It’s not as if the B.C. Lions have fallen down a well, lost their mojo or forgotten how to cover receivers.
Actually, they did forget how to cover receivers Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which is why the CFL West Division has undergone a significant shift. It’s not a B.C. runaway any more; it’s a three-team pursuit.
When the Lions dropped a 27-21 decision in Regina, it loosened their hold on first place and delivered fresh hope to the Riders and Calgary Stampeders. It also intensified the competition between the three foes.
B.C. (9-4) has now lost twice to Saskatchewan (7-6). Saskatchewan has lost twice to Calgary (8-5). B.C. has beaten Calgary once this season and the two teams meet Saturday at B.C. Place in the marquee matchup of Week 15. The outcome of that game will have a bearing on which side gets top billing and a first-round playoff bye.
“What’s happened is Calgary and Saskatchewan are starting to win more consistently,” said Lions general manager Wally Buono, who wasn’t impressed with how his team performed against the Riders. “The thing that was disappointing was for 571/2 minutes we weren’t in the game. Then we woke up for a period of time then we made some more mistakes. I don’t think we looked very good.”
The Lions have plenty to work on. Not only did they fall behind on the scoreboard and have to stage another furious comeback, they lost the two receivers they could ill afford to lose. Arland Bruce III was helped off the field after taking a hit and bouncing his head off the turf. Geroy Simon pulled a hamstring. Neither man returned to the game; both are unlikely to play against Calgary.
Without Bruce and Simon, the Lions have plenty of receiving targets as Marco Ianuzzi proved by scoring two touchdowns against Saskatchewan. But Bruce and Simon are the go-to veterans; they open things up for their teammates, draw extra coverage. Without them, the Lions become that much easier to defend and more reliant on running back Andrew Harris.
“If we have to go with new guys at receiver, they’ll come in with enthusiasm and fresh legs and hopefully make some plays,” Buono said.
Defensively, the Lions need work, too. Missing the injured Khalif Mitchell, the pass rush was lacking against Riders quarterback Darian Durant, who threw for 371 yards and three touchdowns. Weston Dressler had eight catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns and was embarrassingly open on both. (He had a third touchdown called back by a penalty.) Greg Carr also scored on a 46-yard throw after being left uncovered. For a guy who is still bothered by a hip injury, Durant looked remarkably good at setting up and delivering the deep ball.
“We needed to be in the race and win games, especially at home, especially against the West,” Riders GM Brendan Taman said. “We’ve only lost one game at home to a Western team this year and that’s good because it’s going to be a dog fight [to the finish].”
B.C. will be in a full-fledged skirmish with the Stampeders, who have won five of their last six games. Calgary’s worst loss this season was a 26-point beatdown in Vancouver that saw running back Jon Cornish limited to six carries for minus-one yard rushing. That prompted an angry outburst from Cornish, who criticized himself and his offensive line for a lousy effort.
Since then, Cornish has averaged 109 yards per game and is closing in on the single-season rushing record set by a Canadian. Cornish needs just 311 yards in his last five games to better Normie Kwong’s total of 1,437. That means the Lions will have to tackle and cover on defence if they want to stay comfortably atop the West.
It only gets tighter from here to the end, Buono said.