the Lions’ combined margin of victory to 228-53 in their last six meetings with the Elks.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Green and Golden Goose Egg

Setting aside the complete and utter ineptitude of their opponents on Saturday, the B.C. Lions’ defence is quickly striding towards historically good status. Not since the 1970 Calgary Stampeders has a team pitched two shutouts in a season, and that hardly begins to scratch the surface of the dominance by Ryan Phillips’ crew.

For the second time this year, the unit transformed the Elks’ offence from an unwatchable mess into an untenable husk. Taylor Cornelius and company managed to generate 219 yards by some miracle but never even sniffed the red zone. Their lone big play of the game — a 54-yard catch by Dillon Mitchell that came after victimizing Jalon Edwards-Cooper on a double move in the fourth quarter — was immediately followed by a Garry Peters interception. They were dead on arrival.

If beating up bad teams doesn’t impress you, B.C. has allowed just five offensive touchdowns through seven games, three of which came in a Week 4 loss to Toronto where turnovers placed them in unwinnable field position. No team in league history has ever sustained a rate of less than a major per game over a full season; they are currently averaging 0.71.

Beyond the fact that just five percent of their opponents’ drives have found the endzone — the lowest since the league began tracking that data in 2008 — the team is conceding just 13.4 points and 253.8 yards per game. The latter number is beneath the CFL record set by Edmonton in 1989.

It will take a monumental effort to keep up that pace, but no cracks are forming yet. The Lions are well-coached, healthy, and deep with talent at every position. At least two of those things aren’t changing any time soon.

Cool Hand Evans

Dane Evans’ first start as a Lion was about as forgettable as they come, but it was exactly the type of unremarkable, efficient performance that coaches dream about from their backups.

The 30-year-old’s pulse hardly seemed to quicken all evening as he went a methodical 25-of-32 for 330 yards and two touchdowns. The two scores and an early dime to Alexander Hollins were the highlights, but the offence was quiet for long stretches as Evans took meticulous care of the football and ate up over 37 minutes of game time — a full 15 more than Edmonton.

Evans’ biggest issue seemed to be that lack of urgency, as he found himself in trouble on several occasions for holding the ball too long or failing to move with purpose in the pocket. The offensive line put forth an improved performance but still surrendered five sacks, with several falling on the quarterback’s shoulders for not making the right decision fast enough. I expected more rhythm in the attack with a pocket passer at the helm, but the pace seemed to slow.

Perhaps a closer game would have sparked more urgency in Evans and we would have seen him pressing. He never needed to in Edmonton and for all the good plays he did make, it was the ones he didn’t that fans should be happiest about. After being plagued by turnovers as the starter in Hamilton, he understood his assignment in this game was all about preservation and never put the team at risk.

Smoke ‘Em While You’ve Got ‘Em

Running back Taquan Mizzell was reinserted into the lineup this week after serving as a healthy scratch for the team’s last game. He made an immediate impact, looking every bit like the budding star we saw the first few weeks of the season

Mizzell carried 22 times for 117 yards, matching his season average of 5.3 yards per rush. He also added 30 yards through the air, scoring his first CFL touchdown on a wheel route in the third quarter. Every time he touched the ball seemed to be productive, as he weaselled his way through traffic to make something out of nothing on several occasions.

The Lions now have a very good problem in their backfield. Mizzell is the better all-around player, with special creativity and superior pass-protection skills — though he badly missed a chip on one A.C. Leonard sack. But Shaun Shivers showed flashes of genuine game-breaking explosiveness in his two-game audition and is simply too good not to use.

Unfortunately, the team’s ratio makeup makes it virtually impossible to get both on the field at the same time without hamstringing the special teams unit. My best guess is that we will begin to see a formula akin to that used by the 2016 Lions, when Jeremiah Johnson was spelled off by Anthony Allen.

I don’t think there is any debate that Mizzell is the top back in the offence, but he may not play every game going forward to keep his legs fresh. If either player is at less than 100 percent, the Lions have a next man up ready to go.

Bo Knows Defence

It was a mostly quiet night until his fourth-quarter interception, but Bo Lokombo’s importance to the defence has flown under the radar in this post-game column for far too long.

Entering the game, the homegrown linebacker was fourth in the league in defensive tackles and fifth in total defensive plays. After adding three tackles and a pick in this one, he is on pace for 105 tackles on the season — potentially shattering his previous career high of 71.

The 2021 Most Outstanding Canadian took on a reduced role last season while the team figured out how to handle both Jordan Williams and Ben Hladik, but he’s been all over the field since the former was traded away. He’s still a sideline-to-sideline menace at 32 years old and routinely disrupts opponents as a blitzer, yet rarely gets mentioned among the league’s elite.

Pledge of Allegiance

One major weak spot for the Lions entering this game was penalties, as B.C. was third worst in the league coming into Saturday with an average of 9.5 flags for 85.3 yards. They hit the under in Edmonton, committing eight infractions for 77 yards, but their opponents didn’t, creating the biggest disparity in the game.

The Elks drew 13 penalties for 177 yards, with a whopping 139 of that coming in just the first half. That total included four defensive pass interference calls, a facemask, an objectionable conduct, and a flag for running into the long snapper, all of which helped extend B.C. drives that otherwise faltered.

The Lions were the better team in this one by a mile, but they got way more help from their undisciplined rivals than anyone should reasonably expect.

Putting on Pants

After recording at least one sack in each of his first six games, Mathieu Betts finally saw his streak come to an end at Commonwealth Stadium. I’m sure that was cold comfort for an Edmonton team that let him walk out the door for free two years ago.

The Canadian remains the league leader with 10 sacks and stayed on pace to break the single-season record, but he had to prove his worth in other ways against the Elks. He undoubtedly added to his pre-game tally of 32 total pressures and was relentless in pursuit from the backside. He also found himself dropped into coverage slightly more than usual, making a couple of solid hits in the open field.

Redemption Song

Justin McInnis must have breathed a big sigh of relief when he hauled in his 23-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.

The Canadian receiver was a steal of an acquisition for the Lions in the offseason and entered this week third on the team with 262 yards receiving, but has had a difficult few weeks. He was entirely left out of the offence when B.C.’s full contingent of American pass catchers was healthy against Montreal, then dropped an easy touchdown catch last week after entering the game in place of Dominique Rhymes.

A coverage bust by rookie Kai Gray allowed McInnis to get open on the corner route, but the DB was back to contest things as he high-pointed the ball. It was a much tougher catch than the one he dropped against Saskatchewan, hopefully redeeming himself in the eyes of his quarterback.

Oh, What Could Have Been

Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic dipped into his bag of tricks on the game’s first drive and nearly generated the play of the week, if not for a narrowly missed connection by Keon Hatcher.

The Lions’ receiver was aligned wide to the left of quarterback Dane Evans at the snap, who threw it out to him with a backwards pass. Hatcher set his feet and loaded up for the old double pass play, targeting a wide-open Alexander Hollins who was behind the entire Elks’ defence. The play was a certain touchdown, only thwarted when the ball sailed well over the receiver’s head.

It seems that everyone, including the speedy Hollins, has underestimated just how strong Hatcher’s cannon is. Honestly, the overthrow was almost more impressive than the potential catch.

B.C. marched down for a field goal anyway and Hollins made up the yardage, if not the points, with a 55-yard grab on the next series. The worst part of the entire play was that we were denied a potentially thrilling call from TSN’s Dustin Nielsen, who is developing something of a reputation for memorable deliveries in big moments.

The Rule of Threes

After endless complaints from fans over the last few seasons, the CFL altered their roster rules to mandate that teams employ three quarterbacks on game day. Eight weeks in, it is clear that the change is almost meaningless and the Lions provided us with a perfect example as to why.

Despite missing the game due to his injured knee, Vernon Adams Jr. was listed as the team’s third-string quarterback on Saturday. That would be one thing if he was dressed and ready to participate if called upon, but VA was in street clothes. Frankly, that’s a farce.

Contrary to popular opinion, it was completely legal for teams to dress a third QB under the previous rule. That player simply had to fit under the constraints of the rest of the ratio, likely taking the spot of another American position player. Teams chose not to do that because they preferred the flexibility of fielding another special teams body.

All the league has done now is remove that flexibility, but teams like B.C. would rather play a man short than bring in another passer on short notice. Add in the league-wide trend toward short-yardage-only pivots, and almost nobody is using their three spots to develop the next generation of stars as intended.

I’m completely in favour of instituting rule changes that force teams to think long-term at the game’s most important position. This one isn’t doing that and I hope the CFL reconsiders its construction or enforcement this offseason.

International Idiocy

There are plenty of candidates to consider when it comes to the dumbest roster decision of the second Chris Jones era in Edmonton, but it boggles the mind that more people haven’t taken him to task for his choices in the kicking game.

The Elks let Sergio Castillo go ahead of the season with the aim of shoe-horning a cheap Global kicker into the role, but couldn’t even bother to find a good one. Instead, they egregiously over-drafted 36-year-old Dean Faithfull with the second-overall pick in the 2023 Global Draft, taking a middle-aged converted soccer player who hit 58 percent of his kicks in college and asking him to decide games.

The Brit has been respectably accurate this season, but only because the team doesn’t trust him to attempt anything outside of the 40-yard line. His 48-yard attempt in this game — his longest of the year — dropped well short, adding another embarrassing element to a sad display by a once-great franchise.

This was ignorance and hubris, plain and simple, taking an unpopular league initiative and trying to stuff it into a box. Jones has made it clear that he has no interest in developing international position players, exclusively seeing them as kickers and making one of his first acts as general manager to release three incumbent Globals.

Two of those players, Belgian defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie and French linebacker Maxime Rouyer, were plucked off the scrap heap by the B.C. Lions and play meaningful minutes for the team each week. They’ve beaten the Elks every time they’ve played them, while Jones continues to employ a strategy that flunked in NFL Europe.

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.