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June 23, 2017

Lions Clash With Eskimos In Season Opener

The wait is over. 212 days after the Western Final loss in Calgary, your BC Lions open their 64th season at home to the Edmonton Eskimos (7:00PM TSN 1040/TSN 1/ESPN 3) on Saturday night at BC Place. While the remarkable turnaround of 2016 has to be considered a success, Jeremiah Johnson and company knows the pressure is on to take that next step. And it at starts this week against a very formidable Eskimos squad.

“Edmonton brings a lot to the table. They have a good secondary, good linebackers, but for the most part it’s all about their front four,” said the stud running back.

Former Lions’ head coach Mike Benevides has indeed built another stout defence in the Alberta capital. Odel Willis, Almondo Sewell and Marcus Howard combined for 25 sacks last season and will provide a stiff test for the offensive line. This is where the production of Johnson and the running game comes into play.

With plenty of hype being placed on the Lions’ receiving corps, and with good reason, being able to pound the rock and sustain drives on the ground will be the ultimate recipe for a balanced offence this season.

“That’s what it’s all about man, the run game helps the pass and the pass helps the run,” added Johnson.

“We’ve got guys like Chris (Williams), Manny (Arceneaux) and (Bryan) Burnham who can go get the ball and with that happens and both sides of the spectrum are hitting at the same time, it gives the defence a lot of things to think about. You pretty much have to pick your poison. Whatever they want to shut down, the other one is going to prevail and vice versa.”

Johnson rushed for 809 yards and seven touchdowns in just 11 regular games last season. The protection up front had a lot to do with that and it appears four of those five starting offensive lineman will suit up for the opener, with a couple of tweaks. Hunter Steward slides over to the left tackle spot previously held by Jovan Olafioye. David Foucault, the centrepiece of the Olafioye trade to Montreal, occupies steward’s spot at right guard. Johnson expects them to perform at an elite level once again.

“It gets my piss hot, man. These guys know what is at stake and I think where we went last year definitely turned these guys up to come out blazing. We have to believe in ourselves first and after that it will all come full circle.”

You can tell he’s fired up, just be reading these quotes. Although the excitement is amped up, nothing will be taken for granted in their quest for a seventh Grey Cup in franchise history.”

“Our sole focus is Edmonton and what they like to do. They cause a lot of havoc out there and once we cause them some hassle and make them think a little more, we’ll be alright,” added Johnson.

Here are some other key storylines for Saturday’s matchup.

Secondary Shuffle

Perhaps the biggest change on the depth chart this week has been Loucheiz Purifoy taking reps. at the starting safety position in place of Steven Clarke. Purifoy exploded onto the scene as the starting nickel back last season and is now playing safety for the first time in his career.

“First time for everything,” said the Florida Gators product on Thursday. “It’s cool, I’ve got no problem with it. I’ve got the coaches helping me, I’ve got Steve helping me, and so it’s going good.”

There could be multiple reasons for this move. One could be the chance to get new linebackers Tony Burnett and Micah Awe on the field together in certain packages, but the other big development has  Chandler Fenner  starting at the nickel position after another strong training camp audition. Fenner’s story is remarkable: cut before the start of last season, only to be re-signed when Wally Buono ran into injury trouble in the secondary. The CFL’s all-time wins leader praised Fenner for his dedication and being a “quick study.

Rain In The Forecast?

This has nothing to do with the weather. Chris Rainey helped his team start off with a bang in last season’s opener, returning a 4th quarter punt 72 yards for a touchdown to help defeat Calgary. It was significant on many levels. The Stampeders wouldn’t lose again until the final week of the regular season and Rainey helped send a message that the Lions would be no push over. Along with being an ace on special teams, look for the Rain Man to play a key role in the offence at certain times as well. He truly has become one of the CFL’s top playmakers and he will be ready to roll after having a return touchdown called back in last week’s pre-season win over Saskatchewan.

 Three Keys To Victory

Win the line of scrimmage: Always a staple to success, but if the slightly new-look offensive line can pass this first test it will likely be a memorable start to the campaign.

Stretch the field with long bombs: Said line of scrimmage battle can be a big domino. You know Jonathon Jennings will be itching to build off his 5,000-yard plus season so look for him to go deep. They will want to get the Edmonton secondary thinking early on.

Pressure Mike Reilly: The beefed up pass rush gets a big test of their own to start things off. Reilly is a top 3 quarterback in this league and if they can get in his grill, it will do wonders in disrupting their offence.

Fan Poll
What is the biggest key to victory over Edmonton Saturday?
Stretch the field on offence
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Win the line of scrimmage
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Pressure Mike Reilly
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Contain Adarius Bowman
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Quotables

“If I say yes then you say ‘what a dumb s**t you were for trading him.’ Mike was a special guy, he really was. Not only in his demeanour, but in his work habits and his personality. With Travis here at his peak, Mike was Mike. When you become your own main guy, that’s when you see the true leader. We knew Mike was going to be tough and successful, but to say we knew he was going to have the effect on the team as much as he has, I think that would be stretching it a little bit.”- Buono when prodded about Reilly and if he knew the quarterback would turn into the player he has become in Edmonton.

 There’s no hype. Everyone here is real, everyone is doing their job and we have guys who are wearing their hard hat. We’re playing a Western team, we’re at home, this is a must win for us and it will be a good way to start off the year.”- Marco Iannuzzi on the importance of not getting too excited about any headlines.

Extra Yardage

Ty Long will handle all of the kicking duties as Swayze Waters continues to heal from a leg injury from training camp. Long was three of five on field goal attempts in the two pre-season games, his longest coming from 49 yards in the loss at Calgary June 6th. The Alabama-Birmingham product and high school teammate of Richie Leone was signed just before training camp.

These clubs split two regular season meetings last season with home side winning each contest. Manny Arceneaux was a one man wrecking crew against the green and gold, hauling in 15 catches for 296 yards and four touchdowns in the two games.

Saturday marks the 12th time these teams will open the regular season against each other. The Eskimos hold a 7-4 all-time record in those openers, the latest coming in 2014 when they prevailed 27-20 at BC Place.

Digging deeper into the history archives: the Lions have a winning record in regular season opener: 31 wins, 30 losses and two ties to be exact.

Tune into TSN 1040 for all of the action. Pre-game coverage begins at 5:00PM. Kickoff is 7:00PM with Scott Rintoul and Giulio Caravatta. Viewers can watch on TSN 1 and those south of the border can tune in on ESPN 3. The American sports giant recently announced an agreement that will have that show all CFL regular season games in 2017.

Download the roster and depth chart for Saturday HERE! 

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com