CFL Pass

Reilly era begins at B.C. Place with tough test against Blue Bombers



Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs. B.C. Lions

7 p.m., B.C. Place Stadium, TV: TSN; Radio: Team 1040 AM

Five things to watch

1. Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name

Unlike their NHL neighbours across the street, the B.C. Lions didn’t opt for a slow and steady rebuild this off-season, going all in on quarterback Mike Reilly while turning over two-thirds of the team’s starters. With all those changes, the biggest question facing this squad is how quickly they’ll come together. Reilly is either the best or second-best quarterback in the CFL. He’ll have to be all of that this season for the Lions to threaten in the West.

2. Then there’s Winnipeg

Like every CFL team, the Blue Bombers had seismic changes to their lineup during the off-season. Unlike a lot of those teams, the Bombers emerged with a solid nucleus.

The hardest hit area was the offensive line where OG Sukh Chungh signed with the Lions, and C Matthias Goossen retired. An impressive secondary also lost Taylor Loffler, Chris Randle and Kevin Fogg, but the Bombers added DE Willie Jefferson, maybe the CFL’s best pass rusher, and WR Chris Matthews to a solid core of veterans.

Quarterback Matt Nichols has weapons in RB Andrew Harris, WR Darvin Adams and Matthews. The defence is built around former Lion LB Adam Bighill and Jefferson. This is a solid team with legitimate Grey Cup aspirations.

3. The Lions’ offensive line

The Leos threw big money at Chungh — $250,000 per over three years — to rebuild the O-line and keep Reilly upright. With veteran OG Hunter Steward moving to centre they’ll be starting four Canadians. They have to be difference-makers this season.

4. The Lions’ defence

When you’ve spent more than $1 million on two free agents it figures you’re going to have to cut corners elsewhere. The Lions are gambling they can build an adequate defence on the cheap. There are some solid veterans — most notably DBs T.J. Lee and Aaron Grymes and DT Davon Coleman — but there are a lot of questions marks on the unit.

5. The crowd

The Lions’ attendance has fallen from an average of more than 30,000 per game in 2012 to just under 20,000 last season. Reilly gives them a marketable star and an exciting offence. Now, will anyone show up to watch?

Inside the game

Harris led the CFL in rushing last year and he’s not exactly going against The Steel Curtain in his first game out.

The Lions’ running game, meanwhile, is a great unknown. Former Eskimo John White figures to get the bulk of the reps in the first game, but former Alouette Brandon Rutley will be in the lineup. The Lions have to offer the threat of a running game to make the offence function efficiently. That’s a big ask against Bighill and his mates in the first game.

Key matchup

Bombers DE Willie Jefferson vs. Lions OT Joel Figueroa

The larger point is the Bombers’ pass rush against the Lions revamped offensive line but Jefferson is the man the Leos must contain. He’ll line up in a variety of different positions which means stopping him will be a group responsibility.

The O-line is entrusted with Reilly’s health. This is an interesting first test.

Willes’ take

There’s a lot of optimism surrounding Reilly and the offence as the Lions start the season. The defence is another matter entirely but, in their first outing, the combination of the new quarterback and adrenalin should be enough.

Prediction: B.C. 33, Winnipeg 27

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