August 1, 2007

Year makes sizable change to run game

Joe Smith thrives on extra work

By Lowell Ullrich,
Vancouver Province

Get out the candles. Light up the sparklers. The Lions running game is having its first birthday.

It was a year ago this week when coach Wally Buono made a roster move that has now fundamentally changed the way in which the CFL team is both perceived and operated offensively.

The move to send Antonio Warren packing and replace him with Joe Smith at tailback took many weeks before it had its full effect on the Lions. A year later, however, no longer can it be said Buono’s team is a high-wire passing act, but a ball-control offence that somehow has had just enough ground weaponry to post a 5-0 record.

It almost, in fact, can be said the Lions have become a run-first attack. Of their 251 offensive plays from scrimmage so far, almost half (121) have been either Smith on the ground or the quarterback of record scrambling for real estate.

There’s quiet debate among the Lions coaching staff whether that balance is a little too even, and with some justification given the track record of their opponent at B.C. Place Stadium Thursday.

The new-look Saskatchewan Roughriders under coach Kent Austin have been the CFL’s best rushing team in four of the last five years. They have not, however, been spotted sipping out of the Grey Cup lately.

“I’ve always thought the ideal balance is to have the ability to [run or pass] depending on the situation,” first-year co-offensive coordinator Steff Kruck said.

“I don’t want to sound ambiguous, but we never go into a game saying we want to run the ball a certain amount of times. We’ll still try to get ahead with the pass and control the game with the run.”

They’re controlling games because the defence is producing scoring opportunities and Smith, who became the first B.C. runner in 48 games dating back to 2004 to post consecutive 100-yard run outings, hasn’t keeled over from all the work.

The offbeat sophomore currently leads the CFL with 433 yards from 77 carries. Carry those numbers to the end of the season and Smith will have obliterated franchise records for both yards and touches held by Cory Philpot and Robert Drummond respectively.

“I used to think 200 touches was a lot,” said Smith, who is already just about halfway to last year’s 887-yard effort from 166 carries. “But last year was a short season for me (13 games). We’re doing well now because everyone is familiar with the system.”

They’re doing well for a few reasons, including a couple of different running formations, but mostly because when the Lions seem desperate to pop a run for a first down, they’re getting the right push from their offensive line.

“I don’t believe there’s any defence that can stop us when we get into our rhythm, and I only think we just started to get into that rhythm towards the end of the game in Calgary,” right tackle Jason Jimenez said.

The game in Calgary seemed like a throwback to the age of leather helmets, one where the rushers outgained the pass-catchers on the Lions by a 58-yard margin.

That balance may ultimately be fatal in what is known as a pass-happy league. A year after it’s birth, however, it’s safe to suggest the run game in the Lions offence has undergone a sizeable transition.