B.C. Lions party like it’s their birthday in sellout home-opener (& 12 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

I don’t know what you heard about the B.C. Lions, but a Stampeder can’t get a win out of them.

The Lions opened their 2024 home slate with a pre-game concert from rap icon 50 Cent and a 26-17 victory over their rivals from Cowtown. Here are my thoughts on the game.

In da (Quiet) Club

There was a record 53,788 fans packed into the friendly confines of BC Place on Saturday afternoon, marking the highest attendance for a home opener in franchise history and the biggest crowd for a football game in Vancouver since the 2011 Grey Cup. While not all of those casual ticket-goers remained after 50 Cent snuck out the back of the stadium in his black Escalade, those that did never seemed to make a discernable impact on the game.

This has been a criticism levelled at opening day Vancouver crowds before, particularly with the Kickoff Concert series driving non-football fans into the building. There is a certain base volume that a mass of humanity that large carries but they were shockingly subdued otherwise, requiring significant prompting to initiate their cheering. Simply put, there were too many new butts in seats for the energy to keep up when the pace of play faltered.

Unfortunately for the Lions, their start bore striking similarities to Fiddy’s pre-game show. That is to say that weeks of hype, a boatload of pyrotechnics, and bone-rattling bass culminated in a man emerging from the smoke still fiddling with his mic pack, only to be quickly smothered by a few gyrating figures clad in red.

The Stampeders sent heavy pressure early in the game and the Lions were ill-equipped to handle it, resulting in three straight two-and-outs. The team struggled to generate any traction until late in the first quarter and already trailed by seven at that stage. Even setting aside the disappointing execution, it was exactly what the home side needed to avoid if they wanted to maximize the impact of their gate.

While the Lions’ play improved considerably, the crowd actually lost steam. Their elation after every touchdown was genuine but there was significant attrition in terms of numbers, as maybe three-fifths of the original contingent remained in their seats by the late stages of the fourth quarter. Given that this was a one-score ball game, that was deeply disappointing.

This game was a victory for B.C.’s marketing department, as packing a venue the size of BC Place isn’t easy these days. That accomplishment should be lauded but it is also clear that the team hasn’t yet struck the right tone with its in-game experience to keep those new ticket buyers engaged. That may be the most important step for an organization that continues to make strides off the field.

Many Men

All eyes were on the Lions’ offensive line following their disastrous Week 1 performance, with two new players entering the lineup. American Chris Schleuger replaced the embattled David Knevel at left guard, while Canadian Tyler Packer made his first career start at centre in place of the injured Michael Couture.

When Vernon Adams Jr. was put under duress early, you could almost hear the pitchforks sharpening in the crowd. However, the bulk of the pressure that B.C. faced on Saturday was not the offensive line’s fault, as Calgary routinely sent more than five rushers and seemed to make max blitzes their base package for much of the first half.

It was clear that defensive coordinator Brent Monson was trying to overwhelm an inexperienced centre and fluster VA. That strategy did result in six total two-and-outs but Packer mostly answered the bell with his protection calls, as the Lions never surrendered a sack and took just one penalty due to confusion up front. It was ugly at times but the protection did enough in a nearly unwinnable scenario.

“They were doing a really good job on the sideline of talking and adjusting,” head coach Rick Campbell complimented post-game. “They were throwing some different stuff at us and some pressure which requires communication on the bench with the coaches and the players and the running backs and everybody. I was proud that they were very workman-like.”

There were a few promising signs in the running game for the offensive line as well, with the biggest push seemingly coming from that new-look left side, but that doesn’t mean that all the questions up front have been answered. This wasn’t the best game schematically to evaluate them on their ability to hold up one-on-one, nor was it against an opponent that strikes fear in many hearts.

No matter what the unit looks like in front of him, I’d like to see VA replace the blitzer with the ball more frequently and pull the trigger quicker in these situations — a sentiment the quarterback agrees with. He stood in to hit the deep shots that mattered in this game but sometimes seemed to time travel back to the Michael Reilly era, where every throw cost an ounce of flesh and a year off the QB’s life.

“As a quarterback, you’ve got to make those cover zero throws, get it out your hand now,” Adams admitted. “The O-line did what they’re supposed to do, they got their guys, and I can get us into different calls to help us out. We had to adjust and we did, but we still want to be more consistent.”

Hladik’s Ambition

After they were criticized for a below-average outing against the run last week, the Lions’ defence stepped up with a huge performance at home. Calgary’s dangerous tailback tandem of Dedrick Mills and B.J. Emmons was held to 50 yards on 15 carries, with a single 16-yard scamper by Mills being the only run of substance.

There was some solid play up front towards that end but the biggest factor may have been Canadian linebacker Ben Hladik, who looked like a man possessed. It would appear he read my complaint about a lack of aggression from the second level against Toronto and flew downhill with intent against the Stamps, making 10 tackles, including a couple in the backfield, and an interception.

Hladik was not made available to the media after the game due to a family commitment but his running mate Josh Woods, who registered seven stops, succinctly described their frustration with the narrative around their run defence.

“It’s the same thing all the time. It’s like every few games, y’all are gonna say that,” he said. “Stop the run, it’s just being sound.”

The Lions were very sound this week, which Woods attributed to being able to make adjustments on the fly. Unbeknownst to the public, the team’s iPads were not functioning in Toronto to be able to review film on the sideline, leaving them at a disadvantage. The tech worked for this one and it showed in the results.

The Stampeders had to do some adjusting of their own to get Mills the ball, which led to him catching six passes for 99 yards on screens, swings, and wheels. Hladik’s best play may have come on the latter, as he fought past a pick from Cam Echols to track the running back down from behind with a shoelace tackle. It was still a 46-yard gain and Reggie Begelton scored soon after, but the hustle was impressive.

If I Can’t (Catch It)

If you are going to beat a blitzing team, you have to hit on a few shots downfield — which usually entails absorbing some punishment. Adams certainly did that in this game, connecting on 17-of-29 passes for 277 yards and two scores, but not all his best throws were rewarded.

Alexander Hollins was B.C.’s leading receiver with eight catches for 97 yards but his biggest play should have come late in the second quarter when he blew past Demerio Houston down the left sideline. VA hit him for a sure-fire touchdown, but the ball handcuffed him slightly on his shoulder and fell harmlessly to the turf. Hollins made up for it with a few tough catches on the sideline and fought back against tight coverage for an impressive touchdown later in the game.

Others never got their redemption arc, as newcomer Travis Fulgham dropped a beautiful pass in the end zone in the third quarter which cost the team points. It wasn’t the easiest catch with coverage on his back but it needed to be caught. He lost all sympathy by failing to haul in five of his six targets on the night.

“He’s new to us,” Campbell said when asked to assess the former NFL journeyman. “We really like his ability and his size and all that stuff, so there’s lots of things to like about him. I don’t know enough about him yet though, to be to be honest with you. He would fit into that category of room for growth.”

Fulgham finally caught a ball with less than two minutes remaining in the game, making a brilliant adjustment to snag 11 yards and a first down. Fellow newcomer Ayden Eberhardt also recorded just a single reception, though his was a 59-yard bomb where he cooked Canadian rookie Ben Labrosse and set up a VA touchdown plunge.

Justin McInnis continued to be the top target in crunch time, hauling in four catches for 91 yards and a major. His total would have been even higher had he been able to hang on to an acrobatic catch over the middle late in the game, though the highly contested nature of that play means it was far from a drop.

Of course, the best catch of the night was by Adams himself, who gained four yards after corralling a batted ball. He said post-game that his strategy is to immediately throw another pass at any receiver who drops one, so it is probably a good thing he hauled that one in.

How to Rub

Rookie Ronald Kent Jr. was making his first start at field halfback in place of Ciante Evans and appeared to be victimized by the Stampeders on a couple of occasions. He was credited with seven tackles due to the high number of passes thrown his way and was flagged for pass interference on Cole Tucker late in the game.

Kent might have been at fault on the Stampeders’ first touchdown as well, though it was an excellent play call and design from Dave Dickenson. Marken Michel was the outside receiver in trips but ran a quick slant inside as Reggie Begelton drove out to set a pick on corner Jordan Perryman. Kent was slow to switch off and change direction, getting rubbed out by Clark Barnes as he ran strong-side linebacker Patrice Rene out of the play. You could also nitpick safety Adrian Greene for not anticipating and driving down sooner, though this concept is incredibly difficult to defend.

Calgary seemed to use a lot of rubs in their offensive scheme and there was another on their second touchdown, though it was the man doing the rubbing, Begelton, who ultimately beat Rene with a ridiculous adjustment for the score.

Magic Stick

There were two huge tackles by defensive backs in this game that played a significant role in the result.

The first came in the second quarter when the Stampeders were in the red zone and it seemed certain that they would score their second touchdown of the contest. Marken Michel was all alone in the flats when Emmanuel Rugamba came out of nowhere late to stop him short of the goal line. Sione Teuhema stuffed Dedrick Mills for a loss on the next play and Calgary settled for a short field goal, keeping the score a manageable 10-7.

The Lions were leading by a score in the fourth with the Stampeders marching when Jordan Perryman came up with the deciding play of the game. After Mills caught the ball over a mistimed jump from Kent on the outside and seemed certain to bury it deep in B.C. territory, the rookie cornerback rallied downhill for a textbook tackle that popped the pigskin loose. Josh Woods made a heads-up play to bat it out of bounds and all the wind went out of Calgary’s sails.

Candy Shop

Any section on the Lions’ run game had to be titled after this 50 Cent hit because the idea of this team actually handing the ball to William Stanback is so seductive. Fittingly, there were whispers of ‘Don’t you stop’ coming from the press box when they finally fed the prized free agent late in the first quarter, resulting in the team’s first first down of the game.

Stanback finished with 15 carries for 69 yards, gaining larger chunks of yardage as the game went on, but he still felt underutilized. Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic went away from him for long stretches and often suffered as a result.

If teams are going to threaten this offensive line with pressure, a heavy dose of Stanback needs to be part of the solution. My advice is to get used to licking this particular lollipop because it will hit the spot eventually.

Patiently Waiting

On paper, the departure of Mathieu Betts left B.C. without a viable Canadian end rusher. Joshua Archibald appears to be proving that assumption false through two games.

The third-year man out of McGill brutalized Calgary right tackle Josh Coker for a sack in this game, already his second of the season. His rotational role remains small but Archibald is rapidly making the case for more playing time after paying his dues on special teams.

I’m still not overly confident in the Lions’ pass rush but they had a passable showing on Saturday, leaving Jake Maier unbothered for stretches but ultimately finishing with four sacks. That included the first in orange and black from both Pete Robertson and Christan Covington.

Rouyer Music

Global linebacker Maxime Rouyer had himself a day on special teams, collecting four tackles. With five on the year, he is just one shy of his career-high mark from last year and has exceeded the combined total from his first three years in the league.

Now in his fifth CFL season, the 29-year-old Frenchman seems to have found another gear and is proving to be another valuable international contributor plucked off the scrap heap.

Just a Lil Block

It will get lost in the shuffle of this victory but the fact that the Lions had two extra-point attempts blocked is a big red flag. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that at the CFL level and Rick Campbell dispelled any notion that it was a minor issue.

“That’s a big thing,” he stressed. “We’re gonna have to look at that. We always spend time looking at the team we’re playing, their field goal team, you look for the weak spots and where you can attack. Obviously, they found something and we’re gonna have to make sure we correct it.”

It’s possible that the first kick came low off the foot of Sean Whyte, but there was substantial penetration on the second. There are no microchips to be blamed here, only blocking issues.

Window Shopper

A huge shoutout to the Lions, and specifically manager of communications and content Matt Baker, for allowing me to take in Saturday’s game with a guest in the press box.

One of my high school athletes had expressed an interest in pursuing a career in sports journalism after she graduates next year and the team graciously allowed her to accompany me for a ride-along. It was a huge opportunity for a 17-year-old to get a glimpse at the glamorous lifestyle of a CFL reporter and I am sure she will carry it with her as she goes forward into her future profession.

We need more young, diverse voices covering sports, especially in the CFL. The Lions should be applauded for helping to make that a reality.

21 Questions

There is still plenty left to answer about the 2024 version of the B.C. Lions as they head to Winnipeg next week for a date with the Bombers. That much-anticipated matchup has lost some zip due to Winnipeg’s 0-2 start but it could still be a deciding factor in the fate of the West Division.

The most important part of this victory is that it renewed faith within the locker room and gave the team confidence going forward.

“I feel like we got the monkey off our back,” said linebacker Josh Woods. “Last week, it didn’t feel like it was us. We made all these moves and it’s like, ‘Who are we?’ I feel like we feel like us again.”

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.