CFL Pass

Ed Willes: Revamped Lions will present a whole different test for the Eskimos

DeVone Claybrooks was breaking down film of his team’s first two meetings with the Edmonton Eskimos when he started to laugh.

Let’s see, the Lions coach said as he took inventory of everything that’s happened to his lineup over the last three months. They’ve got a new left guard (Hunter Steward), a new centre (Philip Norman), a new right guard (David Foucault) and a new right tackle (Justin Renfrow).

On the other side of the ball there’s a new rush end (Shawn Lemon), a new tackle (David Menard), a new middle linebacker (Maleki Harris), a new weak-side backer (Isaiah Guzylak-Messam) and a new field corner (Crezdon Butler). The punter, Josh Bartel, had been there all of one game and there’s a new return man in Ryan Lankford to consider.

Throw in safety Branden Dozier, who’d played three games to that point in the season, and Claybrooks was looking at 12 new starters since the start of the regular season.

“I was watching the game film and I’m saying, ‘Oh man, this guy’s different. That guy’s different,” said the Lions’ head coach. “We’ve definitely evolved our team. It’s a different time for us.”

Yes, a little different than 1-10.

“It took longer than expected,” Claybrooks continued. “I mean, we never thought we’d start that way but we’ve put ourselves in that hole and now we’re trying to dig our way out.”

But they’re still digging, which is the larger point to consider here.


NEXT GAME

Saturday

B.C. Lions vs. Edmonton Eskimos

4 p.m., Commonwealth Stadium, TV: TSN; Radio: TSN 1040 AM


In this, an intensely complicated season for the Leos, the calculus has suddenly become intensely simple for Claybrooks’ team. Beginning with Saturday’s meeting in Edmonton, they have to win their final three games and hope the Esks lose their final three games.

Granted, the odds aren’t exactly in their favour, but there are some circumstances to consider. The Lions, for starters, have won four games in a row. True, just one of those victories came against a team with a plus-.500 record, but that streak represents the Leos’ first signs of life in 2019.

The Esks, for their part, have lost five or their last six, and franchise quarterback Trevor Harris currently sits on the six-game injured list. It’s conceivable Harris could return to the lineup this weekend, which would change things considerably.

But as things stand, the Esks still close with a home-and-home series against Saskatchewan, while the Lions face the ‘Riders and Calgary at B.C. Place in their final two outings. As mentioned, the Lions aren’t exactly betting favourites to make the playoffs, but the mere fact they’re playing a meaningful game in October represents something of an achievement for this team.

“It certainly feels good to have a game where guys know what’s at stake,” said quarterback Mike Reilly. “Obviously we weren’t the team (in their two earlier losses to the Esks) we are now. We expected to get there sooner. But at least we’re there now.”

And therein lies a story.

The Lions’ 33-6 loss to the Eskimos back on July 11 at B.C. Place was part of their inglorious 0-5 start that eventually bottomed out at 1-10 with a Labour Day weekend loss to the Als in Montreal. To that point, the Leos had been competitive in all but a couple of their games but, through a combination of factors too complex to list here, they consistently found new and creative ways to lose.

But it’s a funny thing. The many in-season changes authored by general manager Ed Hervey started to have an effect before the Montreal loss and gained real traction beginning with a pair of wins over the woeful Redblacks.

The key has been a revamped offensive line that finally gave Reilly the time to work the vertical passing game. The veteran quarterback now leads the CFL in passing yards, Bryan Burnham leads the league in receiving yards and Duron Carter has emerged as a threat.

Lamar Durant was also on his way to a 1,000-yard season before suffering a season-ending foot injury against the Argos.

The defence, meanwhile, has strung together six straight strong performances, led by a resurgent pass rush. Lemon has eight sacks in seven games since joining the Lions, who’ve allowed an average of 13 points per game over their last six outings.

“We had a whole new coaching staff and new players,” said the irrepressible Odell Willis. “We had to get our special teams fixed. We had to fix our O-line. We had to find guys in our secondary.

“Now we’ve got the pieces and you see the results. I feel like right now we’re playing some of the best football in the CFL.”

That’s a lot of fixing and it raises a number of questions about some of Hervey’s personnel decisions in the off-season. But those questions can wait. For the moment the Lions have a chip and a chair and a faint glimmer of hope.

It isn’t much, but considering where they were a month ago, they’ll take it.

ewilles@postmedia.com


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Source: theprovince.com