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VANCOUVER– Same matchup, similar rosters, different scenario might be the best way to describe Friday night’s regular season opener between the Lions and the Bombers at BC Place.
Bombers players have had seven months to dwell over last November’s 34-23 loss to BC in the 99th Grey Cup, and fittingly they’ll get a chance for slight redemption right at the sound of the gun. Of course, it’ll have to wait until after they watch the championship banner raised to the rafters at BC Place.
Not too much has changed for either of these teams after capping off last season at a beautifully-renovated BC Place, which will also be the site of Friday’s game.
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The Lions may not be closing in on another Grey Cup just yet, but at least one Lion will have a chance to reach an impressive milestone.
Slotback Geroy Simon is just 68 yards away from becoming the CFL’s all-time leading receiver, ahead of recently-named Hall of Famer Milt Stegall. Simon has a chance to break the mark of 15,153 in front of a large BC Place gathering and against Stegall’s old team.
Perhaps the biggest question coming into this game emerged only recently, when Bombers’ star running back Chris Garrett was sidelined during practice on June 26 and appears to be on the shelf for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in his leg.
The Bombers let go of Fred Reid last season after Garrett’s emergence, now leaving a depleted backfield ahead of Friday night’s opener.
With the Lions boasting just about the same ferocious Grey Cup-winning defence as a year ago, minus Solomon Elimimian, this is sure to be a tough test and a solid measuring stick for Head Coach Paul LaPolice’s offence.
Pierce will have to shake off the rust rather quickly against his former team, after getting action in just one pre-season game and struggling to establish any rhythm.
Travis Lulay, meanwhile, appears to be in mid-season form after a pair of strong pre-season performances, and it’ll be interesting to see how he matches up against a veteran Bombers secondary that’s now the focal point of Winnipeg’s defence.
While the Lions appear to be the favourite coming in, the Bombers have won the previous three regular season meetings, the last one being a 30-17 back in August.
Kickoff is at 10 P.M. ET. The game can be seen live on TSN.
Mike Benevides has a pretty tough act to follow after the Lions’ historical Grey Cup run last season, led by Wally Buono and on the heels of a gloomy 0-5 start.
Buono’s nine-year resume with the Lions speaks for itself, boasting a record of 101-60-1 and including five West Division championships and two Grey Cups.
Known in the past for his propensity to develop quarterbacks, he had his fair share during the decade he coaches in BC, with the Lions becoming a quarterback factory for the rest of the CFL, producing the likes of Casey Printers, Jarious Jackson, Buck Pierce, and Travis Lulay.
What can Benevides even do for an encore?
Believe it or not, there’s plenty of room for the Lions to improve, despite winning the West and eventually the Grey Cup. After all, they did look down and out after a disastrous 0-5 start last season, and their 11-7 record marked just the second time since 2001 that a team won the division with fewer than 12 wins.
Benevides says the focus for him will be on all-around toughness, both physically and mentally, which is especially important for a team coming off an impressive Grey Cup win and looking to repeat.
“I’m going to be a guy who is going to be formulating a tough team, not only physically but mentally” said Benevides. “We are going to attack in all three phases. We are going to push the envelope. We are going to attack and find ways to manufacture explosive plays.”
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Despite the challenge ahead, Benevides has been set-up for success by the Lions organization, after bringing back the majority of its starters. It’s also important to note that Benevides has been in the organization since 2003 when he joined the team as special teams coordinator.
In 2008 he made the switch to defensive coordinator, and by then had become the heir apparent to Buono, even turning down coaching opportunities elsewhere to stay in BC.
“When you come into a new place there can be a lot of insecurity,” said Benevides. “It’s a situation where I’ve been part of this team and part of this program for 11 seasons. I know the organization, I know the roster, I know the G.M. Wally and I have a strong relationship. We know how each other operates. I think that puts us in good shape.”
On paper, the Lions actually appear stronger than a year ago, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The loss of Elimimiam to the NFL is outweighed by the additions of all-star defensive backs Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker, who should form one of the league’s most feared secondaries.
The question early in the season will be whether the Bombers can get production on the ground from Bloi-Dei Dorzon, who’s expected to get a substantial number of carries in place of Garrett along with the also-injured backup Chad Simpson.
With holes in the running game, the onus will be on Pierce to carry the offence, which may require him to do a little more work with his legs this season. Last year, Pierce was third in the league in rushing among quarterbacks with 324 yards, despite missing games.
Still, it’ll be most important for him to settle in with the offence and improve the team’s air attack, which has failed to find consistency in recent years.There were times last year when the six-foot-one New Mexico State alum showed signs of being an elite CFL passer, but more often his play was a point of frustration for fans.
In his second year as starter with Winnipeg, Pierce threw four more touchdowns than interception with a league-high 18 picks, while his 82.0 quarterback rating put him behind only former Bomber Steven Jyles among starters.
The Bombers receiving corps is also relatively unknown, with Kito Poblah ready to shoulder a substantial amount of playing time after sitting out his rookie season with an injury, while rookie slot back Rory Kohlert will also start on Friday.
That leaves Terrence Edwards, who recently received an extension, and Clarence Denmark as the veteran leaders of the group. The most attention in Winnipeg may be on the defence, which carried the team through the first half of the season and ultimately led the Bombers to a division title and a trip to the Grey Cup with a record of 10-8.
With a dominant defence led by an aggressive pass rush and a secondary that made no shortage of big plays, Swaggerville was soon born and Odell Willis was the Mayor.
A year later, Swaggerville appears to be missing some of that swag, as Willis was traded to vaunted rival Saskatchewan despite co-leading the league in sacks. The Bombers will also be without long-time starter and All-Star Doug Brown, who decided to end his 11-year CFL career – all of which was spent with the Bombers.
With new starters on the defensive line and at linebacker, more pressure will be on the team’s experienced secondary, which includes well-known imports Jovon Johnson, Jonathan Hefney, Alex Suber, and Johnny Sears.
In the big picture for the Bombers, they’ll have to get more offensive production to make up for some key losses on defence, and Friday night will be a major indicator of what this season will bring for Pierce and company.