B.C. Lions’ line lets Vernon Adams Jr. down in loss to Argos (& 10 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/BC Lions

The B.C. Lions are facing plenty of questions entering a ‘Grey Cup or bust’ campaign in 2024.

Right now, they may not like the answers, falling 35-27 in the season opener to a Toronto Argonauts team still reeling from offseason controversy and skint on quarterback experience.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

To be the best…

There was only ever one matchup that mattered in this football game and the Lions lost it handedly. Faced with a defensive line unit that is easily the best in the CFL, B.C.’s blockers stumbled and then crumbled in the face of unrelenting pressure.

The big boys up front are always the first to get the blame — sometimes unjustly — but make no mistake about it: this loss can be pinned directly on the offensive line and on the people who let an unchanged unit take the field yet again.

It was clear from the start that the disparity in talent between the two sides of the trenches was going to be a real problem. The Lions’ promise to run the football with shiny new power back William Stanback went out the window quickly, as he was able to muster just 35 yards on the ground on 11 carries. Kelly Bates’ unit could produce none of the vertical displacement or highlight reel double teams on display when the Argos had the ball, but a failure to establish a ground game was the least of their concerns in the end.

Toronto got home for six sacks in this contest, five of which came late in the second half when all the chips were down. In fairness to the group, the first of those takedowns came when the Double Blue sent more numbers than they could handle, allowing Wynton McManis to fly through late and unblocked. The rest, unfortunately, can be chalked up to the man on the other side being better.

Now in his sixth season with the team, David Knevel is supposedly the Lions’ best option at left guard after an open competition in training camp. I hope that’s not true, as he was directly responsible for three game-changing defensive plays. He seemed entirely lost on Jared Brinkman’s first sack late in the third quarter, blocking nobody as centre Michael Couture tried desperately to pass off the defensive tackle. Brinkman simply ate his lunch straight up to secure his second sack in the fourth quarter, while Jake Ceresna did the same a few minutes later to strip Vernon Adams Jr.

Of course, Knevel wasn’t the only player at fault in this game. Stanback probably should have gone right instead of left to pick up another McManis blitz deep in B.C.’s own end, which resulted in Thiadric Hansen getting home. Right tackle Kent Perkins all but ended the game when he ushered Folarin Orimolade past him on the second-to-last offensive play. However, the 29-year-old former third-round pick was predictably the worst and emblematic of a franchise that has stockpiled Canadian talent at every other position group while all but ignoring the most important one.

Simply put, there needs to be a change in strategy here or the Lions will forever be at the mercy of elite pass-rushing teams. If American Chris Schleuger wasn’t enough of an upgrade to beat out Knevel in training camp, then throw first-round pick George Una in the fire and start the development for the future.

He may not be ready yet but at this stage, he can’t be any worse than what’s on the field.

New year, same sieve

The B.C. Lions were hoping that the addition of a couple of bigger bodies, led by NFL veteran Christian Covington, into their defensive line rotation would help solve their well-established woes defending the run. That certainly didn’t seem to be the case early in this ball game, as Toronto ran with ease and Covington was nearly invisible.

Ka’Deem Carey finished the night with 16 carries for 65 yards on the ground. He also added four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown, which came after Amir Siddiqi was inexplicably asked to man-cover him at the goal line. Those numbers are hardly otherworldly, but Canadian Daniel Adeboboye also rattled off 19 yards on four carries and quarterback Cameron Dukes scrambled for another 37.

I was rather disappointed with the lack of aggression from B.C.’s linebackers, who never really shot their gaps on run plays unless they were asked to blitz. Josh Woods was supposed to be the guy to change that after his stellar playoff run but he wasn’t really a presence in the backfield against Toronto.

The one player who did make a mark was Sione Teuhema, who flew in like a man possessed on a couple of huge tackles for loss. A violent shoulder check from him in the second half left Carey dazed on the turf and helped turn the tide away from the running game.

The third-year defensive end can’t be the only player making those types of penetrative plays if this defence is to be successful. Hopefully, a wake-up call against the league’s best offensive line will lead to better production in the future.

You’ve got to hand it to him

Vernon Adams Jr. will put the Week 1 loss on his shoulders after committing a pair of fumbles but he deserved better than this result.

Battling an injured throwing hand for much of the game, VA continued to look like an elite quarterback even with pressure in his face. He completed 25-of-33 pass attempts for 363 yards and a pair of gorgeous touchdowns. On the first, he stood in with Derek Parish bearing down from the left to find Justin McInnis for a 29-yard strike over the middle. The following quarter, he dropped a 50-yard teardrop in for a wide-open Travis Fulgham.

The best throw of the night wasn’t even completed, as Adams escaped pressure on third-and-24 from his own end zone and desperately heaved it 50 yards downfield to Alexander Hollins with 1:25 remaining. Halfback Mason Pierce was in perfect coverage to break up the play but it was a miracle the ball even got close.

The quarterback’s lone interception came on a deflection by McInnis, though it shouldn’t have been thrown at all with safety Royce Metchie driving hard on the route. That turnover was on him, but I have a hard time assigning blame for the fumbles given the situation around him. If the blocking was better, this would have been a winning performance from the signal caller.

Letting Dad down

Reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player Mathieu Betts, now a member of the Detroit Lions, was in attendance at BMO Field for the season opener. As he watched on like a proud papa, the kids on the field struggled to live up to his legacy as a pass rusher.

The defensive line unit that floundered early against the run wasn’t any better against the pass and got to Dukes just twice on the night, neither of which were in decisive fashion. They routinely allowed the slippery pivot to extend plays in his third-career start and he gashed them for 37 yards on the ground, while also completing 77.7 percent of his passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns.

While Teuhema had some flashes, I was underwhelmed by the rest of the team and particularly prized free agent defensive end Pete Robertson. He rarely challenged Toronto’s talented tackles and finished with just one tackle, a hellacious hit that came after the first down had already been made.

B.C.’s new-look secondary seemed to play very soft all night and got picked apart without pressure to disrupt Dukes. There weren’t any big explosion plays surrendered but the Argos marched the field almost at will when it mattered. That has to be a concern for coordinator Ryan Phillips, who is betting big on new faces at important positions.

New kids in school

B.C. debuted a pair of new starting receivers on Sunday in Travis Fulgham and Ayden Eberhardt. Each made a memorable play but were largely silent otherwise.

The former NFL journeyman Fulgham was the recipient of a 50-yard touchdown strike from Adams in the second quarter, which he walked in entirely uncontested. Rookie corner Leonard Johnson bit hard on a fake wide receiver screen and let both Fulgham and Eberhardt sail past him, meaning either could have easily had the score.

Eberhardt would finally get his first catch with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, high-pointing a ball in front of Mason Pierce for a spectacular 27-yard gain. I guess when your college QB is Josh Allen, you learn to go up and get a few.

The Lions believe their receiving corps will be just as lethal with the new additions, though I remain skeptical. Both have great potential but I would have liked someone to step up and seize this game. Justin McInnis had 103 yards and Alexander Hollins had 90, but it feels like this team is missing a true number-one target until Keon Hatcher gets back.

One ticket for the Belgian Express

The best defensive play in this game was a historic one, as Canadian defensive end Josh Archibald got on his horse to track down Cameron Dukes outside the pocket in the second quarter and caused him to drop the football. Defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie was there to scoop it up, running 20 yards for his first career major.

Unless I am horribly mistaken, it also marked the first touchdown scored by a Global player in CFL history. Debaillie, who hails from Gistel, Belgium, has been one of the true success stories of the controversial program instituted in 2019 and it was great to see him get one for the trophy case.

It was a banner day for Global players overall as both teams dressed two and each made an impact. French linebacker Maxime Rouyer also logged a special teams tackle for B.C., while German defensive end Thiadric Hansen had a defensive tackle, a special teams tackle, and a sack in his first game for Toronto. Australian punter Josh Haggerty was the best of the bunch, unleashing a couple of boomers and repeatedly pinning the Lions deep.

Rene-ssance

I knew the Lions were going to do something unexpected in their secondary, but I was still a bit surprised to see Canadian Patrice Rene get the nod at strong-side linebacker. He had certainly earned a larger role with his play in the preseason but Nationals in that spot are rarer than hen’s teeth and he doesn’t fit the prototype.

I’m still not convinced that this is the best use of B.C.’s personnel but Rene did notch four defensive tackles, including sticking Ka’Deem Carey for a loss on one blitz, while adding two more on special teams. He also got stuck flat-footed over the middle on Dejon Brissett’s major.

I would have rather seen the team go with the combination used a lot in the second preseason game, which saw Rene at safety and Adrian Greene at field corner. Nevertheless, it is nice to see the Ottawa native rewarded after an injury-plagued start to his career.

Shorting out

B.C. has struggled to reliably convert on short yardage over the last several seasons, but the team’s decision to roll with Vernon Adams Jr. in the jumbo package is absolutely nonsensical.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for an up-tempo sneak with your starter. I’m also not a fan of carrying a player on your roster for no other reason than they fall forward well. Still, one of your other two QBs has to be competent enough to surge behind the line and take hits away from your most valuable player.

VA may be tough as nails but he isn’t the most durable of passers. Since arriving in B.C., the undersized pivot has consistently battled one minor ailment or another while sometimes lacking the instincts to preserve himself. Based on the preseason, neither Jake Dolegala nor Chase Brice are saving you if he goes down. Why then would you want your only chance at Grey Cup victory to take another half a dozen hits per game or more?

Sunday night was a perfect example of why this strategy must end. Adams spent much of the night nursing his throwing hand after it was stepped on and didn’t even succeed in converting all of his sneaks, fumbling for a turnover on downs with 50 seconds remaining in the first half. That wasn’t even his scariest carry of the game, but it did result in three points for the other side.

If Dolegala or Brice can’t step in for some sneaks, the Lions need to find somebody who can — and they need to do it fast.

Flint-off

It’s rare that a team’s punter can be the subject of two negative plays and not give up a big return, but it was an unlucky night for Stefan Flintoft.

The 28-year-old had a rare mistake as a holder following the Lions’ first touchdown, letting the ball slip off his fingertips just as Sean Whyte was lining up to nail the point after. He got the lost point back with a single in the third quarter but that was on a short punt that the Lions wanted pinned in the corner.

I cut Flintoft some slack on that last one, as I’m not sure quite why Rick Campbell didn’t attempt a 47-yard field goal while trailing by three. I understand the risks involved with Janarion Grant back to return and the wind pushing against but that was a tough coffin corner to hit and the team lost valuable yardage in the exchange.

Every dog has his day

There was one silver lining in the Lions letting this game slip away and that was that we got to see Josh Banks field a squib on the game’s final kickoff.

The six-foot-four, 290-pound defensive tackle gave it his all on the 20-yard return, shucking off one would-be tackler before trucking poor Jack Cassar for a few more yards at the end. He was living out every big man’s dream and I’m sure he thought he had a shot at the game-tying score — if only in his own mind.

Behind the lens

The Lions’ success over the last several seasons has been about far more than the quality of the players on the field, with all levels of the organization stepping up their game under Amar Doman’s ownership. There are some supremely talented people plying their craft behind the scenes in Surrey and I would put their off-the-field staff up against any in the league without hesitation.

There is no better example of that than the latest episode of the team’s Arrow Up documentary series, which dropped on Friday. While the Lions’ have been producing these videos for a few years, this one-hour deep dive into training camp is the true masterclass. If you are a CFL fan and haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and give it a watch.

Digital media manager Nik Kowalski was shooting freelance photography for 3DownNation at Winnipeg Blue Bombers games less than three years ago, but now he is shooting and editing NFL Films calibre videos. The Ottawa Redblacks may have done it first with Behind the R but Kowalski’s story-telling has taken CFL content into a new stratosphere. Whether it is showing us equipment fitting through the eyes of converted rugby player Carl Meyer or highlighting a foot race between front-office executives, engaging human narratives are at the forefront of the finished product.

Unlike past editions of the series, this version was also released within weeks of the events taking place, making it far more interesting and topical than ever before. Here’s hoping that trend continues in the future and we get to peek behind the curtain at regular intervals throughout the year.

Next up

The Lions return home to face the Calgary Stampeders on Saturday, June 15 in Vancouver, a game that will have over 50,000 fans in attendance thanks to a pre-game concert from 50 Cent.

Games this early in the season are never make or break — just ask the 2011 squad — but this one could have huge ramifications for the franchise’s pocketbook. If they can come out with an exciting victory, it would be a boon for ticket sales in a Grey Cup year. If they don’t, the casual fans in attendance may just play wait-and-see before coming back.

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.