October 8, 2019

Leos looking to put a damper on Esks’ playoff plans

VANCOUVER — The implications surrounding Saturday’s matchup between the BC Lions and Edmonton Eskimos have been well documented, and with a playoff spot still up for grabs, Lions head coach DeVone Claybrooks is looking forward to the test that the Esks present.

“There’s desperation for both of us in actuality,” Claybrooks told BCLions.com. “They started out hot and fizzled; you want to go into the last third of the season on a roll and they’re trying to get their things together. They lost a quarterback but like they say, when you’ve got a dog in a corner, it’ll snap to get out and we understand that. (There are) a lot of ties between each organization and we have some of their former players and history with their coaching staff.

“It’s going to be a fun game. We’re a totally different team than they saw their first two times they played us and it’ll be exciting.”

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The Leos are coming into this game at the perfect time, having won their last four games. The latest victory in the run came last Saturday when BC rolled to a 55-8 victory over the Toronto Argonauts at home.

After beginning the year 1-10, it would’ve been natural to think that the Lions may have been out of the playoff picture. However, they’ve still got a chance with three games left in their schedule.

Edmonton has been streaky as of late, losing three of their last four games since Trevor Harris went down with an injury. Logan Kilgore has filled in during that time and thrown for 921 yards and four touchdowns in four outings.

With Harris starting to get back to full health, it’s unclear who will be the starter on Saturday, but the Lions will be prepared defensively regardless of who the man under centre is for the Esks.

“The offence is going to be the offence,” Claybrooks said. “Maas is going to run what he wants to run. They have great playmakers on the perimeter and in the backfield so you get the ball in their hands and they can make some things happen. It doesn’t matter who’s the catalyst there, it’s about neutralizing the playmakers.”

Claybrooks will be looking to T.J. Lee and the rest of the secondary to help slow down the Edmonton passing game. Lee led the way in Week 17 against the Argos, getting two tackles and an interception in the win. He’s got two picks in his last three games and is a favourite of the Lions’ coaching staff.

“A lot of starters or five- or six-year veterans feel they’re too good for special teams,” Claybrooks said. “That’s the one thing I love about our group and T.J. is one of those guys that (says) ‘put me anywhere, coach. I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I’m just trying to win.’ These guys don’t have any egos and he’s one of those guys that leads meetings and the DBs and special teams.

“He’s plug and play and I’m just happy to have him.”

It’ll take more than just a solid effort on the defensive end to win this game. Luckily for the Lions, they’re offence is firing on all cylinders. Quarterback Mike Reilly has been sacked just three times over the team’s winning streak. That’s allowed him to set his feet and find his top receiving targets — specifically, Bryan Burnham.

The 29-year-old has quietly put together the best season of his CFL career, amassing 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns on 88 catches through 14 games. In three of his last five games, he’s posted at least eight catches, 125 yards, and a touchdown. He’s also scored a major in five of his last six outings, with a three-score outing coming against Toronto in Week 17.

“You actually take it for granted how great of a receiver he is because he does it day in and day out,” Claybrooks said of his star pass-catcher. “In practice, we see one-handed catches and everything. Markus (Howell) does a great job with those guys and Burnham plays like he practices. He puts the time in, he runs every route full speed like he’s getting the ball so it’s an adjustment at game time where he has to kick into a new gear.

“It’s been amazing to watch things manifest because of the way he works and the time he puts in.”

BC Lions receiver Bryan Burnham (16) and quarterback Mike Reilly (13) celebrate a touchdown against the Toronto Argonauts. (The Canadian Press)

The Lions need this game to keep their postseason aspirations alive. With a victory or a tie, the Eskimos would lock up the final spot in the playoffs via the crossover. Whether the team is able to get the job done or not, Claybrooks is looking at this game as another opportunity for his squad to grow.

“When you’re trying to establish a culture, it’s going to take a while and we’re not even remotely close to where we want to be but we’re working hard, still doing the little things, and continuing to buy in and continuing to fight and continuing to believe,” he said. “As long as you do that, you’ve got a chance and we’ve still got a chance.

“… This is just another step of making BC a team to be reckoned with in this league.”