Lions fail to go down, collapse instead: 10 thoughts on blowing it against the Bombers

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

The B.C. Lions couldn’t find any gravy in the second half on Thanksgiving weekend but had no problem playing the turkeys in overtime, losing 34-26 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a contest that will define the 2023 season.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

(Not) Down in Flames

For better or for worse, there is no way to tell the story of this game without beginning at the final play of regulation.

With eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Blue Bombers had capitalized on a complete Lions’ collapse to tie the game at 26. B.C. had the ball at their own 40-yard line with one chance to make a miracle happen and Vernon Adams Jr. delivered with a huge strike to Dominique Rhymes across the deep middle. Then, disaster.

As Rhymes contested the bobbling ball, halfback Evan Holm bounced off his back and to the turf. Sensing open field, the receiver turned and sprinted toward the endzone, breaking another tackle from Redha Kramdi on the way. Only Jamal Parker could haul him down from behind inside the 10 but the 65 yards gained were inconsequential. The clock had expired and so had the Lions’ shot at victory.

If Rhymes had managed just nine more yards, this play could have earned a spot in CFL lore currently reserved for Milt Stegall’s Hail Mary against Edmonton. But, far less glamorously and far more importantly, if Rhymes had gone down at the earliest opportunity, Sean Whyte would have been set up for a makable game-winning field goal. Instead, the Bombers got the overtime they wanted and finished what B.C. couldn’t.

“I don’t think we got it communicated to Dom about going down and that’s just a football player trying to make a play,” head coach Rick Campbell said at the podium. “We communicated to some other receivers, we had talked about it and everyone knew what the clock situation was. It’s too bad that he didn’t quite get there.”

A visibly shaken Rhymes did not let himself off the hook so easily in the locker room, saying the crucial game management point had been communicated and taking responsibility for his own lack of awareness. It was clear that no amount of fan criticism would outweigh the blame placed on his own shoulders.

From a strategic standpoint, it is undeniable that Rhymes should have given himself up. However, asking a football player to go against every fibre of their being and everything they’ve ever been taught in a potential game-winning situation remains an incredibly tall order.

If he had gone down too early and Whyte had come up short on the ensuing kick, this narrative would be very different. So too if he had surrendered with the clock already run out. No doubt his internal timer became disconnected while tracking the bouncing ball and he simply ran on instinct.

This is one of those mistakes that can only be endured with empathy, something that Adams drove home at the podium.

“We’ve just got to love on each other, be there for each other and pick each other up, man. Just learn from this experience and just be better, man,” he said. “We’ve got to be better but we didn’t lose the game because of that play. It was a lot more.”

Beaten Half to Death

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more stark contrast between two offensive halves of football than what took place at BC Place on Friday night.

Coming out of the gate, the Lions were doing exactly what they needed to do offensively and Vernon Adams Jr. was firing on all cylinders. While a drop from Lucky Whitehead and a near miss from Rhymes held them to a field goal on the opening drive, he followed it up with some highlight reel scrambling and a few dimes. That included hitting Jevon Cottoy in stride for a 70-yard touchdown, which established a commanding lead.

The trademark aerial showcase had generated 252 yards for VA by halftime and he was far outpacing Zach Collaros at the break. But cracks that began to form in the second quarter spread like lightning strikes throughout the whole offence and brought it all crumbling down.

Before Rhymes’ ill-fated 65-yarder, the Lions had managed just 53 yards of net offence through the final two frames. The attack wasn’t just stagnant, it completely ground to a halt.

“We definitely weren’t clicking. I don’t even know if I had a completed pass,” a perplexed Adams said post-game. “I don’t know what happened. We can’t do that to a good team like that, man.”

Bombers’ defensive coordinator Richie Hall did a masterful job mixing up his personnel and keeping Adams penned in, taking away the RPO game. Still, it felt like offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic got far too conservative and didn’t make any attempt to break the slump. The play-calling got predictable and there was nothing for his quarterback to do without outlets or escape lanes.

M.O.P.: Most Outstanding Portugese

I wrote this week that Vernon Adams Jr. should have been the frontrunner for Most Outstanding Player entering this game, edging out Zach Collaros for the title this season. However, I received considerable pushback from a segment of Bomber fans who viewed Canadian running back Brady Oliveira as the best player in the league right now. It’s hard to argue with them after this game.

The homegrown bruiser carried 12 times for 73 yards and the game-winning touchdown, while also adding eight catches for 85 yards. He was the machine that drove Winnipeg to victory down the stretch and a complete mystery to stop for the Lions. They’ll be haunted by his checkdowns in the flats until the day they die.

Fundamentally, I have a hard time backing a running back for M.O.P. The position, by its very nature, is so dependent on the system and situation that it is impossible to isolate the value of the individual performing it, with virtually every provable metric telling you that ball carriers are nearly interchangeable. However, Oliveira is nearing a rarified air where his production overwhelms all logic.

Adams’ performance in this game — 19-of-33 for 352 yards and a touchdown — certainly didn’t take him out of the M.O.P conversation, but I think he lost the high ground to the league’s leading rusher. Collaros was statistically better — 31-of-41 for 389 yards and two touchdowns — but his three turnovers have me even more skeptical of his bid for a third straight trophy. He made some serious individual errors, while VA’s struggles felt like the result of systemic problems rather than personal mistakes.

Men With Sticks

Let’s be frank: in the CFL, there is no excuse for failing to gain a yard on a QB sneak. The Lions’ offensive line should be embarrassed and ashamed that Dominique Davis was unable to generate a first down on their pivotal late-game drive, which ultimately teed up the game-tying field goal.

With that said, many are still trying to wrap their heads around how it came to be that the jumbo package was needed at all. After a Houdini-esque scramble on second-and-10, Adams appeared to have extended his arm out to the line to gain as he was stepping out of bounds. He was instead marked a yard-and-a-half short, completely altering this game of inches.

Fans were not treated to a particularly compelling replay of this pivotal play, with the only angle making it look as if the Lions had been snubbed by the stripes. It is possible that a reverse angle could have shown Adams sticking his toe on the white line before reaching his arm out, but we never even got a second glance. Within three minutes, you might have expected the spot to be automatically reviewed for accuracy, but it didn’t appear like the command centre ever switched on their monitors.

Both Campbell and Adams expressed their skepticism at the spot but admitted to having not seen the replay. The quarterback seemed visibly displeased with the ruling on the field but refrained from speculating further about the referees, lest he be fined.

Three Is All You Need

B.C.’s offensive line wasn’t just suspect in short yardage on Friday; they found themselves completely and thoroughly outclassed throughout the evening.

Winnipeg did an excellent job disguising their rushes and presenting different fronts, but the results were the same no matter what they did. Whether they were bringing heavy pressure, as they did early, or sending just three, as they did in the second half, Adams was under consistent pressure and took six sacks.

Some of the blitz pressure early can be forgiven, as the line was overloaded and the team was able to exploit holes in the secondary on other plays. But when Hall switched to dropping nine and rushing three, those coverage breakdowns were no longer there and Adams didn’t have nearly enough time to create. The blocks simply weren’t held long enough to allow him to roll out.

These weren’t simply blocking busts. B.C.’s offensive line got manhandled and controlled to the point that the defensive line could use their pass rush lanes to limit Adams’ big play ability. They also batted balls with impunity, as Willie Jefferson directly generated a couple of painful two-and-outs.

“He caused a few punts. We had first downs, easy first downs, and we all know that’s what he does. If he can’t get to the quarterback, he’s gonna stop and put his hands up,” Adams said, frustrated.

I don’t think any member of the offensive line unit will have a fun time in film study this week. After a couple of solid weeks up front, there were few bright spots here.

Stripped to the Studs

Winnipeg could have easily run away with this contest once B.C.’s offence went dormant, but a few timely plays from the defence ensured that the Lions remained in front until the final moments.

Two strip sacks against Collaros in the red zone were all the home team had going for it after the break, with both recoveries courtesy of Sione Teuhema. The first fell squarely on the shoulders of the Bombers’ signal caller, as he blindly spun back against the grain in the pocket and got walloped by Mathieu Betts, who Jermarcus Hardrick had effectively run past the play until Collaros decided to get creative.

The second was more about tenacity, as Woody Baron and Teuhema met at the quarterback and the latter ripped the ball out for an impressive return. At that point, the defensive end’s sprint down the left sideline was longer than his entire offence’s output for the half.

Sure, the Bombers seemingly moved the ball at will against soft coverage in the secondary, with Dalton Schoen, Kenny Lawler and Oliveira running around Ryan Phillips’ unit like pylons. But add in Adrian Greene’s early interception and the four stops that resulted in field goals, and it’s hard to blame the defence for this one.

They had many flaws but they made the timely plays necessary to put the team in a position to win. The offence simply never returned the favour.

Kick to the Yards

Punter Stefan Flintoft had a solid day with his boot and was essential in corralling a few wayward snaps for Sean Whyte. However, you won’t find many more impactful kicks than the one he sent out of bounds early in the second quarter for an illegal kickoff penalty.

At that moment, the Lions held a 17-3 lead and seemed to be in complete control of a game headed toward a blowout. Instead, the ill-placed kick on the right sideline gave Winnipeg the ball near mid-field. With perfect field position, Collaros needed just three plays to find the end zone — a shot over top to Schoen, a toss to Oliveira in the flats, and a dump-off to Janarion Grant that was sprung for six by a perfect Schoen pick.

In a matter of seconds, momentum swung from heavily favouring the home side to B.C. being on the back foot. It was a wasted opportunity to put their foot on the throat of a top team and the Lions never truly recovered.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

When Redha Kramdi was called for pass interference against Keon Hatcher to set up B.C.’s first touchdown, it seemed like an absolute gift. The fact that the flag for the early bump on the endzone coverage was upheld following a Mike O’Shea challenge seemed almost unbelievable at the time, but the Lions got their comeuppance in the end.

B.C. committed just two penalties in this game and there were only seven flags total, but it seemed that no other call — or non-call — went the way of the home team. Rick Campbell’s challenge for roughing the passer on Brandon Alexander was unsuccessful despite clear and obvious head contact, further evidence of the CFL moving away from a call that was automatic up until a year ago.

Then, in the fourth quarter, the referees seemed to even the score with a soft PI call against Jalon Edwards-Cooper to set the Bombers up in the red zone. A badly thrown ball from Collaros forced Kenny Lawler to work back from the sideline, but JEC’s positioning and contact appeared to be less than incidental. Fortunately for B.C., Betts’ forced fumble erased the threat.

Finally, the Lions would have had a stop in overtime and forced a field goal if not for an illegal contact penalty against rookie Canadian cornerback Siriman Harrison Bagayogo far away from the intended target. You could not have picked a worse moment to take that penalty and the brief replay provided did not give me a good sense of what actually happened on the bizarre play. Either way, it set up Oliveira’s game-winning run.

Every Second Counts

It feels meaningless in the aftermath of their horrific finish, but the Lions deserve some credit for how they ended the first half.

It would have been very easy to let Winnipeg drain the clock with under a minute remaining, but Canadian linebacker Ryder Varga stood up Oliveira short of the sticks to force a punt with seconds left. Terry Williams had a great return and Sean Whyte was able to hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired, a critical three points that could have secured this win if one play went differently.

Not Over Yet

With the overtime victory, Winnipeg has all but secured the top spot in the West Division and the home-field advantage that goes with it. The Lions would have to win each of their next two games and see the Bombers lose both of theirs to leap-frog back in front.

It is difficult to quantify just how impactful that is to B.C.’s Grey Cup hopes. This is not a team designed to win a fistfight in the November cold and competing for the Western crown in their comfy dome could have been a crucial advantage.

Now, they’ll have to do it the hard way and that path will lead through Winnipeg again. That will require figuring out how to avoid a repeat of this result, how to stop Oliveira, and how to not be out-coached in every phase — as the Lions have been in two straight games against their rivals.

The good news is that this does not appear to be a team content in defeat, with more than a few emotional players after the loss.

“I’m glad it hurts them really badly because I know that they care,” Campbell said. “There are some teams where you just walk in and ‘f*** it, we’ll move on’ — pardon my language — they just feel it’s on to the next. That’s a hurting group in there and it’s because they’re good guys and they care. We’ll make sure we channel it in the right direction.”

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.