The BC Lions practice was about two-thirds through when Kelly Bates called the offensive linemen together for a drill. The idea was to prevent a defender from penetrating into the Lions backfield.
For the next several minutes Bates, who took over as BC’s offensive line coach after Bryan Chiu was fired Aug. 31, closely watched the players in action. Speaking in a calm voice he gave praise, pointed out mistakes and offered advice.
“He’s very detailed,” left tackle Joel Figueroa said later, sweat running down his face. “His vision is a little bit different than what we’ve been doing.”
With the Lions burdened by a 1-10 record the offensive line been singled out by many as the most fragile link in BC’s brittle offensive chain.
Last winter the Lions dipped into the free agent market to sign highly regarded Canadian offensive lineman Sukh Chung from Winnipeg. They also added Brett Boyko, their second-round pick in the 2015 CFL Draft who had spent time in the NFL. They joined veterans like David Foucault and Hunter Steward.
The dreams of training camp quickly turned into a nightmare season.
BC has given up a league-leading 45 sacks. That’s 13 more than what the Toronto Argonauts have allowed, that the second-worst team. Quarterback Mike Reilly has been sacked seven times in a game three times.
Bates’ job is to stop the carnage and keep Reilly healthy.
The Lions have resisted a total overhaul in personnel. Instead Bates has worked to restore confidence and improve technique.
“I’m coaching the way I was coached,” said the 44-year-old who spent seven years as an offensive lineman with the Lions. “I always felt I was the most prepared player on the field. That’s what I’m trying to give them.
“With that comes the attention to detail both in film and in technique. You can’t have one without the other.”
In BC’s first game since hiring Bates the Lions allowed just two sacks in a 21-16 loss to Montreal.
Right offensive tackle Justine Renfrow said Bates has instilled a new aggressive attitude along the line.
“We just changed the skills and techniques to fit guys,” said the former Calgary Stampeder.
“Instead of sitting back and letting people get runs at us, we’re taking the fight to them. That change sounds so subtle, but bringing the fight and reading people less really changes the game for us.”
Figueroa likes the attention to detail Bates brings.
“That’s helping a lot of the young guys who haven’t been here and don’t understand the offence,” he said.
Some of Bates’ alternations have had a ripple effect beyond the offensive line.
“It was a lot of other things that were changed,” said Figueroa. “The things he has been implementing compliments the guys that we have on the offensive line, but also tight ends and our receivers. That’s what we have been focusing on more.”
Bates is happy the players are buying what he’s trying to sell.
“Understand it’s a process,” he said. “It’s not going to change overnight. What I was happy with was the guys have bought in, the guys are working hard, and the guys want to get better.
“You can see them applying it. That’s what matters the most, we stick to the process and continue to buy in.”
The next test for the Lions comes Friday when they host the Ottawa REDBLACKS (3-8).
Bates has plenty of respect for Ottawa defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe.
“He’s very good at what he does,” said Bates. “He brings a lot of pressure. We have to be prepared for that.”
“I always felt I was the most prepared player on the field. That’s what I’m trying to give them. With that comes the attention to detail both in film and in technique. You can’t have one without the other.”
BC has struggled on offence all year. The Lions have averaged 18.3 points a game, seventh worst in the league. The 21 touchdowns the team has scored and average of 5.5 yards a play is eighth worse. The Lions’ average of 303.5 yards of net offense a game is the lowest of any team.
During games there have been fumbles at key times, routes not run properly, dropped balls and questionable third-down calls. Still the offensive line’s inability to protect Reilly has caused the most concerns among fans.
“Outside looking in you see a sack, you don’t know what is going on,” said Figueroa. “I understand as a fan you see it.
“When you’re a player you understand what we have to do in order for that not to happen. It wasn’t necessarily always an offensive lineman. It’s definitely our job to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Bates won a Vanier Cup while playing at the University of Saskatchewan before joining the Lions in 2001. When his playing career ending in 2011 Bates became the Lions running backs coach.
Between 2014 and 2017 he was head coach at Simon Fraser University. Last year he served as quality control coach with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Bates credits his success as a player to former Lions offensive line coach Dan Dorazio, who is now part of the Argonaut staff.
“I don’t believe I would of had the career I did have without Dan,” he said.
Bates said the increase in concern for player safety has impacted how teams practice. That presents challenges for all coaches, but especially the offensive and defensive lines.
“The fact we no longer wear pads during the week, it’s very hard to do what coaches do,” he said. “We want to put our players in a game-like situation and practice like that. We’re not able to do that in today’s environment.
“With that you lose the attention to detail, especially in regard to full scale hitting. When you can’t activate those right muscles, when you can’t create the right body balance, the right biomechanics, I think you lose the attention to detail.”
Bates acknowledged that all CFL teams follow the same practice rules and only one has allowed 45 sacks so far.
As a position coach, Bates doesn’t control personnel decisions. He remains confident the players he has will improve over the last half of the season.
“That’s our job,” he said. “We come out here and work with the people that want to work with us. That’s the great thing about this group. They just want to get better. They care and have pride in what they do.
“We want to win. This group is doing everything I have asked of them to try and get to that point.”