Ben’s Breakdown: three touchdowns in under three minutes

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

On just about every CFL on TSN broadcast, we are reminded that anything can happen in the CFL in the final three minutes. As cliché and overused as that line may seem, on Saturday night in Vancouver, anything happened.

Trailing the Ottawa Redblacks 37-21 with under two-and-a-half minutes remaining, the B.C. Lions scored 20 consecutive points to miraculously win the game. They did so without creating a turnover, recovering an onside kick or connecting on a Hail Mary. They used some brilliant play-calling, clever designs, outstanding execution, coolness under pressure and a little bit of CFL magic to match the largest fourth-quarter comeback in team history.

Play 1

On third and goal from the Ottawa six-yard-line, Vernon Adams Jr. lofted a ball to Justin McInnis who caught it in the endzone for the touchdown.

This was an easy throw and catch from Adams to McInnis but the truth is the Ottawa defence made a mess of this play. Adams was probably just putting up a jump ball for his six-foot-five receiver, which made perfect sense in that situation, but it wasn’t technically the right read. Alexander Hollins was also wide open to the same side, as was Taquan Mizzzell who was left alone out of the backfield.

Hollins was lined up wide on the left side of the formation with Brandin Dandridge overtop while McInnis was in the slot covered by Damon Webb. B.C. ran what is known as a slot-fade-rub concept, designed to free up Hollins on a three-step dig route. McInnis had a fade route but his actual assignment was to get in Dandridge’s way as Hollins cut in tight behind him. Rub concepts can work against zone but they’re intended to create problems for defenders in man coverage. The receiver setting the pick or creating the rub isn’t allowed to physically block the defender but instead has to run a legitimate route using his body to create enough traffic to get the job done.

The solution to this defensively is to run banjo coverage where the defenders are in man, but they switch responsibilities if their receivers cross. Banjo coverage is often called against formations that create rub routes such as stacks or bunches. On this play, both Webb and Dandridge tried to stick to their man but they collided giving Hollins a free release and leaving McInnis unguarded for the easy catch.

Play 2

Ottawa attempted a 50-yard field goal with 1:49 remaining in the game. The kick missed just to the left and Terry Williams took it back 120 yards for the touchdown.

The decision to attempt a field goal in this situation wasn’t a mistake but it was certainly a risk. Ottawa kicker Lewis Ward had already connected on all three of his field goal attempts in this game and two of them were over 50 yards. A make here and the Redblacks take a 14-point lead, forcing the Lions to score a pair of touchdowns instead of a touchdown and a field goal.

Terry Williams set up the return beautifully by attacking north-south for 10 yards, which kept the coverage team from expanding and then making a hard cut to the right sideline. The most amazing thing about the return is that Williams didn’t really get any blocks beyond the initial engagement at the line of scrimmage. Williams was barely touched by James Peters and Dontae Bull before making an inside juke on Lewis Ward and an outside move on Richie Leone.

In Canadian football, a missed field goal is played like a punt, so some fans don’t see the difference in risk-assessing the two plays. A missed field goal puts the kicking team in a terrible situation because, unlike the punt-coverage team, the field goal unit is primarily composed of bigger bodies in the middle of the field. In this situation, Ottawa had six linemen, a linebacker, a fullback, a running back, a long snapper, and two kickers on the field – not exactly the squad you want chasing down a speedster like Williams.

Play 3

From the 16-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the game, Vernon Adams Jr. found Lucky Whitehead in the corner of the endzone for the go-ahead touchdown.

Adams likely knew he was going to his left as soon as he saw Ottawa line up with a single high safety. The Lions had Justin McInnis, Jevon Cottoy, and Lucky Whitehead in trips out to the left side with a smash concept variation called. McInnis and Cottoy had synchronized in-breakers from the outside with Whitehead running a corner route.

A single high safety pre-snap is indicative of either cover one or cover three, both of which get eaten alive by smash. Against cover one, it’s almost impossible to defend a well-thrown corner route, and against cover three, one defender is left to cover the two in-breakers.

From the corner position, Dandridge started ten yards deep, trying to trick Adams into seeing cover three but to no avail. Adams froze the safety, then, confirming man coverage, lofted a rainbow into the corner of the endzone for Whitehead. Dandridge peeled off his man when he saw Adams turn but it was a perfectly thrown ball and a terrific route from Lucky Whitehead. With an aggressive waggle, he had the speed to take an inside release which helped freeze the safety and create a larger target area for Adams to throw the ball.

The next time you think about leaving a CFL stadium early or changing the channel in the final three minutes of a blowout, remember this game. Hundreds of Lions fans missed out on this historic and magical finish.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.