Lions pull up on the yoke and 10 other thoughts on beating the Alouettes

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

Quebec may be La Belle Province but there is nothing more beautiful to the B.C. Lions than seeing a losing streak end, as they topped the Alouettes 34-25 on Saturday in Montreal.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Tailspin Over

B.C.’s semi-annual holiday clash with the Alouettes is never the highest-profile matchup on Labour Day weekend, but this year’s result should mean more than any rivalry bragging rights.

Coming off two straight upset losses to inferior opponents, the Lions faced a turning point this week. Another loss would have meant the tailspin was real and legitimate panic could have set in. Instead, a victory provides a critical course correction as the team heads into the stretch run.

This game certainly wasn’t the franchise’s finest hour and at times they seemed determined to crash into the mountainside. But whatever you think of Montreal’s status this year, be they contenders or pretenders, B.C. answered the adversity they provided at every opportunity and never lost control of the cockpit in a stadium that has rarely been kind to travelling Western teams.

A Bowman’s Dozen

I recently learned that a group of 11 is referred to as a banker’s dozen in some circles, the counterpart to a classic baker’s dozen. Given that the term hasn’t caught on with the wider public, I vote we christen a new idiom.

On a night when their defensive line coach was being honoured at halftime by his former club ahead of his Hall of Fame induction, the Lions dressed a Bowman’s dozen of defensive linemen — 10 true pass-rushers, plus long-snapper convert Riley Pickett. The result was an exceptional performance up front and near-constant harassment of Cody Fajardo.

The unconventional roster makeup was a pretty clear message from B.C.’s management that they were unsatisfied with the amount of pressure the team has generated over the last few weeks. In particular, the decision to dress former Alouette Nick Usher for the first time was an explicit call-out of starter Sione Teuhema, who had managed just three sacks this season and none in the last five weeks.

The second-year man responded accordingly, collecting six tackles and two sacks on the evening. His first takedown of Fajardo and another near miss that resulted in a zero-yard rush were both clean-up efforts but his second sack was a full-value speed rush that forced Montreal to settle for a critical field goal mid-way through the third quarter.

Teuhema was far from the only active member up front, as Woody Baron, Ben Hladik, and Quincy Mauger all chipped in with a sack. According to friend of 3Down and TSN stats guy Moe Khan, the final tally for B.C.’s defence included 17 hurries and 16 hits on the quarterback. That’s a wildly impressive outing that should help get the defensive line unit back on track.

Second Coming

While Vernon Adam Jr. did get a chance to roll into Montreal five days after he was acquired via trade last year, he played only sparingly in that game. Saturday marked his true homecoming to the city where he forged his CFL career, a chance to prove the franchise wrong for moving on from him.

It was a fairly pedestrian outing by VA’s 2023 standards, as he completed 21-of-33 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns. That’s become the benchmark this year, as the 30-year-old has crossed the three-century mark in seven of the nine games he has finished. For all those out there doubting his M.O.P. candidacy, that’s three more times than both Zach Collaros and Chad Kelly, but I digress.

Adams made some big throws to produce all that yardage, but his touch and placement didn’t quite fall into the “wow” category on any one play — though he did connect on a few balls while absorbing some big hits. Instead, it was his legs and athleticism that truly shone in Quebec, just as they did when he was wearing the home team’s uniform.

A season-high 54 yards rushing may not seem like much, but his ability to take off at critical times and make defenders miss in space directly led to points on the board. It also prevented him from surrendering a sack, with one big shot from Almondo Sewell being taken off the board due to high contact.

Even though Fajardo threw for two more yards than his counterpart, it was clear from start to finish that B.C. had the better quarterback in this game — even before two bad late-game interceptions. Knowing Adams, that should have him feeling pretty good on the way home.

I’m gonna YAC

The Lions put tremendous pressure on the quarterback and their secondary found themselves in excellent positions down the field, but this was not a banner day for Ryan Phillips’ defence. That’s because poor tackling allowed the Alouettes to rack up yards and move the chains by taking what they were given underneath.

The Alouettes’ receiving corps, led by the sensational Austin Mack, amassed 172 yards after the catch in this game. That was nearly 60 yards more than the Lions, despite similar passing totals. As calls of “keep it underneath” could be heard echoing from the sidelines on the broadcast, the Lions’ defensive backfield allowed acres of space and failed to rally to the ball carrier. Veteran T.J. Lee took a bad angle and failed to break down on one Mack romp and cornerback Mike Jone was left clutching air on at least two occasions. Neither was unique in their embarrassment.

It didn’t much matter who had the ball either, as linebackers had a hell of a time tracking down an escaping Fajardo on several runs. Even safety Quincy Mauger looked like he was performing a rendition of Lonely Island’s “The Creep” on William Stanback’s long touchdown run, failing to reel in the running back with T-Rex arms.

Ultimately, the defence’s bend, don’t break principles paid off and the team made plays when they needed to, forcing David Cote to attempt five field goals. But the tackling failures were a startling regression in an area where the team had improved dramatically this season. That will need to be addressed, as the margin of victory did not need to be as close as it was.

We All Have Our Weaknesses…

Speaking of Stanback’s 69-yard touchdown run, that play served as a perfect reminder of one of Mathieu Betts’ greatest weaknesses as a player. Unfortunately, it came with more than 124 members of his friends and family in the stands.

The Canadian defensive end is undeniably one of the CFL’s best pass rushers thanks to his unstoppable motor but if you trust the ProFootballFocus grading — or have eyeballs — you know he’s not a great run defender. That’s true of a lot of elite CFL edge players and is frankly a lot less important these days than some old-school coaches would have you believe, though it can still be exploited on occasion.

With the Alouettes zone blocking left on the play in question, Betts was the backside defender and decided to quickly swim Tyson Philpot to the outside. His momentum carried him far too deep and wide, where he was easily blocked by Greg Ellingson while Philpot recovered his balance to cover up strongside linebacker Emmanuel Rugamba. Without Betts scraping for behind or Rugamba able to fill the gaping hole, Stanback had a cutback lane you could have driven a truck through. Two broken tackles later, he hit paydirt.

Hollins’ Haul-In

I took time to highlight Alexander Hollins’ uncharacteristically emotional response to last week’s loss, but I haven’t done nearly a good enough job highlighting his rise to prominence this season. Somewhat quietly, the second-year man has continued to be the Lions’ leading receiver despite the return of several other targets from injury.

Saturday was another banner night, as Hollins hauled in five catches for a team-high 88 yards and two touchdowns. The second score was incredibly impressive, as the 62-yard bomb was fluttering and thrown slightly behind as Adams was hit. It passed right between Kabion Ento’s arms and probably should have been picked, but the receiver maintained his concentration with two defenders bearing down on him and barely broke stride for the catch.

At 26 years old, you have to believe that the former Minnesota Viking will get another NFL shot come season’s end.

Late S-izzell

I was primed and ready to write a section about how the Lions’ underwhelming running game might need a spark from practice roster back Shaun Shivers. Then Taquan Mizzell opted to show up late and ice the game. He finished with 14 carries for 68 yards.

Mizzell hadn’t shown the explosiveness that endeared him to fans since his 117-yard performance in Week 8, though that hasn’t all fallen on his shoulder. Offensive coordinator Jordan Masksymic couldn’t exactly make a solid run-pass balance a priority when the team was losing and the offensive line hasn’t generated anything resembling consistent blocking. Still, Mizzell was supposed to be a home-run hitter who could make things happen himself.

It all came together on the final drive in Montreal and the 29-year-old back was able to drain the clock behind a substantial push from the boys up front. He finished with his first career rushing touchdown on a pitch to the right, with a nice assist to receiver Justin McInnis on the block.


The Lions’ special teams unit has featured some pleasant surprises this year but none larger than Canadian defensive back Patrice Rene, who added his eighth tackle of the year against the Alouettes.

Once a promising NFL prospect at the University of North Carolina, Rene saw injuries derail his college career. They again reared their head during his lone season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, which resulted in him getting cut and most around the league writing him off.

The Lions picked him off the scrap heap and he has proven to be a very effective gunner this season. Hopefully, his career resurgence only grows from here.

Sneaky Devil

The Lions made one major change following their loss to Hamilton and it came on short yardage.

After getting stuffed multiple times last week, Dominique Davis was never asked to trot out on the field to convert a yard against his old team. Instead, Vernon Adams Jr. stayed in for all the sneaks and was able to gain the necessary distance.

I’m skeptical of the merits of this strategy long-term given how valuable VA is to the team, but you can’t argue with the results.

Streak Preserved

Cornerback Garry Peters has yet to allow a touchdown this CFL season, but he got awfully lucky early in this ball game.

The highest-graded defensive player in the league according to PFF bit hard on a double move from Austin Mack and wasn’t going to be able to recover as the receiver headed for the endzone. Fortunately, Fajardo was just off target while under pressure and the wide-open Mack couldn’t corral a diving catch.

He would get what he was due later in the game with a phenomenal toe-tapping touchdown, though that came at the expense of T.J. Lee, who was in near-perfect coverage. Peters remains unscathed for another week.

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.