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May 14, 2020

Lions reload in the trenches to try to get back into playoffs

B.C. Lions' Bryan Burnham, left, and quarterback Mike Reilly celebrate Burnham's second touchdown during first half CFL football action against the Toronto Argonauts, in Vancouver, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck presents ‘Off-Season Depth Chart’, a series of articles reviewing every team’s depth chart as it stands to date.  Note that these are not official team-issued depth charts, but projections based on insight and analysis from around the league. Additionally, 2020 draft picks are not included.

VANCOUVER — This time last year, there was a myriad of positive projections surrounding the BC Lions. There was talk of a change of the balance of power in the CFL’s West Division and across the league. Mike Reilly was a strong pre-season pick for MOP and the Lions were considered contenders for the Grey Cup.

Of course, the reality of 2019 was the opposite for the Lions. Reilly spent most of the year running for his life, enduring a season of hellacious hits that no 34-year-old should take; even if part of his mythology is built on his ability to absorb excessive punishment. BC gave up a league-worst 58 sacks last year and it hampered the entire offence.

Defensively, the Lions’ inability to get opposing QBs running hurt them just as much. The Lions registered 28 sacks last year, which was just one more than Montreal’s league-worst total. At the other end of that scale, Saskatchewan and Edmonton doubled BC for the league lead, with 56 sacks.

When you aren’t winning either trench battle in a game, wins will be scarce. The Lions started 1-10, with that lone win coming on a rouge against Toronto in Week 4. A coaching change on the o-line — the first of a bigger change on their horizon at the time — seemed to spark the Lions. They won four in a row and had an outside shot at a playoff spot until Reilly broke his wrist playing against the Esks.

It’s no surprise that Lions’ GM Ed Hervey addressed both the offensive and defensive lines through this off-season.

We’ll start with the most glaring need first. Hervey was able to snag free agent left tackle Ryker Mathews — an East Division all-star in 2019 — and extended Hunter Steward and Peter Godber. The Lions had the benefit of a light schedule when they rattled off those four wins, but their offensive line play markedly improved when Kelly Bates took over as the o-line coach.

Bates stuck around after the season, when DeVone Claybrooks was let go as head coach and replaced by Rick Campbell.

Free agency saw the defensive line get an overhaul. Hervey signed defensive ends Chris Casher from Calgary and J.R. Tavai out of Ottawa. Both had seven sacks last year. The addition of Micah Johnson at defensive tackle might be the biggest one out of all of them. The three-time CFL all-star and two-time Grey Cup champion had something of a down year in Saskatchewan (four sacks), but posted a career-high 14 sacks in 2018 in his final year in Calgary. When he’s on his game, Johnson can be the most dominant player in the trenches and maybe on the field. For a d-line that lagged behind the entire league last year, that along with the addition of two 26-year-old d-ends that are coming into their own could spark the turnaround that’s needed.

Outside of the trenches, Reilly got a few new targets to work with. A pair of REDBLACKS receivers jumped to the Lions, in Dominique Rhymes (1,056 yards in 2019) and Calleb Holley (487 yards in 2019).

Special teams got a familiar boost with Chris Rainey returning to BC after playing for the Lions from 2015 to 2018. Kicker Sergio Castillo returned from the XFL to continue with the Lions after a strong showing with the team in 2019 that saw him make 41 of 45 field goal attempts.

Of the league’s three non-playoff teams last year, the Lions are in a unique situation. They have the most important position on the field taken care of in Reilly. That’s something that Ottawa and Toronto had to work this winter to sort out. Protecting him and letting him work within Jordan Maksymic’s offence — a face Reilly knows well from his time in Edmonton — is the key to the Lions duplicating the offensive success that Reilly had when he wore green and gold.

As long as Reilly is a Lion, the fan attention will largely be on the offence. But BC’s defence is intriguing and on paper — we say this being careful not to fall into the blind hope that caught many of us in 2019 — could lift the Lions above other teams.

Watching the losses pile up as Reilly looked at times like a pro wrestling prop was a surprise but it’s not the first time we’ve seen this. The 2019 season resembled Reilly’s first season in Edmonton in 2013, the first time that Hervey signed the quarterback. Those Esks won just four games that year, despite having many of the pieces in place to be a good team.

Most of us remember how the next two seasons turned out in Edmonton. The Esks’ o-line solidified and its defence was reborn under head coach Chris Jones. Edmonton won 12 games in 2014 and 14 games in 2015, along with the Grey Cup.

There’s been a lot of change in BC this year that suggests improvement. The Lions will have to show it when they’re on the field though, for people to be sold on it.