Hoggies grind, Hollins shines as B.C. Lions best Bombers (& 10 other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

It doesn’t count until November but the B.C. Lions proved why they are the favourites in the West Division on Friday, besting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Princess Auto Stadium by a score of 26-24.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Time after time

Regular readers of this column know that I have no problem levelling criticism when necessary. At times, I have been accused of being overly harsh, sometimes drawing the ire of an aggrieved fan or player. But my code as a writer dictates that however scathing my criticism might be, my praise must be equally effusive when corrected.

I lambasted the Lions’ offensive line following the team’s Week 1 loss to Toronto — an editorial opinion that I stand by fully.  I pinned the result directly on their shoulders and put it right in the title of the article. For a position group that balks at the limelight, there could be no greater shame and I doubt my quiet kudos for their handling of the blitz last week against Calgary did anything to salve the wounds.

This week, it is time to pay it back. Simply put, there was no greater factor in this victory than the play of the offensive line. Vernon Adams Jr. was brilliant under centre, strafing the Bombers for 398 yards and two touchdowns through the air, but he routinely had four seconds or more to get the ball out of his hands. Sure, his pocket mobility helped to generate the slew of explosive passing plays but don’t kid yourselves: he was buying an extra half second while his big men constructed a grandfather clock with their bare hands.

Picking which of the team’s long passing plays was their finest would be like selecting a favourite child — you secretly have one, but it seems inappropriate to put one above the rest. Personally, I’m partial to the fourth-quarter dagger that all but ended the game, as the Bombers sent the house deep in B.C.’s own end and never got close to the quarterback. The protection was so beautiful that it almost brought a tear to my eye.

The unit surrendered just two sacks on the evening, which came on consecutive plays in the third quarter. Neither was an egregious bust and VA even had time to step up on the first before running himself into trouble. They also had a very solid evening on the ground, paving the way for 83 yards from William Stanback.

Critics can rightfully point out that Winnipeg is much more inexperienced up front than they’ve been in the past, but this is still a team that is sending Willie Jefferson off the edge. After consecutive strong outings, it is clear that the changes B.C. made to their OL have merit. American Chris Schleuger is making a difference at left guard and Tyler Packer is showing poise at centre that I was not expecting.

It will take defeating a truly elite pass rush to fully put concerns to rest, but things are trending in the right direction in a big way.

Number one gunner

While the offensive line should get the credit, the majority of Friday’s headlines will focus on receiver Alexander Hollins. The 27-year-old all-star dazzled with seven catches for a whopping 215 yards and two touchdowns, seemingly coming down with every big play the Lions needed.

It was a 71-yard touchdown catch from Hollins which set the tone for this game, as he first toasted strong-side linebacker Redha Kramdi on the stop-and-go before putting halfback Evan Holm in a blender to finish the score. He blew by Holm again for 29 yards on his second major, then embarrassed safety Brandon Alexander on a 63-yard catch with just under two minutes remaining to put Winnipeg to bed. Given all that brilliance, you can probably forgive him for the strange decision to kneel at the end of that play.

I took some heat a few weeks back for questioning whether Hollins was a true number-one receiver — a take that several fans were quick to throw back in my face after this one. To be clear, I still hold that opinion, though I believe it has been misconstrued. Anyone who watches the CFL knows that the best number-two targets are perennial thousand-yard all-stars who are essential to their team’s success. To me, a number one target just needs to have a certain physicality to their game that the 175-pounder lacks but just like calling a quarterback a game-manager, that shouldn’t carry a negative connotation.

Against the Bombers, Hollins took full advantage of matchups that favoured his speed and proved just how immensely valuable he is. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed this team recently, no matter how you choose to define his particular role.

All thriller, no killer

It was rather fitting to have this game end with a series of kneel-downs inside the Bombers’ 10-yard line, as missed opportunities to score majors would have been the story if the result was reversed.

Despite what the tight margin of victory and the thrilling back-and-forth finish might suggest, the Lions were the superior team by far in this one. They outgained their opponent 500 yards to 339 and essentially doubled their output in the first half. The fact that the visitors were lucky to escape with a two-point victory speaks to their consistent failure to finish.

It seemed like B.C. had a chance to end the game before it had barely begun, dominating on their first offensive and defensive series. But after driving deep into Winnipeg territory with a chance to go up by 14, Travis Fulgham mistimed his jump in tight coverage from Evan Holm and let a TD pass fall out of reach.

There is a school of thought that says the Lions should have gone for it on third-and-four from the Bombers’ five-yard line, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to silence a hostile crowd and stun their rival. Head coach Rick Campbell instead opted to be conservative and lifted his foot an inch off the neck of the four-time West Division champs, kicking a short field goal. Unsurprisingly, the home side responded to the glimmer of hope with a 14-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.

To their credit, the Lions easily regained the momentum but they still struggled to find paydirt. Another strong drive stalled at the Winnipeg seven-yard line when Adams was slowed up while scrambling behind a plodding Sukh Chungh, who was throttling down in space. The incidental contact wasn’t much but proved to be just enough to keep the quarterback from gaining the edge on the run, which resulted in him being hauled down well short of the sticks. VA tweaked his knee on the play and Sean Whyte was asked to hit another chip shot.

While it wasn’t a red zone drive, B.C. again squandered a brilliant opportunity on their final offensive series of the half. After a sensational punt from Stefan Flintoft and a quick two-and-out from the defence, the Lions had the ball at mid-field with points all but assured. The embattled Fulgham changed that when he turned upfield after a short catch and dangled the football like a ripe fruit, allowing Marquise Bridges to pluck it. It was only thanks to a stroke of luck and a favourable call that the lead was six at the intermission.

Though it wasn’t as disastrous as the others, Fulgham was also on the receiving end of a third red zone whiff in the fourth quarter. He clearly ran the wrong route on a first-down incompletion and got chewed out by VA, who unsuccessfully targeted him again on the next play in the end zone. With that, the team’s four best scoring chances resulted in a measly nine points.

Whether it is through better execution or more aggressive decision-making, the Lions need to find ways to finish their drives with touchdowns. This result was simply too close for comfort given the strength of the performance overall and it needs to be taken as a lesson if they want to avoid dropping winnable games.

Berry-picking

If it wasn’t obvious from the above section, Travis Fulgham’s tenure as a starting receiver continues to be tumultuous. He caught three of the eight passes thrown his way for 33 yards, which would have actually been an improvement from last week’s drop-fest if not for several critical errors.

The clock is ticking for the former NFL journeyman to prove he belongs in a feature role and it sped up with Stanley Berryhill III making his debut against Winnipeg. The newcomer made one obvious mistake, forcing the team to burn a valuable timeout in the fourth quarter when he failed to line up properly, but redeemed himself quickly after an ear-full from Hollins.

Berryhill finished with four catches for 42 yards and looked good doing it, showing some explosive flashes. He also generated one of the best moments of the night when he ran out of bounds and deftly hurdled the video board in front of a female Bombers fan. The woman appeared quite taken with the action and Berryhill was suave with a cheeky wave and grin, showing off some of what the kids are calling “rizz” these days.

When Jevon Cottoy returns from injury, the Lions will be forced to bench one of their American targets. For my money, Berryhill made enough of a case to stick around, while Fulgham continued to work himself out of a job.

Holding back the tide

There weren’t many resounding takeaways from the Lions’ performance on defence, which might best be described as adequate. They didn’t generate any turnovers but also avoided any explosive plays against — a statement only made possible thanks to a near-miss deep ball to Nic Demski late in the fourth dropping to the turf.

My biggest critique was that it seemed as if the unit was a little too soft — both schematically and metaphorically. A middling Bombers attack was allowed to grind out long drives and accrue excess yards without challenge, especially in the second half. With the exception of a brilliant bull rush from Pete Robertson on the second series of the game which resulted in a sack, B.C. was the less physical of the two teams.

Nowhere did this seem more apparent than short yardage, where Bombers’ backup Chris Streveler was a lightning rod for his team. The formerly fur-clad Grey Cup cult hero is a madman with the ball in his hands at the worst of times and the Lions simply couldn’t match his zeal for contact as he plunged for three touchdowns. His mere presence seemed to open up opportunities elsewhere, as a banged-up Brady Oliveira gained steam late in the game thanks to Streveler drawing defenders with him.

Cornerback Garry Peters, who finished with a team-high nine tackles, tried to spark his team with some hits in the flats but the shoulder pads never popped like expected. Aggression just seemed to be lacking on Friday night from both the players and play-caller, though it didn’t end up costing them.

The more you can do…

It was impossible not to smile when backup centre Andrew Peirson ran out as a tight end in the second quarter and rumbled for 13 yards on his first career catch. Cornerback Tyrell Ford simply ignored the six-foot-three, 300-pounder as he settled in the flat, costing his team a first down.

There is no better play in football than an offensive lineman catching a pass and this one was particularly enjoyable due to the individual involved. Peirson has defied the odds to stick around for six seasons as an undrafted Canadian and is always a pleasure to talk to despite a rough past few months. He lost his first starting gig at left guard to David Knevel down the stretch last year, then got leapfrogged by Tyler Packer to be the sixth man this year and replace Michael Couture at centre. It was nice to see a good guy finally get a win.

In football, the more things you can do, the more valuable you are. Peirson has embodied that, playing both ways for stretches in college and becoming something of a coach’s assistant throughout his career as a pro. He was a big part of Stanback’s success on the ground in Winnipeg when brought in on the jumbo package and finished with more receptions than one of the team’s starting receivers, Ayden Eberhardt.

Clocking out

It was a really rough night for the official timekeeper in Winnipeg, as head referee Andre Proulx had to intervene on several occasions with long and complex corrections. Fans will incorrectly direct their ire at the Francophone in stripes and he could have handled the announcements more smoothly, but it was clear that he was apologetic to the Lions on the several occasions he had to stop play.

Poor Sean Whyte was nearly inadvertently iced before a pivotal field goal, but the Bombers got the worst of the clock issues. With time ticking down on the last drive of the first half, Zach Collaros scrambled a little too long and left the team with just one second remaining for a field goal. However, the booth reviewed the play at the behest of the Lions and it was found that the clock had been started late. The second was snatched away, as was their chance to score.

I think the officials ultimately got this call right, though it was extremely close. Even if they were off by a few milliseconds, I have no sympathy for Winnipeg after they tried to run with 11 seconds left.

Zero discipline

The Lions put forth a very disciplined performance with just five penalties for 41 yards, but the bulk of that came courtesy of one man. Defensive end Sione Teuhema was flagged twice for major penalties in critical moments, nearly costing his team.

No. 0’s first infraction was for objectionable conduct prior to the end of half field goal fiasco, moving the Bombers in tight and allowing them to take an end zone shot. He followed that up with a roughing the passer call late in the fourth quarter which helped set up an easy go-ahead kick for Winnipeg.

Teuhema has been very good for the Lions lately but he can’t afford these costly unforced errors. This isn’t the first time he has struggled with extracurriculars, earning a one-game suspension for striking an opponent last year. Now in his third season, it has to stop.

Caught slipping

Was it just me or did it seem like the Lions’ defensive backs were slipping an awful lot on the Princess Auto Stadium turf? Cornerback Jordan Perryman in particular seemed to be floundering, losing his footing on nearly every comeback or hook. Given that Winnipeg didn’t experience this, it seems like it may have been a cleat issue.

Of course, Perryman’s worst play of the night can’t be blamed on poor footwear. His missed tackle on Drew Wolitarsky early in the fourth quarter helped set up the Bombers’ final major and was as lazy of an attempt at a shoulder check as I’ve ever seen. He is very lucky it didn’t prove more costly in the win column.

Looking for parachutes

This victory is monumental for a Lions squad looking to unseat Winnipeg as the predominant power in the West, but don’t get too excited yet. B.C. were crowned kings by many after their Week 3 win over the Bombers last year but that far more dominant performance meant nothing in the months that followed.

The difference is that this loss has bumped Winnipeg to 0-3 on the season — a mark that has been unconscionable for the last several years — but I’m not convinced that this plane crash has left no survivors. The Bombers remain the biggest threat to B.C.’s home Grey Cup hopes and they can only get better from here.

The Lions (2-1) will return to action on Thursday, June 27 when they host the winless Edmonton Elks at 7:00 p.m. PDT.

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.