Lions fall asleep at the wheel and 10 other thoughts on losing to the Ticats

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

The B.C. Lions can throw out their ruby slippers, because “no place like home” only applies in Kansas.

For the first time this season, the Leos were thoroughly embarrassed at BC Place, dropping a 30-13 decision to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Here are my thoughts on the game.

Sudden Onset Narcolepsy

The Lions came out flat in last week’s upset loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders but managed to find their form late, mounting a furious, if unsuccessful, comeback attempt. On Saturday night in front of a hometown crowd that has become accustomed to statement wins, the team generated no such energy, offering up arguably the dullest and most disappointing performance from any team this season.

“That’s what bothered me today. I thought the energy that Hamilton brought was better than ours and that’s not typical of our guys,” head coach Rick Campbell admitted in the aftermath. “I sure like this football team, but I didn’t like the way we came at it today. I’m not sure why that was.”

Much like a middle-aged dad sitting down to watch a movie with his family, the Lions were asleep as soon as their butts hit the couch cushion. The offence snored through the entire evening, struggling to find a rhythm and move the ball consistently. Even when Keon Hatcher scored his late-game touchdown, with a miraculous comeback not out of the realm of CFL possibilities, the unit looked listless.

They were simply going through the motions, an uncharacteristic display from a team that should have had a fire in their bellies.

“I don’t know (why the energy was poor) but we need to figure it out as a team, starting with me,” Vernon Adams Jr. stressed. “I said last week that when we start out fast, we love to receive. We love to go down there and just score, and it helps our defence out, gives them the motivation to get a two-and-out or a stop and then we just get going. We just need to get back to that, playing Lions football.”

The quarterback offered up his team’s only signs of life early in the third quarter, evading back-to-back free rushes from strong-side linebacker Chris Edwards to make beautiful throws of 25 and 34 yards to Hatcher and Alexander Hollins respectively. Throughout the rest of the night, he just looked slightly off; lacking his usual touch and ball placement.

His final statline of 26-of-40 for 326 yards, one touchdown and a desperate third-down interception will maintain his impressive statistical pace for the year, but Adams would rather have something else.

“I would trade these yards for a win,” he said. “I just need to be better for this team and, yeah, we’ve got to get it right.”

The Butler Did It

In his return to B.C., former Lions’ running back James Butler murdered his old team in a way far too overt for any Agatha Christie novel.

The five-foot-nine, 210-pound ball carrier stabbed through the Lions’ heart without any subtlety, misdirection, or intrigue. By the end of the first quarter, he already had 53 yards on the ground and he opened the second frame with his first of two scores. It really didn’t improve from there.

All told, Butler carried the ball 21 times for 118 yards and added three catches for 36 yards, scoring once in each facet of the game. The yardage often came in massive chunks straight up the middle, with five carries of over 10 yards and another of over 20.

“He’s a good player, number one, but we were getting pushed around up front,” Campbell acknowledged. “There were times we knew they were running the ball and we still got pushed around. We’ve got to make sure that scheme-wise, we’re doing whatever we can do to put the players in the best position and then we’ve just got to get more stout up front.”

While anyone with eyes would have a hard time disagreeing with the coach’s assessment, defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie saw it differently at field level.

“I wouldn’t say that is fair, to be honest,” he said when asked about his coach’s comments. “If you look at our D-line, especially the interior, I think we did a great job of holding our gaps and everything. We’re gonna look at the film tomorrow and see how it looks and get the corrections.”

With respect to the Belgian’s pride, I’m not sure the corrections can be made. This team is not built to defend the run and that is by design. When it isn’t asleep at the wheel, their potent offence is supposed to shut down the opposing running game by putting up bushels of points and forcing coordinators to call pass plays. The front six is built accordingly, with the speed to rush the quarterback, not the mass to deal with the old ground-and-pound.

That’s a solid strategy, except on nights like tonight. With no pressure on them to win a shootout, Hamilton leaned on a physical offensive line to win against undersized defenders. Pullers easily kicked out ends and guards got to the second level with impunity. No player got it worse on any single play than rookie first-round pick Francis Bemiy, a lifelong edge rusher making his first career appearance at defensive tackle, who got knocked over two gaps on Butler’s longest run of the night.

It was ugly and embarrassing but without help from the other phases, this result was entirely predictable.

Resist the Hindsight

It will be very easy for fans to overreact to Saturday’s result and claim the Lions made the wrong choice by letting Butler walk in free agency. But look past the statline and it’s fairly evident the team was correct in their decision-making.

To contradict an old adage about household staff, it is incredibly easy to find good help these days — at least at the running back position. When he gets the blocking he needs, Taquan Mizzell has proven to be just as effective as Butler and B.C. has another competent back on the practice roster in Shaun Shivers. Both of those players make a fraction of what Butler received from the Ticats.

The Lions’ savings went towards other areas of need, specifically paying Vernon Adams Jr. Tonight’s result aside, it’s clear they are the better-constructed team because of that choice.

Out of Snuck

Nowhere were the Lions’ energy issues more painfully obvious than in short-yardage, where the team struggled to gain inches when they needed yards.

On the game’s opening drive, B.C. was showing promise until Dominque Davis was stuffed on third-and-one while trying to enter the red zone. As much as I love to point out the limited value that Davis brings to the roster, this was hardly his fault. The entire interior offensive line fired out late and centre Michael Couture was ragdolled by Ted Laurent, who easily stone-walled forward progress.

Things didn’t get much better in this area for B.C., as their very next short-yardage attempt was also stopped before the line to gain. Fortunately, that failure came on second down, with the team barely able to get past the mark on the next play. It was the same story when Adams stayed in for a quick sneak later in the second frame, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Short-yardage is all about demeanour and the Lions have been lacking in that category up front this season. It has turned into a consistent issue, with poor pad level, limited aggression, and a concerning lack of nastiness making gaining a yard anything but a guarantee. It needs to be addressed, with this week hopefully serving as a wake-up call.

Folding Early

Despite the lopsided final score, Hamilton’s lead didn’t feel insurmountable until late in the game. B.C. had plenty of opportunities to turn the tables but squandered their very best one.

After Adams made his two best throws of the night early in the third quarter, the Lions seemed to have life for the very first time. However, a second-down drop by Jevon Cottoy created a third-and-two at the Hamilton 15-yard-line. With no consideration of any alternative, Campbell trotted out the field goal team.

I vehemently disagree with that decision. At that stage, the Ticats led by just seven points and a touchdown would have immediately swung momentum back in the home team’s favour. It was a moment when Campbell could have put all his chips in on a makable gamble, placing trust in an offence that needed it to turn the corner. Instead, he took what turned out to be a meaningless three.

You might argue it was far too early to take a chance like that, but Campbell went for it on third-and-10 from the Hamilton 47-yard-line while trailing by 14 with over seven minutes remaining. In CFL terms, that is a far more dangerous call than the one I’m proposing but Campbell felt he needed points in plus territory. It was high risk and resulted in a back-breaking Jameer Thurman interception.

If he had chosen to be more aggressive earlier, the scoreline might have looked very different.

The Phantom Knee

The Lions got incredibly lucky early in this game when the officiating crew committed the most egregious missed call of the season thus far.

Speedster Terry Williams squirted loose on his first punt return of the night and ran for a sizeable gain before he was tracked down from behind by Sean Thomas-Erlington. The veteran Canadian running back punched the ball free and a fracas ensued for the recovery, but the head referee quickly indicated that the runner had been down by contact.

That assessment didn’t pass the sniff test when watching with the naked eye and it looked even worse on replay, with Williams’ knee nowhere near the ground when the ball was knocked out. However, the horrific call on the field stood unchallenged as Orlondo Steinauer kept his red flag tucked away and the eye in the sky never intervened.

For what it’s worth, Williams insisted in the locker room that the call was correct, though he chided himself for putting it in the referee’s hands.

There was no clear recovery, but Hamilton looked to have the upper hand in the pile. If the officials had called a turnover on the play as they should have, the Ticats likely would have taken over in Lions’ territory with a near guarantee to come away with points.

Screwing the Pooch

The Lions attempted two different types of onside kicks on this night, but neither went as planned.

In the first quarter, the team pulled out one of the most underutilized plays in the CFL — the quarterback box kick. Adams quick-kicked the ball on third down with Alexander Hollins lined up onside but safety Stavros Katsantonis wisely picked up the ball before coverage got there. Frankly, it appeared as if Hollins held something back in pursuit and wasn’t in a full sprint. Had he been, it might have pressed the issue enough for the defence to panic and allow a recovery.

Hollins was also at the point of attack when the Lions attempted a late game onside kickoff, with Sean Whyte faking the standard boot to the overload and Stefan Flintoft coming across after to send it to the weak side. With only three players in the vicinity, Hollins and Garry Peters outran the squib and left nothing but space behind them, allowing Tim White to rub salt in the wound with the lamest return touchdown in league history.

Throwing a Fit

Speaking of Hollins, the receiver was clearly emotional following Jevon Cottoy’s late-game fumble, ripping off his helmet and hurling it a good five yards into the sidelines.

It wasn’t a good look and Vernon Adams Jr. had to intervene, embracing his teammate as he tried to pull away and continued shouting.

“That’s my brother and I just tell him, ‘Hey, man, we need you.’ He’s got one of the best personalities and energies on his team, so I just said, ‘Don’t show that. We can’t show the other team that. Just stay together,'” Adams recalled. “He was open on that play too and I think that was the frustration as well.”

Hollins walked to the far end of the bench area to calm down and appeared to get some one-on-one time with injured veteran Dominique Rhymes. He did not miss any play time, despite the uncharacteristic outburst.

A Win for Broken Clocks

Jonathan Kongbo’s ridiculous claims that the Lions “don’t have a winning culture” after he was shipped to Hamilton have faded into a distant memory, but his return to B.C. featured their worst performance of the season. Even a broken clock is right twice a day and the Surrey native likely feels pretty smug right now, though he’ll likely be less content when his new squad misses the playoffs.

For what it’s worth, Kongbo was a non-factor in the game, recording a single tackle. Keon Hatcher, the player he openly called out, had seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in the loss.

Consequences, Consequences

Two straight poor losses against lesser teams won’t keep the Leos from making the postseason, but they will have a major impact on their season. Just a few weeks ago, this team was in a legitimate two-horse race with Winnipeg for first place in the West Division. Now they are a full two games back and a first-round bye looks like a fantasy.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan is only four points back of second place, with a game in hand. A drop to the third seed is highly unlikely, but B.C. cannot afford any more mistakes. The pressure is on to ensure back-to-back stinkers don’t spiral into something far worse.

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.