Five garbage cans, painted yellow, stand upside down, a B.C. Lions football helmet on top of each of them, the setup a stand-in for the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive line.
The Lions’ defence lines up, a light Tuesday practice, no equipment. Practice roster player Gerard Lawson, who wears number eight, poses as a certain Calgary running back, and to look the part, he wears a green mesh jersey with Jon Cornish’s number nine. The Lions run through plays, various running scenarios.
As the Canadian Football League’s most outstanding defence prepares for Cornish, the West Division’s most outstanding player, the obvious question is whether they can stop him – but one that holds equal weight is whether Cornish can crack the Lions’ defenders. In three B.C.-Calgary games this season, Cornish was decidedly not outstanding: he ran for an average of 49 yards per outing, scored no touchdowns and, in the first clash, the Stampeders lost badly at home as Cornish carried the ball six times for a loss of one yard.
The Lions have stopped Cornish with an aggressive attack by the defensive line and by playing as a group, tackling the league’s top-rushing back with a crush of defenders. B.C. closed the “trap door” Cornish often exploits against others, said head coach Mike Benevides, formerly the Lions’ defensive co-ordinator.
“What Jon is outstanding at is finding breakdowns within the front line,” Benevides said after practice on Tuesday.
The Lions’ front four is fearsome – the defence has given up the fewest yards rushing, and has the most sacks – and the unit is now back at full strength. Defensive end Keron Williams, the CFL’s individual sack leader, said “gang tackling” Cornish is crucial. Cornish is patient, Williams said, and is less eager to speed the width of the CFL field compared with running backs from the United States.
“He’s got great vision,” said Williams of Cornish, a 28-year-old who grew up near Vancouver. “He’s physical. He runs upright, and he keeps his shoulder pads low, which means he can jump out of those arm tackles with his legs, and he can run you over. We respect what he’s capable of doing and it’s not one person that’s going to do the job. That’s the great thing about our defence – everybody wants to get their nose dirty, and get a piece of the action. If there’s more than one person flying around to the football, usually great things will happen.”
Williams even floated the possibility of forcing a fumble or two, which would be significant, given Cornish did not lose the ball against B.C. in three outings, and only lost five all season. B.C. has only scored seven turnovers on fumbles this year, the least in the CFL, an odd shortcoming from a defence ranked best in many categories.
The atmosphere at BC Place was light on Tuesday. The Lions are well rested and their biggest names are poised to return to action. Veteran star receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce III will both start in the West Division final on Sunday.
Beyond Cornish, the Stampeder on the Lions’ minds this week is Drew Tate, the Calgary quarterback who missed most of the season and saw only nominal action against B.C.: seven passes several weeks ago in a game that didn’t matter. The lack of tangible recent exposure is a challenge, Benevides acknowledged, but defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler wasn’t too concerned. He was Edmonton’s defensive co-ordinator last year when the Eskimos shut down the Stampeders in the West Division semi-final 33-19, squelching Tate, who was woeful: five for 10, 99 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Still, after Tate’s heroics last weekend against Saskatchewan, he looks like a significant foe. “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” Stubler said of the playoffs. He said B.C. is ready for Tate.
“He’s a gunslinger,” Stubler said. “He reminds me a lot of [Matt] Dunigan. Hoists the game up on his shoulders, makes great plays to win football games, which is what he did last week.”