Scavenging Stampeders feast on Lions’ skeleton crew: eight thoughts on B.C.’s preseason loss

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

Sometimes, the final whistle is a mercy.

Worry not, these are not the same B.C. Lions that will be competing for a Grey Cup in the fall. Still, Saturday’s 30-6 loss at the hands of the Calgary Stampeders was an abysmal display of football even by preseason standards and verged on unwatchable at times.

With the carnage behind us, here are my thoughts on the game.

Bare necessities

As they have done for the last number of years, the Lions sent a skeleton crew on the road for their first exhibition game.

It’s pretty standard practice around the CFL to rest or play veterans sparingly when travelling in the preseason, but B.C. takes it to the extreme. Strong-side linebacker Emmanuel Rugamba, safety Adrian Greene, and punter Stefan Flintoft were the only bonafide starters to make the trek, with few proven backups joining them.

There are pros and cons to the Leos’ pared-down roster strategy. While so much inexperience on the field at one time can lead to sloppy play that is difficult to evaluate, it also gives the prospects who are fighting for jobs a much longer run to get comfortable. That can result in unexpected players rising to the occasion and proving they deserve an opportunity with the top unit, as projected starting receiver Ayden Eberhardt did last year.

This game offered no such breakout stars, as the Lions’ B-squad was thoroughly outclassed by a Stampeders team that fielded its starters for much of the first half. It was a predictable outcome reminiscent of the team’s 41-6 drubbing in an identical scenario two years ago. That result, of course, had no impact on the team’s eventual run to the West Final that season.

This year’s group of defensive backups frankly deserves credit for holding their own against the top unit for as long as they did, before the exhaustion of playing 64 snaps led to Calgary’s depth pulling away in the second half. None of it was pretty, but at least there were a few stops along the way.

The offence deserves no such praise on a night where the only bright spots were the holes in the offensive line’s underwear. They generated just 11 first downs and 221 net yards, both numbers which were inflated by a surge late in the fourth quarter. The closest they came to a touchdown was on the final two plays, both of which were fumbled at the goal line.

That was a fitting end to a game that reeked as bad as a centre’s sweaty undercarriage.

No passing grade

If you entered this game concerned about how the Lions would fare in the event of an injury to Vernon Adams Jr., you likely left it in a cold sweat.

The retirement of Dane Evans left a big hole at backup quarterback this offseason and B.C. filled it with an appropriately large man, signing six-foot-seven Jake Dolegala in free agency. After steering the Saskatchewan Roughriders through their trainwreck of a finish to last season, he was viewed as a capable pivot who could step in and keep the team afloat for a few games if needed.

We saw absolutely none of that in Calgary, as Dolegala looked positively horrific in a quarter of action. The final statline was just one completion on seven attempts for a measly eight yards and he never looked comfortable going through his reads. An inexperienced and struggling offensive line certainly didn’t help and there were a couple of balls his receivers could have helped him on, but the third-year CFLer seemed to make questionable decisions with a consistently off-target delivery.

Presumed short-yardage option Dakota Prukop was not much better in the second quarter, though a few big throws before the half at least allowed him to finish four-of-nine for 56 yards. The veteran dual-threat passer had to deal with some bad field positions but was nearly picked off by Tre Roberson on one suspect throw downfield and spent much of his time hurriedly bouncing balls off the turf.

It was second-year prospect Chase Brice, the man with easily the most to prove, who looked the best of the group. In a full half of action, the Appalachian State product connected on 10-of-16 attempts for 128 yards and seemed to get more comfortable as his time went on. Still, there was nothing that he showed against the Stampeders’ third-stringers that would lead you to believe that he’s the second coming of Nathan Rourke and the two fumbles to end the game really undercut his outing.

Given the importance of having the next guy in the pipeline, I would have liked to see the Lions bring another arm or two into camp to push Brice for his spot on the practice roster. Instead, that role seems anointed like all the others in the quarterback room and I’m not overly confident in this group as a whole. If VA can’t make it 21 weeks, there could be some really rough patches.

T.J.’s shadow

One of the big questions that the Lions have to answer this preseason is who will begin the year in the secondary in place of the injured T.J. Lee.

Based on the reports from training camp, it appeared that Ronald Kent Jr., a rookie out of Central Michigan, had established himself as the early frontrunner at halfback. While I don’t think he worked himself out of the job, Kent certainly didn’t succeed in cementing himself against the Stampeders.

Matched up against one of Calgary’s top receivers in Marken Michel, he seemed to be a step behind on a few first-half catches and was directly at fault for the game’s first touchdown. After Michel fell to the turf short of the endzone while hauling in a rope from Jake Maier, Kent throttled down and, in what can only be described as a lapse in focus, never bothered to tag his charge down. Safety Adrian Greene leapt out of the way to avoid a potential knee injury from the rolling receiver and it was ruled on review that no one made contact with him before he crossed the goal line.

Kent was also flagged for defensive pass interference in the third quarter and barely arrived in time to hold former NFLer Auden Tate short of the endzone later in the game. He finished the contest with three tackles.

It is impossible to tell from the in-stadium feed whether any of the other American defensive backs gained ground in the battle with Kent. Jordan Perryman, who lined up at cornerback, led the entire team with seven tackles, but that is also an indication that he was heavily targeted. Tyon Davis logged two tackles but seemed to see less playtime at the other corner spot. Chris Cooper recorded three tackles at strong-side linebacker but didn’t seem to stand out.

Silver linings

This game may not have produced any breakout stars but a couple of players helped themselves with their performances.

Chief among them was Canadian defensive back Patrice Rene, who seemed to be all over the field while collecting six tackles in the first half. The once-highly touted prospect was almost entirely written off as a bust when the Lions picked him off the scrap heap last year but he has since turned into a very solid depth player. He could push for an even bigger role this year.

Elsewhere on the defence, I thought defensive tackle Jonah Tavai really flashed whenever he was on the field. A darling of analytics firm Pro Football Focus while at San Diego State and the brother of former Lions’ pass rusher J.R. Tavai, he generated good interior pressure and hustled downfield to make five tackles in pursuit.

It was also nice to see the Lions’ first-round pick from the 2023 CFL Draft, Francis Bemiy Jr., make his presence felt with a couple of big plays at the start of the fourth quarter. The Southern Utah product busted into the backfield for a huge tackle for loss then put Calgary’s guard in a spin cycle for a nice sack. Those were his only statistics on the evening but it shows positive progress as he adjusts to life as an interior player.

You sure know how to pick ’em

Saturday also offered fans a chance to look at a few of the team’s 2024 draft picks for the first time and they did not disappoint.

The team’s third-round selection, Laval defensive back Cristophe Beaulieu, is already looking like one of the steals of this year. He has had an excellent camp by all accounts and played nearly the entire game at field halfback, despite taking a hard shot that briefly sent him to the trainer’s tent. He never looked out of place in one of the hardest positions on the field and finished with two defensive tackles and one on special teams — numbers which would have been even better if he had wrapped up on a late-game blitz.

Although he was listed as a starter, first-round pick George Una did not get his look at guard until the second half. He lived up to the billing and looked very comfortable playing on a unit that struggled as a whole. The length that the Lions fell in love with through the Combine process is visually evident when he stands beside his teammates and the former Windsor Lancer already uses it well.

Second-round receiver Ezechiel Tieide didn’t catch a pass but did contribute a special teams tackle. Top Global pick Carl Meyer from South Africa nailed both of his field goals and averaged 47.3 yards per punt, which won’t help him unseat either incumbent but should land him on the practice squad.

Snap (Crackle and Pop)

The most contentious battle in Lions’ training camp is at the lowest profile position, as the team weighs its options at long snapper.

On one side is incumbent Riley Pickett, a converted defensive lineman who performed admirably in the role last year after teaching himself to snap in the offseason. His challenger is Kyle Nelson, a 37-year-old veteran of 107 career NFL games who has previously snapped in a Super Bowl and is looking for one last hurrah in the league where his father coached and grandfather is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Both players saw equal action on Saturday and Pickett came out like a man with his hair on fire, making two huge special teams tackles early. He was constantly near the ball on other plays as well and was clearly an energy generator for his teammates. The elder Nelson couldn’t quite match that rambunctiousness but did his job well and lucked into a special teams tackle of his own.

Frankly, the decision here is a philosophical one. With his wealth of experience, Nelson is almost certainly an upgrade as a pure snapper. But picking him would be a short-term play and could result in the team losing Pickett entirely, with several franchises around the league looking to find a succession plan for their own aging snappers. The Saskatoon native is just 26 and has room to grow, which gives him value beyond just his elite ability to hustle down the field.

The choice likely won’t be made this week but you can’t go wrong with either player.

Get used to it, kids

Fans tuning in to this contest on CFL+ or listening on the radio to 730 AM were treated to the first of what is likely to be many weather delays this season. It is a part of the league that has become arguably too common over the past few years, as climate change has brought plenty of wildfire smoke and increased summer storms to wreak havoc on the outdoor stadiums on the prairies.

Nobody wants to sit around twiddling their thumbs for the underwhelming reward of preseason football. Nevertheless, it gave the rookies in attendance an important lesson in staying ready and rolling with the punches that should help them when another delay inevitably happens early in the year.

Mercifully, this particular lightning delay lasted less than half an hour — although there were times during the game when I would have much preferred 300 million volts from above.

The man who passes the sentence

The Lions are under no deadline to make roster cuts before next week’s game, but recent history tells us that Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell will start to swing the sword in the coming days.

Many of the players on Saturday’s roster will no longer be Lions by the time the team takes to the field on Friday against Edmonton. Those that remain will be serious contenders to stick come Week 1 and will form the basis for the franchise’s home Grey Cup hopes.

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.