Lions' quarterback Jonathon Jennings walks to the dressing room during CFL first quarter action in Hamilton on Saturday, July 15th, 2017. (CFL PHOTO - Dave Chidley)
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and no guarantees in professional football.
That being said, had you told this group they would be 5-4 at the halfway mark of 2017, it would have been met head on with massive disappointment. After all, the core pieces are in place from the squad that finished last season at 12-6 before coming up one victory short of playing in the Grey Cup. The good news? The veterans are the first to admit they have not played up to their potential and don’t expect things to be handed to them as the playoff race continues to heat up.
“We’re a good team, we know what we have in the locker room and I just think we all have to believe it,” said Jeremiah Johnson after the loss to Calgary on Friday.
“Right now, we’re just showing up. We need to come with it for next week.”
Veteran Solomon Elimimian has seen it all since first arriving in 2010 and agrees with Johnson’s notion that there is still plenty they can prove.
“We just have to keep going. It’s a long season. Keep turning; just keep at it, man. It’s the CFL. Anything can happen and like I said, it’s a long season and we just have to keep getting better.”
In pretty much any other season, a 5-4 record would be more than satisfactory after nine games. But with the Western Division looking more competitive than it has ever been, Wally Buono’s squad could be in for a battle just to make the playoffs if they don’t turn this ship around quickly. That all starts with this Saturday’s road battle with the Ottawa REDBLACKS (12:30 PM PT/ TSN 1040/TSN/ESPN 3) where they look to avoid their first three-game losing streak since September of 2015.
Here is a closer look at all through facets through the first nine games.
Rank: 4th in CFL with 245 total points.
The Skinny: Jonathon Jennings looked close to his 2016 form where he passed for over 5,000 yards and proved to the league he belonged as a starter. Then he suffered the shoulder injury in week four at Hamilton and made way for Travis Lulay the next three weeks. The veteran pivot had fans thinking about 2011 all over again with a pair of 400-yard games. Jeremiah Johnson has taken a heavier workload as the lone feature tailback and sits third overall in league rushing. Bryan Burnham, Emmanuel Arceneaux and Nice Moore have combined for 1,490 receiving yards in six touchdowns.
Impact Newcomers: Chris Williams only has two games under his belt, but has shown a couple of flashes of just how big a difference maker he can be. Shaq Johnson has shown why the club was so high on him in the receivers’ crop from last year’s draft, averaging 17.4 yards per catch. A three-year veteran in the return game, Chris Rainey has taken on a more prominent role on offence with 309 yards from scrimmage over the nine games. His role out of the backfield has also given Johnson the odd break.
Bottom Line: They know there is room for improvement. It’s starts with Jennings becoming more consistent and starting games a lot quicker. The offence has managed only three first quarter touchdowns so far this season. The offensive line also knows it needs work to re-gain the magical form from 2016.
Rank: 6th in CFL with 243 points allowed.
The Skinny: The slightly tweaked unit played a big role in helping secure wins early on and it still starts with Elimimian. The 2015 CFL Most Outstanding Player leads all Leos’ defenders with 69 tackles and is the undisputed leader of the group. The goal from day one was to create more takeaways and they are currently tied with Winnipeg for second in league interceptions with ten. They are also tied with Toronto for second with 28 pass knockdowns. The slightly revamped secondary has played a big role in some of that success as Anthony Thompson has moved around from field corner to safety. Chandler Fenner has looked comfortable at the nickel position after spending 2016 as a halfback.
Impact Newcomers: Tony Burnett has filled in nicely at Adam Bighill‘s old weak side linebacker position. The USC product has 22 defensive tackles and also played a role on special teams. Micah Awe has fit in nicely in certain packages at that spot.
Bottom Line: More pressure on the quarterback will be required to compete with the Western heavyweights. The defensive line has looked great in spurts, but consistency is key. Pressure on the QB and stopping the run takes a little weight off Elimimian and the linebackers.
Rank(s): Ty Long 2nd in punt yards, 5th in field goals. Rainey 3rd in punt return yards, 2nd in kickoff return yards.
The Skinny: Replacing the punting production of Richie Leone wasn’t going to be easy, but Long has developed nicely on a game to game basis. His directional kicking took some adjusting to and now he has become more consistent. Long has also made good on 2o of 23 field goals so far. Rainey and the return units had a better outing against Calgary last week and will need to improve their protection in order to help win the field position battles.
Impact Newcomers: Jordan Herdman has shown flashes of perhaps being the next Jason Arakgi-type special teams wizard. The rookie out of SFU is tied for second in the league with 12 special teams tackles. Awe has been reliable on the cover units as well. One possible impact newcomer in the second half could be Williams. The speedster has only had one return one punt for eight yards in his three games.
The Bottom Line: Rainey is due to take one or two to the house. You just know it. Replacing the leadership and production of both Leone and Arakgi has been a big plus in 2017.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
A week-by-week recap at the first half of 2017.
June 24: 30-27 loss vs. Edmonton
The Skinny: Lulay and Johnson rushed for touchdowns, while Jennings passed for 264 yards as they came up just short against a stout Eskimos’ defence. Mike Reilly took advantage of good protection all night and threw for 315 yards and a pair of majors.
The Turning Point: Instead of playing for overtime, Reilly took to the air and found Brandon Zylstra for a 76-yard completion to help set them up for Shaun Whyte’s winning field goal as time expired.
They Said It: “I am definitely going to have to watch the film of that play, but you could see the guys are coming off the line of scrimmage pretty fast and I knew we started to drop back. The more that we communicate going forward, the better off we’re going to be as far as playing a full 60 minute game.”- Chandler Fenner on getting beat for the completion to Zylstra in the final minute.
June 30: 28-15 win at Toronto
The Skinny: The three-game Eastern road tour started off with a 4th quarter bang at BMO Field. Jennings and the offence scored 18 of their points in the final 11:49 and the quarterback’s touchdown toss to Rainey opened the floodgates. Burnham led all receivers with 118 yards and the defence forced three turnovers including an interception by Ronnie Yell.
The Turning Point: Burnham’s 33-yard catch to help set up the Rainey score was key for an offence that had been stalling most of the night. Once they found the end zone you sensed they weren’t going to stand for a 0-2 start.
They Said It: “That was one of the things we discussed all training camp, was the need to get more turnovers. When you get turnovers you make the field shorter for your offence. Toronto has got an excellent defence and you’re not going to march the ball to often on them. A short field every once in awhile helps.”- Buono on his defence coming up big.
July 6: 23-16 win at Montreal
The Skinny: Four days of practice and bonding in Kingston paved the way for another big 4th quarter in Montreal. A one-yard touchdown plunge by Travis Lulay with 2:43 left was the difference and Solomon Elimimian broke his own franchise record, recording 15 defensive tackles. He came up one short of the all-time league record. Anthony Gaitor’s late interception sealed the deal.
The Turning Point: It never happened because of a questionable illegal contact call, but we have to give credit where it’s due: Tony Burnett intercepted Darian Durant and returned it 108 yards to the house before Yell was flagged and the Alouettes were able to punch it in for a 16-16 tie. It was a brilliant read by Burnett and should have put the game out of reach. You can still say it was a key moment because they knew they would have to earn it until the end, and they did.
They Said It: “The man is very resilient and tremendously relaxed back there. The offence never sensed any panic from him. Being a leader I try to make sure everything is everything and JJ did his thing at the end of the game. We’re just piggybacking what we did last year. We’re road warriors.”- Johnson praising Jennings and the ability to win games anywhere.
July 15: 41-26 win at Hamilton
The Skinny: Jennings went down on the club’s first offensive play from scrimmage and it looked like it could be a good night until Lulay reverted back to the form that won him the 2011 CFL Most Outstanding Player Award. The 33-year old passed for a career-high 436 yards and set the CFL record for most passing yards coming off the bench. Nick Moore had a career best 220 yards receiving and a touchdown and Bryan Burnham had the play of the year, a one-handed touchdown grab with a defender draped all over him, as the Leos won their ninth straight game in Eastern Canada.
The Turning Point: TJ Lee’s interception with 1:35 left in the first half set up Moore’s touchdown and an eight-point lead at the break. They continued that momentum through the second half.
They Said It: “I can really relate to Nick. An ACL on a receiver is like a shoulder on a quarterback so I know what he went through. I have always been a big Nick Moore fan. We have a comfort level, a familiarity. He really came along in 2012 and in 2013 he was my guy. It was really fun to be on the field with Nick.”- Lulay, the ultimate team guy, praising Moore for his bounce back from injury.
July 21: 45-42 win vs. Winnipeg
The Skinny: In what seemed like a carbon copy of last November’s Western Semi-Final victory, the home side rallied for 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to stun the Blue Bombers and improve to 4-1 for the first time since 2012. Lulay had his second straight 400-plus yard outing and completed two touchdowns to Emmanuel Arceneaux. The Manny Show also passed Mervyn Fernandez for third all-time in club receiving yards. Yell’s second interception of the season set up a winning field goal by Long with 56 seconds left. Clutch Bombers’ kicker Justin Medlock had the chance to salvage it on the final play but just like last November, the attempt came up short.
The Turning Point: Leading by eight with 8:39 left, the Bombers elected to try a fake punt on their own 26-yard line. Dakota Brush broke up Medlock’s pass and the home side took advantage with a touchdown and successful two-point convert to give them a new life.
They Said It: “I was a little surprised that Medlock did throw it, because we did prepare for them to run it with a fake all week. Honestly, I am happy that I didn’t make the interception because it helped the team get in a better scoring position to tie the game. At the end of the day, I did my job.”- Brush on his near-interception on the Bombers’ fateful fake punt attempt.
July 28: 37-26 loss at Edmonton
The Skinny: The Eskimos started off with a bang to improve and beat the Lions for the second time in six weeks. The big play early on was a 108-yard catch and run by Vidal Hazelton that put the green and gold ahead 17-3. The Lions made a game of it in the third quarter and trailed by three before a couple of questionable video replay reviews went the Eskimos’ way and they pulled away for their fifth straight win to start 2017.
The Turning Point: After an incomplete pass by Reilly was deemed too close to be overturned and called a lateral, the Eskimos elected to go for it on third and goal from the 11. Loucheiz Purifoy broke up the play in the end zone, but the Eskimos would win a challenge for pass interference and extend their lead to nine.
They Said It: “We tied it up, but from that point on you have to tip your cap to their offence. They kept us off the field for pretty much the last quarter and a half. Edmonton was the better football team tonight,”- Lulay making no excuses after dropping to 4-2.
August 5: 30-15 win over Saskatchewan
The Skinny: In the first of a home and home series, Lulay recorded his 19th 300-plus yard game as they cruised to a 03-15 win over Saskatchewan. The score may have flattered the visiting Riders who didn’t get on the board until the three-minute warning of the second half. Burnham was a beast once again, hauling in 133 receiving yards and a touchdown. Anthony Thompson and Chandler Fenner had interceptions on defence, while Elimimian led the way with six tackles.
The Turning Point: Lulay getting up after a first half sack by Willie Jefferson rallied the troops sent a big time message in this one. The quarterback was in discomfort for several minutes and had the wind knocked out of him before walking off the field on his own power.
They Said It: “It feels good to be back. I’ve been through so much the last few weeks. I was at home, on the couch and working out. I came from the streets, man. I just got in there and I got so much hunger. It’s great to have my teammates believe in me and I’m glad we got the win. It’s hard, man. The world gave up on me. You have to stay ready, stay hungry and keep believing.”- Shaquille Murray-Lawrence on scoring a touchdown and being back with the club following his release in June.
August 13th: 41-8 loss to Saskatchewan
The Skinny: After Buono expressed some concern about how ready his team was they followed it up by laying a collective egg in the rematch at new Mosaic Stadium. Jennings had a rough return, throwing four interceptions and failing to help the offence register a first down until late midway through the second quarter. Riders’ defensive back Ed Gainey had four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and a fumble recovery for a defence that never let up for 60 minutes.
The Turning Point: Gainey’s pick six sent the message that this was going to be a different Riders squad in front of their home fans. The offence could just never find their groove; the lone bright spot coming when Chris Williams hauled in a 56-yard catch and run for his first touchdown as a Lion.
They Said It: “Every man has to be accountable, knowing that it’s just not good enough. You can’t look at the next man, you have to look at yourself and say ‘what can I do better?’ That’s the mindset we have to have. I’m optimistic. I believe we have the right group of guys in the locker room, guys that work hard and guys who are committed to one another. Every team faces adversity. Every team has to look in the mirror and just prove who they are. Right now, that’s what we have to do.”- Elimimian on the mood after a bad loss.
August 18: 21-17 loss vs. Calgary
The Skinny: A slow start once again did Jennings and the offence in, while the defence couldn’t take advantage of a rare off night from Bo Levi Mitchell. The Stamps’ QB completed less than 50 percent of his passes and Calgary was forced to settle for five field goals from Rene Peredes, but it wound up being enough to escape with a narrow win. Jennings rushed for his first touchdown of 2017 and completed one to Rainey before their attempt at game-winning 4th quarter drive came up short.
The Turning Point: Mitchell’s 56-yard completion to Anthony Parker that set up the visitors’ lone touchdown of the night. A questionable roughing the passer call on Roh that led to one of the five field goals didn’t do them much favours either.”
They Said It: “We were fighting off rust once again. We just have to keep on correcting things and making sure that we’re all in sync. I have to get the rust out of me, continue to work in practice, get these reps. and work with the guys.”- Jennings taking ownership of a second straight loss.
Bake’s Takes: Second Half Breakdown
It all starts this Saturday with a trip to our nation’s capital. The defending Grey Cup champion REDBLACKS (2-6-1) are coming off a 37-18 win in Hamilton. The total breakdown for the next nine games is as follows:
Four on the road: Aug. 26 @ Ottawa, Sept. 16 @Calgary, Oct. 14 @ Winnipeg, Oct. 28 @ Winnipeg.
Five at home: Sept. 8 vs. Montreal, Sept. 22 vs. Hamilton, Oct. 7 vs. Ottawa, Oct. 22 vs. Edmonton, Nov. 4 vs. Toronto.
Final Breakdown: There are no “easy” games, however playing four of their remaining home contests against the Eastern Division could give them an advantage when it comes to locking up a playoff berth for a 21st consecutive season. The real crucial stretch comes with the two trips to Winnipeg and visit from Edmonton in between. A lot will be determined over those three games.
Crossover? Zip it for now: I couldn’t help but take note of the amount of chatter on social media from fans and observers claiming 4th place and a crossover would be the way to go. You have to keep in mind a couple of important factors. For starters, no crossover team has every played in the Grey Cup. Of the eight Western teams to crossover since 1997, only three made it to the division final. The other thing in play here is 5th place Saskatchewan. Entering this week they were only two points back of the Lions with two games in and the tiebreaker. Even 4th place is by no means a guarantee. It is probably best to win as many games as you can and let the rest take care of itself.
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org