The BC Lions were the big winner of the CFL offseason but have yet to notch a win early this season. A big reason why, at least in Week 2, was a failure by the offensive line to protect their prized free agent acquisition. Mike Reilly was having flashbacks to his early days in Edmonton as he was sacked 7 times and pressured almost constantly against his old squad. The horrid performance had Lions fans fuming and opponents ridiculing, but what do we make of such a thorough failure to provide protection? Fingers have been pointed a number of different directions, so lets take a deep dive and discover who was really at fault during each of the Eskimos 7 sacks.
This article comes with a couple of massive asterisks. First of all, any assessment of the lines performance is based in assumption. While I consider myself an O-line enthusiast, it is impossible to tell with certainty who made mistakes on each play without the inside knowledge of the actual blocking calls. Ultimately, only the Lions’ coaching staff know who was at fault but I will extrapolate as best as I can from the information I do have available. Secondly, I will be focusing on just the sacks on Reilly. This paints an incomplete portrait of what actually occurred, as evidence points to the fact that pressure is as valuable as a sack and Reilly was hurried on almost every throw. Looking at the 7 sacks does, however, does give us a manageable sample from which to draw some conclusions.
Its helpful to recognize that the Lions Offensive Line is in fact a group with enough talent to protect Mike Reilly. In fact, the Lions’ lone touchdown is a brilliant example of how to properly execute against heavy pressure.
With the Lions down in the red zone, the Eskimos defence showed heavy pressure with four down lineman and three players showing blitz. This is a look that would continue throughout the night and give the Lions fits, but here they execute beautifully with John White and receiver Jevon Cottoy brought in to pass protect.
This is as close to a perfect situation as you can hope for when facing seven man pressure. The Lions get a hat-on-a- hat across the board, with White stepping in to the middle and Cottoy taking care of the blitzer off the right edge. They give Reilly a clean pocket and enough time to throw a touchdown to Lemar Durant. So what went wrong the rest of the night?
The Eskimos’ first sack happened before the touchdown, on the first Lions snap, but from a similar defensive look. The Eskimos look to be sending six, with a seventh hiding behind the line. The Lions are countering with a max protect look, using fullback David Mackie as a in-line tight end, Cottoy as a blocking wing and White as an eighth blocker.
Its a deep drop from Reilly and both White and Cottoy pick up their respective blitzers. Right Tackle Brett Boyko is the lone lineman in the backfield, falling victim to an aggressive bull rush from Nick Usher. Its that pressure from Usher that forces Reilly to step up in the pocket and in to trouble.
While Usher isn’t the one who gets the sack, he flushes Reilly up and into the grasps of Vontae Diggs. Diggs was originally blocked by Cottoy, but lost to an inside move once Diggs gained the advantage of knowing Reilly had been flushed out. Sewell, Boateng and Walker all get free late but the Reilly’s fate is already long sealed. This sack falls fairly clearly on the shoulders of Boyko.
While it may not be a sack, Reilly’s lone interception can also be directly attributed to interior pressure. In the lead up to this turning point in the game, the Eskimos once again showed seven man pressure.
Even though the Eskimos show seven, they end up rushing only four with the three others dropping in to coverage. The pressure in Reilly’s face comes from Almondo Sewell, who simply out muscles and tosses Center Hunter Steward. While Steward clearly loses this matchup, he is not alone in responsibility. Steward seems to anticipate some outside help, help that is noticeably absent from Left Guard David Foucault. Foucault oversets in anticipating outside pressure and, in so doing, acts contrary to the first rule of pass protection taught to young linemen: blocking priority works inside-out. Sewell has the inside lane to Reilly, and therefore the quickest route, which should make him Foucault’s first responsibility without his own man to block. By kicking out so far, Foucault gives Sewell plenty of space to toss Steward and get in Reilly’s face before he has time to react. Foucault may have mistakenly believed John White was supposed to fill that gap, but his fake took him to the same gap on the right side. Regardless, Sewell ends up entangled in Reilly’s feet, preventing him from stepping in to his throw and forcing him into a early interception.
On their second sack of the day, the Eskimos once again showed blitz. This time they rushed five, giving the Lions the opportunity to block everyone up, especially with White and Cottoy both in to protect. However, miscommunication along the interior of the offensive line costs them once again.
David Foucault is once again the victim here. Foucault helps to pass off Kwaku Boateng to Left Tackle Joel Figueroa, but he overcommits and makes the fatal error of turning his shoulder. This means he is unable to block that all important inside gap. Without help from Foucault, Steward is left all alone to block both Sewell and a stunting Usher as both White and Cottoy release out of the backfield.
This is an unenviable situation for Steward and while he attempts to block both rushers, Usher breaks free for the easy sack. Steward was understandably upset and you can see him ripping in to Foucault after the play if you watched the game live.
The third sack against Reilly came from a standard four man rush, a rarity in the game.
Blame is pretty easy to assign here as well. Boyko once again get out muscled by Usher, who spins him like a top with a vicious inside hump move. Usher easily picks up his second sack and the third he was directly responsible for.
Sack number four once again comes with the Eskimos showing six man pressure. With John White in to protect once again, the Lions should have been able to match them.
While all the heat this week has been focused on the offensive line, all five linemen actually do their jobs here. Its Running Back John White who gets sucked inside and misses his assignment to block a blitzing Vontae Diggs.
Diggs forces Reilly to step into the heart of the pressure.
Ultimately, its Jesse Joseph who gets the sack but a missed block by the running back was what caused the chaos that put Reilly in harms way.
Edmonton’s fifth sack once again comes from the familiar six man look, though they end up rushing just five. On their part, the Lions have replaced White with Brandon Rutley.
Here we see the first mistake from Right Guard Sukh Chungh. Mike Moore is a defensive lineman capable of matching Chungh’s physicality. Chungh get caught over extending, off balance and leaning forward.
Moore victimizes the off balance Chungh with a strong rip move, sending him sprawling and finishing with a sack.
Sack number six starts off with Edmonton showing a six man pressure, as was their base throughout the game.
Unlike any of their other sacks, however, all three blitzers drop in to coverage. This leaves just three rushers against seven potential Lions’ blockers.
Rutley and Cottoy release thanks to the lack of work, but Kwaku Boateng shows off his pass rush skills by bending the corner around the Lions’ best lineman, Left Tackle Joel Figueroa.
Here Foucault finally makes the right decision in helping the tackle and stops Boateng from getting the sack. Unfortunately, good decisions get the same results as bad ones. Reilly is forced to step up into Almondo Sewell, continued to be too much for Steward handle alone.
The final sack of the night comes from a simple four man rush, with a late blitz from Brian Walker.
Sukh Chungh is the victim of yet another excellent pass rush move from Mike Moore. This time Moore uses Chungh’s aggression against him with a beautiful spin move.
Chungh goes sprawling and Moore notches the Eskimos seventh sack.
So what do we make of the mountain of information in front of us? First of all, proper credit has to be given to Phillip Lolley, the Edmonton defensive coordinator. Lolley drew up an excellent game plan and stuck to it. While others may have panicked with a few early roughing the passer penalties and going down 11, Lolley kept up the pressure and it paid off.
On the Lions side, the evidence suggests that the issues across their offensive line are more than skin deep. Brett Boyko came in to high hopes but showed in this game why he couldn’t crack an NFL or AAF lineup. He got absolutely tossed around at the right tackle position. More concerning though was the confusion along the interior of the line. While Chungh fell victim to a couple of impressive pass rush moves and should bounce back, Steward often looked lost with the responsibility of center (not to mention a few bad snaps) and Foucault continued to make the mental mistakes that have plagued his early career. Going in to next week, Foucault will replace Boyko at tackle, Steward will move to guard and Jean-Simon Roy will take over center duties. Whether that will be an improvement remains to be seen. I question Foucault’s ability to excel at tackle given his previous failures but ultimately the success of the line going forward hinges on Roy’s ability to provide a stop gap until Peter Godber gets healthy. A center needs to set the tone for the entire offensive line, making calls with authority and defining their identity. Sukh Chungh’s success in Winnipeg came in no small part due to Mathias Goosen. The Lions offensive line was most successful under the guidance of Angus Reid and the loss of Cody Husband to retirement is a major reason for their current struggles. As long as the Lions don’t have a true center step up their line will be porous.
In reality, however, the line was only part of the problem for the Lions. Even the greatest of offensive lines would struggle when facing six man pressure nearly every snap. A large portion of the responsibility falls at the feet of offensive coordinator Jarius Jackson. Jackson failed to do anything to deter the blitzes, continuing to force Reilly to throw deep routes intead of screen passes and short routes which may have forced the defence to play more conservatively. Additionally, the continued failure to establish the run game allowed the defence to pass rush recklessly and prevents the offensive line from establishing any aggression or tempo. All eyes may be on the offensive line right now, but heads should roll in other areas if things don’t change.